Tabletop RPGing is basically dead

It all started because yet another one of those “let’s use the Internet to make it easier to play tabletop roleplaying games” ventures failed…

But will yet another online gaming service with an Everquest-like monthly fee really be able to bring sweeping change to the world of online gaming the way the free WebRPG could have? Only time will tell, but I’m almost certain that its answer will be no.
by gamerchick | Fri Oct 26 00:25:01 2001 EST

Well, I’m pretty sure that yet another “let’s play tabletop over a chat system” idea wasn’t going to either. It’s not like this hasn’t been tried umpteen gazillion times already. We have the technology. We can (re) build it. And if you build it, they will come–the same small group of tabletop RPGers who have been willing to give it a whack all along.

Is it just me, or is tabletop RPGing basically dead? A corpse shambling along without any significant audience growth in a decade, low revenues (does an AD&D CRPG make more than the AD&D books do? I have no idea, but it wouldn’t surprise me), and a terminally geeky image, and what’s worse carried in part by another industry that is also teetering on bankruptcy, the comic shop.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great fondness for tabletop RPGing. I grew up on them. I love playing them. But I don’t see “sweeping change to the world of online gaming” arising from them. Not from chat software, and in my cynical moments, not from Neverwinter Nights either (much as I look forward to that game, and much as I respect and like the guys making it).

Am I just too cynical at a young age?

I guess I should chime back in finally, since I seem to have started two separate firestorms on the list (this one and the “human condition” one). For some reason my ISP is not delivering mails, so I have had to keep up via the archives.

My impression of the commercial reach of tabletop RPGing is that it has not enjoyed significant growth over the last decade. Part of this may be my impressions of management issues at TSR and its subsequent absorption, part of it certainly is figures I have heard from folks formerly in the industry, who told me rough ballpark sales figures for typical D&D materials.

This says nothing about 26,000 people attending GenCon. That’s certainly more than attend a typical online gaming convention (attendance at which is in the low thousands, albeit for single-game conventions). There may well be 5 million tabletop gamers out there. But my sense is that there were 5 million ten years ago, too.

The audience for muds has increased by a factor of 10 or so in the last decade, which much of that growth coming in the last five years. There is every expectation that unless the team I am on or Will’s team over at Maxis screw up severely, that it will double over the course of the next year or so. Yes, we’re at a critical juncture here–I don’t know how much DAoC has expanded the market, but I’d say it’s been incremental in nature, not severely market-expanding–in that there have been a few setbacks. A couple of high profile commercial games did very poorly. Microsoft’s first major entry did not do as well as hoped. Studios have been slow to put out more games, perhaps gunshy of the investment. There are signs of hope–looks to me like there’s 25% more muds than there were five years ago. But I am out of touch with that scene and may be wrong.

In terms of cultural impact–I was just watching an anime from Japan and a character asked another, “are you a PK?” It freaked me out, ask my wife. The Matrix is a mud, for crissake, not a tabletop RPG. Tabletop RPGs haven’t been a driving cultural touchstone, as Matt stated, for many years. We’re currently such a touchstone.

Now, I was fairly harsh–and to a genre I love. I grew up playing tabletop games. I don’t have time to play them anymore, but I still love them. I still enjoy flipping through the books and they still inspire me.

But they are, and I will say it bluntly, CRAPPY MODELS FOR MUDS. I simply fail to understand why everyone regards the pen and paper model as the savior of mudding. And I have to conclude that it’s people who want to do more tabletop RPGing than they get to.

To quote something I recently wrote on another list:

I’ve come to think that the blind effort to replicate the pen and paper game in MMOs is seriously misguided. Frankly, they are not trying to do the same thing. An MMO is for thousands of simultaneous players of widely disparate interests and abilities; a pen and paper session is for six of the same level and the same goals. An MMO is non-linear, and a pen and paper game is (in the best ones anyway) a strongly directed narrative experience. A pen and paper game relies on improvisation, and an MMO relies on other players. A pen and paper game is cliquish and an MMO is the hoi polloi. How many of the problems we identify with MMOs today come about because they are trying to be someone’s rose-colored memory of an AD&D session in junior high?

Again, perhaps needlessly confrontational. I should make clear that a) Neverwinter Nights is perhaps my most anticipated game of the next year b) I love the concept of player-driven content and authorship c) I still love pen and paper.

But it’s also been done. There have been MANY, MANY attempts to replicate the pen and paper experience online. They have been done in chat rooms, they have been done on web boards, they have been done on mailing lists and via email, they have been done in IRC and on muds, and they have been marketed as commercial products at least twice–and one of them even with a major license. Anyone remember the Storyteller mode in the computer version of Vampire: The Masquerade? Or heck, let’s not forget Baldur’s Gate multiplayer, since we’re on the subject of D&D.

Yes, I can relate to the desires of those who keep tilting at this particular windmill. I cheer them on. I want one of these games myself, one that works and is smooth and easy and fun and finds me the people I want to play with. Absolutely, heck yeah.

But they will not bring sweeping change to the online gaming world. I could boil it down to the simple reason that pen and paper gaming is fundamentally a cliquish activity, but that would probably offend people some more. So let me just state that

  • no form of online activity that discourages novices thoroughly will bring sweeping change
  • no form of activity that requires heavy manual intervention will bring sweeping change
  • no form of activity which requires multi-hour sessions in order to feel successful will bring sweeping change

The reason we know this? Because muds already fail on these three counts. They just happen to fail less egregiously than pen and paper does.

My crystal ball says that NWN will sell a lot of copies–a million or more. There will be hundreds of servers up and running. The product will be excellent. There will be a devoted fan community.

But it won’t replace online worlds. And of those fans, the most devoted of them will be running muds with it, not single adventures.

You know the single biggest reason I havce heard for wanting to play NWN? It’s not “wow, I’ll have a better roleplaying experience” or “wow, I can create my own content.” No, it’s “cool, it’s a mud where I can keep out the jerks.”

-Raph, who will gladly eat his words next year, because honest, he likes pen and paper tabletop RPGing.


But Raph’s main point was that pen and paper games are not good models for MUDs. I tried to show that my experience in PnP RPGs, was significantly different (and was based on a successful and sustainable campaign design), while a lot of his assumptions are based on just one way or one style of playing PnP RPGs. That style of groups of players is in my opinion is a more basic model of playing RPGs, and therefore judgement in general should not be based on that particular style of play.
-Paul Schwanz

Well, I admit that I am not up on the PnP scene anymore. In other posts you described the way in which your campaign has evolved, and describe it as a “mature” campaign. I guess my questions would all center around that:

  • how many campaigns are “mature” in your terminology?
  • is the type of campaign you describe the norm these days?
  • is the type of campaign you describe what PnP games are designed to be?

My impression is that the answers are “few,” “not really,” and “no.”

Back when I actively played PnP games and GMed them, our campaign evolved into something that was more akin to live collaborative storytelling. We eventually abandoned the rulebooks–and there were three of us who GMed in this setting at various times–and we did lots of sprawling political storylines among our various characters who had all become prominent, etc. A lot of sessions where we never rolled dice at all, looked at stats, or in fact paid the slightest attention to numbers. Etc.

But I don’t think this is the norm, nor did I find it so when I ventured outside our small group of players. And my impression that it is not the norm has held to this day.

I am not saying that there are not individual campaigns out there, or individual games out there, that are not good role models for muds. I am saying that in general, the game designs that exist are not.

I see PnP games as being particularly unrealistic as models for how NPCs should work in MMOs, simply because it’s unreasonable to assume we can mimic everything a live game master does. πŸ˜› And in fact, the expectation that every NPC can be that interesting is one of the more pernicious assumptions players carry into an MMO. We can’t even make them as interesting as the ones in Diablo II without ridiculous investments of time and effort simply because we have to make orders of magnitude more of them.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to see the potential of PnP NPCs as a goal. But all too often, what is appropriated is the design and then we get suggestions like “why not have live GMs running all the NPCs in your game?”

I am approaching things as a designer here. And what I am saying is that systemically PnP games are poor models for muds of many stripes (not just MMOs, either. For example, the level issue is arguably more pernicious in a small environment than a large one). The reason is that I believe that the goals of PnP games are fundamentally different in several key ways from the goals of a mud. And I’d point at the same issues I brought up in the beginning as examples.

  • I stand by the assertion that PnP games are fundamentally narrative, and muds are fundamentally not. This is not to say that you cannot have narrative in a mud, or that campaigns cannot be non-linear. 
  • I stand by the assertion that PnP games are fundamentally designed for small groups of simultaneous players, and muds are not. 
  • I stand by the assertion that PnP games are fundamentally designed for players of comparable character standing, and muds are not.

Can I conceive of a PnP design which is not like the above? Sure, but it’d be a lot like a LARP instead. πŸ˜›

I think a lot would be lost [if pen and paper roleplaying games die]. Mr. Dancey’s numbers are encouraging. But I still see PnP games as fundamentally marginal in the culture at this point. Muds are too; I have hopes they won’t be forever, but it’s a risk we run, and a risk exacerbated by tying our fortunes too tightly to mistaken design priorities.

…Based on the debate on this list, I’d argue that the [innovative] campaigns you describe are not offering said value [to developers] since few people here seem to have gotten to see or participate in one. πŸ™‚

I really like pen and pager RPGs. Have I mentioned that? The Mr Dancey mentioned is Ryan Dancey. My original post was crossposted to RPGNet, and promptly flamed all to hell by the diehard roleplaying crowd there. Mr Dancey, who works at Wizards of the Coast, offered up figures to dispute my position, which was admittedly sensationalistic anyway. πŸ™‚
The anime mentioned was Serial Experiments: Lain. Highly recommended.