Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Balkanization of the rpg industry

When I started playing tabletop rpgs back in 1981, there were only a handful of games that anybody ever played in my little corner of the North American continent. Most everybody played something from TSR as their main game, be it AD&D, Basic D&D, Gamma World, Star Frontiers or something more fringe like Boot Hill. Some people played Traveller, although I never knew any personally. A few adventurous types even dabbled in games from Chaosium or FGU, but you typically had to go to conventions to try them out.

Of course, we all knew about other games like Original D&D or Empire of the Petal Throne, but they were really more myth than reality. Even back then, a set of the OD&D books would have been something akin to a hockey stick used by Rocket Richard, more of an heirloom than something you would take out to the local rink for a game of shinny. Other games like GURPS or MERP which would garner a lot of attention were still a few years away.

I mention this because in gaming circles, the early '80s are often described as the golden age of tabletop role-playing. It seems, the trpg community has been wringing its hands in existential dread ever since. Every new development, from the parting of ways between Gygax and TSR to the rise of CCGs to the demise of TSR and the emergence of online gaming has been greeted with a new round of doomsaying. Now, I agree with those who say the tabletop rpg industry is in decline, but I don't think any of the reasons usually cited are responsible. I think the big problem is fragmentation of the market. I'm not talking about the OSR and the edition wars here. The OSR guys have their own little thing going on and good for them. As for the WotC v. Paizo melee, both are big enough to nourish the industry and a little healthy competition is good for both companies. No, I'm really talking about the second tier of game publishers. The most egregious example is what is currently going on with RuneQuest.

Back in the day, RuneQuest, released in 1978, was a pretty popular game in some quarters. Not D&D popular, but it held its own and allowed Chaosium to become a major player, especially with the 1981 releases of Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer. The Basic RolePlaying system used by Chaosium today is based on the d100 game mechanic developed for RuneQuest. In the early editions, RuneQuest was intimately tied to the Glorantha setting, but in 1984, a new edition (3rd ed.) published by Avalon Hill, broke that connection and the game went into decline. Eventually, Greg Stafford, the original designer of Glorantha, reacquired the rights to RuneQuest under his own company, Issaries. Issaries later licensed both RuneQuest and Glorantha to Mongoose, which released two editions, the second of which is, in my humble opinion, the single best-designed tabletop role-playing game ruleset ever devised. It should be noted that Issaries also publishes another game, called HeroQuest, which is mechanically very different from RuneQuest, but which also uses the Glorantha setting (confused yet?).

Jump ahead to 2011, Mongoose has just ended its licensing agreement with Issaries (note, by this time, Chaosium is completely out of the picture). However, it is justifiably proud of its MRQII rules and wants to continue to support them. Enter Legend, a rebranded version of Mongoose RuneQuest II. Interestingly, Mongoose owns the rights to the Stormbringer license, having acquired them from Chaosium in 2007, so for a few years, Stormbringer, renamed the Elric of Melniboné Role-Roleplaying Game, and RuneQuest were reunited using the same ruleset. Anyway, we now throw in another monkeywrench. Peter Nash and Lawrence Whitaker, the two game designers most intimately associated with MRQII, have left Mongoose to form their own company called the Design Mechanism and wouldn't you know it, they promptly acquired the rights to RuneQuest and Glorantha with the intention of releasing RuneQuest 6 next year. Meanwhile, Mongoose, has several IPs, Deus Vult, Wraith Recon, Age of Treason and Elric of Melniboné that all use the Legend game engine. With that many properties, chances are none are going to get the support they deserve. Indeed, based on the release schedule Mongoose recently put up on their site, it looks like the newly-published Age of Treason campaign setting may be left to wither on the vine.

So, what is the point I'm trying to make here? I think I represent pretty much an ideal customer when it comes to the gaming industry. Tabletop rpgs are my primary hobby. I don't own an Xbox or a World of Warcraft account. I've played Magic: The Gathering once and even that was with a borrowed deck. I go to maybe five movies a year. But I spend a lot of money on games, many I will probably never play. I am the kind of customer a game publisher wants to keep happy. What the rpg industry doesn't want to do is to confuse the hell out of me! Almost every game I have invested heavily in over the last few years has gone through some kind of similar trauma to that described above. CthulhuTech, Cthonian Stars, Eclipse Phase, d20 Modern, Septimus, an endless litany of failures and lack of support, some terminal, some temporary, but in every case, I stopped buying the game. Only the Star Wars Saga Edition (and, of course, Pathfinder) managed to survive to what I considered an appropriate conclusion and I bought every single book. What I'm saying is, please gaming industry, show me some commitment. I wouldn't buy a car if I thought the automaker was going to hand off the model to another company which would completely redesign it and stop making parts that fit my vehicle. Likewise, I don't want to invest in a game if I think the company is going to abandon it half-finished.


Ed. note: The real reason for this post, I just bought Age of Treason and it looks there won't be any supplements for it in the next 10 months at least. I am not amused.


Aaron E. Steele said...

Tabletop roleplaying is dead. Whatever number of people are playing TTRPGs, there are 1,000 times as many (and i'm being conservative) playing MMORPGs and other electronic games.

The problem isn't fragmentation of the market. There is no market.

The lack of support for a property is because the property is unprofitable.

The King is dead; Long live the King.

Simulacrum said...

If Age Of Treason appears to be left to wither on the Legend vine because there are no follow-ups on the Mongoose Schedule - it's because it's a third party product. Mongoose have onyl listed their in-house stuff. There is plenty planned - just so long as people want more (appreciation is high so far) there will be more.

Rognar said...

Aaron - Even in the golden age, rpgs were never more than a fringe hobby. A fairly large number of people had heard of D&D because it made an appearance in the movie E.T., but I think it's fair to say a thousand times more people played board games than role-playing games. Just as tabletop rpgs never killed off wargaming, I don't see MMORPGS killing off tabletop rpgs. We will never see another renaissance like we did with the release of D&D 3.x, but the industry and the hobby will endure.

Simulacrum - Thanks for the insight. I'm relieved to hear we will be seeing more of Age of Treason. Is there some other site where hints on future releases will be posted?

Imperator said...

Aaron: 1985 called, they want their doomsaying back.

Seriously, when I started with the Red Box in 1985 the hobby was about to disappear, everyone said. How many years does it need to keep going strong until people stops saying that?

If there's been a Golden Age of RPGs, is now, when we have more games, more options, more resources and more means to get gamers than EVER.

Obiri said...

I have a good gaming group playing fun games. I am content.

Derobane-bane said...

I live, I roll, I slay, and I am content.

Simulacrum said...

@Rognar There's a thread on TheRPGSite where I metnioned some stuff that's in the works, link here


Rognar said...

Awesome, thanks!

Stainless said...

RE: Age of Treason. It's not clear to most that AoT was published through Mongoose's Flaming Cobra publishing subsection (or whatever it's now become). Thus, it doesn't get the same publishing treatment as Mongoose's in-house stuff. In addition, it's being authored by a single person and he appears to have a fairly hefty day job to cope with.

I'm with you Rognar, I REALLY want AoT to go forth and multiply. It's the dog's nuts!

Rognar said...

@Stainless - Exactly right. Since Mongoose changed their site design, it is not easy to determine which products are published under Flaming Cobra and which are Mongoose. Also, if you go to the Mongoose fora, AoT is actually included with RuneQuest and Legend. There's no mention of it in the Flaming Cobra forum.

Simulacrum said...

And funnily enough they omitted the Flaming Cobra branding from the book. That may be because Mongoose Will knows it would have messed up the handsome cover...