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From RPG Futurist to Realist

Today Blacksteel wrote a great article regarding innovation in RPG's.  You can find it here, and should totally read it just on its own merit, and not just because this blog post is a response.  If you really don't want to read it, I will tell you that the first part of the article involves the lack of something new in RPG's and the proliferation of Nth Edition iterations of RPG's that have been around for decades, e.g. Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, and Call of Cthulhu.

I agree with his assessment, although I might be less critical about it.  It mirrors the trend in movie making, and I suspect for the same reason: trepidation.  Why go out on a limb and create a bomb like Jon Carter: Warlord of Mars (which wasn't even that terrible) when you can create a complete waste like Dawn of Justice and still count on eight hundred million dollars in ticket sales and merchandising because it has Batman and Superman in it?  Not a great reason, just a reasonable one from a business perspective.

The second thought I had about the continuing trend of rehashing old material is that in some cases it just works.  Dungeons & Dragons as a core game concept works because it
  • has a familiar setting (especially since most contemporary fantasy is heavily influenced by it in turn)
  • has a pretty straightforward plot (kill evil things, steal their stuff, lather, rinse, repeat)
  • has enough specialized roles to support a typical gaming group without much overlap
  • has a pretty simple dice mechanic
So it isn't surprising that a game that is pretty accessible to new players and works for a lot of veterans players has been retread over and over again and had a gazillion "retro-clones" that are essentially house-ruled versions done by people with access to word processing programs.  And while the game has plenty of detractors (I'm looking at you, Adam) there's no arguing with its success on the market.

I can make a similar-but-not-identical argument regarding licensed products, such as Star Wars, that have had rules systems that are radically different, namely that the use of a pre-existing universe both guarantees some sales to devotees of the source material but also makes it easy for players to "plug in" to the game.  If I have a choice between introducing a Firefly RPG or Savage World's Necropolis to a new player, I'm going to be thinking about how I'll need to introduce the setting in Necropolis.  If they don't know Firefly, then there's some bigger problems.

Where I thought Blacksteel hit the nail on the head with a 20 is this quote:
What are the main constraints to a tabletop RPG? 
  • Big rulebooks that take time to read and can be expensive. 
  • Complex rules that often get in the way of a good time
  • Need for multiple players to get together in person for hours at a time on some kind of regular schedule
How do we mitigate these barriers?
  • We're already seeing simpler rules systems as a trend and PDFs are usually a more budget friendly option
  • Some kind of a system where the rules are just built in to the medium of the game, whether everything you need to know is on your character sheet - period - or  there is technology involved. Have you seen the manuals for MMORPGs? They have complex mechanics behind the scenes but they do not publish 300 page rulebooks.
  •  There has to be a way to let people participate in a meaningful way that doesn't require 4-10 hours around a table per week or month.
A-flipping-men. As I've been thinking about the Hufflepuff game I have considered often the question of the "price of entry" and the level of complexity of rules, a factor that has precluded games like Dark Heresy.   It almost precluded Shadowrun but they did a nice introductory booklet in conjunction with Free RPG Day a year or two back, as has other games like the Valiant RPG and Battletech's Time of War.

One innovative and fairly simple game that Blacksteel didn't mention is Fragged Empire, which has a unique setting and some fascinating rules regarding in-game economy in a post-cataclysmic star-spanning science-fiction setting.  The rules are also fairly simple, both in terms of PC creation and playing the game. I would strongly consider it for my own campaign except that I am not convinced that it handles large numbers of players well; there's not as much PC differentiation and large numbers of PC's can bloat the "Influence" pool.

But where I really think he's onto something is the issue of having people participate in a meaningful way outside of table time.  Back in the old days when we were gaming constantly while in college but before all this telecommunication technology was around, we "bluebooked" with actual blue books, stealing the idea wholesale from Aaron Allston's Strike Force.  Side note: I realized when discussing this article with my children that the term "bluebooking" is in their gaming lexicon, and in the lexicon of my entire gaming group.  This is an issue my gaming group is facing right now, as several players have summer schedules that preclude participating at the regular times.

I would think that between texting and Facebook Messenger and all the other things that are available there would be some easy solutions to modern-day bluebooking, if the GM was willing to do the multiple-ball juggling that is required.  Heck, you could still use bluebooks if you really wanted to, provided you had enough face-to-face contact.

Anyways, this has gone pretty long, but I thought that Blacksteel's post deserved some thought.  Comments about my comments welcome.


  1. Hey thanks for the nod and I'm glad to see it got someone else's wheels turning too. I don't know Fragged Empire but I'll take a look at it. I think something like "asychronous bluebooking" could be a part of it but I don't want to demand a bunch more from the DM. Something a DM could create in advance and let the players experience and then react to and influence would be ideal but until that comes along we may not be able to get farther along than what you describe.


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