Time is What Limits the Popularity of Tabletop RPG
It’s hard enough keeping walls around Friday night, which is game night for me. As a game master I need to spend additional time during the week prepping. When life gets unruly, as it has for me of late, there is no time for prep. I’m in that situation this week; because I’ve not been able to prep, there will be no Eclipse Phase on Friday.
That’s no big deal, because we’ll likely be playing Burning Wheel instead, and the guy who runs the game is a fantastic GM. I am excited to be at the table as a player. But I am dispirited by the fact that I’m not going to be able to run Eclipse Phase. Why? Because I am invested in the game.
I have devoted hours and hours to reading the game books, absorbing the rules, learning as much as possible about the game world, mapping out scenario concepts, creating NPCs, and so on. Time is my most precious commodity, and I don’t want it to go to waste. I also don’t want to pass up the opportunity to turn all of that effort into something wonderful, something unique and enjoyable for me and my friends.
This is not a new phenomenon for me. Ever since I graduated from high school I’ve had that feeling as a game master. I love running games. I want to facilitate marvelous, immersive, awesome game sessions. Yet for every hour of time at the table with the other players, I’m spending another hour in one form of preparation or another.
One could argue that I just need to get more efficient at prepping. That’s a fair point; I’ll be the first person to agree that I could use improvement. Still, with most games you still need to devote a fairly sizable chunk of time to prep, no matter how good you are at it.
The conclusion I reach is that time, in particular the time the GM must spend prepping for a game, is the largest obstacle to the growth of the tabletop RPG hobby. The game master is the lynch pin; without that person, there is no gaming group, no reason to buy game books (other than to read and collect without playing, and I suspect a fairly large percentage of RPG consumers do this).
There are a host of indie games that make it easier for a GM to throw together a quick game session. But regardless of the mechanics, to create the kind of immersive game that gives players that special feeling of engagement that only an excellent roleplaying campaign can provide, the GM has to put the time in up front. Still, some systems definitely make prep more difficult.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the opaque and arcane rules system of D&D is one of the single biggest obstacles to growing the hobby. I am not bashing D&D. It’s what got me into tabletop RPG, and I understand that for many gamers it is the game that fits their needs best. But to newcomers, D&D presents a barrier to entry. A non-gamer walks into a game store, sees the dozens of thick D&D books, and thinks, “My gawd, this is going to take me ages to comprehend.”
Sure, there are many preferable alternatives one could throw at a newcomer. Call them gentle introductions: Basic Roleplaying springs to mind as a good example. But everyone knows that D&D is the tabletop RPG. Ask a non-gamer to name a tabletop RPG, and you’d likely draw a blank. Then ask them if they’ve heard of D&D. To non-gamers, D&D is tabletop roleplaying.
It is my belief that as long as D&D is the game by which tabletop roleplaying is judged by the outside world, it will always remain a niche pursuit. It simply requires a time investment that is too great for all but the most devoted; even people who buy the books and want desperately to play more frequently are constrained by the amount of time it takes to prepare for a session.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. The death of the tabletop RPG has been announced several times in the nearly three decades that I’ve been playing. Yet here I am still playing most Friday nights, with a small but happy crew of like-minded gamers. Perhaps tabletop RPGs will always be tottering on the precipice, and GMs will always wish they had more time to prepare.
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