The Changing Face of Role-Playing Games
The historically marginalized world of role-playing games has dramatically grown in scope since the middle of the 2010’s. Today RPGs offer more variety and player access in the past handful of years. It’s also brought its own version of the “edition wars”, pitting those who have a long history with RPGs against a wide, new audience that has learned about the game from shows like Critical Role, Acquisitions Inc. and a host of twitch streams.
There are many reasons for this rapid expansion, but that’s not the topic of this post. I’m going to ask you to simply accept that the RPG world has grown tremendously in terms of public acknowledgment and that growth brought many more players and new perspectives on what kinds of games are being played and how they are being played.
When any game expands into non-traditional demographics and includes a lot of new or casual players, there tends to be a counter force against the newbies who have not known the struggles that old school players went through. These new players START with a well polished game and a lot of like minded nerds in an existing community. All they have to do is join in and start playing.
At some point, when the newer players don’t feel like “newbies” anymore, they start to share their own ideas about what the game means, and what they both want from it and bring to it.
At some point, when the newer players don’t feel like “newbies” anymore, they start to share their own ideas about what the game means, and what they both want from it and bring to it. This is often a point of friction as the new players start to change the direction of the game and the originators of the game want to maintain what they see as time tested success.
In other words the struggle for legitimacy is in its late stages, and I tend to think that a lot of folks who fought hard in the early eras of gaming can become frustrated by a perceived sense of entitlement that new players bring.
Those with DIY/Punk mindsets may claim they never wanted recognition or mainstream access, and that they were happier with the DIY aesthetic of the early and middle years. They enjoy the insider vibe of gaming and are happy for it to continue as an outsider movement. To me this seems self-limiting, but still creatively fertile, as long as the game remains a hobby and not a business. This approach encourages art, but frowns on creators excessively profiting from it (i.e. sellouts). This is especially true for the larger companies in the hobby. That’s what jobs are for, and games are not a job.
Mainstreaming is death. Old School mindsets tend to cast a suspicious eye on most of the “new school” games. These folks want to remain rooted in the hobby’s past, even if it means no growth. They may not be particularly interested in the growth of the core game since their needs are met with systems that have been around for a generation or more. First, second, and third edition is home to them and they don’t want a new house. This approach is also self-limiting in terms of both creativity AND growth. For many "old schoolers", growth means new faces that challenge the old ways of doing things and the old model for behavior at the table. There is also a desire for the game not to CHANGE too much and include radical, newer concepts.
Business-focused mindsets might claim that growth brings change. Embracing that change is part of achieving more audience and creating new forms that appeal to that audience. They use market research to understand their audience and to produce what is popular. Games that are not popular are abandoned or relegated to a lower status. These business-oriented folks create jobs that may pay a bit better for development, and they certainly listen carefully to their players. Unfortunately, that might come at the price of creativity, if what is popular is simply more of the same.
No matter how you look at it, when formerly niche hobbies are exposed to any extent, to a larger audience, that audience changes the game and the direction of the hobby.
No matter how you look at it, when formerly niche hobbies are exposed to any extent, to a larger audience, that audience changes the game and the direction of the hobby. Those of us who have been around a while have choices to make about how we will continue to participate and how we will welcome newcomers: we can either stay rooted firmly to the past, explore the new forms being created, or find a middle ground that balances both. While change may be hard for some, I believe bringing in new ideas will ultimately make the gaming community stronger in the end. What’s your take?