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RPGs: THEN AND NOW

By Jeff Freeman

c/o ack@rpg.net

 

I know a guy that got started in RPGs by playing those Infocom text adventure games. Tired of typing 'kick door', 'bash door', 'smash door', and so on - looking for the one word that the game would take to mean he wanted to forcefully open a door - the guy wisely moved to human-moderated roleplaying games. The concept of RPGs, however, he found difficult to comprehend. In the basic D&D set, the adventure described a room full of Kobolds, and the fact that they would run away after 'some' had been killed. He wondered, "How many is some?" That concept, i.e. "You make the decision there, Bud." is the thing about RPGs that makes them new and unique, and sometimes difficult to grasp right out of the box.

After he and his wife played that first adventure, he went back to the game shop and asked the clerk for some assistance. His question boiled down to "Now what do I do?" The clerk helpfully suggested that he buy World of Greyhawk, written by Gary Gygax. This, the clerk explained, was a campaign setting in which all sorts of adventures could take place. He rushed home, popped it open hoping to find this endless supply of adventure, and found himself reading about trees. No kidding. There were two books in the box and one started with a description of trees in the fantasy world.

His first thought was that the clerk had given him the shaft. His second was probably, "Boy, this guy sure does write pretty."

I feel sorry for new players entering the hobby these days. Things that were easy for us, way back when, will be more challenging for the new generation of roleplayers.

For example, selecting a roleplaying game used to be easy. First you decided what genre you liked, then you selected the game that was created for that genre. If you liked fantasy adventure, you picked D&D, C&C, T&T or whatever. You always looked for a game with an ampersand in the title, because they all had an ampersand in the title.

These days you don't pick a game based on which genre interests you. Now, you first select a character class. Whatever type character you want to play, that's the game you buy.

If D&D came out today, it would come out as seventeen different roleplaying games. 'Fighter: The Bashing' would be first. If you wanted to be a fighter, you'd buy it. Next, 'Magic User: The Spell-casting' would be released. It would be compatible with the Fighter RPG, so you could play a campaign with both fighters and magic-users. In the following months, 'The Cleric' and 'The Thief' role playing games would be released, along with a couple of supplements for the Fighter RPG called 'Ranger' and 'Paladin', respectively.

These new games, published in that format of 'one character type per RPG', are called 'innovative' and 'state-of-the-art in RPG design'. They don't use the old, out-dated 'class-based' system. It would be extremely impolite to point out that, taken all together, a series of compatible RPGs amount to a single class-based system, so I won't point that out. Innovation also did away with the old, out-dated method of having characters grow ridiculously powerful as they gained experience levels, generally by making all the characters start out ridiculously powerful.

Also, you want to avoid the ampersand altogether these days. Look for a colon instead. Replacing the ampersand with the colon is another of those brilliant moves that took twenty years to achieve. The next wave of popular RPG titles will feature a left-bracket, keep an eye out for that.

After selecting your game, you need to find a group with which to play. Finding a gaming group in The Good Ol' Days was easy: you just went to the local game shop and looked on the bulletin board. Also, there were game clubs at every high school, college and university in the country. When I first moved to Dallas, fifteen years ago, I played AD&D every Sunday at the Pizza Inn across the street from my house. Three large gaming clubs met at area rec centers, every week. The world was a gaming convention. Finding people who were already playing the game that you wanted to play was a snap. Of course, there were only four or five RPGs back then, so that helped, too.

Now, all roleplaying game publishers suggest the same thing in the 'Getting Started' section of their rules: Either find a group that is already playing your game, or introduce your friends to roleplaying and start your own group.

Neither will work. There are so many RPGs on the market these days that no one is 'already playing' whatever game you picked. Or if someone is playing it, they live in Alaska. And you don't need me to tell you, your friends don't want to play.

What you actually need are some new friends. What kind of new friends you get depends largely on what sort of RPG you want to play. There is a distinct difference between, say, Vampire players and people who still play original D&D in the three-book set. The latter post usenet messages expressing their view that even 1st edition AD&D is a rip-off, con-job, corporate trick to 'milk the suckers out of their hard-earned cash', and so on. Vampire players are more likely to have tattoos and body piercing, the original-D&Ders are more likely to make their own clothes out of recycled two-liter cola bottles.

Since these are going to be your new friends, you want to choose carefully. You may want to play a different game than you'd initially selected, just to have a better group of friends. Make friends with the type of people who will be willing to play whatever game you picked (or vice versa), then you'll have yourself a group.

In the future, there will be thirty-two and two-thirds unique role playing game systems for each and every gamer on the planet. Everyone will play via the internet with a computer acting as GM and/or other players. These will be 'multi-player' games, but there'll be so many of them that only one person will be playing any given game at a time. For 'traditional', face-to-face games your game group will consist entirely of digital pets, equipped with special interfaces that allow them to roll dice.

Player One: "Beep, beep, beep!"

You: "What's that? You want to attack the orc? Okay roll the 20-sider..."

Player Two: "Beep! Beep!"

Player Three: "Beep! Beep! Beep!"

You: "Hey, you guys wanna hold it down? We're trying to play a game here."

It won't be pretty.

When I was in high school, RPG rule books were small and innocuous enough to take to school. We played before school in the library and after school in the cafeteria. Sometimes we even played outside during lunch. Gamers were considered geeks, and everyone actually believed that we were suicidal satan-worshippers, but no one was quite exactly certain just who was and wasn't a gamer, so we rarely ever got beaten up. The rules books were poorly edited, with lots of typos and the covers were ugly as homemade road kill (so I don't write as pretty as Gygax). Some rules conflicted other rules and some just plain didn't work. Gamers 'made due', usually by making up a new rule that did work, or by ignoring the consequences of silly rules, for example, games in which a high level characters could fall any distance but still have zero chance of dying (this in not a problem in contemporary RPGs, because now the characters have zero chance of dying from anything).

Now, game publishers have a mantra: 'Big Books, Flashy Cover Art'. Translated to High School, it means that taking an RPG to school is like wearing a sign that reads 'Kick Me, I'm a Geek!'. No small wonder there aren't many High School clubs these days.

Many people blame the anti-game, 'it's satan worship' crowd for that, but it doesn't wash. Oh, they used to have a lot of influence. These sub-literate, back-woods rustics would be told that D&D was 'occultic' and even if they opened a book to see what evil it purveyed, they couldn't understand the obscure, multi-syllabic words that Gary Gygax used to force millions of high school kids to leap forward six grades' worth of reading ability. Anything that hard to understand must be evil. Good things, like 'The Dukes of Hazard', for example, are idiot-friendly. So they would raise all sorts of fuss and any official school game club got the ax. The official game club at my old school was scrapped, after the idiot-friendly made-for-TV movie 'Mazes and Monsters' came out, but we played anyway and we played a lot. My point is, during the peak of these anti-game whacko's influence, there were more (and more public) game clubs and organizations than there are now.

Kids don't play at school these days because the books are too big and the cover art is too flashy. In high school, you don't want to carry a sign that reads 'Kick Me, I'm a Geek!'. Kids are more likely than adults to try something new, so without kids joining the hobby then growth is, at best, slow.

This will be made worse by the fact that new games will all have battery-powered, flashing, neon covers and will play loud, genre-appropriate music when opened. This will be very keen, of course. Existing gamers, if there are any left, will positively flock to the game stores, if there are any left, to buy them. There won't be any new gamers coming into the hobby, because to be seen carrying around an RPG in school will be just as socially unacceptable then as it is now - only being spotted then will be unavoidable.

Also, the flashy, loud, multimedia covers will contain absolutely nothing. They'll be for 'collectible rules games' where the rules are sold separately in miscellaneous bundles of random pages. You may have to buy two or three hundred pages in order to compile a complete set, because some of the pages will be 'uncommon' and some will be 'rare'.

Everyone in the world, with the exception of Wizards of the Coast's CEO Peter Adkison, will refer to them as 'Collectible Rules Games.' Peter will call them 'Trading Rules Games', because he wants to stress the 'trading aspect', even though no one trades them. In fact, even 'collect' is too mild a term to describe the sort of hoarding that will take place, although occasionally people will 'trade' a page for real cash money.

Not to worry though, most new RPGs only have about two pages of actual game rules anyway, one paragraph advising the Game Master to 'wing it' (as if there were any other choice), and ninety-three pages of 'background'. If this trend continues, future RPGs will be all-background, no rules, except maybe for the 'wing-it' part. Maybe we'll even call them 'novels' instead of 'rules'.

Lots of people are prognosticating an RPG revival. They make some good points: Roleplaying games are common on the internet and the internet has grown exponentially. Roleplaying games are common types of computer-games and that industry is positively huge now, too. The hysteria over CCG's seems to be quieting down a bit and those people might become interested in gaming. Somehow all of this is supposed magically translate back to increased numbers of traditional, table-top, face-to-face gamers.

So, ever the optimist, I think to myself, "Yeah... right".

If game publishers design and market RPGs for people that don't currently play RPGs, I mean. Maybe. The biggest thing to hit the RPG industry in twenty years wasn't even an RPG. Collectible card games appealed to people that weren't roleplayers, and that's one of the reasons why they were so successful. Vampire was outrageously popular and the thing all but abandoned the 'game' aspect of 'roleplaying game' and created a whole new breed of interactive live action geeks. In fact, neither of these games could possibly have been as successful if only roleplayers had bought them. Games marketed exclusively to existing roleplaying gamers are doomed, I tells ya, doomed!

Of course, I'm not a game publisher, editor, author or any of the other sorts of people that have run the industry into the ground over the past decade. They certainly know better than I do what won't work, given all their years of experience.

Maybe Gary Gygax is on the right track - developing some weird combination of online/offline RPG in which terms and ideas are swiped from computer RPGing rather than the other way around. 'Player Characters' are referred to by the computer-RPGers' term 'Avatar', for example. He's one of the few - one of three, if you only count D&D, Vampire and Magic:The Gathering - to create an adventure game that appealed to significant numbers of people not already in the hobby. Maybe he can do it again.

Either way, you've just got to respect a guy that can sell descriptions of fictional trees.


Feel free to email Jeff at ack@rpg.net. No, really!

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What do you think?

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All of Jeff Freeman's Acks

  • The One True Way to Roleplay, Online: July 20, 1999
  • What Were We Thinking? September 8, 1998
  • Random Thoughts August 9, 1998
  • Run With It! July 14, 1998
  • Background: I'm Evil! June 9, 1998
  • Who Wants to Role-Play? May 12, 1998
  • Playing Without Brains Apr 8, 1998
  • Ultima Online Looked Good Off March 10, 1998
  • The Perfect Game February 10, 1998
  • "INTRO TO RPGs" January 6, 1998
  • "Do I Have A Point?"
  • "LOOK BEFORE YOU LARP" November 11, 1997
  • "RPGs: Then and Now" October 7, 1997
  • Chicks in Gaming", September 9, 1997 (and its Danish translation)
  • The FUDGE review that inspired it.

    Other columns at RPGnet

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