Tabletopocalypse, Follow-up

Sure, people say that they want more positivity, but negative topics are apparently are far more likely to spark conversation. My Tabletopocalypse Now post has 70-odd comments here at the blog (more than I’ve ever seen for any other post), as well as extensive (and varying degrees of ridiculous/frustrating/infuriating) discussions at RPGnet, ENWorld, The RPGsite, Circvs Maximvs, RPGgeek, and dozens of blogs.

I figured that there would be some hullaballoo over my post — I said as much in the post which preceded it. I completely underestimated the level of vitriol.

My take-aways from this:

  • Some folks really don’t like it when you contradict their established beliefs. To the point of irrationality. They take it as an attack on their person-hood, even when no such attack could be reasonably inferred. The clearer you make your case, the less they like it. I stated my opinions, and gave my reasons. I even prefaced by saying it was nothing more than my attempt to put down some thoughts that had crystalized during a conversation with a friend. You’d think I’d killed their dog.

  • Malcolm Sheppard posted a follow-up blog post with some pretty compelling evidence in the form of data from Google Trends. The result? Relative silence, in favor of continued defense of “the hobby” from my apparent claims of its impending demise (never mind that I explicitly was talking about the industry). The trends data can’t be refuted with anecdotal claims, so it’s far easier to continue to bash away at the strawman, I guess.

  • A lot of references to this being an example of my “usual M.O.” or “yet again” or “par for the course” — apparently there is a perception out there of me being some kind of street-corner harbinger for years and years. Trying to wrap my head around this one. I can only guess that my statements of “hey guys, things are changing, and we could all make some pretty sweet money if we changed with them” gets translated by some as “DOOOOOM! DOOOOOOOOM! The End is Nigh!” I honestly don’t get it.

  • The “GMS” bogeyman is alive and well. Depressing, but it is what it is. Especially depressing to see users at RPGnet who weren’t even registered back during the years of my earlier online excesses, sagely make grand pronouncements about how “GMS thinks this” and “GMS always does X.” Hard to crawl out from under that brand — a million positive actions don’t matter; all it takes is doing one thing that somebody disagrees with, and it’s instantly placed into the negative “GMS” template and broadcast world-wide, maintaining the meme. Hard conversation to have with your kids, who stumble upon this stuff.

  • A lot of people are willing to criticize statements that either a) they haven’t actually read, or b) didn’t understand. I’m still mostly catching crap for saying “the hobby is dying”, which I didn’t say.

  • A lot of pros are interested in discussing what this all means, and how things will shape out. Unfortunately, there are also a lot who react like the forum-gamers, and still others who like to dog-pile because it’s a cheap way to build up some quick forum-cred marketing. “Yeah, what a dick. Thankfully WE know better!” I shouldn’t be surprised, but I continually forget that a low bar for entry means more than just democratization of content.

A lot of folks asked “OK, so now what?” — basically, if that’s what I think, what am I doing about it? I’ve been evangelizing about that for a couple of years now, but I guess since it wasn’t negative (and thereby not easily dovetailing with the oh-so-spreadable “GMS” brand-meme), not many paid attention.

Short answer: Game companies should expand their offerings, and ‘fish where the fish are.’ This means presenting our settings in multiple formats, offering more than just games, but also offering different types of games to attract gamers from outside the tabletop hardcore. Expansion of the base is easier when the tabletop player and the mobile-app player and the comics reader are all fans of the same setting, ya know?

But I do think that getting folks together in one big basket instead of a bunch of little interest-specific baskets is the smart move, and the best way to grow not just the industry, but the hobby as a result.

18 Replies to “Tabletopocalypse, Follow-up”

  1. Hey Gareth:

    I was going to leave this comment on your previous post, but then got distracted by work. Sorry for the delay.

    Anyway, my comment is: A lot of the data used by ICv2 is culled from stores that volunteer information, so it very likely pulls from a very small number of data points, which may make it mostly useless as a method of tracking the industry as a whole. Sure, the information is interesting, but unless it’s information being pulled from Diamond’s or Alliance’s numbers directly, it’s probably mostly anecdotal.

    Regardless, I thought your post was interesting and I definitely agree that the hobby we have today (or over the last five, ten, twenty years) will be changing significantly over the next few years. It’s unavoidable and may result in our industry taking in a whole new shape and identity.

    –Jon Leitheusser

  2. I am late to the dance here, but I think it might be worth arguing that a “hard reset” of the industry could be useful. Video games and particularly Nintendo’s own history is a great example.

    We have a market that has a lot of crap production that flooded it for a decade or more. Maybe that just needs to be left to die, to clear the air, to make way for a Nintendo-esque company to come in and restore the place with a solid design.

    Just a thought.

  3. I think the main thing with Trends and Insights is that it’s showing that the phenomenon is not some idealistic parting of the ways where fans Play4Evah! and producers wither. Game companies don’t control Googling. One interesting response was that you stop Googling when you find a community, but new players are the guys looking, so less Googling = their decline.

    In my view, creative failure is partly to blame for the decline. This failure has an incestuous relationship with hardcore RPG fans, who’ve been arguing for things that make RPGs less interesting to most people. Nobody else gives a shit about a shitty story-making engine, novelty mechanics or reproducing D&D in-jokes. They want compelling worlds open to their participation. Instead we’ve given them D&D x 2, WH40K x 2 and, as good as it is as a game . . . let’s say we’re not talking about something entirely new to TRPGs with The Dresden Files setting.

    Fans seem to sense they’re in a hole here and willl, I think, respond to a quality offering.

  4. “Fans seem to sense they’re in a hole here and willl, I think, respond to a quality offering.”

    Malcolm, yes, certainly, but what is a “quality offering?” No one seems to know. It seems that the RPG market is caught between two pillars: the slick professional offerings of WotC, Paizo, etc, on one side that produce a steady stream of well-crafted work that, in the end, just re-creates the wheel again in a slightly different form (look at Essentials, for pete’s sake); then you have the artsy indie obscurities on the other, a clever new idea or weird take on this or that, that someone sacrifices a sense of the universal and mythic for cleverness and novelty. In-between you have a never-ending deluge of fan-made PDFs and paper RPGs in-between, the vast majority of which are lesser reflections of what they seek to emulate.

    There is no newness, no freshness or vitality from either extreme; the former is too slick, too pre-fabricated and seen-this-before, and the latter is too particular to the proclivities of a single hominid’s (game designer’s) vision. Yes, we “want compelling worlds open to [our] participation.” that is it, but instead we’re left with a sense of…well, to quote Jim Morrison, “Where is the wine, the new wine that was promised us? Dying on the vine.”

    There have been some great games out there, from the most obscure self-published indie game to the pure fun of 4E D&D, yet you use the word COMPELLING. The way, I think, is deeper into the imagination, not towards the shallow waters of computer imagery and table-toy gimmickry. How do we dive deeper and explore our interior domains, the Jungian collective consciousness, the source of myth and story and revelation?

    Maybe I’m too idealistic or am inflating RPGs beyond what they can comfortably handle. Maybe the type of thing I’m talking about should be left in the realm of poetry, art, and the best of fantasy literature. But I still have this sense that the full artistic potential of RPGs has not been truly tapped. I am speaking of RPGs as a participatory medium for the exploration and development of imagination itself. The problem, I think, is that we generally take a “vertical approach” of exploring expanse and landscape, re-creating what we have seen before, or coming up with a clever idea, a new way to roll dice and add them up. What we don’t do is go deeper, look within, plumb the depths and find a way to collectively participate in that exploration.

  5. Malcolm Sheppard posted a follow-up blog post with some pretty compelling evidence in the form of data from Google Trends. The result? Relative silence, in favor of continued defense of “the hobby” from my apparent claims of its impending demise (never mind that I explicitly was talking about the industry). The trends data can’t be refuted with anecdotal claims, so it’s far easier to continue to bash away at the strawman, I guess.

    Do similar searches for:

    Mark Twain had something to say about statistics. :)

  6. Whoops, some big typos in that late-night ramble, the biggest one being that in the last paragraph I wrote “vertical approach” when I should have written “horizontal approach.” This is important because I’m differentiating between walking the landscape, exploring it again and again, moving around on horizontal plane, as opposed to diving deeper, a vertical exploration.

  7. Unrelated to any of the eternal “the industry is dying/evolving/gone/exactly the same as it was when I was 12” argument:

    Have you given any serious thoughts on ways you can take this toxic GMS brand and convert it into something that’s useful for your business?

  8. That’s fair. When you are your personal brand, it’s hard to have the appropriate distance, especially in an industry where what you did ten years ago is just as vivid as what you’re doing today. I thought your joking comments referring to GMS as something outside of yourself was an interesting start, however.

  9. If the goal was ever “compelling worlds open to participation”, why has there never, ever been any organized attempt to improve play? The best the industry has ever offered is good advice in a printed book. I guess that’s not bad but it’s hardly the mentorship and practice that every other craft, art, sport or human endeavour needs.

    I don’t think it was ever a goal of the industry to provide compelling worlds open to participation, though that may have been what happened in some places and times.

  10. If the goal was ever “compelling worlds open to participation”, why has there never, ever been any organized attempt to improve play?

    This is a Hard Problem. Most systems of thought promising better play bring about no large scale improvement. For 10 years, Big Model theory has promised it, and those guys still suck at playing RPGs as much as anyone (and in my experience can actually be *worse* than many as a direct result of dogma). It isn’t impossible, but we’re really talking about two conflated things:

    a) Essential interpersonal skills, which are not the hobby’s business to teach. This is all you really need to be a fun gamer.
    b) An artistic path that is as variegated and tiered as, say, acting. There’s no one way to do this, and prolonged mentorship is the best way.

    But in another sense you’re wrong, because when companies have access to a broad fan community and resources they do get out there, teach the game and talk about best practices for play. Eddy does it with the Camarilla, for example. It’s just that because of b) this can only provide some general coaching, and it cannot do a) because that requires counselling professionals.

    These days I think setting design is pretty atrophied so yeah, it’s not really “the goal” now. This is a big part of the problem. I sense that the culture in some shops is pretty anti-world, and an overall sentiment that at last we got those Fucking Arts Majors off our geeky backs. This is really, really their loss.

  11. I think the purported death of setting is a little overblown. New-setting-heavy, non-licensed RPGs that I’ve seen in the last 2 years include: Freemarket, Eclipse Phase, Hot War, KidWorld, On Her Majesty’s Arcane Service, Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, Alpha Omega, Cthulhutech, Houses of the Blooded (a wonderfully borderline case because the setting-heaviness is in culture rather than geography), Mutant City Blues, and (the criminally overlooked and absolutely wonderful) Thousand Suns.

    Or is the question more about publication of more setting material for ongoing games to explore, i.e. a citybook or clanbook, or a new fantasy kingdom sourcebook? I definitely agree those are in a big decline, as someone who loved them, it’s disappointing.

  12. Designing a setting as an extensible framework requires more than elevator pitch fidelity. A game like Eclipse Phase does this. This framework applies to *players* as well as supplements. (AO might do it, as might CTech. Others unsure. Besides, there’s also a process there. If you don’t latch on to it it’s not gonna work.)

    People who proudly proclaim that their stuff is designed as a one-off don’t seem to consider that the same features apply to hobbyists’ stuff too. When you leave little to add except for the play story you make the game world boring.

    Basically, both versions of D&D have boring-assed default worlds (WotC is making some kind of zombie Dark Sun right now, which tells you all about their confidence in their creative powers outside of systems). Over on ENWorld, Erik Mona’s doing some troll-marketing again by saying it’s so *unfortunate* that nobody wants anything original, and that obviously informs how Golarion’s been built.

  13. ‘The “GMS” bogeyman is alive and well. Depressing, but it is what it is.’

    You can make some inroads on that if you really want to, though it’ll take time.

    It’s based on actual evidence of how you’ve interacted with people online – jumping straight into being nasty to people; expressing dislike of wide groups of players, customers and designer/publishers; etc.

    Make some different sorts of evidence and start a countervirus.

    If you want more positivity, start under your own fingernails.

  14. I understand what you’re saying, Tim, but you sort of prove my point. I’ve spent years doing things which are immensely positive by any definition (spearheading industry charity efforts, for example), yet that sort of thing just doesn’t spread. People are more concerned with if I’ve been “nasty” to people.

    To which I really want to say: grow the fuck up.

    But I guess that would be “nasty.”

  15. Ah, you’re all right, Gareth. It’s just the people on the internet today, and younger TTRPG folks in particular have very definite opinions and VERY thin skins. You are no more unlikable than anyone else I’ve met in this industry, and a lot more likable than some.

    Thing is, everyone has their quirks and idiosyncrasies, including you and me, but that doesn’t stop us from contributing useful material and what we truly need in this industry is for people to get over themselves and stop acting like they’re still in High School, separate the personality from the works, and get on with the bidness.

    You and I are a great example. We couldn’t be two more different people in many ways, but at Gencon, your experience in the industry was invaluable to me and informed my current productions. And hopefully, when my nextgen BotA app is complete, you’ll find something in it to inspire similar, if not better, ‘bridging’ products, and then someone else will do the same, and so on, to move our industry into the next century, a process that would go alot smoother and faster if folks would stop worrying about what X said about Y and ‘ooo, don’t that make him mean!’

  16. I really liked meeting you in person a few years back, and I think if you could post from a stance that comes off a lot more like that guy you’d do a lot to keep the fires from burning strong in the ovens of the GMS bogeyman. But honestly, looking at the original Tabletopocalypse post, as well as a few of the contents, there’s a tone of sneering that feels pretty palpable to me, and it’s one I had to actively filter out in my own participation in order to keep from activating my own rather unfortunate Internet Warrior Mode. That tone ends up coming off like an implicit declaration that you won’t respect the people who disagree with you but who’ve taken the time to read the post (and heck, maybe you won’t, in which case, truth in advertising).

    If that’s the message that’s coming through… why would they respect you in turn?

    Someone, I forget who but possibly Rob Donoghue, once said to me that part of the trick of being reasonable is to start all your responses from the position that you agree with the person you’re responding to. I’ve really tried to do that with my own stuff on Ye Olde Internet, and it mostly works. For whatever that’s worth.

  17. That’s good advice. I remember meeting Theron Bretz in person for the first time at Origins 2003. He and I had flamed many many times on RPGnet.

    His after-action report at RPGnet at the time was something along the lines of discovering that I say in person pretty much exactly what I say online, but that the difference is in person you can hear my inflections, see my body language, etc., He summed up with “sure, he’s an asshole… but in person, he’s a *charming* asshole, and that makes all the difference.”

    No excuse, I know, and I should try harder — but my main point with the GMS thing is that it’s really become almost self-sustaining at this point, because any negative act feeds it (even if the negative is incorrect, or purely in the eye of the beholder), while positives are ignored because they don’t fit the meme. It’s sorta like partisan politics, I guess.

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