Where is the Future of Role-Playing Games?–I expected it Last Year

RPGs in their current form date from the early 1970s and there is very little difference between a 2010 game and a 1976 game. Oh, the rules are more complex, statistically balanced and slickly produced, but the underlying structure of the game is unchanged. Gamers purchase rule books filled with game rules and fluffy campaign environments. Players then generate PCs and pit them against challenging scenarios conjured by a DM.

I do not expect the player/DM dynamic to change, but I did expect a revolution in the game business model. The vast majority of RPG publishers still produce books and miniatures for a game for sale. The main difference is PDFs and other digital formats supplanted some of the old dead tree offerings. It strikes me that all of this technology has so much more to offer than just a download pipe for PDF files.

Wizards of the Coast attempted to leverage some of this technology in their digital initiative (D&D Insider), but they botched it. Software quality aside, WOTC substituted a subscription web site as the delivery system instead of downloads. That was not the evolution in gaming I wanted. It was more of a format change. Book to PDF to website to deliver content  generated from within an ivory tower. WOTC gives and consumers receive with open arms, thankful for the manna from gaming heaven.

The Internet offers so much more in terms of functionality that no gaming company is currently exploiting. I want a game that integrates the best parts of social networking and game design from the moment of conception, not as an afterthought.

First, forget PDF files and dead tree books. Every aspect of the game exists only online, from rules and GM advice to maps and monsters. Create the website with built-in character generators and encounter builders. Use technology to make the game easier to run and more fun to play! On a personal note, add a dice roller for those that choose to use it, but I think most enjoy the clatter and terror of dice flying across the table in a moment of crisis.

Yes, this model requires Internet access to run a game. Given the near ubiquity of wireless net access this is less of an issue than even two years ago. Give it a few more years and you will have to live in Outer Mongolia not to have internet access at your chosen gaming location. Portable computers grow more powerful and cheaper every month, so even the most poverty-stricken of games will wield adequate technology.

You are probably thinking “Hey, you just described the WOTC DDI and 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.” Partially this is true, but only in the respect that online PC generators and encounter builders are good ideas. I want to get beyond the one-way business model of “publisher creates and the masses consume.”

All role-playing games are organic and evolve as the players move through the plot. GMs create new monsters, adjudicate rules and fix glaring mechanical problems in the system. Players constantly test the system’s limits and offer suggestions. Sadly, all of this evolution occurs on a local level with game groups. Sometimes a massively broken aspect of a game is repaired when enough players gripe to the publisher, but this is relatively uncommon.

My idea is a social network that constantly revises the game system, proposing tweaks and updates on an ongoing basis. Let the players decide if a rule is pointless or needs updating. A simple voting mechanic lets everyone have a say in what goes into the system.

Beyond rules, let members of the social network add content (monsters for example) to the “official” game. Members submit ideas to a voting process and after they reach a certain threshold (60%+), it goes into official canon. After approval all of the game’s features (PC generator, encounter generator) can access the new content immediately.

The social cloud aspect is very important because it makes public the thousands of good ideas that occur within small game groups that never spread into the greater gaming community.

Give out rewards, both tangible (cash/t-shirts/dice, etc) or intangible (admin status, badges) for contributors. Let the players build the game they want, not what a marketing department thinks they want.

This is a very rough draft of what I would like to see. There are still major issues to overcome like copyright ownership of submitted content, a sustainable business model(advertising or subscriptions perhaps), some kind of ombudsman system to review content changes and a hundred other things I have not thought of yet.

So, what say you all? Is this feasible? Is somebody already doing it? Or are we damned to buy paper rule books and PDFs for all time?

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

10 thoughts on “Where is the Future of Role-Playing Games?–I expected it Last Year

  • January 5, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    The one problem I see with this concept is the particularly outlying groups: the ones who are fully aware that their interpretation differs from what everyone else wants and would rather stick to “you do your thing, I do mine”. If you’ve only got one perpetually improving version of a system, it’s bound to be moving away from someone’s tastes. (In my experience with existing RPG systems, the tastes they’re moving away from are almost invariably mine.) How would you deal with the people who want a game the rest of the audience doesn’t?

  • January 5, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    The only issue I have with this model is that you’ll have a ton of players who just buy the game book and as far as joining “the movement”, it better be free or forget it.

    As a publisher, I would want to be aware of what my players want and don’t want in the game; however if I create a system where a need for a future edition along with supplements is completely negated out with an updatable wiki or other fandangled gizmo on the web, I’ll be broke.

    As a player, I wouldn’t want the rules to face constant change. There has to be a period of time where I know that X rule does Y result and not for me to have to go on the website and realize, “Oh gee, they changed that three months ago.”

    Also, gamers are like cats, we all have a different tastes and I doubt seriously that we can be a consensus on very much in any game let alone the industry. The marketing adage, “Try to be everything to everyone and you’ll be nothing to no one” applies strongly in this hobby.

  • January 5, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Actually some RPGs have moved a long way, particularly in terms of the player/DM dynamic. Primetime Adventures is the most obvious example that come to mind.

    I guess the problem with the style of game you outline is that old stumbling block of development: how do you make money from it? I don’t see why something like what you describe couldn’t work on a small (amateur) scale using one of the build-your-own-social-network tools that exist now, or even a wiki. A small scale project would probably avoid the problem outlined above of divergent community interests. Grab a bunch of friends and do it!

  • January 6, 2010 at 1:43 am

    Even as a software engineer I am personally in favor of dead tree books, miniatures, real dices and so on – things I can touch and collect. Besides PDFs I don’t like the virtualization of the games, I am old school in respect to this topic.

  • January 6, 2010 at 3:17 am

    I agree with Reto and I too am a software developer. Technology exists to solve problems, if what is being said here is not really a problem then simple moving the medium to a newer set of technology will not achieve anything.

    There is value in getting together with your friends to game, face to face, with real people. This is something that we as a society are beginning to lose, as more people devote time to facebook and other internet pursuits instead of meeting up socially. I think it is a big mistake to lose one of the great human aspects of roleplaying game… in an age where few regularly play board games and have substituted that with online play on computers with (at best) disembodied voices from distant locations, I say, let’s keep the face to face aspect of roleplaying forever.

    Let other mediums seperate us, isolate us and make us compete. Let roleplaying bring us together and cooperate.

  • January 6, 2010 at 7:13 am

    I will respond more to each comment after work, but I wanted to be clear that I do not want RPGs to entirely move online. I still want people to sit down together and use computers to facilitate the process. However, I am not certain the current business models are durable enough to survive without significant changes.


  • January 6, 2010 at 8:12 am

    This is something that I’ve been thinking about for sometime and, part of the reasons 6d6 Fireball was created, but it is a very tough nut to crack.

    The product development costs are significant – several months of coding on-top of the normal RPG development costs.

    And the risks are much higher than a normal RPG. The dead-tree rule book model is a proven business plan that the consumers understand.

    Someone like WotC have the clout and resources to do something radical, but there is no guarantee of success. Either they take a huge gamble with the D&D brand or they launch a new game. History shows that even big RPG companies like Wizards have a hard time creating new products that are really successful.

    There will be a revolution one day. Always-on internet + iphones / netbooks should make a real difference to the rpg market.

    But revolutions tend to come from somewhere you least expect it. They cannot be manufactured.

  • January 6, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I see several issues with this. 1) I’ve looked at a lot of 3rd party content for games. A lot of it is crap. Slightly less of the published 3rd party stuff is crap, and even less of the original publisher’s stuff is crap. Majority approval will bring forth the most popular content, not neccesarily the best. 2) Different groups like different things. I’ve seen house rules completely change the way a game is played. If they incorporate the most popular contributions into the game the whole popularity of the game may sag as people find more things they don’t like being added. 3) This can also lead to instability as different people change different things. I can see this fragmenting a game as different people cling to different revisions of their rules. And when somebody joins a game, it’s hard for them to know which game they are playing.

    I would like to see something between your idea and WotC’s current DDI setup. Keep the official content official, but add lots of ways to access additional content and plug it in. Like adding homebrew feats and powers to the D&D character generator. And then adding a wiki-ish database to organize and publicize all these changes. This has the advantage of a stable baseline with a certain amount of editing/playtest/development, and then lets people spread their contributions.

  • January 6, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Good post.
    FYI, i have recently returned from Outer Mongolia, they also have reasonable access to the internet đŸ˜›

  • January 13, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    If you were looking for the future of role play in 2009 the closest thing you could find to it would be Mouse Guard or Jake Richmond’s Ocean.

    Games like Ocean are a new breed that defy the system/module format. The system no longer needs a module because the system inspires the player’s to create the story as they play.

    mouse guard refines what I would say is a fairly traditional role play experience. however the rules, while still being complex are simple enough that they don’t require after market futzing. it also incorporated a nice comic book license helping attract new players to the table

    Once the system/module format and rules complexity are removed a vast majority of the problems of modern roleplay you mention vanish. i would say they future is here and getting brighter every day.

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