Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Children are our Future!

Trollsmyth, writing on Mishlergate and the fate of the rpg industry generally, makes some excellent points. Notably about the lack of youngsters in the hobby and an obvious reason why:
Since 2000, the "gateway" product has consisted of three 200+ page books costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 bucks. Even that might have been reasonable if the kids had been shown what benefits they would have received for their time and treasure. Was there even an attempt to overcome the fact that D&D was the game Dad played when he was in junior high? I never saw it. I never saw any outreach to these kids, any attempts to study their interests, or any attempts to adjust the game in ways that would appeal to them...
On the one hand I think the $60 thing is somewhat of a red herring. In the current currency market $60 is about 40 quid, and 40 quid is peanuts to my spoiled adolescent cousins. It's what they spend on games for their Wii every weekend. I think sometimes us adults forget how much life has changed for children in Britain or the US since we were young - I saved for literally months to afford the AD&D 2e DMG when I was 12, but kids these days (kids these days!) just don't seem to have that experience. To a point, money isn't an object.

Where Trollsmyth is bang on the money is outreach. What are the most popular fantasy fiction series for children around today? Harry Potter by a country mile, followed by probably those awful Twilight books, and I suppose you could throw in the Chronicles of Narnia too, thanks to the films. But where are the rpgs based on these franchises? I know that J. K. Rowling is touchy about fan fiction and fan produced products, but there is a metric shit ton of merchandising for Harry Potter - I sincerely doubt the lack of a Harry Potter RPG is down to an unwillingness on the part of the copyright holder. (There may even be a Harry Potter RPG for all I know, but if so it's had the worst marketing campaign in the history of marketing campaigns, which is the same point made a different way.) Where is the White Wolf-produced Vampire: The Masquerade-lite for all of the swooning adolescent girls who flocked in droves to the Twilight movie?

More to the point: Where is the High School Musical rpg? Complete with statistics for Having Totally Great Hair, Having Really Clean Teeth and Being Like So Totally Cute? Would that not sell?

I wouldn't touch such games with a barge pole, personally, but that isn't the point, and is precisely the kind of thinking which has hindered the passing on of rpgs to the younger generation. Fatbeards, catpissmen and types thinking: "Yuk, kids' stuff."

Trollsmyth thinks Green Ronin have a good idea with Witch Girl Adventures. It's certainly on the right track. I also find myself hoping that the Maid RPG and things like it can do well - anime and manga are after all depressingly and bewilderingly popular with the young folk these days. What's also needed, of course, is something for young boys to get interested in. I liked Fighting Fantasy and Basic D&D as a kid because they were about killing things with a sword and general-derring do. I don't know if similar products aimed at boys exist, these days.


  1. I think Chgowiz's Swords & Wizardry Quick Start is the closest thing to a kid-friendly entry product out there. It's only 26 pages, rules and adventure in one.
    It's obviously written with the first time gamer in mind, and at the level of a 10-12 year old. Plus it's an OSR game. He does us ascending AC though, so that might make switching to real D&D confusing later.

  2. Thanks for the feedback and link. Two points:

    1: It'd be $140 for those three books today, with a total page count closer to 800.

    2: So far as I know, Witch Girl Adventures is not associated with Green Ronin in any way. My apologies if implied that. Green Ronin is doing Dragon Age, which they plan to release as a box set before the release of the computer game, which means they'll be able to ride the rising tide of interest there. Being in a box also means it'll be easier for them to sell it in the same places where you buy computer games.

    Witch Girl Adventures is being sold as a 192 page mostly black-and-white book. I think it comes in two flavors: good and evil, but that's mostly which cover you get. I think.

  3. When I was growing up, as a member of the average kids, I sooooo did NOT have $60, let alone $140. And a lot of kids now still don't have that much. But the biggest problem I think is, no one knows what rpgs are anymore. Or at least, outside of the video game genre.

  4. Apparently, J.K. Rowling IS unwilling to allow a Harry Potter RPG license. The story goes that WotC/Hasbro approached her, but she balked at the idea of somebody else writing up an overview of the setting and characters. Supposedly.

  5. E. G. Palmer: I hope it does well, but I wonder if it's got the right aesthetic to appeal to kids...

    trollsmyth: $140? Wow, I didn't realise 4e was so expensive. Probably the page count is the bigger hurdle though - all those pages upon pages of powers and rituals add up, I suppose.

    Rae: Nobody knew what they were in 1974 either, but they became popular. I wonder what the difference is today? More stuff to do, probably.

    Blizack: Huh. I didn't know that, and it's very interesting. I know that JK is a bit weird about fan produced stuff, but I'm surprised she'd allow people to rewrite the novels for the film scripts but then turn around and say she didn't want an RPG company writing about the setting.

  6. Hopefully Cubicle 7's Doctor Who RPG *boxset* will go some way towards remedying this, at least in the UK.

  7. You know, that number can't be right, because the US $34.95, which is just over US $100 for all three, so now I'm wondering where I got the $140 number from. Maybe it was the special editions?

    If you order them from Amazon, they're only US $70 + shipping.

    Page count on my PHB is 317 pages, but I think the Monster Manual is noticeably thinner.

  8. Are you kidding? Are you huffing crack? Kids these days wouldn't touch any of that stuff with a bargepole. I tell you now, that Witch Girl Adventures, the number of teenage girls buying it is going to be 1/10,000 of the number of sweaty-palmed beardos. Make a game about shivving people for their mobiles, then we'll see.

  9. But the biggest problem I think is, no one knows what rpgs are anymore. Or at least, outside of the video game genre.

    Nobody knew what they were in 1974 either, but they became popular. I wonder what the difference is today?

    The key here is the second sentence if Rae's comment. When I was a teenager/young adult in the 90s, you had RPGs and CRPGs. Now that difference has been lost--you say RPGs to someone under 25 and they immediately think Final Fantasy or whatever. Not only do "the kids" not know about tabletop RPGs, the very term RPG means something completely different to them.

  10. I'd be surprised to see a High School Musical RPG sell well, mostly because I'd be surprised to discover significant overlap between kids who watch High School Musical and kids who read.

  11. @ Oddysey: you are mean, man!

    Of course, there already is an RPG for high school's called "Big Eyes Small Mouth" and I just picked up a used copy at the game store today for $4. It has less than 90 pages of text.

    For HSM fans, I'd consider running the Modern - Comedy campaign, where "daily challenges involve catching boyfriends or girlfriends, surviving school and finding part-time jobs. Lots of laughs with superficial characters." (that's P.74)
    : )

  12. I had a huge post, but I squeezed the vitals out of it.

    This is probably the most sensible post to come out of the whole storm of debate. Selling tabletop RPGs to high schoolers and middle schoolers (I don't know that younger kids are ever going to be a big market, but I could be wrong - they're pretty savvy) isn't some sort of mystical art. It works the same way as selling anything else to them. Whether startup costs ten or sixty or a hundred dollars is not totally insignificant, but it's much less important than "producing a product that people might want to buy" and "persuading them that they want to buy it."

    It's not a problem with only one source, but if I had to pick one reason that kids - and I know kids - aren't interested in tabletop games is that they don't know they should be. I know kids. Penetration of the term "D&D" among them is only moderately high, and most probably assume that it's something they'd have no interest in. (Some of them are right; tabletop gaming is never going to be like going to the movies; it's not a hobby for everyone. It's a waste of time to focus too heavily on the sorts of people that genuinely wouldn't really ever get into gaming - and at all points in its history, that's been the majority of kids.) Most probably don't know that other RPGs even exist, and most probably consider tabletop gaming to be fruity and lame. Its PR is just brutally awful; I can't think of a hobby with a more loserly reputation.

    The problem is not primarily that "kids these days" are too dumb or lack the attention span or imagination to play tabletop fantasy games. It's that the industry can't control its awful PR and - in my limited observation - doesn't show any signs whatsoever of trying to get teens to adopt. There's almost no product on the market that doesn't have several characteristics that make it pretty obvious why it's not seeing an explosion of adoption among young people. (And if it's something I've never even heard of, there's a good chance that one of those reasons is "nobody's even heard of that.")

    Final bonus point - If I were designing a game to appeal to teens, I'd make it rules light (so the game can be learned completely in a very short time, not because teens are too dumb for complicated games) and not package it as just a book. Include a board or some dice or -something- that makes it look like a game. It needs to realistically account for the fact that kids have the option of freeform roleplay online (increasingly popular) or individual creative writing if they want that sort of thing, and the option of videogames if they want that sort of thing.

  13. Robert Saint John: Yep, that's a good idea and I hope it'll catch on (even if I despise Dr. Who personally!).

    Trollsmyth: Not so bad I suppose. I mean, it is bad really when you consider that almost every other RPG only needs one rule book. But that's D&D for you.

    Anonymous: Come on now, don't believe everything you read in the Daily Mail. I agree that a lot of creepy sweaty-palmed weirdos are going to love that Witch Girl Adventures, but I also think pre-teen girls will like it too (remember, it's not aimed at teenage girls, rather the 7-11 bracket). That comment re: games about shivving people for their mobiles just seems like typical knee-jerk anti-youth sentiment that doesn't really reflect reality 95% of the time.

    Sirlarkins: Well said. In light of that marketing rpgs as "story games" like the indie kids do maybe isn't such a bad idea.

    Odyssey: You're a curmudgeon before your time, young lady!

    JB: I've not played BESM but that comment about "superficial characters" makes me think that it's a bit too self-aware for pre-teens. I could be wrong.

    Dave Joyd: There's nothing I can really add to that, except to say that I agree with all of it wholeheartedly.

    I absolutely reject categorically the idea that kids these days are somehow different to how you and I were when we were that age. People are people and kids are kids; they don't really change. What has changed is the attitude of the industry towards itself; it sees itself as being geared mostly for geeky adult males with a decent amount of disposable income. As you say, there's almost no attempt to make anything that a bookish 11 year old boy or girl would enjoy.

  14. Oh god, not this again.

    OK, first of all, good point about the money. In fact, a high price tag can be a turn on for kids since having expensive things increases one's status on the playground. I'm sure we can all remember laughing at the poorer kids for their el cheapo knock off toys. Unless you were the poor kid, in which case let me be the first to say, HA HA.

    (Actually, I have to say that the whole pricing thing is exceptionally dumb since there's so much free content available on the 'net anyway, any you know how kids these days love their free digital content. Bands like BrokeNCYDE and Millionaires - who are both amazing by the way - have scored record deals and places on various festivals like the Vans Warped Tour purely on the basis of a bunch of MySpace friends).

    Secondly, have you ever noticed that in ads for kids products on TV, the children playing with the stuff are a lot older than the real target audience? That's because advertisers have latched on to the fact that kids want to 'act' older than they are, the little monkeys. The OSR blogs are filled with stories about people moving up to AD&D from BD&D just because, you know, it was advanced. Kids don't like or want replacements for the real thing, and they also want to think they're more grown up than they are, so I'm not sure that producing 'kid friendly' material is really going to do anything for them. Unless you're targeting preschoolers or something.
    Besides, how many nerds spend all day bitching about how they don't have time for complicated rulesets anymore, but that they did when they were kids? Duh.

    Honestly, the problem isn't that there's no 'starter' RPGs, because fuck that shit (frankly the target audience for those should be existing players who don't want to shell out for the core book/s), it's that there's no related products which will whet the appetite of the future audience. I personally got into this whole dumb thing with HeroQuest and other stuff like that. You know, things that encourage, most of all, co-operative play with friends and will introduce them to other RPG elements like the GamesMaster and mercilessly slaughtering green things. The other great thing about HQ and it's ilk was the way it introduced these elements while remaining familiar (ie. the board game angle) in a way RPGs just aren't, so you don't need any 'master-apprentice' relationship to start playing. That would be the most important difference, I think.

    Have to split this in two parts since it is so massive. Continued...

  15. ... now.

    Now, some numbskull who doesn't even like computer games is probably going to bring up mumorpergers at this point, but just don't, 'kay? They aren't the same thing, not even close. The objectives may be similar (XP and loot) but the pay off is very, very different in that CRPGs and their offshoots are primarily visual (and extremely limited and railroaded*) while their progenitors are much more tactile, what with all the throwing dice and drawing maps, and sometimes moving miniatures around. HeroQuest has all that, while stuff on the computer just doesn't. What they do have, is the ability to watch your character's shoulder pads become ever more oversized - pretty much every CRPG these days, excepting jarpugs where you look thoroughly silly from the start, incorporates a dress up element. Unless you're a good artist, you're not going to be able to admire your guy when playing PnP in quite the same way.
    I will say that having miniatures to look at and paint may bridge the gap somewhat. In my experience, non-gamers (that is, both adults and kids) are fascinated by funny dice and little dollies that they can hold and look at, so really what you want to do is emphasise these elements while they're starting off. When I was a kid I used to carry around my HeroQuest miniatures and dice in a little bag just so I could show them off to people who bought up some tangentially related point. The poor fools.
    I still think funny dice are cool, and I read the last thing on Grognardia with some interest.

    One other thing that might be worth remembering is that most CRPGs incorporate complicated character advancement and creation (my favourite modern CRPG series, Gothic, is basically an extended exercise in chargen). If you OSR nerds reckon these guys are going to be down with your 'roll HP and that's it' philosophy you're going to be very disappointed indeed. They'd probably rather like 3.X onwards though.

    * Smart people will here bring up Morrowind and the other good games in Bethesda's little series, as well as every MMORPG ever, in which you can run around as aimlessly as in any PnP game. I'll concede your point but remember that these don't generate content dynamically, so they're still very limited. And primarily visual.

    PS. The way the Pundit savaged Mishler was just beautiful. What a patronising arsehole.

  16. My freshman roommate put up a poster of Zach Efron across the wall from my bed. I've *earned* curmudgeonly, dang it. ;)

    The big issue with RPGs and teenagers right now (besides the fact that the industry isn't paying any attention to them) is that they're still coded "boy stuff," but a lot of the things that boys traditionally get into RPGs for (killing stuff, fiddling with numbers, imaginary hot chicks) are done better by computer games. Girls are a much more natural target for post-CRPG tabletop games, but since RPGs are something that "boys do," the only girls who pick it up are the ones are sort of intentionally oblivious to gender roles. That's far from a majority, particularly in the prime RPG introduction age of 10-13.

  17. Lord Rocket: That was a right fine speech, sir. But frankly you lost me after you refered to BrokeNCYDE as "brilliant". ;P


  18. EDIT: "Amazing", not "brilliant".

  19. Lord Rocket: Good points. I think you're missing something on the "starter RPG" issue, though, which is this: I and my first gaming group of about a dozen people ALL started off with Basic D&D. That game worked. It's true that we aspired to play AD&D because it was 'advanced', but in order to have something 'advanced' you have to have something 'basic' to start off with, so you can gaze at the 'advanced' stuff with jealous eyes. If all there is is 'advanced' the term quickly loses its lustre.

    You're on the money with HeroQuest. We played that too, although I think the ultimate gateway drug for me (as a Brit) was the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. I read them obsessively. They still exist, having been bought by another company, but in their new iteration they have nothing like the market penetration the old ones did. The lack of these not-quite rpgs is a big problem in getting kids into the hobby.

  20. Noisms: Man, things have changed even since I was a little kid. My parents used to give me an allowance equal to my age (in dollars) once every other week.

    Huh, last I heard Rowling was pretty chill about fan-made stuff. I would totally play a WOD-ized Twilight, it would be just about the most asininely hilarious thing ever published. Okay, maybe not play it. But I'd keep it around as a novelty, much as I do Fatal.

    What do you mean depressingly? Why should a certain subclass of one medium or another's success depress?

    I'm not really sure there are any mainstream rpg-products aimed at kids. It's more about customizable card games these days, I think... Maybe Heroclix? Similar idea.

    Hang on, that may be the ticket! Why isn't there a D&D-style fantasy (as opposed to Magic's style) or a superhero CCG around? That might get some penetration.

    EG: Just about half of all "Real" D&D (OD&D using the chainmail system, 3.x, and 4e) use ascending AC. Furthermore I'm not convinced any old-school renaissance product is that well-suited to anyone but us bitter old fogeys and deskchair archaeologists.

    Oddysey: It could be excused somewhat by the fact that he's apparently considered to be quite handsome. Sure as hell not to my eye, though, even if I did like guys.

  21. Rach, the "real D&D" comment was just ment to be comradly ribbing, not an attack. I know my gentle sarcasm may look like actual hostility in black and white without the wink and nudge I'd give you in person. I just can't help myself sometimes. wink,wink, nudge,nudge....

  22. A few more thoughts -

    Something else worth noting is that people -are- doing things like Twilight (and Harry Potter, and even High School Musical!) RP games. They're just not funneling a cent into the pockets of tabletop publishers, because it's all online and predominantly freeform or extremely rules-light. Google "Twilight Roleplaying" or "Twilight RP". That's a lot of hits. A lot of them are probably false positives, (from "retail price" and "rating pending") but it's still a lot of hits. Most small publishers wish they had that many hits. In short, the kids are RPing, they're just not going into the creepy game shop to buy materials to do it. (I do not think this would necessarily translate into a successful tabletop Twilight RPG, but if people are willing to play in freeform Twilight RPs and are willing to purchase Twilight board games, the market may exist.)

  23. A question for all: How did *you* get into role-playing games? Is that now a viable method for getting new players? If not, why?

    I was introduced to D&D when I was 14 (in 1978) by a few older friends. I think one of them might have been a college freshman. We played on an oak table with chairs that was 300 years old. It was wonderful atmosphere. Fond memories.

    Of course, now I am a 3.5 grognard. :)

  24. Palmer: Oh, okay. We're cool, then.

    Tetsubo: I got into gaming at the age of 12. My junior high library had a copy of one of the Star Trek RPGs. I think it was FASA but it might have been Last Unicorn now that I look back on it. Around the same time I would have been reading a series of Fighting Fantasy-esque Star Wars gamebooks, too. This being when the LOTR movies were in full swing, I naturally sought out a fantasy game and found D&D.

  25. Licensing (i.e. a Harry Potter RPG) isn’t the way to do it. Firstly, those handcuffs aren’t worth the price. Secondly, I think history proved that RPGs didn’t need to license anything to get off the ground and be successful. Better to play on the same tropes—as D&D and Traveller and many others did—rather than bother with licensing Harry Potter.

    Price is not a problem. Kids and the people who buy things for them regularly spend more than I’ve ever seen any RPG product priced. (Ignoring a couple of ridiculous outliers.) Although, I do think that pricing as low as you can is a good idea.

    Too often, introductory RPG products have tried to be a gimmick. Tried use board-game elements or videos or other things in the name of being accessible. That seems so clearly the wrong way to go. You sell something by selling it.

    And, yeah, I see RPG marketing, but not when I’m doing things with my kids.

    And don’t tell me we have to turn the hobby into something different to compete with all the newfangled stuff. My kids see the value in traditional games and activities that haven’t needed to be updated to appeal to them. They’ll turn off the TV, PS2, Wii, computer, iPod, etc. all on their own for activities that have stood the test of time. The even beg me to do it with them.

  26. Robert: You've summed up all my thoughts quite succinctly.

    Better to play on the same tropes—as D&D and Traveller and many others did—rather than bother with licensing Harry Potter.

    Totally agree with this point especially. Particularly since Rowling's "creation" is essentially just a bunch of European folklore and mythology anyway.

    Too often, introductory RPG products have tried to be a gimmick. Tried use board-game elements or videos or other things in the name of being accessible. That seems so clearly the wrong way to go.

    Yes and yes and yes. I think as a pre-adolescent, I tended to get turned off by gimmicky packaging. As someone else mentioned, selling something that seems more "adult" and "sophisticated" is actually how you get kids buying.

    To address Tetsubo, I got into RPGs via Lone Wolf gamebooks and the Mentzer boxed set. That set was a perfect balance between being accessible to a youngster and yet still projecting sophistication.

  27. In focusing on kids roleplaying in existing settings, I didn't intend to imply that the best way to get kids into gaming is through licensed products. It's just something that's easier to get Google search numbers for. As detailed in my blog post about it, I feel that marketing (invisible to anyone not already into the hobby) and the hobby's awful PR (nerrrrrds) are the biggest roadblocks. Videogames and widespread online freeform roleplay -do- mean that tabletop games need to step up their game in terms of drawing people in, because they're competing for the leisure time of the same group of people. On the other hand, marketing may not be worth that much for acquisition; most gamers I know got into the hobby through friends, the best marketing, and Paizo, White Wolf and WotC, which probably have a bit of research backing them up (especially the latter, which probably has more marketing resources than the rest of the industry combined) seem to target most of their marketing at existing players. ("Don't split the party!" "Graduate your game") It's especially striking because WotC's other flagship product, Magic, which appeals to a similar demographic, is advertised all over the place.

  28. LOL This is exactly what I was telling the GPA not long ago and I've been preaching this at every panel and every Con.

    We're the Publishers of Witch Girls Adventures and I think our success is in getting new people into the game and going to where the new auidence goes and running demos.

  29. How did I get into role-playing games?

    The first I heard of D&D was when my mom showed me a magazine article about it saying she thought it was something I might be interested in.

    Next, I saw a 1e PHB a co-worker had loaned to my dad. (He was using it as inspiration for an Apple ][ game he was writing.) I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

    So, I picked up the Basic Set (Moldvay) at the mall. Then I bought the Expert rulebooklet. (I didn’t see a reason to buy the whole Expert box set.) My friends and I recruited my dad to DM a few sessions for us.

    The first regular group I joined, however, played (classic) Traveller.

    Is that a viable method now?

    No, because there’s nothing on the market today comparable to my first Basic and Expert Sets that is available in the mall.

    I think a comparable product would work. I don’t know that magazines and the mall are still the right factors. Whatever those factors might be, I don’t know how hard they’d be to achieve.

    I do think gamer parents (my dad didn’t play role-playing games, but he did play board wargames) is viable factor. I suspect getting articles about the hobby under the eyes of moms could be helpful as well.

  30. Getting to parents isn't a bad idea. I know mine really liked RPGs, once they figured out what they were. Reading, math, creativity, *and* it's a social activity? If you've got bright but shut-in video game playing kids, that's brilliant.

  31. Uh . . . I apparently forgot to mark that the last comment there was me.