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.


Anonymous said...

I assume you put DCC into Prestige OSR? I’m not sure I’d consider their support ‘screaming on blogs’ since they seem to use conventions and their ‘road crew’ as one of their primary promotional tools.

Zak Sabbath said...

Good point--

DCC definitely started as a No Frills Start-Up -back when it was just Goodman Games putting out old-school modules and then it morphed into something else once they put out the actual fancy hardcover game.

I wonder if they'll make another leap or whether they'll just be this eternal reliable microbrew on the edge of the con. Being Very D&Dlike usually is a barrier to getting too big, but it didn't stop Warhammer or Path

Timmy Crabcakes said...

Have there been any functional RPGs that were entirely presented online... not as downloadable content but in a way that attempted to use some of the unique capabilities of webspace. Seems like there must have been but I can't think of any.

James said...

he lives!

TabelleCasuali said...

Welcome Back!

Anonymous said...

welcome back zak :)

Anonymous said...

Welcome back man. Need your voice.

Adam Dickstein said...

Interesting. Where does this/do you place Modiphius and Free League?

Here in NYC, if you aren't playing D&D 5E, Pathfinder, some incarnation of World of Darkness, Palladium, or indie and board games, you are playing something by one of these two aforementioned companies.

I myself run Star Trek Adventures (Modiphius) and the upcoming ALIEN RPG (Free League). Tales from the Loop (Free League made, Modiphius distributed), Conan (Modiphius), and other titles by these two seem to be gaining in popularity around The City That Never Sleeps.

I feel like they share traits from the different categories but I could be bias. I really like a lot of the products I've mentioned.

Curious as to your thoughts.

Zak Sabbath said...

@ Adam

From what I've seen it's the The D&D/Pathfinder/Fantasy Flight Approach or sometimes Mainstream Runner-Up.

Adamantyr said...

Good to see you posting again!

One thing to consider is that in the early 90s we also had the rise of collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering. Companies made a good deal of money off these but the RPG was negatively impacted; many questioned if RPGs would even survive, if every game company switched to card games. That encouraged a lot more diversity in RPGs. Trying to find something to get away from the model they knew was failing.

One of my favorite games of that era was Horror Rules, which was made by some guys who lived in my home town. Simple mechanics and a perfect system to simulate a B horror movie. said...

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Anonymous said...

I believe that Into the Odd, Macchiato Monsters, Black Hack are OSR and blend some innovative mechanics into the OSR DNA, or not ?

Zak Sabbath said...

haven’t read them.

imnot reallly in the market for a new osr

david black of the hack began harassing me years ago so i wrote him off

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Zak Sabbath said...

don’t advertise harassers

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Zak Sabbath said...


don’t advertise harassers

Anonymous said...

Yep but Into the Odd has been written by Christopher McDowall, not D.B.

Zak Sabbath said...

Chris McDowall is a harasser as well—
he wrote a long rant against me in the wake of the fake accusations , He smeared me, saying my statement didn’t address them, he changed the rules of the OSR discord to allow lying and harassment, and he lets 4channers run and moderate it. He’s one of the worst

Anonymous said...

Ok sorry then. I was clueless and no ill was intended!