Thursday, 29 August 2013

The D&D Brand

So there is rampant speculation and rumour-mongering at therpgsite regarding Pathfinder and the D&D brand. As is often the case, the consensus seems to be that D&D in particular and role playing games in general are doomed and will gradually die out as older players, well, die out.

There is something odd about this notion. We are living in an age of booming popularity for nerdiness. On the one hand there is a whole section of Western society who now define themselves as 'geeks' in a manner almost religious or ethnic in its tenor. (I am not one of those people, but I know that they exist.) And on the other, fantasy and SF is conquering the mainstream like it has never done before - whether it is Harry Potter, Twilight, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, or whatever. Fantasy and SF films dominate our cinema screens. Fantasy and SF games dominate consoles. The world is embracing what used to be the province of only the unwashed neckbeards.

So why on earth can't somebody make a play at bringing D&D into the mainstream in the same way?

One problem, as I see it, is simply that the powers that be are very out of touch with modern tastes. Pathfinder and D&D in its recent iterations have been stuck in a rather drab and bland place: fantasy may be more popular than ever, but elves, orcs and the tropes of high fantasy are simply not part of the zeitgeist. People want their fantasy rooted in the real world (Harry Potter, Twilight), they want it grim and bloody (Game of Thrones), and some of them want it to do something genuinely different (China Mieville, Paolo Bacigalupi, and so forth). They don't want Dragonlance, they don't want Forgotten Realms, and I'd suggest the lukewarm reaction to the first Hobbit film suggests they don't really want The Lord of the Rings anymore either. D&D can get on the bandwagon to success, I would suggest, but if it wants to do that it needs to recognise that times have changed, and what a 40 year old nerd likes won't cut it with a 15 year old.

I don't particularly have an interest in the hobby being massively successful except in the sense that it would be nice to imagine a world in which playing RPGs is relatively normal, for many reasons. But seriously: the idea that our pastime is doomed just seems crazy to anybody who is keeping up with current cultural developments.

32 comments:

  1. Yeah, and if you add superheroes to that list, the entertainment domination is pretty impressive.

    I think you're wrong about "vanilla" fantasy though. Just as an unscientific observer, The Lord of the Rings seems just as popular as ever, and, other than sci-fi and JRPGs, still seems to dominate. Look at the popularity of games like Dragon Age and Skyrim (though it might also be that the big players just make their own markets now, with genre tropes being less important than brand).

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    1. I'm a bit out of touch with video games, I will admit. But The Lord of the Rings is sort of the exception that proves the rule, in my view. Before, say, Harry Potter, it was just about the only fantasy series that you could guarantee essentially everybody in the English speaking world had heard of. Something with that level of awareness can't fail to be a monster when it gets turned into a series of films.

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  2. You're treating this as "genre" problem, rather than looking at the mechanics and social dynamics of the activity. To mount a counterargument for the survival of traditional tabletop RPGs, you need to look not for "other categories of fantasy", or even "other examples of geekiness", but other examples of non-media social activities that involve imaginative play.

    And I can't think of any others that come immediately to mind. In some respects, the emergence of a mass-market "geek industry" has altered the dynamics of the culture that created RPGs, making them unnecessary. There's no longer a need for individual decentralized content creators, now that everyone regards themselves as consumers of a product that has the backing of a lucrative media establishment. In the same way that people get their groceries from Wal-Mart, not from a local farmer, they now get their fantasy from Hollywood, not from the local DM. Tabletop RPG players are falling into the same niche as hobby farmers, championing a quaint boutique product against a tide of cheaper, better-advertised, mass-produced competitors. Tinkering with the cosmetic aspects of the genre (grittier violence! no elves!) isn't going to change the sociological forces at work here.

    And yeah, I think that the wild success of video games and computer MMORPGs set in fairly traditional fantasy worlds (over competitors that have tried to be more creative) cuts against the idea that orcs and magic swords can't compete for consumers against cyberpunk and sparkly vampires. I'd like to see a few more data points leading downward from the first Hobbit movie's $1 billion international box office before I start extrapolating decay curves.

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    1. Name a successful high fantasy film or TV series that isn't based on an extremely famous and long-running brand and let's see. ;)

      I see your point regarding "individual decentralized content creators" and raise you www.fanfiction.net.

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    2. @Edward

      ...except that the analogy breaks down because tabletop RPGs are actually cheaper than the mass entertainment alternatives. Sure, you can spend a ton of money on a shelf full of Pathfinder books (or whatever), but you really only need 1 to 3 products from (system of choice) to play tabletop RPGs forever.

      I think the social dynamics thing is an interesting point, but is more important for adults with other time commitments than for middle school, high school, and university kids who are going to be doing things together no matter what those things are.

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    3. A problem with university kids, at least in Britain, is that with each passing year the expectation is increasingly that the purpose of going to university is to get pissed and shag for 3 years. Which I did while I was at university too, but I managed to fit in some other activities at the same time.

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    4. American Higher Education is definitely focused on the 'non-academic experience', but if anything I think in the UK the £9,000/year fees are creating a more focused sort of mindset in students. But my students are law students so most of them have always been a bit different from Arts & Humanities types. :) Plus half of them are Muslim, which means the female ones can't GP&S, and the male Muslim ones can only GP&S the non-Muslim female ones, cutting down on that sort of thing a fair bit...

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  3. I see a decline in RPGs as less due to content or even reputation and more to do with time and pacing.
    Getting a group to sit down for a focused creative activity for several hours (our group averages about 5 hrs a session) seems unusual these days. There's just too much good quality competition for that time. Much of it, as pointed out, well suited to the same tastes that might otherwise enjoy fantasy/scifi RPGs.
    True, most of that competition is passive entertainment... you eat what's on your plate. But between movies, TV and video games you can pretty much keep switching channels till you find something you like.
    I've wrangled a handful of kids into playing RPGs and they enjoyed it a lot... but they're just as likely to choose Minecraft or WoW or some superhero video... or even reading a book... when given the choice.

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    1. I dunno, I've seen that argument before but I play five a side football every Friday and we always manage to get 10 players for 2 hours.

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    2. Well, I don't mean just the time that the 'I'm so busy!' crowd claims to have none of... it's the time that's easily filled with other closely targeted entertainments, many piped directly into your comfy home.
      More the competition from other sources of fantasy/scifi/horror that didn't used to be available.

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    3. Games don't have to be 5 hours, a weekday evening game of 2.5-3 hours suits a lot of people much better. I run my main campaign fortnightly in a pub on Tuesday evenings and that frequency works great. The main thing is to run it regularly, don't try to schedule around people's other activities, and run it a bit less frequently than you'd really like to - leave everyone wanting more. So, fortnightly even if you could run weekly most weeks; weekly even if you could run twice a week, etc.

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  4. The problem with The Hobbit film is that, well, it was rubbish. I liked the LotR films, even tolerating the baggy ending of The Return of the King. But the Hobbit? I left the cinema feeling cheated - more of my time than money.

    But that is beside the point. Tabletop RPGs will survive. There are several younger generations of tabletop gamers than the one I belong to, I am must belong to the last cohort of people who could have enjoyed tabletop/imaginative gaming as a mainstream hobby (Fighting Fantasy, D&D Red Box etc.). But they'll always be in second place to CRPGs as far as fantasy gaming goes.

    Another side point: Gygax famously wrote, 'why have us do any more of your imagining for you?' - of course, he then realised that his living involved at the very least supplementing the imagination of D&D players and DMs. This is often used as an exhortation against relying on published settings and adventures. But even a tabletop game built entirely from published adventures in an 'official' setting, sticking devoutly to 'canon', involves far more imagination and creativity (and effort) than playing a CRPG.

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    1. "I am must belong" = "and I must belong"

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    2. I suppose I am even more positive than you in that I think there is a massive untapped market of nerdy kids who would really get into it. Warhammer is still massive. Fan fiction is massive. Free form role playing on forums where everybody pretends to be at Hogwarts is massive. The dots just need to be joined up.

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    3. The way I see it, everything I don't like about contemporary fantasy gaming is a good thing. No really. The fact that I can go into my local game shop (and that there is one!) and find myself alienated from other gamers by the emphasis on Pathfinder, new school story games, and M:tG, means that gaming has moved on and is thriving. There seem to be more professional quality fantasy miniature manufacturers than ever - even if they're rarely to my taste - and that I go into Games Workshop and go, 'Ugh! Kids!' is a great thing. Gaming isn't just thriving, it has already moved on and left me behind before I'm even in middle age!

      And that's before we get to the boardgame resurgence.

      All those forms of play involve real human interaction and imaginative play - one of the reasons I have left CRPGs, and even MMORPGs off that list, in which the imagination is largely handled by 'dead' GMs, and human interaction, if present, is of questionable quality. Also, CRPGs and MMORPGs allow players to be 'closet' gamers - no one need know your dirty secret! For the others, well, you'll actually have to confess your geekiness in order to get a game, and real people, meeting in real life, is the basis for communities with some kind of continuity.

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    4. I likewise agree that TTRPGs aren't going anywhere, even after the current faddishness for geek culture passes. And it's great that they continue to grow and change, even if it's to the consternation of old hands like ourselves. I do wonder if it's moving back towards being more of an "adult" hobby--I know plenty of 20- and 30-somethings who game, but I have no idea how vibrant the teen gaming scene is.

      All that being said, however...

      "But even a tabletop game built entirely from published adventures in an 'official' setting, sticking devoutly to 'canon', involves far more imagination and creativity (and effort) than playing a CRPG."

      This touches on why I think they'll never rise to the same level of popularity as the other genre media you cite. Because, ultimately, TTRPGs are easily the most subjective form of mass entertainment I can think of. The fact that 10 groups can take the same module and run it completely differently, and that each of the groups have an equal amount of creative input into the end result, separates the form from movies, books, comics, even MMOs and CRPGs.

      I mean to say, if I read a comic and give it to you with my hearty recommendation and you hate it, we can still both be assured that we each read the same comic--its art, dialogue, page layout, etc., didn't change between the time I read it and the time you did. If you and I play an MMO or a sandbox CRPG like Skyrim, there's a certain baseline of experience based on the programmer's vision. Even with music, which individual musicians can play however they like, there are recorded versions of pieces that are held up as gold standards. There's no gold standard of a game experience to point to. And even if there was, individual personal dynamics and (particularly) the skill of the GM would guarantee a completely subjective experience of TTRPGs between any two given people.

      I first started thinking about this after the third or so time in which I talked to a friend who seemed like they'd be interested in gaming only to hear, "No, I tried D&D back in high school/college and it was terrible! I sat around for three hours while the rest of the group shopped/argued/killed a dragon without me."

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    5. But there's no gold standard of a game experience for bridge, or chess. Or, probably more pertinently, Monopoly or Risk.

      To be honest I think that gets downplayed too much by the people who write games, by the way. I can't figure out why the main selling point of D&D is not the fact that there is no constraint on what you can do.

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    6. There are certainly gold standards for bridge and chess. I don't play myself, but my father does excessively. While there is a social level, there is also the club level, where you only play those who have met certain criteria. The gold standard is recorded in an absurd number of books which lay out famous games. The same goes for chess, where a particular game is enshrined as the Kings Indian Attack or the Queen's sacrifice.

      To use the music metaphor. There is the experience of live music and the experience of recorded music. Many people who prefer recorded music never can understand live music, they want a live concert to reproduce the album note for note. The rest want an experience of that night. Trying to really grasp good punk music, a jam band, or hot jazz simply isn't possible through recorded media. To the real fans of such genres, a recording is merely a memento, a reminder of an experience. To them music is about the interaction of audience and performers on that night.

      It's watching a live play, rather than a movie. It's interacting with human brains, rather than the computer's AI. It's tasting what was cheap at the market today, rather the precise formula developed by a master chef. It's welcoming chaos and tolerating the bad for the moments of the divine. This is the moment where you insert a sports metaphor of your own choosing, as the enjoyment of a sporting event is the same experience.

      Yet such interaction doesn't have many followers in most set art forms. The chaos of the now is an acquired taste, most people prefer a consistent product. They want the consistency of the chain restaurant. They want to watch a perfect performance by good actors, with a script by a master, managed by a director and an editor, rather than a live play by unknowns, who quite probably will be awful. They even prefer it if their sports teams consistently wins or consistently loses, which is why the Yankee fans are the Yankee fans and the Red Sox fans are disorientated now that they've been winners (I have no idea how to translate this, most likely something involving Arsenal, if Nick Hornby is to be believed.)

      I'm not sure that the computer will ever produce a truly interactive, creative game. They've certainly got better at it, when you compare GTA to Dragon's Lair or Zork, you can certainly chart the improvement (and cost.)

      I think the closest parallel is the attempt to create a new form of story-telling with hyperlink novels. For all that these get heralded as a new art form every few years, they still remain only marginally better than the old "choose your own adventure books."

      Which doesn't stop people from trying to automate D&D. Every time someone comes up with a new table, they're making crude attempts to automate the system. to simulate creativity or to stockpile it.

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    7. I replied to this but blogger ate the comment. I hope it got through to you in email subscription - I don't have the energy to write it again.

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  5. The fantasy "industry" is so broad, diverse and fluid that I think it's difficult to say what people "really" want or are "really" interested in. If you look at seminal offerings like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter or even original D&D itself, it is in my opinion almost impossible to say whether they succeeded because they met an untapped cultural "need" or whether they themselves changed the culture-either because the product itself was cool or because it was merely cool enough to force people to realize just how cool the new genre or whatever really was-"wow, teenage wizards, I never thought of that before!". Or maybe people were just bored and wanted a change.

    How related are the different components of the industry? Very clearly, some thing or idea can be popular and successful in one but not another. One of the more obvious examples is the pretty notable failure of fantasy movies during the height of the D&D boom in the 1980's. (Maybe it was because they simply all sucked. Indeed, one could even argue that it was BECAUSE of the boom that they all sucked. When you think you can't fail, perhaps you're not as creative.)

    And then of course there's the simple inertia (sometimes) of the market. In my view, for example, 4th edition D&D is a horrible game, looked at objectively. It wouldn't have a chance "on its own". But it's the brand name fantasy game on the shelf that other people are playing, so you choose it. (Not everybody has the time or resources to do anything more.) That sort of thing can last a very long time.

    -Sceptic

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    1. Well yes, that's an interesting point, and I suppose the counter-argument to my post: D&D shouldn't just follow the prevailing wind but should stay true to itself and remain faithful to its core values...and who knows? Those core values might hit the zeitgeist against some day.

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    2. "D&D shouldn't just follow the prevailing wind but should stay true to itself and remain faithful to its core values"

      I enjoy rugby. But every few years someone proposes a change to the rules in order to make rugby more appealing... to people who don't like rugby, over the objections of people who do actually like the sport.

      It is about markets and profit, of course. I get that. But rugby (and many other things) are more than mere product to be consumed.

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  7. I grew up playing role-playing games. I play story games on a roughly weekly basis. You couldn't pay me enough to play Pathfinder or any version of Dungeons and Dragons at this point, even though I spent every weekend ages 12 to 20 playing it. Gaming has moved on (and gotten better). Why this fetishization of 1980s gaming?

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    1. I'm not sure if you're accusing me of fetishizing it?

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    2. I'm not accusing you, personally, of anything but I'm not sure what makes Pathfinder, D&D, or similar even vaguely relevant to role-playing anymore, 30+ years later.

      I don't feel a need to do Tolkien fantasy (with levels and XP!) as interpreted by Arneson and Gygax. The future success of gaming shouldn't be hooked to that tired old cart.

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    3. The vast majority of TTRPGing is D&D and Pathfinder, which is D&D with a different TM. Other games are even more a minority thing now than they were 30 years ago.

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  8. TTRPGs are strong and will stay strong. D&D as a brand will be around for a long time, and years after it fades it will be rediscovered by a future generation and revived. I don't know if my son will get into it or regard Pathfinder/D&D as "that thing dad does" but the important thing is that the social vernacular of gaming will be something he and I can share across multiple platforms and media...he will be playing his own fantasy games in some capacity, even if they are not the same sort of fantasy games dad plays.

    As for the source on this topic...I wouldn't put much stock into what gets discussed at therpgsite, given it's a very small crowd that ends up there specifically because they are usually driven out of other sites that dislike abusive forum behavior.

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    1. I set absolutely no stock whatsoever in what is discussed at therpgsite, but it is often an interesting springboard.

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  9. Good point. If "Wizards" should be doing anything with the DnD brand, it should be making Harry Potter, Twilight... versions of DnD--not trying to rehash a ruleset that already has been rehashed and tweaked about 1000 times...

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  10. The difference between D&D's fantasy and popular culture's fantasy is a bit of a hobby horse of mine.

    These blog posts might be of interest to some people.

    If D&D was based on contemporary ideas of fantasy

    DriveThru RPG stock art

    RPG covers look wrong

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  11. "Pathfinder and D&D in its recent iterations have been stuck in a rather drab and bland place: fantasy may be more popular than ever, but elves, orcs and the tropes of high fantasy are simply not part of the zeitgeist."

    I don't really agree with that; I see a lot of demand at the London D&D Meetup - lots of people want to play RPGs, the problem is accessibility. Also, while a lot of (eg) Game of Thrones tropes do creep into games, certainly my own, IME most players don't want an excess of Grimdark in their gaming. The most popular & accessible style IME is actually more the PCs as heroes saving the nice place with nice people from the nasty people, by going to the nasty place and killing things; "Palaces & Princesses" - other styles tend to be more minority tastes. Forgotten Realms supports this style well and it's one reason FR is so popular.

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