Dragonmeet and widening the RPG audience

I had a great time at Dragonmeet on Saturday. It may surprise some people to know that this was my first Dragonmeet (London’s premiere roleplaying convention which I believe has been going since the 1980s) but in fact, UK Games Expo this year was the first gaming convention I’d gone to since, I think, Games Day ’88 (around the time Games Workshop was transforming from a distributor to just focusing on its own miniatures games).

I had a game of Durance, Jason Morningstar’s next game after Fiasco which can best be summed up as “early colonial Australia – in spaaaace”. I wish I’d played a couple more games, especially Microscope, but Durance took a long time and I needed a break and some shopping time.

As for purchases, I picked up My Life With Master, Psi*Run, Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne and Becoming Heroes – all indie games with their own little quirks. I’ve read the rules to Psi*Run thus far and it looks great – essentially the players are amnesiacs with psychic powers who are being chased by some unknown threat: maybe they’re alien abductees or the victims of some government experiment. They start the game asking themselves a series of questions and end the game when one of them has answered all of them (as is common with indie games, you get to make these up as you go along).

I only went to one seminar, and I regret not going to the one with Robin D Laws about his new Hillfolk game which I’ve invested in as a Kickstarter. I’m still toying with investing in the Guide to Glorantha Kickstarter (I deeply love Glorantha as a setting both because it is highly original and the setting of the first RPG I ever owned), so it would have been nice to go to that, but it would have meant not having a morning game. Priorities!

The one seminar I did go to was about the future of the UK RPG “industry”. But the main point that was rammed home at the seminar was that there was no industry, just four games companies which operate out of the US (Pelgrane Press, Cubicle 7, Chronicle City and Mongoose), a distribution company (Esvedium) and a scattering of shops. And while the general consensus seemed to be that its decline from the “heady” days of the 1980s has probably levelled out now, no one could envision any sunlit uplands ahead to look forward to. There was an agreement that with the internet, we probably don’t even need an industry for the hobby to continue, but it would probably plod along in any case. There was no prospect of a renaissance.

I found it to be quite an interesting talk, not quite depressing although in many ways it should have been. It reminded me a bit of the very similar conversation going on within the comics ironic-quotation-marks-industry and the heroic but seemingly futile efforts of a handful of people working within it to persuade it that there is a mainstream audience out there to exploit if only it would haul itself out of its self imposed ghetto (I promise not to segue into a discussion about Giles Coren being a cock, except to say that Giles Coren is a cock).

I’ve written about RPGs and the mainstream recently. At the risk of repeating myself, if you want to expand your audience, you should focus on games that do not require (at least) 3 expensive “core” hardback books to play and which encourage the sort of play in which one individual dedicates huge amount of personal time preparing a game for everyone else. You should probably look at games which put as much emphasis on plot and character – possibly even sex – as they do on action and violence. You should look at games with a wide range of genres, not just another flavour of fantasy-horror-scifi. None of this is to say that any of these things are bad or that all games should contain none of these elements, just that variety is the spice of life and a narrow idea of what is and isn’t roleplaying doesn’t help anybody. Don’t mistake a genre for a medium.

Of course, there are games out there which tick these boxes, but they are known as “indie” games and seen as niche (from my experience, by their advocates as well as others in the RPG scene). I don’t think there are any particular villains here: most of the industry panellists at the seminar were enthusiastic about the indie scene. Indeed, the host James Wallis wrote The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and is in many ways a godfather of the indie scene*. All the UK RPG publishers produce games which are to a greater or lesser extent “indie” in style or tone. The issue to me is more one of mindset, and a realisation of the opportunities that games like Fiasco bring to the market.

At one stage in the seminar, one of the audience members asked the panel what they were doing to bring children into the hobby and got quite finger jabby. While enticing a new generation is important, I wonder whether too much concern about making it accessible for “the kids” is missing the point. I couldn’t make head or tail of Runequest 2 when I was 8 (or MERPs for that matter; I always seemed to buy complicated fantasy games when I was a kid); it didn’t stop me from playing it numerous times. I persevered because it seemed cool, because my media was saturated with science fiction and fantasy, and – crucially – because there weren’t shinier, easier ways to sate my appetite for immersive fantasy gameplay. Since the latter factor has now been irrevocably lost thanks to computer games and to a lesser extent miniature war games, I can’t really see how efforts to entice them will ever be enormously successful.

I think it’s the slightly older generation that is a more likely prospect and the one thing that isn’t likely to excite them is tabletop versions of something they can do on the computer in a way that is infinitely more immersive. What that suggests to me is that “old school” dungeon bashes are unlikely to cut the mustard.

Tabletop roleplaying’s potential appeal is in providing things you can’t do on a computer, and that means stuff other than killing things and solving puzzles. You can create worlds, endless situations, flawed heroes (and even not heroes at all) with a few simple rules, some friends and possibly some dice in a way you can never do on a computer (and the moment you will be able to do that will also be the singularity; best not to think about!).

Roleplaying’s potential therefore is its ability to provide boundless creativity in a social environment, if only the scene could get over its obsession with stabbing orcs. And what goes for teenagers is also likely to appeal more to women.

What all this suggests to me is that if the industry is to be truly ambitious, it needs to start eschewing notions of “old school” play and deliberately look towards games which offer things that are unique to tabletop roleplaying itself. Surprisingly (to me at least), that would suggest that the approach of moving to simpler boardgame “gateway” games such as Castle Ravenloft may not actually be the right approach. It suggests that, for example, while the Dungeons and Dragons Next project may result in a game the existing fans love, it will be a cul de sac rather than a way of bringing in new gamers.

Psi*Run offers an alternative approach. A 60 page rulebook clearly designed to be accessible to a younger audience, offering a type of game that you couldn’t do better on a computer. I’m thinking of buying it for my niece. The recently released Dungeon World appears to offer old style fantasy adventure with more of an indie aesthetic; maybe this is the way forward?

Piers from the London Indie RPG Meetup made a salient point at the seminar when he suggested that in many ways indie games are more like traditional RPG scenarios than game systems in that they are intended to be played a couple of times before the players move onto something else rather than a game you go back to again and again over a number of years. In some respects, this is a bit like novels as opposed to a massive TV franchise like Star Trek; a one off story focusing on one or two ideas rather than a never ending saga. And that also has a lot in common with how boardgames have developed over the past decade where the designer is becoming ever more important rather than the franchise.

Overall, I think there needs to be an injection of ambition into the RPG scene. There has been more innovation over the past decade than we saw throughout the 25 years before that. Accessible games like Fiasco have the potential to break into the mainstream. What the scene needs is a little more self confidence and a little less comfort with the idea of wallowing in obscurity. There’s already Free RPG Day (itself a spinoff from Free Comic Book Day) but from what I’ve seen of what most companies produce to promote this event, it is more aimed at promoting upcoming stuff to an existing base than building a new one. Perhaps this day, or another, needs to be adopted for evangelising about the mediums true potential – and potential audience.

* (UPDATE) It would appear that I stole that description of James Wallis from Robin D. Laws. But he’s right.


  1. Hi there,

    Are you ‘James’ the guy I played Durance with in the morning?

    Either way I really liked this post about Dragonmeet!

  2. James–

    You’ll hear no argument regarding anything about the Dragonmeet industry panel from me, but I thought I should point out that Dragonmeet hasn’t actually been running since the 1980s. Games Workshop ran an event called Dragonmeet in the 1980s, but stopped and let the trademark lapse in the 90s. When we (‘we’ being a loose group of UK games publishers and creatives) were looking to start a new gaming event in 1999, we contacted GW to ask if they’d mind us using the name, and they didn’t. So it’s two different events with the same name.

    Many thanks for the ‘godfather of the indie scene’ line. I may quote that.


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