Saturday, September 24, 2022

When Rip Van Winkle Woke Up

Something I've puzzled over, off and on over the course of several years, was how on earth role playing games suddenly got popular.

Well, popular in a relative sense, since nobody is ever going to confuse the popularity of D&D with, say, the NFL.* But even more than its popularity, which is likely at the highest its been since the 80s, is the reputation of RPGs. For a survivor of the Satanic Panic, I'm as bewildered by this as much as I am that the Cincinnati Bengals actually made the Super Bowl this past NFL season.**

After all, this art wouldn't have gotten the views
it's had if it didn't resonate with people.
Princesses Playing DnD (2014), by madam_marla.

What I've come up with are a series of reasons why this resurgence in popularity, which started roughly around the time that Dungeons and Dragons' 5th Edition was released, came about. I don't have any data on this --really!-- so it's just speculation on my part. Still, I suspect I might not be too far off the mark here.

  • The release of D&D 5e.

    I'm of the opinion that 5e ended up riding the wave of popularity rather than being a cause, but there's no denying that direction that Wizards of the Coast took with 5e --moving in a less rules heavy direction-- allowed RPGs to become more accessible. 

    Look, I'm not saying that there aren't more rules-lite games out there, because there are. FATE, Fiasco***, Burning Wheel, and other RPGs are more rules-lite than D&D 5e, but nothing has the sheer name recognition among the general populace than D&D. Even Pathfinder, which dominated the RPG market after the disaster that was D&D 4e, doesn't have that market penetration. 

    But Wizards did a couple of very important things when they worked on D&D Next, which is what became D&D 5e: they abandoned the rules heavy approach of D&D 3.x and D&D 4e, and they brought fans on board from the beginning. Those two items, with an emphasis on picking up a game and playing without delving deeply into the rules, allowed more people to just sit in on a session without being lost. Wizards went so far as to release a basic version of the D&D 5e rules online for free. And yes, they're still there.

    Oh, this is the truth.

  • A generational change.

    All of those people who played D&D in the 70s and 80s grew up and had families of their own. (Some of them even have grandkids now.) For those who didn't forsake their roots and remembered with fondness those days of yesteryear, playing D&D in the basement with their friends, chances are they introduced RPGs to their own kids. And with a new, pick up and play friendly version of D&D, they could do just that more easily.

    A corollary to this is that you began to see D&D in places that they hadn't been found in some decades: the discount stores. Places such as Target and Walmart began carrying D&D core rulebooks and starter sets, so those families could actually see the games on the shelves while they were shopping.
    From Facebook.

  • Streaming and YouTube Videos filled a niche.

    I don't believe it's an accident that the rise in popularity of RPGs came about while Streaming and YouTube videos blew up online. In a very real sense, these two activities plugged a big gap in bringing people into the fold. 

    If you're like me --and even if you're not-- and you've heard of RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, and you're curious about it, there was always that divide between wanting to learn and actually playing. I hate to say it, but it's true: there is a huge problem with gatekeeping in the geek community, and RPGs are no different. Everybody has heard horror stories about people curious about playing, showing up to a game session with people they've never met before, and being either talked down to or marginalized for not knowing how to play. What if there was a way to expose yourself to playing an RPG without having to deal with the asshats and gatekeepers?

    Enter social media.

    People who post real play sessions on YouTube, stream them on YouTube or Twitch, or even the "Celebrity D&D" and "How to Play" instructional videos help to bridge that gap and allow a new player to understand how the game is played without dealing with the gatekeepers. I can't emphasize enough how important it is that our hobby be viewed in a positive light, because there's still a pretty big social stigma out there that no amount of handwaving can ignore.

    Those videos/streams can lead to unrealistic expectations in a game group, and I get that, but people ought to realize that not every game group is going to be filled with professional voice actors like Critical Role's. That doesn't mean that people can't grasp the game, however, and do their own thing.


  • Video Games' popularity led people to wanting more.

    Now, this doesn't necessarily work for everybody. I know people who play video games and are perfectly happy with what they've got, such as a good subset of MMO players are interested solely in the raids or PvP and don't give a whit about story or immersion. But for some people, being exposed to MMOs and video game RPGs got them curious about the pencil and paper version, because they would run up against the limitations of video games and they wanted more freedom. This can come in the form of the obvious "Why do I have to kill everything?" question, or the "Why can't I do [insert activity here] in this video game when it makes sense to do that?" 

    The concept of freedom to do as you please in a pencil and paper RPG is something that can't be truly transferred to a video game. Some MMOs come closer than others, but a lot of that freedom in MMOs is restricted to secondary interactions. Interacting with NPCs in a manner that you'd expect, such as chatting up the bartender for information, simply doesn't happen in an MMO if the developers didn't put it in there.

    TL;DR: Improv in an MMO is restricted to player on player interactions, and that can leave a player wanting more than what the MMO can provide.


  • What is considered an RPG has expanded over time.

    I'm reminded of this every time I see a new RPG, such as This Discord has Ghosts In It, that veers more into purely improv territory.

    The old hands at RPGs**** tend to believe that if there aren't the classic six stats + dice + a dungeon + monsters to kill it isn't an RPG, but as the decades have gone on the "role" part of "role playing games" has gained increased significance. This doesn't mean that RPGs have turned into amateur thespian hour, but that the concepts behind RPGs have expanded to cover both the 'old school' designs as well as newer designs that are diceless in conception and execution. 

Such as Dread.
From d20Monkey.

  • RPGs are no longer merely a "Boys Club".

    As I've pointed out in previous posts, there was a deliberate attempt to include women in Moldvay Edition D&D based on the artwork and the sample character, Morgan Ironwolf.  Even the commercials of the time included girls at the table. However, among the general populace D&D was considered the province of geeks and nerds, the vast majority of whom were boys. Even though I would have loved to have gotten to know some, because I'm all up for similar interests, I personally didn't meet a gamer girl until the Fall of 1987 when I went away to college. They might have been there when I was growing up, but the stigma was likely worse for them than for me. 

    Of course, my tribe hasn't exactly been welcoming toward others, either. Like I've explained to my kids, people react differently to being bullied and picked on: some people become determined to not let that happen to others, others shy away from any contact until they're absolutely certain they can open up, and still others learn to become the bully to those they perceive as weaker than them. And if you don't end up on the wrong end of a Gatekeeper, you just might end up having to deal with a few people straight out of Reddit's r/niceguys. My oldest once had an experience with a game group in her high school years that I would describe as barely above soft core porn in terms of all the sex going on.***** 

    The thing is, as Treebeard said in The Two Towers#, the world has changed.

    You could make a big argument that Vampire: the Masquerade upended the RPG world in the 90s by giving an outlet to all of those Interview with the Vampire fans in an era before anybody had ever heard of Twilight. People who were not interested in D&D and other standard Fantasy RPGs found a home in a game set in the modern world where players --as vampires-- got to explore the horror genre in more of a storytelling environment. Among my friends who played RPGs, V:tM was considered the "goth game", but they also acknowledged that it brought women who enjoyed the Anne Rice vampire stories into the hobby, and while those women may have gotten older, they never really left the RPG genre. I still run into people in WoW Classic who played V:tM back in the day, and their stories about their adventures were inspirational to me.

    The Gatekeepers and Neckbeard types are still there, waiting to cause trouble, but they are becoming an ever smaller minority of RPG players. There's nobody stopping them from playing with their own restrictive group, and RPGs' tent has only grown larger over time. There's a spot at the table for everybody to play their own game, and they don't let others tell them that they're "doing it wrong" in a vain attempt to keep "the libruls" or "the wimmens" out. Thank goodness.

    From Reddit.

In the end, no matter the reasons why, one fact remains: RPGs are more popular than ever. I'm just happy that we've gotten to this point, and hopeful that in the future there'll be more stories that I hear about how epic the games were for people as they introduce their own friends and family to our own brand of fun.

*And as many times as the geek crowd like to make jokes about "sportsball", referencing the fact that physical sports aren't held in as much regard among our clan, physical sports leagues such as said NFL and the Premier League will continue to be far more popular among the general populace than RPGs. That doesn't make one superior to the other, it just is. And denial is more than just a river in Egypt.

**I just hope I don't have to wait another 33 years before the Bengals get back to the Super Bowl; I'm pretty sure I'll either be dead or in a retirement home by then. Although the way this season has started, it's not looking good right now.

***If you want a one shot that plays like you're in a Cohen Brothers movie, you want to play Fiasco. The rules are not deep at all, and it's definitely worth the price.

****If we were talking wargamers, we'd call them 'grognards'.

*****And not only that, a couple of the game group were obviously hitting on her. As she put it later, she wanted a campaign, not that sketchy stuff. 

#The novel, not the movie. In the movie trilogy, Galadriel provides that narration at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring.

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