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.

Why Increasing Diversity in RPG Rulebooks Is A Good Thing

Despite the title, Mordicai Knode’s A Modest Proposal For Increased Diversity in D&D is not satire. He makes the point that a more inclusive hobby is a good thing. I agree with him. It seems obvious to me.

But some of the comments to both the original and to a BoingBoing link piece are hostile to the idea. These arguments are not new:

  • This is fantasy. Don’t bring real-world race politics into it.
  • Just because there aren’t that many images of non-Caucasian characters in rulebooks doesn’t mean the game creators (or, players) are racists.
  • Where do you draw the line? Are you saying there should be quotas for how many characters are drawn white, how many are drawn black, and so on?
  • Fantasy games are drawn from Northern European mythology, which is why dark-skinned or Asian-looking characters, for example, are out of place.
  • These games are predominantly played by white folks. Why should we cater to people who aren’t even the target audience?

To me none of those arguments holds water:

This is fantasy.

Yes it is. And the best fantasy is just as much about the real world as it is about the fantasy world. It is an escape from the real world, but it is not detached from it. Fantasy epics tell us how evil begets evil, how self-sacrifice is important for the greater good, how even the seemingly insignificant can change the world, how enemies can become friends. If an elf and a dwarf can become friends in The Lord of the Rings, why is it so odd to think that there might be dark-skinned dwarves?

We’re not racists.

OK. I’m a white male. I don’t consider myself racist. I try hard to maintain self-awareness, to fight the prejudices I know I carry with me. But I also have seen enough to realize that I am surrounded by a bubble of white male privilege. This is not me feeling guilty, or me trying to pander to anyone else. This is how it is.

With very, very few exceptions, wherever I go, I am regarded by everyone around me as the baseline, the norm. I am that which is accepted without question. I am like air. Nobody would ever stop to think, “Hey, what’s that northern European-looking guy doing here?” I never have to wonder whether how I am being treated relates to the color of my skin.

To me it seems more than reasonable to work toward a world in which everyone gets to enjoy that feeling of belonging that is so ingrained that it is almost completely unconscious. Acknowledging white male privilege doesn’t mean all us white males are racist.

What’s next, quotas?

For the sake of argument, what if there were quotas? How would that in any way make Average White Guy Gamer’s life any worse? How would that make the game less enjoyable? Seriously. Game companies already employ racial quotas anyway, as Monte Cook points out. The quotas are implied, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful. That’s how white male privilege works.

Fantasy games are based on Northern European mythology

Yes and no. They are drawn from a mixture of ancient myths, modern stories, and quite a lot that lies between the two. I don’t recall reading about a Gelatinous Cube in Beowolf. Describing fantasy RPGs as some sort of pure interpretation of a particular culture is akin to searching for “racial purity”. These are phantoms. They do not exist.

It’s mostly white males playing these games anyway

True. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if there were more women, more people who don’t look like me, who don’t necessarily act like me or hold the same opinions as I do? I’ve always thought that one of the great things about tabletop RPGs is that they bring people together. I’ve forged friendships over the game table with people I otherwise would never have met.

I want more diversity in game art, even if it doesn’t add more diversity to the group sitting around the game table. As a white male, I tire of seeing white males and scantily-clad females in practically every illustration. There’s nothing wrong with being a white male. There is certainly nothing wrong with a scantily-clad female. But it gets boring. Real-world diversity makes life interesting. It’s a shame that so many of our fantasy worlds ignore this.

One Last Bit:

If you’re a white male reading this, imagine that your child is not white. Imagine that you’re trying to introduce your child to tabletop roleplaying, and finding images in the rulebooks that show heroes who look more like your kid and less like you is extremely difficult. You might come to the conclusion that the hobby you love can’t be bothered to even hold out a hand to him, can’t be bothered to show him that yes, he is welcome.



60 Minutes on Dungeons and Dragons (1985)

I have just now learned of the joys of tabletop roleplaying games as I enter my late 20s. I can’t help but imagine how awesome it would have been to been a kid playing these games, but my mother probably watched a few too many “stories” like this and believed that games like D&D and Magic the Gathering were tools of Satan and the occult.

Smashing journalism from 60 Minutes. Smashing 80s haircuts from everyone else.

I graduated from high school in 1985. I’d started playing roleplaying games (there was no confusion between computer and tabletop RPGs at the time, of course) since 8th grade. It’s easy to laugh about it now, but back then I had to constantly explain to people that no, there was no spellcasting going on. No, there were no Satanic rituals involved.

A few things come to mind as I look back on that time:

  • How many of those kids would have died if their parents hadn’t kept guns at home?
  • How many of those kids would have died if their parents hadn’t been so disconnected from their own children that the kids felt the need to hide their hobby from them?
  • I am very thankful that my parents and extended family didn’t buy into the witch hunt. They encouraged my imagination and were happy to know that I was staying safe and having fun with other smart, imaginative kids.
  • There really were a lot of teenage suicides at the time. There were a lot of kids who felt disconnected, unable to cope. I suspect more than a few lives were saved by roleplaying games.
  • From college onward I kept my favorite hobby a secret to all but my closest friends, because of the stigma that was formed in the early 80s. 

Lest you think this is nothing more than hilarity from a bygone era, look at what’s happening in the GOP primaries, and remember that there are always going to be people who think that if it’s outside the mainstream, it’s evil.

How Big is the Tabletop RPG Market?

Despite the in-your-face tone, I’m enjoying the back-and-forth discussions engendered by the How Not to Run a Game Business blog. But the more I think about it (thank you, Matt), the more I question the fundamental assumption that tabletop gaming is dying or is about to die. There has been much discussion about this topic over the last few years, but none of it seems to be based on facts.

The HNtRaGB blog author writes:

I think we all know it. We all feel it, at least. Some people think we’re going to go the way of model trains, other consider this edition or that trend to be the DEATH OF GAMING AS WE KNOW IT.

But it’s really not enough to “feel it”. If we want to have a meaningful discussion about the state of the tabletop RPG industry that doesn’t immediately degenerate into an exercise in lobbing opinions back and forth, we need facts. Unfortunately, finding publicly-available, up-to-date, credible, reasonably broad statistics about the size and composition of the tabletop RPG market is nearly impossible. I’m not talking about unit sales to retailers, or even unit sales to consumers.

While it’s obvious that sales of gamebooks does not equate to game play (there are collectors, there are people who have been playing nothing but 2e AD&D since 1985), the number of game books sold and the overall revenue figures are important in understanding whether tabletop RPG has a contracting, expanding, or flat customer base.

The Wikipedia entry for Tabletop role-playing game states that in 1999-2000, a Wizards of the Coast survey indicated that about 1.5M people played D&D and 2M played roleplaying games of all stripes (unsourced figures, unclear if these stats refer to US or global).

A 2004 BBC article quoted Wizards of the Coast as saying that roughly 3 million people in the United States played D&D each month.

I’ve found all kinds of estimates and distributor figures for D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast, but they keep their actual sales figures private, so unless and until they reveal real numbers, determining just how big the dominant game system is remains an exercise in guesswork. The same is true of Paizo, which publishes the Pathfinder variant of D&D. The company’s CEO says Pathfinder is outselling D&D, but provides no figures to back up the assertion.

Meanwhile, the folks at Posthuman Studios, publisher of Eclipse Phase, have adopted a different approach in line with their overall philosophy. Their 2010 Year End Review lays out the numbers:

  • Second and third print runs for core Eclipse Phase rulebook: 2,376 copies in 14 months
  • PDF sales of the core EP rulebook: ~1,400 in ~15 months
  • PDF downloads (free under Creative Commons license) of the core EP rulebook: 14,000 from one torrent site alone (total figures like much higher)
  • Printed Gamemaster Pack: 1,258 in 5 months
  • PDF sales of the Gamemaster Pack: 307 in 5 months
  • PDF sales of the Glory adventure: 93
  • PDF downloads (free under Creative Commons license) of the Gamemaster Pack and Glory adventure: unknown
  • First print run of Sunward expansion book: 1,889 in 4 months
  • PDF sales of Sunward: 682 in 4 months
  • PDF downloads (free under Creative Commons license) of Sunward: unknown
  • PDF sales of Gatecrashing expansion book: 417 in 1 month (printed book hit retailers in early 2011)
  • PDF downloads (free under Creative Commons license) of Gatecrashing: unknown
  • PDF exclusives (NPC File 1: Prime, Bump in the Night, Continuity): No numbers released, but they accounted for roughly 10% of Posthuman’s 2010 revenue.

Of particular interest here is the fact that Posthuman encourages the remixing and free downloading of all their titles under a Creative Commons license. The impact of this approach is unknown. Would Posthuman have sold more hardcopy books and PDFs if they hadn’t given people the option to simply download free PDFs? Or have they grown their addressable market by giving potential purchasers the ability to try before they buy? Is giving it away for free a good way to build a core audience of gamers who want you to succeed and will therefore buy your hardcopy products?

The answers to those questions, without rigorously-gathered facts, will likely vary depending on whatever biases you bring with you. Anecdotal evidence is cheap and essentially useless. After downloading the core EP rulebook plus Sunward and Gatecrashing, I’ve since purchased all of them in hardcopy, plus the Gamemaster Pack. To me their strategy is a win for them and a win for me. But I may not be a representative of their primary customer base. I’ve been gaming since the early 80s, I buy digital music rather than torrent it, and am fortunate enough to be reasonably financially comfortable.

My point is that we can make all the assumptions we want about whether tabletop RPGs are dying or not, and we can argue about which business models are better or worse, but if we want the discussion to generate some light as well as heat, we need to get our hands on real data and address it with some rigor.