Thursday, 14 October 2010

7 reasons off the top of my head why Pen & Paper gaming might be having a renaissance

1. Penny Arcade
Not only has Gabe (after being turned to the dark side by Tycho) been a huge advocate for D&D, Tycho keeps mentioning roleplaying games in his blog, including indie ones. D&D regularly shows up in their comics and Gabe (despite being a "newb" by many standards) issues game reports that blow many seasoned DMs out of the water. Needless to say, Penny Arcade has a huge readership. They're also in league with Wizards of the Coast, Gabe has illustrated some of the WotC material, and they've been doing podcast/video live gaming for a while.

2. PAX
Although technically this might belong under #1, I think it deserves a separate mention. From many many reports by people in the industry, PAX is now the gaming convention in the USA. Sure, GenCon has the vintage but it's full of people who go there out of some sense of obligation and a bunch of people who go there for the same old, same old, completely uninterested in anything fresh. Whereas PAX is full of young, hip people who are essentially into videogames, but also super-enthusiastic about trying out new stuff. To them, shelling out 20$ for a game is cheap. These are not my words, I've cribbed them from Luke Crane and others.

3. Robot Chicken
The Robot Chicken guys did a series of videos of them playing D&D, much like the Penny Arcade guys did. Go check it out on youtube. Every second comment goes something like "I've never played D&D, but this video makes me want to".

4. Cheaper, sleeker
Ok, sure there are still huge behemoths like WHFRP3 which is a enormous box which costs anything between 120$ and 60$, depending on where you look. But those kinds of games are games with a specific, established audience. On the other hand you've got all these really cool and slick little games that you can break out at any occasion, many of them cheap or even free. Like Lady Blackbird or Danger Patrol. They are far more accessible to the casual gamer, and it's easier for us established gamers to break out those games and teach them to non-gamers.

It is with no fondness that I remember trying to explain D&D to people and teach them how to play. It was horrible. I was doing a horrible job. The game wasn't helping any. It's alienating.

5. Socially fulfilling games
A game like D&D is a game for, you know, gamers. There's a huge swath of rules that no normal person would ever care to read through or learn, unless they're 13 and/or a nerd. On the other hand, you can explain Lady Blackbird in like 5 minutes and everyone who has seen Star Wars can dig right in. It's still, you know, a geeky audience, but we can never really shoot for a completely mainstream vibe.

Or take for example A Taste For Murder or Fiasco. Those games actually deliver on their promise of crafting an entertaining and engaging fiction, a novel or movie-like narrative that anyone who has ever read Agatha Christie or seen a Coen Brothers movie can dig. Or what about simulating horror with Geiger Counter. There's also Steal Away Jordan or Dogs in the Vineyard, which deal with issues of slavery and faith, judgement and morality for example. Would you care for Drifter's Escape, about which Vincent Barker writes:
"The stories are deft and provocative. They're about us, every day; they're about how I feel about things when I'm not thinking about them. They're about America. They're about what I wish for and what I've accepted in my life instead, and which am I content with and which would I do over?[...]By chance or whatever, I have a bunch of people in my life who are cool older women, librarians and educators, thoughtful, literate, and friendly toward roleplaying without ever having tried it. I always want to show them our games, but my games are too, y'know, garish-horror-nerdy-juvenile. Now I know!"

Or how about playing It's Complicated, Shooting the Moon or Breaking the Ice with your girlfriend? Games about relationships and romance?! WHAT?

Yeah, we've come far.

6. IT Crowd, popculture etc.
P&P is getting some more airtime in regular media. After the damned 80's where D&D was the devil's work, it's now starting to become a recognizable and unstigmatised hobby. When I say unstigmatised I mean the stigma of being evil and decadent and god knows what. It still has the stigma of being nerdy, cause that's what it is, but loads of people play, or know someone who does and it's cool. Vin Diesel plays, Steven Colbert Plays. It shows up on shows like the IT Crowd, which then issues its own RPG with the DVD boxed set.

7. Boxed Sets, Starter Sets
For a while, RPGs have been aimed at a specific market and relegated to the shelves of gaming stores. They look like books. If you don't know what they are or where to look for them, you would never find them (unlike, say, Yu-Gi-Oh or Pokemon, which you can actually buy in any bigger market). Now, this seems to be changing. Wizards have come up with a new Red Box, a nostalgic callback to the original game and the Essentials line, which is basically, well, a basic version of the game. It's a) cheaper (paperbacks etc), b) simpler and easier to learn and get into c) it comes in a box, and it is sold alongside other games in large stores.
They need to push this even harder. I want to be able to go to the local supermarket and see D&D alongside the fucking awful Monopoly and Risk games with licensed reskins.

A box gives the impression that this is a game. A box can hold dice, sheets, tokens, cards, everything you need to play the game, no need to go out and buy weird stuff in weird shops. And it's not just the WotC Red Box, Paizo is supposedly coming out with its own "basic" version of the game. Doctor Who RPG comes in a box. So does Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And many others. Best of all Mouse Guard is coming out in a boxed version, with cards, tokens, pawns...if my nephews were proficient in English I would SO buy that shit for them.

And that's what the hobby was lacking recently. Fresh blood. More casual gaming. Regular people playing. Not just dedicated, obsessive grognards in basements. That's all fine and dandy, but the gaming then becomes stagnant, old, boring, until it eventually fades and dies. Fresh blood people. Let it flow.

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