The Future of D&D?

Yesterday, a post at the Escapist was pointed out to me — The State of D&D: Future. They also have posts about the past and present that make for interesting reading but I want to focus on the future — at least, their article about the future. I found it a fascinating read, agreed with some of it, didn’t agree with some of it, and found some of it nearly ludicrous. I hate saying that because my opinion of what they have to say is exactly that — just an opinion — but let me say then that some of the post just felt, off, to me.

Let’s start with this bit:

The nerd rage has dulled a bit in the three years since 4th edition, was released, but the tabletop RPG industry is still reeling.

Am I the only one who doesn’t think that 4th edition’s mixed reception and mixed results has caused the RPG industry to reel? I’ll admit, the industry certainly isn’t what it was between, say, 1990 and 2005 either. The strangeness of White Wolf and the shrinking of the 3rd party publishing efforts that surrounded 3e/3.5 are certainly noticeable, but reeling? Maybe to an outsider it would seem that way — and that is part of the problem — but I remember when TSR went away, there was doom and gloom predicted then and we’re still here. I think — and I respectfully submit my highly subjective opinion here — that the nature of the gaming market is changing but that it doesn’t mean reeling…

Even stranger was this section:

“I have a theory about RPGs,” Mearls said. “When 2nd edition really got focused on story [in 1989], we had what I call the first era of RPG decadence and it was based on story. The idea that the DM is going to tell you a story, and you go from point A to point B to point C. The narrative is linear and [the DM is a] storyteller going to tell you a static story, and you would just get to roll dice occasionally. 3rd edition came out and said ‘To Hell with that,’ it’s all about players, we’re going to give you some really cool options, it’s all flexibility in the DM and for the players, there’s this meaningful choice.

I mean, yes we did have a kind of “meta-story games are awesome” moment for a while there with games like World of Darkness and Legend of the Five Rings and stuff like that — and yes those games are still around and going strong (though the whole super-tight meta-story thing like Aberrant and Trinity maybe went a little too far) but then again, for me, that wasn’t much different from playing a Star Wars campaign (or any other major license game) just in this case, it was a universe with a powerful metastory that didn’t come from an already established license. Which I found to be amazing. But I’m getting sidetracked… I’m not sure, but did you see D&D2e as “story-focused” in any major way? Okay, question withdrawn. I did just mention a bunch of very story-focused games… but to say that any particular era of gaming involved being “GM-centric” only seems to confirm (again, just my opinion) my feeling that the designers behind 4E have this odd disdain for the role of the GM.

And then this is pretty telling:

Mearls admits 4th edition might have gone too far in creating a perfectly balanced game. “We’ve lost faith of what makes an RPG an RPG,” he said, admitting that in trying to please gamers with a limited imagination, 4th edition might have punished those with an active one. “There’s this fear of the bad gaming group, where the game is so good that even playing with a bad gaming group, you’ll still have fun.”

Not only did he basically admit that they were trying to make a game that the “bad group” couldn’t screw up, he pretty much insults the audience of 4E in a strangely off-hand way. I don’t think it was an intentional insult — just can be read that way too easily. Of course, that part about the “limited imagination” is not actually a quote so who knows what was really said.

I do tend to agree that 4E tries to hard to be a math problem and fails to be a great RPG. I played the heck out of 4E for the first two years it was out and gave Essentials a try too — and 4E just feels like a math problem to me. And it ultimately led me to quit playing 4E. But I still read the books, because 4E has a lot of cool stuff being written for it, even if you don’t play the game…

Then we get to page two where they discuss how WotC is now producing “a range of games” called D&D. I found that section to be awkward reading — an attempt to justify a strategy that has alienated as many gamers as it attracts. But I suppose that was the point: that no two gamers are alike (but they should all be playing D&D)… Joking aside, I actually enjoy the Castle Ravenloft board game, but I don’t consider part of the RPG… it’s a board game. Maybe I’m crazy?

But this last part, this is what confused me:

Not all gamers are so optimistic. “I think the tabletop RPG market is enduring a kind of death. I think it is transforming into something that isn’t a viable commercial business for more than a handful of people,” said Ryan Dancey, former VP of RPGs at Wizards and marketing guru at White Wolf/CCP. Dancey was instrumental in developing the OGL before the 3rd edition era of D&D, but he foresees the RPG industry becoming a dead hobby like model trains. “Kids stopped playing with trains, and the businesses that remained dedicated to hobbyists who got more disposable income as they grew up, until the price of the hobby was out of reach of anyone except those older hobbyists. Eventually, it became a high-end hobby with very expensive products, sold to an ever-decreasing number of hobbyists. As those folks die, the hobby shrinks. That is what is happening to the tabletop RPG business.

This may not be such a strange attitude considering Dancy’s last two jobs but considering how many free or inexpensive games I’ve picked up in 2011 — and games that are really excellent, not throwaways — I don’t think we’re in any danger of becoming a hobby that is just in the hands of a few folks with disposable income. It may actually fare too far the other way, that with all the available outlets for self-publishing and self-promotion that there may be way too many products (and some of dubious quality) that the games lose value for that reason. I will freely admit that until I read Barbarians of Lemuria and Old School Hack I was dubious of the self-published games out there. And at the same time I shell out a ton of money for just about everything Catalyst puts out. I love Battletech and Shadowrun and these are two games that were nearly dead just a few years ago. So Dancy’s opinion is odd to me — but then I’m already a gamer… Maybe the point is that those on the outside are not going to join the hobby? On that note, I can only say that in the case of our hobby, it’s not so much that kids will stop “playing with the trains” it’s that we need to do a better job of letting the kids know that are games even exist in the first place.

And that’s one thing that WotC still does really well. Maybe better than anyone else. And it’s one thing that all of us can do as gamers. Keep introducing people to the hobby. Heck, I have a little nephew who’s almost two. I can’t wait until he gets to be about 8 and I can start to introduce him to RPGs. Until then, it’s important to keep reaching out, keep bringing people in and getting them to try. Fantasy is experiencing something of a rebirth these days — how can we parlay that into bringing in new people? I don’t have that answer but someone out there does and I hope they can make it happen.

Okay — that got a little long, but it was a perplexing read. Thanks for reading.

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4 responses

  1. A solid response. Saying that the hobby is getting more expensive is a laughable claim, based on objective costs, not subjective opinion. What bothers me the most is that gamers tend to think that everyone should play the game (whatever game that is) for the same reasons they do. RPGs are played by many people for a large variety of reasons, No one player type is any more entitled to play the game than another. We wouldn’t have the Escapist article, edition wars, and other distractions if people would just focus on their own games and leave everyone else to their’s. Play what you like, and let others play what they like.

  2. “Reeling” is a highly subjective word, rife with connotation and dependant on context for it to have any useful meaning. What the author specifically meant by his usage of the word was not clarified. This dynamic was what I felt was the most contentious about the whole 3 part article series. I found myself simultaneously enjoying the scope and content of the articles while also getting frustrated with the heavy bias in wording and content the further along in the series I got. Many statements in the articles were connotatively charged and simply thrown out there as facts with little to no supporting information. I don’t believe this bias was intentional, the author may have even been limited by wordcount or by submission deadlines. Also, to be fair, I wouldn’t envy anyone writing a concise overview of the past, present, & future of D&D. It’s a difficult topic to fully cover without SOMEONE objecting to it in part or in whole. Having said that, I personally could have done with fewer unsupported blanket statements of opinion stated as fact.

  3. I think, for me, I was frustrated by the perception that “as goes D&D, so goes RPGs” which I just don’t believe is true. I understand the flagship nature of D&D, what it means to the industry… but RPGs are more than D&D these days and will be going forward. I realize that the focus of the articles is D&D but as you say Spiralbound, the bias was challenging considering the blanket nature of the statements.

    1. Admittedly a bizarre position for me to take (given my previous record on the subject) but considering the article was about D&D, with supporting quotes from WotC developers on the subject of D&D, regarding the industry that WotC arguably sees as D&D-centric from their perspective, why are we surprised that it was D&D-centric?

      Now that I’ve defended them, let me unequivocally state that D&D is not the equivalent of RPGs any more than HALO (or pick likely candidate) is the equivalent of console gaming. However, ask any WotC employee “What is an RPG?” and you’ll probably be hard pressed to find one of them not answer, “D&D.”

      Personally I think in 4E WotC tried to move mainstream and discovered they couldn’t do that without upsetting their core fans. Now they’re half way across the river trying to determine which horse to climb upon. Basically they’re in a no win situation of their own devising.

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