Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I'm a Crumudgeon

It's been about a million years since I've posted to this blog (or any blog, for that matter). Mostly, it's been a change of fortunes that's prevented me from being online as much as I used to be; I used to manage a restaurant, which means I spent most of my time sitting around, doing nothing (except for yelling at waiters, which shouldn't be considered work in the first place; it's more like entertainment). Now, I work as a waiter, and spend most of my time getting yelled at. The universe, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. Or sarcasm. I can never remember the difference. Anyway, I've been thinking lately that roleplaying is dead.

Since the first of the year, I've been planning my return to game design. I know that I've tilted at this windmill before. It's the whole reason I started this blog. But then I came to believe that publishing a roleplaying game would be pointless. Yes, it had to do with the status of the distribution network and retailers and collectibility and all the other excuses I've been reading about on the net. It's safe to say that getting into stores seems like a sysiphian task for not a lot of reward. But that's not the real reason I think publishing an RPG is pointless. It's that, as a past-time, as a hobby, RPGs are dead. They're being propped up by a group of 40-somethings who fondly remember a time when they'd get together with friends in someone's basement, and roll dice, and have fun. They're reliving the '80s. It's nostalgia.

What makes me say this? Am I some kind of hateful doomsayer harshing on a beloved past-time? Am I somehow a bitter former game designer? Not at all. I merely look at the current trends. Back in the 80's, the only things we had to occupy our time were watching TV and going outdoors to play. Let's face it, we're nerds, so going outdoors to do anything is anathema to us; and back then, there were only so many stations playing Star Trek re-runs. There wasn't much to demand our attention.

No so today. We've got Xboxes and iPhones. We've got netflix and the internet. There is no end to the diversions to which we have access. But even this isn't why I proclaim the death of RPGs. It's the lack of new blood coming into the hobby. I offer, for your consideration, the average teenager; I'll call him Teddy (though he is a real person). Teddy's father owns a game store. He attends GenCon annually. He knows about roleplaying, and has even played RPGs. And yet I've never heard him mention playing in any kind of campaign. He doesn't meet up with friends weekly in order to chuck dice. He doesn't obsess over a character sheet. He doesn't tell you about his character, because he has no character to tell you about. If Teddy has any time, he's playing the aforementioned Xbox. Go out to dinner with him, and he's on a Nintendo handheld. Visit him at home, and he's playing an MMO. Teddy's brother is the same way.

Before you accuse me of being a Luddite, I completely understand why kids today prefer video experiences. Let's face it, men are visual creatures. Staring at a computer screen and manipulating an avatar is fun. You don't have to read a 256-page book, or ride your bike over to your friend's house every tuesday night. You can play anytime. With great graphics. But MMOs are to gaming what masterbation is to sex -- you don't need another person. Indeed, every time I've watched someone play an MMO, it's a singular experience.

You run your character around, performing certain "missions." I put that in quotes because these missions all seem to revolve around finding an NPC and whacking him with your sword. I've watched a friend play, and all he did was hunt (as in for furry little animals). Why? Because he was trying to increase his hunt skill; he didn't even really do anything. He set his avatar to "hunt" and walked away from the screen. After an hour, his hunt skill had increased, and he went on to running around completing missions. Which involved whacking NPCs with his sword. This seems boring to me. There was no interaction.

Why, I wonder, aren't there missions that require you to successfully sneak, or get information out of an NPC, or save a princess? It seems to me that MMOs just don't take the place of what an RPG used to be. The closest I felt the video game ever got to a real RPG session was Morrowind (for the Xbox). You had to talk to NPCs. You could accomplish the missions any way you wanted. You had to use other skills. It was, however, still a singular experience. And this is why I say RPGs are dead.

We seem to have lost the desire or the ability to interact with other people. Just as the internet has coarsened social behavior and discourse, technology has allowed us to disconnect from each other in the realm of roleplaying. No longer do we participate in a shared story experience created through the collaborative effort of a group. We fire up our computers to play Warcraft for a few hours, alone in our rooms. It's easier. It satisfies our demand for instant gratification. Why get together with friends in a smelly basement and imagine slaying a dragon? Who's got the time?

As Teddy, and others of his generation, continues to prefer the on-line, computer experience, there is less demand for the old-fashioned RPG. We are the buggy whip. We are the transistor radio. We are the phonograph. One day, Gen Con will consist of octogenarians hobbling around the convention hall with our walkers and canes, and AARP will be a major sponsor. It's inevitable.


  1. Epic post. Very nice. I totally disagree though. I have designed 2 games in 2010, about to release 2 more in early 2011 (hopefully to make the Ennies cut off). Why am I doing it?

    RPGs are extra-chunky spagetti sauce. Watch this video and you will understand.

  2. Oh and I am following your blog now. You should feel obligated to continue posts of this quality.

  3. First, welcome.

    Second, I'm largely thinking out loud. As a function of this, I'm inclined to post things I don't necessarily agree with, either.

    Third, congrats on designing two games. I wish you well with it.

    Fourth, are these games that have been published on paper, or are they .pdfs? I warn you, I have little respect for an RPG that gets ten downloads from RPGnow, and way more for a game that's sold 1,000 copies in hardcopy. That's just me. Don't take offense.

    Fifth, I think the .pdf phenomenon is a symptom of RPGs being dead. Feel free to discuss.

    Sixth, glad you liked the post. I like getting feedback. I'm more inclined to continue posting. I can't guarantee the quality, however. =)

  4. I totally get the thinking out loud deal.

    Free PDFs, both in public beta right now, when they are finalized (which will be before 5/1 so they can be considered for Ennies this year) they will be placed on RPGnow. So I don't have stats now.

    I think the PDF phenomenon is the rebirth of the hobby in control of hobbyists, instead of marketers and corporations.