Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Decline of Roleplaying

The roleplaying we are discussing here is the old style pencil, paper, and dice games that first took the college world by storm in the 1970s and then migrated down into younger age categories as time went on.

There are a number of factors that have caused the decline of these games.  Technology in the form of online roleplaying games (Blizzard's World of Warcraft)  being a critical obstacle, and the advent of the more portable, more casually convened collectible card games (Wizard's of the Coasts' Magic the Gathering) drove money into the fantasy market, but also swallowed up more than its share of the money.

But there is another interesting aspect to the problems with pencil-and-paper role playing games that mirrors some of the problems of our culture.

The Table Top Roleplaying Game Hobby is Contracting
Ryan Dancy, EN World Forum, December 2011 (Hat tip: MR).

We began to view the market not as a series of product pyramids...but instead as a series of human webs that overlapped and interconnected. Where those webs were strong, the products flourished.... The limiting factor was human brains within which theses games could interconnect.
The more segmented those brains became, the weaker the overall social network was. Every new game system, and every new variant to those systems, subdivided that network further, making it weaker. Between 1993 and 1999, the social network of the TRPG players had become seriously frayed. Even if you just looked at the network of Dungeons & Dragons players you could see this effect: People self-segmented into groups playing Basic D&D, 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, and within 2nd Edition into various Campaign Settings that had become their own game variants. The effect on the market was that it became increasingly hard to make and sell something that had enough players in common that it would earn back its costs of development and production.
We looked around the industry and saw the same problem at virtually every company that had become successful: White Wolf had 5 World of Darkness games which were all slightly different, surrounded by a more diffuse constellation of games somewhat related to the Storyteller system but designed to be mutually incompatible. FASA had 4 games, none of which shared anything in common. Palladium & Steve Jackson Games both had “house systems” that they tried to use across their entire product lines, but they had ended up with the “Campaign Setting” issue that was bedeviling TSR; the variant rules at the edges of their games were creating independent game networks despite the shared DNA of the core. And we knew that inside every one of those companies they were seeing the same financial information we were seeing: Each new release was selling fewer and fewer copies, and in response, the companies were increasing the pace of releases trying to sustain planned revenues by volume of titles, not by volume of units. And it was killing everyone.
…My opinion is that the hobby gaming industry is going to transform into a very small niche business. It will cater primarily to an aging group of players who have made TRPGs their lifetime hobbies. As those players age, they’ll need less and less support in the form of commercially produced products. They will instead seek out community support tools to help them remain in touch with their hobby even as the social network they’re directly connected to becomes ever more frayed.

One of the huge attractions of the role playing game was the enactment of shared but personal fantasies with like minded people.  But there is a commitment in time that our society works against.  While it is true that the computer games, and card games don't offer the camaraderie of the table top games, they offer a reasonable facsimile, and there involvement involves much less preparatory commitment.  Combined with the self-fragmenting nature of the hobby (over specialization), the group-based activity was bound to suffer.

Our culture is very much similar.  Offered an enormous amount of choices, any popular group activity is likely to feel the splintering effect.  The easier the activity is to initiate the more likely it will sustain itself, or possibly even expand.  If the activity can either be performed on, or initiated through electronic media will have a huge advantage,

On the plus side for table top role playing games, at their esence they are not much more complicated than sitting around the fire telling stories.  You don't even need a table.  To the extent that idea has been born - to have a group share in the creation of a story - there is no reason that it cannot be reborn endlesssly in simpler non-commerical form.  The fireside tale is not a common practise today's western world, but to the extent that there are people around, it is not likely to ever completely die off.


PioneerPreppy said...

I don't think the variants is what killed any of those games really.

Many of the early movers and shakers of the gaming world rediscovered their roots and left the table top roleplaying wave to return to actual miniature wargaming. Some went too far in one direction into the warhammer weirdness while a smaller group went back and expanded on the chainmail rules. The politics of TSR forced many early contributors out and turned it into a private domain of personality.

Technology eventually took it's toll on all the sub sections and age did in the pure miniature wargamers. Personally when I got to the point that I needed glasses the joy of miniatures was lost for me.

However ADnD is still played. My son does it and many online guildies from my wow days played. The computer was their dice, they didn't need a table but now have chat rooms set up in vent and the manuals are all online.

I would disagree that todays games take less time. A guild will spend days practicing and farming to make a boss kill. If anything I believe today's gaming is more time consuming and totally ruins lives. One reason I gave it up.

russell1200 said...

D&D when it was still mostly a college phenomina was almost famously addictive. It was not infrequent to hear of undergraduates who flunked out after they spent all their time gaming.

THe D&D of that time period was, however, very easy to get started in, at least for the players.

Yes, my neighbors son plays D&D, but I think the author of the article notes that D&D is the core product that is the defacto fallback.

The military minatures crowd seems to be doing O.K. They were never a fad, so they never got much past being a small sliver of a subculture anyway. I have noticed that as the group ages, the "miniatures" that they paint keep getting larger. More money, less eye strain.

I completely agree with you on the "domain of personality" point. But that gets into some rather esoteric history. A very close look at that history would have Gygax being a lot less of a hero than he is sometimes made out to be.

PioneerPreppy said...

Well EGG wasn't an original DnD'er per se as DnD grew out of the old addition chainmail rules with a healthy background of SCA fighting experience as I remember it.

I was a bit young at the time, as was the industry, but I remember the early rules discussions. Originally you had to have the miniatures to actually play DnD. After the move to Geneva and the subsequent forcing of several of the original developers out of TSR was when it became a paper only game.

I would have to disagree with your assessment of the military crowd for that reason. When DnD was created military gaming was ALL there was, period. At about the same time as DnD was gettign started the old heritage line of Middle Earth figures was being introduced so that line was used almost exclusively for early chainmail/DnD development. DnD in effect almost killed the military miniature wargaming numbers and last time I checked it was just a small sliver of what it had once been.

In effect companies like Grenadier and Ral Partha fed the rules of ADnD or vice versa because at first you needed the miniatures to introduce the monsters. So from many different aspects DnD killed historical wargaming taking not only the developer talent but the artistic talent as well. Miniature wargaming never really recovered from that.

PioneerPreppy said...

Russ - I need to expand on my last comment. As I remember it, and somewhere around here I have the original chainmail rule sheet I was given, Jeff Perrin was the original creator. From my earliest days haunting comic book stores and small hobby shops the Midwest stores from Kansas City to Minneapolis to Osh Kosh and Chicago were all connected especially within the University system. It wasn't like it is today a wargame convention in St. Louis would bring almost the entire industry together, at least from around the country. Weekend events were held and players were coming in from States away.

As I said I was young. Too young to have any say or weight but I remember a distinct dislike for how EGG muscled into and took over back then. Of course once I joined the military I lost touch with most of those early players. Greyhawk and Blackmoor are the early worlds that are still remembered but many used to say they were not the first worlds developed just the ones that lasted.

russell1200 said...

Dave Arneson with his Blackmoore Campaign is generally credited with the first "D&D" campaign, and his name was put on the first little booklets that came out. But as you say, it all came out of the chainmail ruleset. Even GG admitted that Arneson was not happy with the changes that were made.

I actually bought Tactical Studies Rules' Napoleonic game (Tricolor?) before I bought the D&D box set. I was in grade school and was using plastic Airfix Napoeonics and had thumbtacked them to cardboard bases. I also had been playing Avalon Hill and SPI wargames.

You were so close to the hotbed of D&D that it likely had a greater impact on the miniatures folks in your area than ours. In my area the big numbers were initially with the college kids who were not the typical miniature hobbiests.

I think I still have a few of the Heritage miniatures-Orks as pigs with very strange polearms- which explains why there were so many odd pole arms (Glaive-Guisarme) cluttering the weapon charts- first seen in the Greyhawk supliment I think.

The game was very freeform and flowing. Gygax very quickly realized that (much like IBM later with the PC) he was going to loose control of the franchise, so he with the Advanced D&D he tightened up on what was allowed under the ridiculous claim of play balance, and tournement compatibility. His version of Arneson's game was insanely chart heavy and absurd as a simulation. When GG later came out with his own rules (Earthdawn?) he pretty much proved that he had not learned anything about rules writing. If you look at the way he throws bell-curve randomization with flatline, it is not even clear GG even understood the math.

What is funny is that the article I linked to talks about how they undid that straight jacket, and essentially made a bunch of money before they ..... lost the franchise. LOL.

FYI - I have some 20mm moderns and have actually had some Cul De Sac style battles with light arms. The results are different than a lot people would think.

PioneerPreppy said...

As I remember it it was Tricorne and I believe that rule set was originally an old Ted Scrubby (Of Scrubby figures) gameset that TSR bought the rights to. I could be wrong I also seem to remember one of the guys who did the original Empire rules having something to do with Tricorne.

That is another EGG-type take over. Empire III rules had many developers but in the end only the one mover and shaker was acknowledged for it when it was all said and done. And the money changed hands.

Also the pole arm fetish was fueled by the SCA guys who heavily influenced the segment and speed mechanics. They loved all those different pole arm types as I remember.

Unlike most of the old gamers who went warhammer and the 40K stuff I was the exception and went back to Napoleonics and early historical until my eyes betrayed me.

Oh well nice to stroll down memory lane a bit.


russell1200 said...

TSR had more than one Napoleonic rule set even at the time I bought them (mid-1970s). They are a little booklet, and I think I may still have them burried somewhere. Check out this site for a copy of what became the Dragon.

I think I started with Empire 4 - very late in the day. The strategic-tactical concept was interesting, but could leave people sitting around watching in multi-player games.

I lived in Baltimore for some time. A big east coast center for miniatures. I worked in the industry for a little while at the wholesale level. GW had set up their U.S. HQ in Baltimore. I could tell you some stories about them- some of the least honest (the British Company bosses) people you would ever want to run into. Because they ran their own seperate shops, which (mostly) only carried their own items, they were always a different crowd - only a little bit of intermixing. Oddly enough, the Armory (a Game Distributor of the time) used to run games and leagues, and the GW people would go over their some. GW employees bought their product by weight, and would trade for other merchandise. Not sure what happened with all that when GW tried to cut out all their U.S. distribution and was sued (and lost) over it. I had moved on by then.

Some of the Armory people (the family members) can be seen at the unusual movie Darkon. It is funny to hear the drug addicted children complain about how their mighty empire of a gaming company (LOL- it wasn't) was stolen away from them.