Monday, October 21, 2019

A Short History of Actual Change the Tabletop RPG Industry

1970s: Dungeons and Dragons is released, leading to...

-The hobby as a commercial business beginning and eclipsing wargaming
-Zillions of fanzine-level imitators

1980s: Increasing Professionalization and Popularity of D&D, leading to...

-Lots of new players
-Younger and broader audience
-Games that aren't D&D become commercially viable and professional
-Nearly every genre extant as of the '80s has a game. Every subgenre too (in sci-fi for instance we have Traveller, Cyberpunk, Robotech, Shadowrun, etc)

1990s: Video Games Or Maybe Just Industry Decadence?

-Are video games why RPGs become less popular? Or maybe it was just the fad passing

1990s: Vampire: The Masquerade

-Wayyyy more women show up

2000s: The Internet and Cheap Color Printing

-Lots of little indie games
-Acceleration of communication and production in fan-products
-Easier path from fan to designer

2010s: Crowdfunding and Communities

-Easier path from fan to publisher

Mid 2010s: 5e, Stranger Things, Critical Role, '80s Teens Having Teenage Kids

-D&D becomes incredibly popular again


There are also factors I don't know anything about (how distributors have handled games, for example). You can argue about other significant game-changers around the edges but I'm more interested in the takeaways from the information we have as a whole.

Mine so far are:

-The only things that've moved the needle so far are: big external factors like new technology and big products with new content/presentation

-Did D&D's '80s competitors--Games Workshop, FASA, Palladium, Chaosium--do something right that so far has evaded today's non-WOTC publishers? Or were they just taking advantage of the fact that there just wasn't a game for x yet?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A Question For You

Online, in the RPG community, there's a conversation. In general, I mean--people talk about one thing, then another, then another.

People learn about new games and game ideas from this conversation, get GMing tips from it, find resources through it, get game design ideas from this conversation, etc. Most of the developments in mainstream RPGs since 2000 have been influenced by the conversation, almost all of the developments in independent RPGs have been and most of the new talent in the indstry comes ot of this conversation.  It has been going on for as long as there's been an internet.

Do you, personally, care if this conversation is good or bad?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What's Next?

In the '80s and '90s, D&D had a decent share of the public imagination but so did Shadowrun and Vampire and RIFTS. Now we're mostly back to just having D&D.

In five years--outside the niche that cares about these things--will there be lots of mainstream RPGs in game stores or will it still basically be D&D and Path?

All the activity around games online since 2000 has produced jillions of game design models, but only a few different models of product design--that is, design of all the things involved in the game product you sell, not just the mechanics and setting:

The D&D/Pathfinder/Fantasy Flight Approach: 

-Lavish mainstream illustration
-Expensive-looking but nonfunctional mainstream graphic design 
-Lots of library content
-Relatively incremental mechanical changes from whatever was mainstream 5-10 years ago
-Setting content based on a legacy RPG property
-Supported with miniatures, online tools and as many promotional gimmicks as the company can afford

The Indie Approach:

-Stylish but minimal graphic design and illustration
-No library content (or library content created by fans after the first book)
-Rules light
-Sold as pdf or in a thin volume
-Often explicitly made for short campaigns or one-shots
-Attempts to be mechanically innovative or else based on Apocalypse World, FATE etc.
-Setting content varies: smaller ones can be anything (Shab-Al-Hiri Roach), larger ones tend toward genre emulation (Dungeon World, etc)
-Sold mostly via online network of indie enthusiasts

The Mainstream Runner-Up (Green Ronin, Pelgrane, etc) Approach:

-Looks kinda like a D&D/Path/Fantasy Flight-style hardcover on the outside
-Hardcover with lots of library content
-Often based on a popular or nerdpopular license, or else down-the-middle genre emulation
-Expensive-looking but nonfunctional mainstream graphic design
-Mainstream but cheap-looking illustration unless its based on a license that it can borrow illustrations from (Marvel Heroic, DC Adventures)
-Mechanically similar to some other mainstream game
-Promoted through the upper-tier of the RPGverse (spotlight at Gen Con, etc) or the lower tier of the wider nerdosphere (maybe a popular stream here or there)

The "Prestige OSR" (Break, Silent Titans,  LotFP etc) Approach:

-Eccentric, distinctive illustration
-Terrifyingly extreme and time-consuming graphic/information design
-Hardcover, designed as a fetishized object
-Lots of library content, though often in the form of random tables
-Hybrid of simplified '80s RPGs and new mechanics
-Setting content is D&Dish or D&D-adjacent
-Promoted by fan-content and screaming on blogs at each other

No-Frills Start-Up (Zweihander, Sin Nomine, S&W, Onyx Path etc) Approach:

-Little or genre-emulating illustration
-Simple graphic design, based on a basic template or legacy-influenced layout
-Cheaply printed or available only as pdf
-Lots of library content, or sometimes lots of it
-Content is genre-emulation of something already familiar in the RPG-o-sphere
-Slightly-updated mechanics based explicitly on some previous property
-Promoted mostly online by the 24-hour tireless sweat of a lone or small group of hardworking hustlers


So a few observations here:

-All of these approaches have proven to be able to allow at least some people somewhere to quit their day jobs and live off games. So congratulations.

-Fantasy Flight is putting out things on the D&D model and making money but still hasn't really managed to change the conversation in terms of games. It might be just because everything they do is based on something familiar.

-I think if the Indie Approach was going to catch mainstream fire it would've done so by now. Maybe it's (like many Indie authors say) the content or mechanics are just too Out-There or maybe it's that mainstream audiences like library content, production values and/or the promise of long campaigns. It's hard to know for sure, but either way: people have been making games like this for twenty years and they haven't expanded as fast as other ways of doing things.

-Likewise, the Mainstream Runner-Up Approach has hit its ceiling. These companies have been around for decades and haven't managed to move around in the market much without a license, and the licenses have proved--at that scale--to be unsustainable. 1980s-90s alternatives to D&D like Robotech and Warhammer came out of the gate both looking as good as D&D and usually offering some new mechanical twist. They felt like something new. These don't and the people who make them don't seem to be willing to risk investing more in writing or art to move up a tier.

-What'll happen with the other two approaches is an open question. The Prestige OSR model is relatively new and hasn't ever been used to produce a complete and original new game and when it does it probably still won't be on many retail shelves. The no-frills start-up will probably have to make the leap into some other way of doing things in order to move into mainstream awareness, but there's no reason, in theory, they shouldn't be able to.

-The most interesting question is whether there are any other options.