Roleplayers around a table.

Other Nerd Hobbies Have Exploded, Why Not RPGs?

I recently read an article by the Angry DM criticizing the roleplaying game companies (and specifically Wizards of the Coast, publishers of D&D) for not being good at selling games.  Specifically how the RPG community has grown steadily, although there have been huge explosions in other nerd hobbies.  We live in the most nerd-friendly time in recent history, and yet the tabletop roleplaying community remains almost as small as ever.  Even with episodes dedicated to them in popular shows (Community, Futuruma, The IT Crowd, Freaks and Geeks, The Big Bang Theory), RPGs haven’t acquiring the mobs of nerds that video games and YA fantasy books have, for example.

The Angry DM mentions how the actual sales model for RPGs is called the ‘older cousin’ model. In this model there is an experienced roleplayer who finds others (younger cousins, class mates, colleagues, etc) to pain-stakingly initiate them into the world of tabletop roleplaying. Regardless of how hard it is to create characters or plan stories, they take it upon themselves to 1) find new roleplayers, 2) train them despite obtuse/dense RPG products 3) Put in the effort to create a game world and story so that newcomers (or even existing players) can play the game at all. The limitation of this model is obvious: it’s slow.  No matter how much good press and potential interest RPGs have from the larger nerd market, initiation of new players is limited by the number of GMs from the older, smaller generation of nerds.

The inaccessibility of RPGs bothers me on two levels. One, a much broader group of people could be benefiting from the creativity and friendships you develop from RPGs. Two, because this slow initiation into the hobby is driven by friendship, there’s also a tendancy towards homogeneity. People of similar tastes and experiences tend to form friendships, so when a DM is teaching a friend to play, that friend is very likely to be similar to the DM.  This means the RPG community is missing out on a diversity of stories, characters, and game play styles that would come from from a community with a greater diversity in player backgrounds.

The question is: how do we make it easier for nerds and would-be roleplayers to dive into the game? Especially, how would we help first-time roleplayers run a game with their friends.  Just creating your first character can take hours, coming up with a game world and figuring out how to deal with multiple player characters is an enormous task.

One solution mentioned by the Angry DM is user-friendly starter packs: some premade characters, a short story with scene-by-scene instructions for the new GM on how to run a game.  Varza Games plans to do this with Legendary RPG.  However, instead of using books and pamphlets,  we’re designing our starter pack with apps that can do calculations and provide information without first page flipping, making character creation and story telling even easier and faster.

Another solution is to market products in such a way that we attract a larger (and hopefully more diverse) crowd into the game.  This last point, I think, looks like a bit of a vicious circle. It’s a small hobby, so it doesn’t generate much revenue, and budgets are small.  Marketing to broad audiences is expensive and difficult, most RPG money likely goes to keeping RPGs publishing afloat, and whatever marketing budget exists targets veteran players because they are the most likely audience to buy. The industry needs more publishers willing to invest in growing the market rather than selling to the tried-and-true audience. It’s a risk, but one that will change the RPG community for ever (and be lucrative) if successful. There are glimmers of the industry moving towards embracing new players, such as how-to-play videos, but I have yet to see a company investing heavily in reaching out to non-RPGers.

Until then, the burden of expanding the RPG community falls to the fans, invite new players to the game—or even better, training new game masters.