Save vs. Illusion (our hobby)

June 3, 2008

Watching gamerdom go into the usual frenzies about this week’s upcoming release of D&D 4th Edition is… making my head hurt. As much as I like D&D, and like the design thinking they’ve shared behind 4th edition, I need to break some illusions about D&D, and our hobby.

D&D will never usher in a new renaissance of roleplaying

This isn’t because D&D is a bad game, nor because it’s “hack & slashy”, or that kids these days can’t use their imaginations. D&D will never become the gate it was in the 80’s because it’s out of touch with kids these days.

D&D has fallen out of touch with what kids want, and never developed a strong name brand. While some were hailing Eberron as “innovative”, steampunk and magitech ideas were pretty much standard fare for kids playing videogames in the early 90’s (FF6 anyone?). D&D sits halfway between the uber GRIM of Warhammer and the PRETTY of anime, capturing neither audience really. The sad fact is, the strongest product element to come out of D&D is a character named Drizzt whose appearance is problematic to say the least.

D&D has long since stopped being the way in which kids learn about roleplaying

Sounds insane, doesn’t it? Only if you imagine that roleplaying is limited to rolling dice on a tabletop. Most kids learn about roleplaying, and engage in it, online, via chat, forum games or MMOs. Roleplaying is happening all the time, it just happens to have left D&D behind years ago. The game that figures out how to tap into that market, to produce a set of rules that work in a compelling fashion greater than what can be had by unstructured group consensus (as Vincent pointed out), that’s going to usher in the new wave of roleplaying.

Videogames are a 6 billion dollar industry. There’s a reason for that.

“ZOMG! D&D is becoming a videogame! There’s no room for the imagination anymore!”

Tabletop roleplaying has a strength that videogames can never match- the power of group consensus- if everyone wants the game to work differently, they simply agree on it, and off they go. Much easier than hacking a videogame. Just the same, this advantage has left the tabletop hobby in a bad place in terms of innovation, for the most part, being very slight adjustments to rates of reward/advancement, or odds of success/failure, and little in terms of actual structure of play.

Meanwhile, videogames have nothing but rules. They’ve been doing this 30 years as well, and they’ve looked at tactics, choices, reward cycles, learning curves, player feedback, and a ton of things which, ultimately has made stronger games. And yes, this is more than just better graphics.

To me, it is literally INSANE to think of designing any kind of game these days without looking at videogames (and probably CCGs and boardgames too). Why would you not loot hard earned lessons?

I mean, I’m excited for 4E and would like it to do well. But if people want to ask why tabletop roleplaying stays a marginalized form of gaming, especially since there’s so many more people into games overall than any other time in history?

Imagine if videogames still framed their aspirations and their hobby around Pong, even awesome Plasma Pong? Yeah, exactly.

Gaming is so much bigger.



  1. Yup. This was my main concern with the way Chris Pramas and Erik Mona were talking about D&D on the recent Green Ronin podcast episode. D&D4, as good as it may be, is not offering anything fresh, any hook that will snare people not already interested in D&D. It is not progressive in any sense of the word, but deeply conservative. It may be the best system in the world for creating First Edition style dungeon crawls, but it doesn’t take us somewhere new and exciting or show us things we’ve never seen before.

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    This is less of a criticism of D&D and more of a criticism of the culture of roleplaying and the pinning all hopes upon it.

    It’s an incredibly narrow vision which neglects to look at gaming as a whole, much of which are doing things to connect to kids, borrow innovations, and look at the larger market in which they operate.

    D&D generally does what it does very well.

    It’s what passes for tabletop roleplaying culture, which is failing, failing to grasp that it’s gotten frozen – just because D&D was the main gate in the 80’s, does not mean it’s a viable gate anymore for reaching the mainstream.

  3. Interesting post. Not sure I follow the entire point, but you raise some interesting observations.

    On that note, I have a few observations of my own that I’d like to share. You mention that D&D “…never developed a strong name brand.” I’d offer that if you asked a random stranger almost anywhere in the civilized world if they’ve heard of Dungeons & Dragons, more often than not you’d get a “Yes.”

    In my personal experiences traveling in the U.S. and abroad, I haven’t met a person yet, who when I say that I’m into Role Playing Games has responded, “Oh, do you play Dungeons & Dragons.”

    Even if only from historical reputation (good and bad) D&D has in fact become a larger cultural identity and response to what Role Playing Games are, or were.

    Setting aside all of the philosophical and mechanical differences (good or bad) of D&D compared to more modern RPGs (Indie or larger commercial publications), one could reasonably argue that in the larger scheme of things, D&D has soaked into the conscious of society as what an RPG is. That, I offer, is immense brand awareness, regardless of D&Ds strength in the market of RPGs.

    You also mentioned that “To me, it is literally INSANE to think of designing any kind of game these days without looking at videogames…” I think that the fundamental principles of the videogame reward system architecture is fatally flawed and does not belong in tabletop RPGs. Further, the “power up” and immediate gratification model builds a false sense of entitlement that I truly feel is having a measurable, negative effect on how people respond to games in general these days.

    I hear kids at our LGS say, “How fast can I get to such-and-such level?” or “What, I don’t get any super charged/magical plus 27 weapons to start?” all the time. They no longer have the patience to build and grow characters through experience. They want it all now. What effect will that have on their every day lives down the road?

    Lastly, you posit that “tabletop roleplaying stays a marginalized form of gaming…” One could soundly argue that every gaming genre is marginalized by one gamer or another. Not everyone likes CCGs. Not everyone likes Boardgames. They become insignificant forms of play for those individuals and/or the groups they play with.

    I think that to say that tabletop roleplaying is a marginalized form of gaming is a false argument when you look at its resilience and endurance in the entire gaming industry. No matter how flashy or cool pc graphics are now or become in future, nothing replaces the camaraderie of a real-life, in-the-flesh gaming group. And despite the electronic publishing world’s best efforts, science and sociology continues to show us that human beings still have an intrinsic attachment with tangible objects: books, paper, and pencils.



  4. Hi Dante,

    I’ve spent the last year or so, mostly playing rpgs with non-roleplayers. For the folks who have heard of D&D, few if any can even fathom what role-playing is actually like. At best, “I play roleplaying games” is responded by “Like Final Fantasy?”

    This post here?


    Was not written for the random lost person- it was written for several people I know ranging from their teens to their 40’s. For a hobby that’s been around 30 years, that’s terrible market branding.

    I mean, iconic monsters in D&D- the Beholder? The Mindflayer? No one who hasn’t played D&D knows what the heck that is. Elves, Dwarves, etc? They know that more from videogames and the LOTR movies than D&D.

    2. I think that the fundamental principles of the videogame reward system architecture is fatally flawed and does not belong in tabletop RPGs.

    Interesting idea given that many videogames reward are based on tabletop rpgs, at least in long term reward theory.

    Really, this assertion sounds more like a personal preference on play- not everyone wants some kind of reward every 30 minutes, but generally, television, videogames and movies have all keyed on to that aspect of human attention span, they also have wider base of research on that as well. Good GM advice generally talks about “pacing”, and that’s part of it too.

    3. I think that to say that tabletop roleplaying is a marginalized form of gaming is a false argument when you look at its resilience and endurance in the entire gaming industry.

    People also play wargames with cardboard chits. Or paint minis and do really old school games of the Napoleonic Wars, etc. It is “resilient”, it is also marginalized.

    Your whole disagreement fits the exact thing I’m talking about- it makes sense when you come from the sub-culture of people who frequent the FLGS (and even know what the heck that means). It makes no sense when you talk to the larger population of people who play games, and, even moreso, the people who don’t play games.

  5. Again, you raise some interesting points and counter points, and to clarify my position, there are aspects of D&D 4th Ed that I’ve seen that are good, and many that are lame and don’t contribute to the evolution of the form of roleplaying. I’m not a D&D fanboy but I am an avid proponent of home-brew style RPGs.

    Another point that I’d like to shed some light on is that I’m not from the “sub-culture of people who frequent the FLGS” as you say. That’s pigeon holing me into a perceived position of limited vision and experience. The Favorite Local Game Store is not my sole means and source of gaming or exposure to gaming.

    I have, in fact, been active in the larger gaming community for the better part of 28 years as a developer, editor, and wide range player of all games (historical miniatures, fantasy miniatures, tabletop RPGs, card games, board games, some of the most early incarnations of “online” games, etc. etc. etc.). I also head up a local community youth outreach program that works with the local library system to offer all sorts of games to youth in the community who are living with certain social, familial, economic, and academic challenges.

    Getting them off of the computers to get some real face-time with other living, breathing kids to play games has been a real challenge as well as a truly educational experience.

    I haven’t even scratched the surface yet on how to introduce Role Playing Games to this group because of my own disgruntled attitude toward aspects of D&D as it stands.

    You and I probably align more in our larger views of gaming than what would appear here despite my previous comments. I simply found that they didn’t hold too much weight from my perspective, which as we all know, every gamer has on every topic of gaming.

    Good post.

  6. Here’s something to consider: The Pokemon CCG brought in kids in droves, even in the face of arguably the most popular videogame franchise in the last 2 decades. Sure, it never “out-pokemon’d Pokemon”, but it certainly did a lot for bringing kids in crossover.

    Strong brand name, decent game.

    As a hobby, trying to do stuff that worked in the 80’s to is not going to fly anymore.

    The problem has more to do with the culture of gaming- expecting people to play for 6 hours, once a week, years on end is not going to work. That’s not kids being impatient or videogames at fault- it’s just bad design in terms of user-friendliness in terms of our hobby.

    You want to introduce roleplaying to kids? Take something they know and like- say Pirates of the Carribean, make a game they can play in an hour, and tell the stories they want to tell.

    Fun in an hour, easy to pick up, easy to understand. That’s what CCGs and videogames have, and that’s what RPGs need to pick up as well. (not all rpgs need to be an hour long, but you know, like Halo pointed out, if the game isn’t fun in the short run, you lose people before you an show them that it’s fun in the long run).

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