Role-playing games are a complicated medium. The act of reading a game is not the same as the act of playing it, which is not the same as the act of running it. This was not in fact acknowledged in the first role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons; almost nobody understood how to play after reading, and the designers were pretty much just hoping that wargamers would buy their standalone rules rather than doing anything in particular to make it so. As such, for decades, enthusiastic role-players have grabbed their books, put their heads together, and puzzled it out.
The market of enthusiastic role-players is saturated. More and more games are coming out and fewer and fewer of them are gaining the sort of traction which actually pays their designers. The centerpiece to this is the explosion of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, which grew significantly faster and larger than any previous edition despite not being designed any better than any of them. So why is that? And how do other games do better?
Successful RPGs, from D&D itself to Powered by the Apocalypse to recent Kickstarter star Mothership, are successful at marketing to people who want to play them. This sounds so obvious as to be tautological, but trust me it is not. There are three ways RPGs are built and marketed, and one simply works better than the others. First, RPGs are marketed to readers; when hobby and bookstores were your largest product channels, eyeballs tended to be more important than outright playability. Second, RPGs are marketed to designers; game design’s self-fulfilling prophecies and insular community help build a wall between those who make games and the larger community who play them. Finally, RPGs are marketed to players; games which look fun and engaging to play attract more customers, even though few games succeed at baking this into their design. And it’s this element, the ‘baking in’, that I think needs to be considered much more strongly by designers who want to see their games succeed in the broader marketplace.
For decades, RPGs were primarily designed for readers. Starting around the first edition of AD&D in the late 70s, the default form factor for an RPG migrated to a roughly 8.5×11 hardcover with lots of art. This is really due to the shift from mail-order to hobby and bookstores as the core places that RPGs were being sold. When the primary marketplace shifted again to online, only then did you start to see the real uptick in titles laid out in a 6×9 format that allowed for more readable single-column PDFs.
But having an RPG designed for readers is more complicated than how big the book is or how much art is inside. When an RPG is designed to be read more than played, it’s designed more as narrative than as a technical document. Play aids outside of the book are often secondary, sold separately if they’re made at all. The game book has chapters which have prose broken up by section headings, like you’d be taught to do if writing a research paper. And often it reads very well, there are many excellent writers and editors in the game design world. But when it comes time to play the game, a different picture appears. Procedural references take page flipping. There isn’t much if any redundancy, so important details are often missed completely on first or second read.
There are steps designers have taken to ameliorate this; I think Fate Core serves as an example of one of the better game books out there. That said, even Fate is still a bit too stuck on its form factor (and if you don’t believe me, check out the excellent Fate SRD and compare it to the book). Outside of a complete design change to something more like a system reference document, I think the easiest thing a game can do is have doodads; Powered by the Apocalypse games (which I discuss in more detail below) are made infinitely easier by the use of handouts. While I was skeptical of Free League’s boxed games at first, actually owning and using a hardcopy of Forbidden Lands won me over, as the mere act of separating out parts of the rules into different booklets is transformative (though the contents of those booklets still do commit many of the same sins of being designed to be read rather than played).
The other significant way which games are marketed to readers has to do with their non-mechanical material, the setting or the ‘fluff’. Powered by the Apocalypse didn’t truly explode until the release of Dungeon World, which piggybacks off of D&D’s setting. Fantasy Flight sold the Narrative Dice System with their Star Wars games, and the relative sales of its generic version, Genesys, says a lot about the power of that brand. Licensed games and games in popular setting motifs are designed for readers because, generally, the mechanics of the game will not cross the mind of the target customer. As long as the game is deemed to be at least somewhat capable of delivering the implied play experience, people will buy it; this is just as true of new editions of popular existing games as it is of licensed games. In theory the setting could be separable from mechanics, though this is rarely done successfully. Instead, games are designed for familiarity or to leverage existing game mechanics at least as often as they are designed for mechanical innovation or emulation. For this and other reasons, many game designers work pretty far outside the boxes of licensed settings, existing setting motifs, and, in some cases, even readability itself.
Jay Dragon, designer of Wanderhome, recently put out a great editorial on game design called The Puzzle-Maker’s Paradox. The central thesis of the piece is that RPG designers are typically poor at onboarding new players into the hobby because they are a self-selected group that didn’t really need any onboarding. The eponymous Paradox goes further and states that designers are a particular subset of players who often had bad experiences at first:
A common story among designers is that they begin by playing D&D, and find it unsuitable for their needs, so they start to design on their own terms. Most designers don’t like their first game, and are driven forward by the desire to innovate on what they played.
This paradox means the design community self-selects people who were able to play specifically in spite of inaccessible or bad games. Most people, when confronted with something they don’t understand and lack the motivation to dig deeper into, stop engaging with that thing.
This not only explains why RPG texts, especially in indie circles, are unwelcoming to new players, but also some of the mindsets that breed RPG discourse as we see it. Indie designers often think in terms of improving on D&D and other traditional games, but their improvements are frequently things that trad gamers don’t care about. And since they were the group that decided to stick around despite poor or no onboarding into their desired style of play, they rarely have the tools to convert anyone who already bounced off and left.
Some have said that D&D 5e is basically a different hobby from indie games, but I think it’s much worse than that. As I noted above, Mothership has recently exploded into the mainstream of the scene through its successful Kickstarter, but the game has had an active fan community for some time. What a good fan community does, really, is engage with the text and the play experience instead of engaging with the designer. I’m sure Sean McCoy and others who worked on Mothership have had conversations with fans, but when the community takes off the designer becomes secondary to what’s already been created and what’s being done with that creation (i.e. game). The vast majority of indie designers, even successful ones, never have that happen. And what that means is that, for the most part, the people who are there to engage with and promote games are, well, other designers.
None of this is to say that game designers are bad, though there are some who rant about game designer auteurs like they will destroy the hobby. To the contrary, the game designers who usually get a lot of exposure within indie RPG circles are really inventive, great with mechanical design, and generally speaking good at what they do. The problem (and people hate it when I say this) is that nobody cares. Indie designers create unique, targeted experiences for a hobby that, by the very process that created these designers in the first place, is completely indifferent to them. For every weirdo like me who will seek out every new game they can find and write about it, there are 100,000 D&D players.
Game designers, typically, want people to play their games. When D&D is sucking the oxygen out of the room, what they then need to do is make that easier. A lot easier.
Hasbro has absolutely cornered marketing to new RPG players, and they don’t do it with D&D the game. Fifth Edition D&D is the same big glossy hobby store book intended to get someone to read it, say ‘ooh’, and buy it. As a game it does nothing special for onboarding new players; D&D has been pretty bad about this since the beginning and Fifth Edition is little different. No, D&D is growing because of brand equity and Actual Plays. The Actual Play is the new onramp to the hobby, showing rather than telling their audience what a role-playing game looks like to great effect. Now that Hasbro has that onramp (thanks to Critical Role especially), any other game using it is a Catch-22. No other game will get the market size of D&D without high profile Actual Plays, but no high profile Actual Play will use a game other than D&D (other than the occasional scrap of a guest episode) because they don’t have the market size of D&D.
So what can you do if not force your way into a burgeoning entertainment medium? Well, you could actually make your game easy to learn; you could actually write your game with the player in mind. This sounds so obvious, and yet most games simply do not do it. In their abovementioned editorial Jay discusses a few potential solutions, though I’d note that the Literary Approach can fall into a trap around designing for readers, and the Educator’s Approach can fall into a similar trap around designing for designers (For the Queen and The Quiet Year are, while good games, both examples of games which designers find a lot easier than the other 99% of the hobby to actually play). RPGs aren’t intrinsically harder to learn than board games or video games, but the broader market has never given much thought to designing for accessibility…including (and maybe especially) D&D. Onramps like Actual Plays have expanded the market significantly…but given the way that sort of media works, it will only make the hobby more concentrated in the end.
If you’re looking for good examples of player-centric design, there are certainly successes. Powered by the Apocalypse became an indie darling in part by significantly reducing the work that players and GMs need to do to have fun with the game. The fact that a GM can print out playbooks and reference sheets and then explain the rules in less than ten minutes is huge; when that was combined with a reader-centric setting that looked like D&D you had a runaway hit, Dungeon World. Powered by the Apocalypse at least gets the RPG down to the learning curve of a board game…you need one person who knows the rules, but once you have that you can teach the game in under 30 minutes with no prep work required.
I’d venture to say this is only the start? We still haven’t gotten to the point where an enthusiastic amateur can, with no existing RPG experience, open the box, read maybe 3-5 pages, and understand what the game entails and what you need to do to play. Even games like Quest, which was completely built around ease of play, is way too tied up in existing RPG idioms to produce this sort of experience. Powered by the Apocalypse is probably the strongest move the hobby has made in that direction in some time: Player reading is minimized, the GM role is structured and clarified, and everything is delineated. There are other good examples out there; although it’s a bit too couched in D&D, Electric Bastionland covers how to play and the majority of the rules in five pages with plenty of whitespace. I really, truly believe that every game out there would benefit from more handouts and an actual mechanical summary (not the ‘What is an RPG’ pablum) of five pages or less. I bet you could even do it for D&D.
Readers and Designers represent two segments of the RPG market which are ultimately undeterred by most RPGs’ lack of accessibility as actual games. And like I said above, there’s not that much growth left in these segments. There will continue to be gamer nerds who want to puzzle and push through opaque rulesets and long rulebooks, but D&D is blowing up because it’s marketing the experience of D&D, not rules whatsoever. In the future, if your game is going to succeed it’s because people can pick it up and play. Powered by the Apocalypse introduced better structure with less reading, Mothership went for highly usable, non-prose layout, and Electric Bastionland went for sheer (but smart) brevity. These games will represent the bare minimum soon. Mothership is currently the best funded non-licensed RPG Kickstarter, but there are seven licensed games ahead of it. When D&D releases its revised Fifth Edition in 2024 it will steamroll sales and mindshare again, and more than it already has. Licenses and ‘being D&D’ should not be the only avenues to success when it comes to designing games. But if you want to succeed, you need people to play your game. And if you want people to play your game, you need to make it easier.
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