Thinking Gaming: 3

What made RPGs a success? (Continued)

Real World social networking
The success of the earlier RPG incarnations was down to precursor of modern social networking. Gamers formed groups, gaming created a common bond, a common topic of conversation. People grew up together around gaming and in the contexts that they knew each other. Friendship groups and contact groups, communities and conventions. Many groups got together around school, college, university, the kind of friends you keep for life. Common contact and common experience helped keep games and gamers together over years, from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. Friendship groups and gaming groups aren’t necessarily codeterminous, but it happens enough to be worth noting.

Just like annoying people on Youtube commentary, ‘First’ holds some kind of prestige. Also like the Youtube comments it doesn’t actually have to include any particularly good content to get that prestige. The early RPGs were the ‘first’ of their time, bringing in new concepts and ideas and for a lot of people once you’ve committed to one thing you’re not going to bother with the others – because you’ve already put the time and effort into one. This is the challenge that RPGs that are not D&D face. This isn’t the full story of course, Warcraft is far from the first MMORPG but it is the first truly mass-market MMORPG and having got a lot of people playing it those people aren’t especially likely to move on.

Shared Experiences

Back in the day when D&D was a near universal experience with gamers, indeed with a whole generation, at least enough for everyone to have a vague idea of what you mean by ‘D&D’. People also played the same adventures and certain ‘modules’ became notorious and particularly well known. War stories can be shared mostly with your own gaming group – which is pretty insular – but classic modules, starting adventures, things that everyone’s played, that creates a broader, wider common bond. It does introduce other problems though, people who’ve played the same adventures before and the risk of spoilers, which seems to be a much bigger issue in tabletop RPGs than it is in MMOs, where lots of people devote a lot of time to making public every single aspect of lore, monster stats and treasure item.

Vampire’s Success
Vampire – and White Wolf – are worth taking special notice of as they’re really the only game (besides Pathfinder) to seriously challenge D&D for the top spot. They brought in a new wave of gamers, appealed to a different demographic and rode the initial rise of the internet to considerable success. Vampire fiction has much of the same unity of form that fantasy fiction does, the concepts and ideas are nigh universal and the fiction has a broad appeal and many different sub-forms that were all drawn together. The further storyteller games only expanded that appeal, especially when taken as a wider, broader universe.

Cultural movement – Goth revival
Like D&D and the fantasy fiction surge, Vampire and the World of Darkness rode the surge of a goth revival in cinema, television and music. This was never, quite, mass-market appeal as Twilight has been, but it was genuine and wide reaching and Vampire became a part of the fabric of that subcultural movement throughout the 90s. Vampire – or something close enough to it – appeared on non-horror TV shows and as a game was almost as recognisible, even to non-gamers – as D&D had been.

LARP Society
One genius move was to make official their LARP society and to encourage and support salon larps around the world. While this wasn’t entirely under White Wolf’s control and both they and the LARP society made  bunch of terrible mis-steps over the years it did mean there was an active community around the world, the opportunity to travel and a boosted investment of time and energy into the games, encouraging people to spend more time and more effort upon it. This investment of effort sustained interest, advertised the game, mixed RL and RP rewards (controversial) and hooked people into a social structure and community as well as a game.

Of course, they screwed the pooch badly when they replaced the Old World of Darkness with the new one. Wiping out all that time and investment that people had put into their games – especially in relation to the LARP society. Having your effort and time wiped out and wasted never goes over well but, up to that time, it was streets ahead.

Event Gaming
Vampire and the World of Darkness were based around ‘events’. The LARP society had big global plots and meetings, conventions, around the world. The tabletop game had the oft-maligned ‘metaplot’. A story that played out across the books, adventures and supplements, a dynamic and changing world and plot and it got to the point where some people bought the books – and the fiction etc – just to keep up with the story. An early indicator of how multi-media approaches could be successful.

What’s missing from D&D’s successes?

  • There’s no surge in a particular form of genre fiction.
  • The university culture that established D&D has changed.
  • Roleplaying is not uniquely available in Tabletop and is not new any more.
  • RPGs are no longer controversial or ‘dangerous’ (and thus not as appealing to teens).
  • RPG community has become self-censoring, trying to chase a ‘family’ market that was never the case before.

What’s missing from Vampire’s successes?

  • There’s no notable, cohesive subcultural revival or innovation that could associate with a game.
  • Reaching new markets is difficult.
  • There’s no gap in the market (D&D was winding down when World of Darkness came up).
  • Vampires/horror tropes are no longer dangerous (see D&D) they’ve become lame, if anything (Twilight effect).
  • RPG community is divided and many are wary of ‘innovations’, reacting against White Wolf and its ilk.