Monday, 23 February 2015

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

With so many things standing in the way of gamers trying out new game systems, new settings, and new modes of play, what can we do to change things?

The good news is that the industry is already coming to grips with the new realities of gaming in the 21st century, and has been doing its bit to make trying new things as accessible as possible. The big companies have offered a wide range of "starter" products (like the previously-mentioned PATHFINDER box set) to get people's attention, with everything you need to run a game packed right in there. Having readily-available materials that are attractive and accessible goes a long way toward getting people to try something new. If they don't have to invest more time than it takes to choose a pre-gen and add a suitably grandiose name, that's all to the good.

Gateway products like FATE ACCELERATED package a lot of goodness into the smallest, most clearly-written ruleset you could hope for. And having art that evokes pop culture icons like Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender can't hurt, either. Importantly, it's also dead cheap: $5 for a hard copy, and Pay-What-You-Want for the PDF. Even a group with modest funds could play the game for a long time without a lot of investment, and a GM with a few spare bucks could easily hand out copies to every player at his table for a fraction of what it would cost for even a D&D Player's Handbook.

The large majority of modern games have set aside a lot of the complexity of earlier RPGs, which I think is also a very good thing. If you don't have to invest a lot of hours in system mastery, that removes a substantial barrier to new players right out of the gate. The heavyweights (like GURPS and HERO) are still around for those who are inclined toward such things, and they're still well-supported, but new players needn't expect that picking up a new game (or joining the hobby, for total newbies) requires the work of something like ROLEMASTER. 

Even a comfortably rules-medium game like ATOMIC ROBO does a good job of making itself as friendly to new gamers as possible, with a beautiful presentation, tools for fast character generation, and rules that are clearly explained through panels of the comic book. 

Games like FIASCO have started to make a comfortable niche in the story-gaming side of things, probably because they are mechanically simple and aimed at the one-sitting experience. This is right in the sweet spot for a lot of modern gamers -- they can sit down, make a few choices, and play through a whole story. Everything you need but the dice comes with the book, and a large volume of content has been provided online for free or a small fee.

Events like Free RPG Day also do a good job of providing an accessible entry point into new games for curious GMs and players, with each package containing the basic rules, characters, and a small adventure for play. It's got to be an expensive event for publishers and stores, though, and that's not ideal, although perhaps the social event -- which usually involves several games being run for the curious in-store -- is the best part, bringing new gamers into the FLGS. Many publishers also provide this kind of "Quickstart" package as an entry point into their games. 

New-media financing methods like Kickstarter and Patreon are an excellent way for gamers to self-select themselves into trying new stuff, providing the opportunity for gamers to support a wider-than-ever range of game content. There have been some failures on this front, with gamers waiting a long time for products, but mostly it's been a boon for anyone that loves games outside what the biggest publishers are cranking out. 

So publishers and game retailers seem to actually be doing a good job of lowering barriers to bring new players into games, as a group -- why's it still so hard to get players at your table to try a game outside the mainstream like ARS MAGICA or RUNEQUEST or ECLIPSE PHASE?

Part of the problem is with the long-suffering GMs who often complain about this situation, worn down by ending one long dungeon crawl only to start another. GMs are ultimately the ones who have to "sell" a new game to their group, and clearly we've not done the best job of it over the years. Part of this is probably due to geek social fallacies -- not wanting to be thought of as the jerk who's shoving something down his friends' throats, or spoiling the fun of "D&D night" (or Traveller night, or whatever). Nobody wants to be the bad guy, the heavy, the monkey wrench in the fun machine. 

GMs need to be assertive to get players on board; they need to be cheerleaders who get people excited for that new gaming thrill, that new world, that new rule set. If you dig on Cortex Plus, you had better be able to explain to your Pathfinder die-hards what it offers that's new and nifty and worth their time. Sheepishly (or passive-aggressively) putting a copy of the new game you bought on Amazon on the table with the pizza is not going to cut it.

Secondly, in this era of unparalleled gaming opportunities, GMs need to be sharp enough to recognize when their own players aren't going to be on board with a game, and bold enough to seek out others who are. That doesn't mean you can't keep playing Pathfinder on Saturday nights with your high school buddies, and it doesn't mean you're not friends any more. It means you need to work at it if you want to try something badly enough. Try starting another game group on alternate weeks that tries games other than The Usual. Jump on board with an online game on Roll20, or start one yourself. 

Trying something new is almost always a good thing, and for gamers -- GMs and players alike -- it's an opportunity to broaden your experiences and pick up new skills. 

Try it. You might like it.

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