Saturday, July 24, 2010

Industry Vs. Hobby, And Why The Forge Hasn't Conquered The World

I saw on the always-enjoyable Retro Roleplaying yesterday a link to a blogger bemoaning (I think) the insensitivity of “old school” gamers towards “new school” products, and the failure of the Forgey games to be commercially successful.

The guy’s certainly entitled to his opinion, so long as Blogger accounts are free, but I have to echo Retro RP here: I’ve never really seen Pathfinder and 4e described as “old school”. Apparently, by his definition, “new school” would pertain to the more Forge/GNS/Deconstructionism of the traditional GM/Player roles, and everything else is old. OK, then. I guess I should be grateful he didn’t use “quaint” or “rustic”.

Many of the remaining Forgies, deep from their mountain redoubt in High Afghanistan, cite their influence on games as diverse from Warhammer 3e to D&D 4th Edition. Certainly there are those who wish for more shared “narrative control” between GM and player. It isn’t my style, and never will be.

But that’s not really important; what got me about the article is how the author seems to push towards “growing the hobby” by catching cosplayers, comic book fans, etc. Although I’m sure there’s anecdotal evidence out there that could be presented to the contrary, I don’t think that GNS games have proven to be sold to be people through anything other than what sells more traditional RPG games—human contact.

Here’s a quote from the article:

This all leaves me with a dilemma. How do we get the innovation of the new, with the stability and business potential of the old?

Do it yourself.

I don’t mean that too snarkily; I mean that if you have an idea you think is going to bring the masses, then do it. If your “new school” is superior, then it should grab gamers. Marry it to whatever traditional or alternative publishing model you want, and prove the superiority.

Or, it could be, just maybe, that Forgey games aren’t any better at converting the masses to this hobby, regardless of medium.

I believe increasingly, even as I continue to evangelize when I can about the hobby I love, more of us have come to the realization that the RPG “industry” is largely smoke and mirrors. There isn’t this huge backdrop of powerful RPG companies with dozens upon dozens of employees. There’s one or two big publishers, a handful of mid-size publishers, and hundreds, if not thousands, of one or two-person operations keeping their main inventory in the garage.

That isn’t a knock on gaming; it’s just the realization that with more and more “DIY” tools out there and more and more entertainment firms to contend with, there’s not much of a unified “industry”, but a hobby. That’s why I very rarely refer to any sort of RPG industry on here; it isn’t defeatism, but just the reality of what you and I likely interact with most on a day-to-day basis. The spread of RPGs is grassroots, and isn’t found in any single ideology, theory, or movement. To think otherwise would be a disservice to the chorus of voices that make up the creativity of this hobby.

Some companies, like Paizo, ensure cost-analysis for each product before it is released, and they’ve done well on it. Others, like Evil Hat, combine newer mechanics with a dedicated fan following as part of their success. But this is a social hobby, and the size of a company doesn’t really matter if there’s no one to teach the game or no group to join. Certainly it’s great to have a supported game and have product on the shelves, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

If something happens to catapult tabletop role playing games back into the public’s greater consciousness, it likely won’t be due to people discovering the benefits of the magic of Shared Narrative Control and Story Gaming. Yeah, it’ll probably appeal to some non-gamers. So will old-school (old-old-school, if we’re to go by that article) hack n’ slash. So will the gun porn of Rifts. The RPG hobby is far too diverse to be pigeonholed.


bighara said...

To be taken with a sense of humor. :-)

Anonymous said...

Being into Forge-style games I would be glad to see them expand their "market" because that would equate to a larger number of people to play with. But I mostly agree with you and I'm also pretty sure that "conquering the rpg market" was never an objective for those games and their authors.

Ron Edwards wrote an essay titled the Nuked Apple Cart which contains a pretty strong statement of intent. As usual you can accept or reject his analysis but the article is pretty good in explaining where he comes from and where he is trying to go. The Forge movement was born as a community of designers promoting a model of games made by hobbyists for hobbyists. As far as I know they have no interests in "becoming an industry".

Yet I think that there are some common design features that could make a lot of Forgey games appealing to a non-gamers audience and that could easily be adopted and adapted in more traditional or Old School designs: little to no preparation time to run a session, endgame mechanics that give closure to games that run to a satisfying conclusion in a handful of sessions, very focused and not overly complicated rules system, etc.
All things that most people expect from a game and that most roleplaying games' authors have not been particularly concerned about until now.


WalkerP said...

"Yet I think that there are some common design features that could make a lot of Forgey games appealing to a non-gamers audience and that could easily be adopted and adapted in more traditional or Old School designs: little to no preparation time to run a session, endgame mechanics that give closure to games that run to a satisfying conclusion in a handful of sessions, very focused and not overly complicated rules system, etc."

This fusion is already happening.

Zachary The First said...

@bighara: Love that article. :)

@Walkerp, anonymous: I definitely think there's already been a fusion in several titles. The best of the ideas are taken, the rest are put on the wayside. I also don't think that "conquering the industry" is something many Forge/indie authors are concerned about. In my experience, they're interested (for the most part) with the same thing as most small-press guys--making a good game.

In any case, I do think the article cited was juuust a bit outside, to honor Bob Uecker.

Christian said...

I wish there was a way to get some of those, say, Twilight fans into the hobby via an easy to learn system that didn;t involve killing orcs and looting their lair. Show those 15 year old girls that they can make their own Bella and Edward stories. Back in the day, White Wolf did a phenomenal job of recruiting female into the hobby via Vampire: The Masquerade. I wish something similar could be pulled off now.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

Oh heavens. We could lose the sparkly

Andreas Davour said...

I am pretty sure of one thing, this guy don't speak for all Forge designers. I am not even sure he is getting "it" more than being high on the idea of shared narrative control.

Kind of amusing, though.

Zachary The First said...

@Christian: Well, who will get the rights to the Twilight RPG? I can't see WW doing Twilight--even in their lessened state these days, that seems a little too...sparkly for them.

@Carpe: I wonder if anyone will dress like Edward at a Vampire LARP this year?

@Andreas: I heartily agree. He's got the passion of a convert, it seems.

Swordgleam said...

RPGs just aren't for everyone. I know plenty of creative, geeky people who just have no desire to play a "game" in which you can't "win." That's not a game for them, and it's just not something they're interested in.

There isn't some magic bullet that's going to expand the hobby. It' a niche because only so many people are into it.

Zachary The First said...

@Swordgleam: Well put.

Anonymous said...

If you could time travel back about 30 years and watch me and my old gaming buds play dnd circa 1980, and compare it with the 4e game that some of those same buds played with me the other night, you would be extremely hard pressed to detect any substantive difference between what the two roomfuls of people were doing.

So yes, I get what the guy is saying. Leading market RPG'ing is the same experience it has always been...maximize damage output/kill monsters/loot/repeat.

I'm all for Forge-ish ideas like sharing narrative control, sandboxy gamemaster methodologies, encouraging emergent trends, and fostering player characters that have somehow discernibly different personalities from those of their players. And I've tried to encourage some of those elements in games I've run, over the years.

Invariably I have been politely indulged by my players as they "sit through all that" when what they are craving is the rampage through my encounter areas.

I got the message.

What "old school" is really about is crowdsourcing the content, a repudiation of the industry's collectible product lines spanning dozens of volumes and accessories and subscriptions.

I don't believe big ticket collectible product line RPGs will outlive us. I don't particularly believe "retro" will outlive us. When all that has died off, the crowdsourced RPG is what will remain.

Tommy Brownell said...

Along these lines, you know what ticks me off? The best RPG I have ever played, Marvel SAGA, is footnote in RPG history despite being traditional in every way except using dice.

@WalkerP and Anonymous: A lot of that describes most of my Savage Worlds sessions...and I dunno if The Forge ever inspired Shane Hensley to do much...just a lack of free time did.

Smallville is a very mainstream game that melds "indie design" with a commercially viable license (as WalkerP noted on another forum). High Valor is much less knock, but falls in a similar category of still being very non-traditional while still being very much what a classic RPG.