Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Down and Out In The Golden Age of RPGs (Part One)

Sorry for the lack of signal the last week, folks -- a combination of the dreaded head-full-of-goop winter cold and time spent on a promising job opportunity kept me away from the roleplaying blog-o-sphere for a bit. Back to our regularly-scheduled nerdery.

I spend way too much time reading Twitter. Seriously, I could sit there refreshing my Twitter app for literally hours, drinking in all the sweet, sweet information stimuli that livin' in the future has to offer. I'd like to think it makes you like Ozymandias sitting in front of his wall of televisions, plugged directly into the collective unconscious, but the truth is closer to a heroin addict with a giant needle strapped to his arm. You can get lost, fast.

The good news is that there is much to gain by plugging into the Twitterverse. For news junkies like myself, it's very exciting to see all the reporters' Twitter feeds humming along when there is a big event unfolding, or so that we catch little snatches of behind-the-scenes insider chatter. For an RPG fan, it means you can get pretty intimate access to some of the most important people in the industry, seeing what they're excited about, struggling with, or promoting. That's awesome both for consumers and for the industry, which tends toward small, independent companies producing niche products. And when the community is buzzing about something, like a new game, or a social issue, you know it.

Yesterday, an industry professional I follow was tweeting about how difficult it is to get people to try new rules systems, especially players. He wondered if this was something that the industry (and, by extension, GMs) can work to eliminate, or if it's just "the way it is".

In terms of trying new games, I know that me and my group are outliers at best. I own a large volume of roleplaying games of all sizes and shapes, many of which I won't even have a chance to run. I like games that do something new and different, even if it's a small thing. My group is probably much more cosmopolitan than most in terms of their tastes, although we do have favourites that we often come back to. FATE and PRIMETIME ADVENTURES are games that have become part of the language of gaming for us, and although we often get charged up to play the shiny new game on the block, we often return to familiar territory.

If my experiences at the local university's gaming club are any indication, most roleplaying groups are a lot more parochial. They know the "big" games like D&D and PATHFINDER, and a few others, and they seldom stray from those comfortable shores. I haven't been going to the gaming club this year, but while I did I often found that there were players that were interested in trying new games when I'd run them. For some, there was a real hunger for something different than their usual, whatever that might be. And some came to cons to simply play PATHFINDER with a different group of people.

Many of the GMs I knew through the club were interested in different games, although how far they were willing to stray from their usual gaming tastes varied. Some were adventurous and open to any new delight, like myself, or else had the disposable income to spend on game books purely for reading. Some looked at new games as intriguing curiosities, but either weren't interested enough to actually run them or weren't optimistic enough that they could get players on board. Some only wanted "new" games that repurposed familiar rules and genres in new ways.

Those gamers were young men and women, university students, but I think most of the things I noticed about them are generally true about older gamers too. People my age who are still gaming tend to have less time to play (I haven't done a session that was longer than 4 hours for probably ten years, and I haven't played in an all-night game since my undergraduate days) and less time to prep, on the GM side of the equation. A lot of them are prone to play familiar games in the time they've got available. If they're playing something new, it's got to be something that's easy to get into and play. My friend Mark, a longtime D&D player who drifted from the hobby for a while as his kids were growing up, found the PATHFINDER BEGINNER box set a perfect fit, as it held everything he needed to get a game going.

And gaming can be costly, in an age where many of us are underemployed if we're employed at all, saddled with student debt and no prospects. If you've invested a chunk of money in a game, you're likely going to play the heck out of that game and maybe not stray too far.

In short, there are is a portion of the gamer demographic that is interested in trying new and different things, whatever they are, a portion that is interested but not committed, and a depressingly large portion that want their games familiar. Those guys seem to have decided that to them, gaming pretty much means one thing. That thing might be bashing orcs and collecting treasure, or vampires, or shooting Stormtroopers in the face, but anything that doesn't play into that particular pleasure is a momentary distraction at best.

It's a problem that's been around since the days that I was first playing games. As we've observed on the podcast, a lot of GMs get their start because there's a cool game they want to play that no one will "cowboy up" and run, so they're forced to do it themselves. That was the way it was when I wanted to play VILLAINS & VIGILANTES, back in the day, and I suspect it's the same for kids today that don't care for high fantasy but dig the hell out of something like TRAVELLER.

GMs often tend to be the ones who bring new games and new play styles to groups, and GMs are not a bottomless well; they have a limit to the amount of time they can invest in learning new games and a limit to the emotional battles they're willing to fight to convince their players to try a new thing.

So is it just "the way things are", or is there something we can do to change things?

To be continued...

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