Monday, August 31, 2009

Is D&D really all that most gamer know?

Usually when I stop by Emipre Comics to pick up my books, I am either heading to or from work/school so I don't get a chance to browse and chit chat. I tend to run in and out with little more than a polite "hello" and "see ya next time" , but the other day I was fortunate enough to have a few minutes to browse and actually have a short but thought provoking conversation with the shop's owner and another customer.
The conversation started after I took a few minutes to browse around the gaming area of the store, which I had never really done before. I was checking out some of the newer 4e Dungeons & Dragons books when I noticed a shelf that still held many 3e/3.5 books. Upon noticing these older books I immediately glanced around to see if there was a copy of Pathfinder on any of the shelves. There wasn't.
I already own a copy of the Pathfinder RPG Core book, which I pre-ordered on Amazon as soon as it was available, but I was a little disappointed to not see a copy on the shelves. As a Paizo fan and 3.5 supporter, there is definitely a part of me that wants to see the system not only succed but thrive. I freely admit that I do entertain the fantasy that PfRPG could knock the industry giant off its pedestal. I know this is unlikely, much like the super hot lady that wears chainmail bikinis and finds your character concept to be fascinating, but it is my fantasy after all.
I walked up to the counter and waited for the owner to get my comics from my file before asking him if he was planning to carry Pathfider. He said that he was planning to carry and support the game if he could ever get a copy. Now the owner is a pretty smart guy so he began to talk about print runs, small publishers, and things of that nature. Things that I have heard/read and discussed on the various forums or RPG blogs. He also mentioned that people had started coming in asking for Paizo products, or products that Paizo happens to produce as if they were new concepts, despite the fact he has carried them for years. This made me feel a bit hopeful that my desire to see Paizo become one of the gaming industries big dogs would come to be. But then he said some things that honestly took me by surprise.
He mentioned the fact that the customers, more specifically experienced gamers, had been asking about Paizo and Pathfinder because they had just recently heard about them/it. As I said before, I was taken by surprise and could not believe that anyone who had ever gamed did not know about Pathfider. After all it has been discussed on every message board and blog on the net for over a year. I expressed this to George who replied that most gamers didn't even know that games other than D&D even existed. I believe the number he used was 1 out of every 30 had played other systems, which I felt was ridiculous.
I was about to tell him this when I thought about the people I had gamed with over the years, including my current group. Sure I own a ridiculous amount of gaming books and have almost an obssessive desire to keep up with the latests and greatest systems, but everyone else I have played with pretty much only owned D&D.
The group I originally played with as a kid naturally all just owned D&D, that was back in the 1e & 2e days, but we were kids with very limited funds and new to gaming so that was understandable. That group grew up and we all went our seperate ways, but I branched out and started buying new systems. I assumed that those in the original group that kept gaming had done the same. Never really considering that maybe that hadn't.
Then I thought about the short lived 2e groups I had in my early 20's and realized that once again, other than myself, they had all owned only D&D with few exceptions. Granted there were a few guys I gamed with during that time that had played Champions or Palladium systems, and natrually Magic the Gathering, but they never asked to play anything but D&D/AD&D.
After those groups I didn't game for 3-4 years, until finding the foundations of the group I currently play with, and have mentioned a few times in various posts. Of that group only 1 guy still remains as a full time member, though my fiance who was also in that group still sits in on the rare game. Most quit playing all together or due to various circumstances (divorce, broken friendships) moved on to other groups. Yet when I think about them only one, the guy that is still in the group, had every played anything but D&D, and maybe Vampire. As a matter of fact, at the time I started gaming with them none of them even knew 3e was coming out until I took over DMing duties and switched the group from 2e to 3e. Naturally the last remaining member has played a few of the systems I own over the years and is a little more amiable to trying new systems, but he only owns D&D. Until I brought up the fact that Pathfinder was coming out, he had no idea it even existed and assumed we would continue as a 4e group or go back to our 3e books given that we were only moderately happy with 4e.
Of my current group 2 of the regular players are teenagers, and are new to gaming so their lack of knowledge is understandable, but the other 2-3 have been gaming as long, if not longer,than I have, one still runs a 2e game with another group. How could they not know about games other than D&D?
Because of the internet, the countless blogs and messageboards I have erroneously assumed that every gamer is as well versed as those of us that blog or post. I was apparently way off base.
D&D is the industry giant not only because it was the foundation of the industry, but because that is all most gamers know. Since D&D is generally the game we start out with, I can completely understand that newer gamers have yet to be exposed to the other great systems being produced. But what about the older, more experienced gamers? Outside of D&D, and more specifially the system they are currently playing, nothing else seems to exists to them.
Now it could be argued that those of us that do expand beyond D&D are more "hardcore" or that those other gamers are more casual. Yet the groups I have played with, regularly played weekly if not more often. That's not really casual in my book.
I started to argue the point with my comics shop's owner that as a member of the RPG Bloggers Network, there are tons of gamers out there that have played and own other systems. After all there have been numerous posts about how many books we all own since the network came into existence. Surely, the gamers in my area are a fluke, an anomoly in the gaming world.
Then it hit me that many of the same people on the RPGBN are the ones who are posting on the message boards, producing podcasts and leaving comments on the various blogs. Then I thought about the various posts on the RPGBN, the majority of which are about D&D. I had no argument. We are not the standard in gaming, at least given the circumstantial evidence I can come up with.
So what is the point of this post? Honestly I'm not 100% sure. I just found the revelation a bit surprising and suppose I am curious to see if this is something that others have encountered. Are those of us on the RPGBN and the various message boards, numerous though we seem, really in the minority? Are the majority of our fellow gamers really so isolated and uninformed about what else exists in this age where information about nearly any topic is just a Google search away?
If this is the case and our fellow gamers are caught up in a world where D&D is all that exists, how can we change that? Surely there is some way to "spread the word" and get D&D only players to try other systems. I'm not saying that they should abandon D&D, I love the game too, but they should know there are other options available to them.
I'm open to suggestions.


Thasmodious said...

We are in the vast minority. I'd say there are a lot of groups out there in which only the DM, who owns all the books, is the one who has any awareness of the RPG market as a whole. And even then, I'd say there are plenty of groups where even the DM isn't. My own group consists of five people, all of whom have been playing since the late 70s/early 80s (a couple of us have been gaming together since we started gaming, 30 years, wow). Of the group, I own the books, generally DM, and am the only one who reads RPG blogs and messageboards, checks industry news and the like. The rest of them, all computer guys who live on the internet, do not. They catch the odd bit of news here and there as it filters through things they do follow on the internet, but most of what filters is news about D&D.

It's not just that D&D is the biggest and most people's entry into RPG-land, it's also something that has become a cultural icon. Most people, people who have never and would never even play an RPG have heard of D&D. I bet this reply has never been uttered by a human being before now -

"I play roleplaying games"
"You mean like Savage Worlds?"
(or Pathfinder, Champions, Rolemaster, MERP, Shadowrun, etc.)

The answer to that is always - "You mean like Dungeons and Dragons?"

Scott said...

According to recent info that came out of a WotC legal filing, D&D enjoys 6,000,000 current players worldwide (of all editions, though the plurality is no doubt playing the most recent) and an 80% or 90% level of brand awareness.

The online (I'd use "enthusiast" to describe those with an interest in RPGs that is not limited to the table) tabletop community is intensely insular (in some places more than others). Most of these bloggers are effectively writing for each other. And yes, they represent a tiny fraction of the total playerbase.

Geek Gazette said...

I just found it odd that so few of us are "enthusiast". I had never really considered the fact that we are not only in the minority, but as Thasmodious pointed out, generally the DMs and the ones who own the largest percentage of books in a group as well. I also took for granted that people who truly enjoyed RPGs, generally loved gaming as much as I do.
I thought the time another game asked "Who?" when I was talking about Cthulhu was a fluke. I mean everyone knows Cthulhu... right?
Wrong and after many years of gaming I can't believe that so many of us still live in such a little box when it comes to gaming. I guess my extreme exposure to things such as RPG Blogs, message boards, podcasts, etc, as well as my desire to seek out such sources of information has kind of blinded me to the reality of the situation.

Darran Sims said...

I must admit that I am glad that the circle of gamers that I have met over the years have been more into Chaosium games than D&D. I count myself lucky I started with RuneQuest.

Anonymous said...

I call it the "D&D Ghetto..." The vast majority of gamers don't know there is anything other than D&D, and of those that do, many of those just want to play the comfortable system and not learn anything new. (One of the advantages of the "d20 glut" and things like d20 Modern and Future was that I was able to convince some folks that refused to lean new games to try out things like Spycraft).

Back in the '90's, I finally got fed up with D&D and went into a mass orgy of other systems. Now I own a bunch of bookcases full. But the number that I've been able to get a group to play is pretty low.

lessthanpleased said...

Part of the problem is that you're saying mono-system enthusiasts don't love games as much as you do.

Another part of the problem is that you're an RPG blogger and, as Scott says, the RPG blogosphere is largely an echo-chamber. Most of the RPG publishers note that, contrary to a contingent on the blogosphere wishing otherwise, 4e is quite successful; numerous respectable and groundbreaking designers think it's quite good (Robin Laws is a big enthusiast).

This isn't meant to be a knock in any way, but any idiot can start a blog - and the currency by which a blog is deemed successful is by how good it is at analysis. I've seen very few blogs that get histrionic about the edition wars possess anything close to mainstream views about gaming.

I think the big tell that your opinions on gaming were horribly off base should have been the fact that you believe Pathfinder has a chance of dethroning D&D. You note that it's unrealistic, but you don't go anywhere close to far enough - it's a practically delusional belief, akin to thinking that the sun will rise in the West tomorrow morning.

Interviews with the PFRPG staff are enough to confirm this. They indicate that PFRPG is going with a smaller print run because they can't afford to do more and - moreover - can't afford to dream of having the demand or resources that WOTC has.

This isn't a knock on PFRPG or PF enthusiasts - it's just reality. PF will be phenomenally successful within it's sizable niche. But I think that it's niche will largely consist of new grognards who don't want to switch to 4e - and fail to bring new blood into the hobby in impressive numbers. That's the holy grail, according to the designers in interviews.

And that's perfectly fine! Not every company should reach for the holy grail, you know.

Look, I'm a gaming enthusiast - my favorite game is Unknown Armies. I love The Shadow Of Yesterday and hate Dogs In The Vineyard for reasons unrelated to gaming.

But nowhere in my fandom did I ever believe any of these games would dethrone WOTC. Of the above, I think UA had the best chance of doing better and breaking out - but breaking out would mean a larger-though-still-modest print run. Societal events and trends have suggested that UA is a game that aged really, really well.

PF, in some ways, has it worse than many of the above games. In the most important way - overall sales - it doesn't. But it's going to run into the problem outlined at The Forge in an essay called "Fantasy Heartbreakers" - by setting up the PFRPG in opposition to D&D while simultaneously not moving the 3.5 system forward, PF is ensuring that largely old stuff will be competing against the newer stuff.

Small changes aren't innovations - and, for better or worse, WoTC is innovating with their design. It's a design some people hate, of course, and that's OK. But it's trying to use some indie game ideas as ways to innovate DnD.

But yeah, don't be hard on yourself. It's cool to be playing a game no longer in print, really - Unknown Armies is a great game regardless of whether it's selling well.