Sunday, September 18, 2011

Long RPG road to redemption ... and then certain doom ...

Sometimes you have a fork in the road, a turning point if you will and then sometimes you have a WTF intersection.

Recently that kind of an intersection has come up from my gaming group in terms of RPG choice.  Over the past several months we have fully abandoned D&D 4th edition. This isn't a bash 4th ed post at all.  We had fun with it while it lasted but essentials and just the reality of what 4e does hit our group all at once and we just found it wasn't for us at all. 

We have struggled to get other systems going (lack of enough players for more than one game until very recently has been the main problem there).  But its brought up a whole new round of discussing new game ideas and options and most of them have just been dead on arrival.
For me there are a few things that RPGs do well and a few things they don't do well and its as simple as that. 
Long ago (15 years ago now or so) a group I was gaming with collectively had the epiphany that an RPG can simulate things, it can foster story and it can create a player versus game master and/or player combat.  Some systems might be held up as being able to do all that well but in my experience RPGs work on a sliding scale.  You amp up RP too much and combats tend to suffer (unless your just narrating as GMs and/or Players whats happening but even there I'd argue from a combat perspective for the vast majority of groups that just wouldn't be as satisfying in most cases).  You dial up combat too much and you have 2 or 3 hour combats that interrupt the RP too much and get people off track (IMO this is one of the downsides of grid based D&D). 

Game masters and players can use those tools provided by said system to create/weave a collective story together. That is pretty much it right?

Yes duh ... we all know that and have known it since we first played RPGs. All I know though is for me at that time even though I'd played RPGs off and on since I was a kid I hadn't verbalized it  (going back 15 years to the eureka moment) and thought about it in mechanical terms like that. 

Now since that time I've listened to other gamers pontificate, I've pontificated, I've listened to people on their blogs and podcasts pontificating about this or that "trope this" "5th wall that" "simulator this" "indie ... old school ... whatever ... that" ... yada yada .. and at the end of the day its still just extending the discussion on "what is an RPG" but really the simplicity gets lost in all the esoteric jargony discussion.

RPGs are just a guide on how to sit around a table and weave a collective story/narrative (operative term there).  Now that isn't to say that a combat heavy game isn't the same thing ... of course it is ...that game's story is just alot more about the fights that take place than about what the characters do outside of fighting.  Its all the same thing really it just depends on what the group feels like doing. Role playing games are simply a guideline to facilitate a shared story experience amongst a group of players. 

Anymore to me a few things come into play that have nothing really to do with mechanics per say its more to do with players willingness to put time in to learn rules and to spend time playing the games.

Rulesets can be massive tomes and ultra complex or they can be simple, elegant little rule-sets that merely facilitate a single game and not much more. They can do combat well but non-combat simulations bad, they can have loads of hints and suggestions and help players and GMs along the path to a genre specific authentic experience.  They can be lose and open ended or they can be very rigid and closed.  But at the end of the day if they don't ultimately result in group fun they are going to fizzle and people are going to move on.  Each group is so different and there are endless things that can hamper fun ... pulling off RPGs is a daunting prospect even with a great ruleset.

The more complex rules are the larger commitment GMs and players have to make to learn the rules and while 20 years ago that wasn't that big of a deal to get people to spend a little time to buy in ... today ... unless you find people that are ultra passionate about RPGs your going to be hard pressed to find people who want to read a 250 page rule book and memorize a 50-100 page combat section ... JUST TO PLAY the game.  Then show up each week and hope everyone else does and hope that the game doesn't go to hell because someone does something crazy or someone's work schedule suddenly changes or whatever.

On the time topic ... same goes for how long it takes to do things in games.  If you have five semi-busy people who waste time on facebook and Ipod aplications all week and then get busy on the weekends because all the shit they should have done all week is now piled up on them come Friday evening an Saturday afternoon ... are you going to want top play an RPG that has 2 hour combats?  Or a game that it takes someone 20 minutes to do some computer slicing?  Do you want to play a game where rolling a new character takes three hours?  Probably not.  So those games are less and less appealing.  But see people don't always verbalize that ... the game just burns down and no one really knows why. 

Its sad because as we age we get more life stuff to deal with combined with our collective lack of time and willpower to break away from facebook and steam long enough to get in the car and get together to do tabletop gaming is making campaign style RPGs an endangered species.  I don't dislike the complex stuff but I see it as less and less realistic to pull off as there are just so few people who have the time and the inclination to do games like that anymore. On a side note I guess its why I'm also very much drawn to mini gaming and board games because those are so much easier to pull off with a broader audience.

I also think its why D&D continues to thrive because really the non-D&D RPGs give less competition to it by shear virtue of all the aforementioned things ... people just seem to have less and less time to devote to tabletop gaming so they pick and choose things that they know they can pull off.  D&D is a tried and true old friend for most gamers so they keep coming back to it ... whatever version or flavor ... its something that has a little more certainty than a Savage Worlds game or a RIFTS game or whatever.  There are some examples like the GW stuff ... there is a huge base of fanboys for that so it probably sells ok but its selling as an accessory to the mini games probably much more than as a stand alone RPG system.  So on that alone I think D&D is safe yet other types of RPGs unless they are lite and simple and "one shot" style I think they are going to struggle more and more to find an audience.

That is essentially what has happened to us we've gone looking to other game systems and ultimately come full circle back to pathfinder (a game we loved to hate for so long) and found that at the end of the day it fits us just fine and its far more realistic to pull off than pretty much anything else we looked at.


Zzarchov said...

I would like to strongly recommend Neoclassical Geek Revival to you, reading your story it is designed for people just like you and your group.

Creating a new character for someone who has never played before takes all of 2 minutes to be joining the party and playing, while still allowing the types of tweaking and fine control players have come to expect.

The rules strongly encourage players to just relax and have fun (through the awesomeness score), and the rules are specifically set up so that if no player(including the GM) involved remembers them off the top of their head they do not count.

That is my 10 second pitch. My 2 second pitch is I am not out to make a buck(it is free), I just really think the game is a good fit to what you are looking for.

The Lord of Excess said...

I'll check that out thanks! I myself love a plethora of indie games ... all of Vincent Bakers stuff (Dogs, Apoc World, etc.). I love Mouseguard and would dearly love to play burning empires or burning wheel. I'd like to play mazes and minotaurs someday as well but with my current group pulling people away from core system games is seemingly impossible. Labyrinth Lords and other old school clone stuff looks cool. In our group though players just won't break away from D&D. Many of the new people who have come to our games have wanted to play yet other core system stuff like RIFTS or HERO System. We tried Savage Worlds and it went ok but for little 3 and 4 shot games. My group frustrates me immensely in terms of their utter lack of patience and willingness to try new games.

ADD Grognard said...

There is a ton of great games around but the thing that brought me back was Microlite. The essence of 3x boiled down to 3 pages of rules with top down modular support (to add only what you want) that you can run anything out there with from Original D&D to the present (use modules, adventures, supplements, etc and tons of OGC online for support).

I'm basing my work on it and if you had told me I would be designing an entire system around a 3x derivative I would have said you were nuts. I HATED new school till I found it.

If it sounds like it might be for you guys I'll drop all the linkage on you...(plus it is all free so that can't hurt)and tell your crew to all stems from the SRD so it IS D&D. :)

and BTW- Not only are RPGs holding there own but since 2004 have been on a steady climb and this year sales-wise has been the best in years according to everyone I have talked with and read about from GenCon and DragonCon.

And if you guys want to try a little Eldritch horror the new Elder Sign from FFG is selling like crazy and getting great reviews. A card/boardgame that plays in under 2 hours and only has 12 pages of rules. I'm dying to get it...good for solo to 8 players.

Check it out:

Hope that helps and chin up...things are all good in the gaming world (unlike the rest of the worlds :)

ADD Grognard said...

And I feel I should share also ConstantCon:

Zak has had this going 24 hours a day since this date. If it interests you there are several posts on this as they worked out the logistics.

I will probably get involved on a play test level once I have my system ready to alpha.

Anyway, just a thought and people do seem to be having way to much fun :)

The Lord of Excess said...

I believe you about RPGs and sales being good. For one thing everyone has been dogging on WoTC but from what I understand there have been long periods during the 4e run that its sold very well. Right now we are in a period where there are two core D&D games running simultaneously. Paizo has been selling their stuff very well from what I've heard and with Dresden Files and Fantasy Flight's GW licensed stuff ... there are many titles that have done well. So that makes sense to me. I just see tabletop gaming slowly succumbing to the onslaught of competition from the internet, etc. Online gaming has taken a toll on tabletop gaming. People checked out to go play WoW and now with ToR just around the corner I don't think its going to end. I do think that many people have come to their senses and realized how much more satisfying tabletop is vs. solo at home in the basement MMOing. But building a new group in a new town has been far more challenging than it would have been 15 years ago IMO.

The Lord of Excess said...

Oh I'll check out Eldritch horror!! I have Arkham and board games are an entire other post I could make. My old group in Vegas devoured board games and the new group has been lukewarm at best. The current crew is 80% RPG only with a few people who are willing to do board games and/or mini games. I do have a solid group of mid 20 somethings to mid 30 somethings that want to do tabletop gaming though (about 10 people with another 5 hangers on who show up occasionally) and I just started a gaming club at the local college so I'm hoping this is our breakout year. I will also check out Zak's post. Thanks again sir!