Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pondering the Hobby - 2011

I try to stay plugged in to what's new in the hobby. That mostly comes from online sources of course but occasionally something new sneaks up on me in the local game store. One thing I've noticed this year is that there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of  NEW out there. This year's Gen Con is the first one in a long time that seemed to have almost nothing new being announced. I mean both new games outright and supplements for existing games apart from adventures. - things that players and DM's get excited about and generate some chatter and some interest. Some of this is probably my fault.

With all of the edition turnover and balkanization - the end of the d20 boom for example -  a lot of companies have gone off and done their own thing. For me Green Ronin, Sword and Sorcery, Kenzer, Malhovic, and Goodman Games were big players in the days of 3rd Edition D&D. Green Ronin is still on my list for M&M but they went off and did Dragon Age which holds little interest for me and have a few other things that are mostly outside of my interests as well, and they do nothing for 4E now. S&S is just flat out gone. Kenzer has Aces & Eights and Hackmaster which interest me a bit but not enough to keep up with them constantly and they make nothing for the games I play now. Malhovic pretty much went on hiatus with the launch of 4E. Goodman tried and gave up on continuing their 3E business model with 4E and has their own fantasy RPG coming out now. So these companies that were getting a lot of my money over the last 11 years stopped getting most of it over the last two.

Insert Fistful of Dollars reference here

This is not entirely their fault - a lot of it is tied to badly handled licensing arrangements by WOTC. Rather than the glory days of 3E where a whole bunch of the industry was devoted to supporting one game system - yes it was chaos but it was a glorious chaos - 4E has sort of gone off into it's own fortress and shut the gates, keeping everyone out. Sure, you can come in, but you're going to have to pay rent to stay and they can kick you out at any time. Most of these companies didn't choose to leave - they were told to! Pathfinder has tried to capture the 3E glory and has succeeded to a degree, but not on a scale like what we were seeing before. If you like more-retro-than-that there is all manner of old school goodness available at costs ranging from free to not free. There is Hackmaster. There is Goodman's thing with the d5's. There is Dragon Age. There is GURPS, Hero, and Savage Worlds. There is Warhammer FRP. There's probably some version of the Palladium FRPG in print right now too. Diversity is good, having options is good, but I can't personally contribute to all of them - and those are just typical fantasy RPG's! So I think a lot of us "choose sides" and try to focus on one or a few games. For a few shining years we really didn't have too - we could get the output of a lot of good people and it was all intended to work together. That's no longer the case.

Glorious Chaos - Kor agrees. And wants his new game.

Sure I could just pick them all up - at different points in my life I've pretty much done that. Not anymore - I'm trying to actually run these things, so the priority goes to new stuff for games I am running, or might run in the near future, or have run and liked enough to maybe run again. In a way, keeping up with a game system is like starting a relationship. I have to buy the main rules, check out supplements and adventures, stay in touch with the forums and the website to see whats going on. I don't really have time to sustain that kind of effort for more than a few systems, so if I'm not running it then these days I probably won't even bother taking a look at it other than a review somewhere. It's not so much the expense of buying one rulebook - it's the overhead of keeping up with the game. That's time I could spend working up material for my campaign, running my campaign, or trying to see what people are doing in the forums for a game I already have, like, and run! In the pre-internet days we had less to keep up with, and the "news updates" only came about once a month in the form of a magazine or a new book showing up at the store. Now a popular game with an active fanbase can generate a ton of material and be found in a dozen forums and blogs and fan sites. It's not a bad thing in and of itself but it does mean that there is just more "there" out there for any game nowadays*.

I used to buy main rulebooks for some games just because they looked interesting, I liked the subject, and if someone decided to run a game of it I would know enough to join in and play.** As it turns out, there are a lot more players than DM's and so what got played was largely determined by what myself and the other DM in the group felt like running. On those rare occasions someone else stepped up to run a game, it was usually a game we had already played because that's what they knew! The outcome is a lot of shelves of books that got read (or more often skimmed) and then set aside, never to see real action***

So yeah, some new games that are undoubtedly cool go uninspected by me. Some join the rotation. It feels like there just isn't a whole lot of new out there this year. Last year saw Dragon Age, M&M 3/DCA, Gamma World, a bunch of D&D Essentials stuff, Deathwatch, ICONS, the Dr. Who RPG (maybe that was technically 2009 but it was the end of 2009 so it's pretty close). This year we have that new Middle Earth thing and ... what? Looking at RPGnet for reviews of games published in 2011 and there's not much RPG there. It's a little bit of a conundrum - I don't really have a ton of free bandwidth to go diving into a new game but it bothers me when I see that hardly anything has come out this year. In many previous years I felt like there was more coming out than I could keep up with - now I feel like there's not much coming out that's worth keeping up with and I'm not all that picky about these things.

Now it's not like I'm going to run out of games to play - I think most of us are well-supplied in that area and could probably make one up on the fly if pressed. It just seems like this is a low point for new game releases or development. I hope so.  The last few years haven't exactly been prolific either - if you take away 4E and Pathfinder I didn't see a whole lot of new books on shelves in 2008 - 2009 - 2010 either. In 2007 we had Star Wars Saga edition, Hollow Earth Expedition, Savage World's Explorer Edition, Aces & Eights, Battlestar Galactica, Dread (not my thing but hey), Reign, and Scion. That's a pretty varied group. After that it narrows considerably with Traveller and the 40K universe games being a notable bright spot.

So what's my point? Well, at this time every year I can usually think of at least one game that came out that I don't have that I wish I had picked up. I don't feel that way this year. Now there are some supplements that I'd like to catch up on, but no new games. Since my personal economic downturn ended earlier this year you might think there would be some pent-up demand for some things I missed while things were tight - there really aren't any. I've managed to pick up the few games I really wanted and managed to mostly keep up with the 4E product train when it was humming. For the things I am running though, I don't really feel an urge to grab a bunch of stuff - I have plenty of material and there's nothing else out there that I see as a must have. I still like to play, and I still like to see new stuff, and lord knows I have plenty of room to comment on things, so I don't think it's a tremendous attitude change on my part, I think that there is less stuff out there.

Is it an economic downturn thing? I'm not sure. Is it the fracturing of D&D into 4E/PF/OSR? Maybe. Is it the growing "New Model" approach of publishing primarily PDF's that some companies use, leaving the physical books to print on demand services? I could see that. With bookstores and game stores taking a beating I wonder if physical books will become a luxury version of an RPG, an optional upgrade kind of like the special leather cover limited editions we saw a few years ago, while most will "get by" with pdf versions of the rules. I was thinking that this trend along with the end of the d20 license as "the" system that we would see an explosion of creative new games published like a small press game of years ago, mostly living online and growing in scattered small pockets where a DM manages to talk some players into trying something new. I'm not seeing that to the degree I thought we would, but I do see it happening. I do like my books, but if things go that way I think that I can live with it.

I'm still a little surprised though - where's the new Star Wars game (it is on TV right now)? Where's the new Trek game (there was a movie in 2009, and presumably will be another)? Aren't we due for a new edition of Shadowrun about now (4th came out in 2004 - The previous record was 6 years!) ? How about some kind of competitor for Vampire -  we're 4 movies into Twilight and 4 seasons into True Blood and we only have the original game as any kind of big player here? I know we're neck deep in fantasy RPG's and about hip deep in superhero RPG's (look at the movies and TV shows over the last 11 years to see why) and that's fine but there are other things that are popular right now that might spur some interest in an RPG. C'mon people! I'm not the guy to do this - I've been playing too long to see vampires as anything other than experience points waiting to be collected - but surely there's someone out there, maybe even a female game designer, that could pull a nice mechamically light supernatural romance game together. Or else let Cinematic Unisystem take it - they managed to turn Smallville into something resembling an RPG. Heck, over the last 10 years we've also had the Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and some other shows about criminal lives - why isn't there a non-supernatural dark side of life game out there somewhere? I wouldn't expect to see it from WOTC, but I would expect to see it on RPGNow. 

Twilght: The Hunter

I've probably rambled on enough now, but this has all been on my mind as I start to look back at 2011. It's been a definite upswing for me personally, but "this thing of ours" doesn't seem to be doing terribly well on the whole. I hope it's temporary or at most a transition to a new method of doing business. In 2021 I expect I will be playing some of the games I enjoy now but I am not sure I will be acquiring/updating or supporting them.  I suppose I'm just trying to stay on the lookout for The Coming Thing.****

*Except for Rifts - nobody is allowed to talk about Rifts on the internet. Thank you Palladium Games.

**This was the source of my Law of Gaming Depreciation: The value of a main rulebook to any game declines over time. Not financially - mechanically. This is because traditionally a Big Book is 100% of the game for a few months and then a supplement comes out. Probably one about guns (modern/sci-fi mainly) that adds a bunch of equipment and possibly new combat rules. Then the main rulebook is 90% of the rules. Then there's one about Elves that adds some new stuff to character generation and the main rulebook is 80% of the rules. So a year or so into the life of a new edition you're Big Rulebook is still mostly useful. By about the end of year two though, bringing only that book to the table will get you sneered at by regular players as they are forced to share their stack of splatbooks to help you get your character up to par. If you need examples I suggest Rifts, Shadowrun, and every edition of D&D since 2nd. GURPS was pretty good about avoiding this, Hero too, and Savage Worlds is too. I'm sure there are conclusions to be drawn there but I'll leave that to another day.

***unless they were pulled out to argue with someone on the internet. Even I get bored sometimes.

 **** and for both of you who get that reference *hat tip* and we should play something sometime

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