Children of a Lesser Table - how the future of RPGs is not RPGs

Let it be known that this is a highly opinionated and subjective article about one possible way to address a problem I see in the RPG scene. It springs from my personal experiences with both game design and the tabletop market. It’s going to be long, possibly a bit rant-y, and I ask forgiveness in advance for that. It’s a big and complex hulk of a topic, and I’m doing my best to express is as concisely and clearly as I can.

The Question

An evergreen topic within the RPG community is: how do we expand the hobby?
How do we get more and more diverse people to play RPGs?
How do we get the RPG industry to grow into something sustainable on its own merits?

Recently the #RPGaDay2018 initiative posed one such question, sparking a host of very interesting articles in answer to it. Pretty much all of them seemed to look inward for a solution:
  • we should cultivate a less toxic and more welcoming play culture
  • we should design better, prettier, more diverse, more accessible games
  • we should be more active, organise more, talk more, show more, play more

To me these are all very positive answers that will no doubt improve the current state of the RPG scene. But in regards to mainstreaming the hobby, of expanding the player base beyond its usual limits, I believe that a different approach might be more effective.

My idea is to look outward, outside of the RPG space and into the world of boardgames.
To learn from the very similar struggles and growing pains they also had to face, and to understand what kind of work and solutions helped them achieve the incredible boom and success of the recent years. And also to prey on their (ever growing) audience as boardgame-players could be an easier target for RPG-infection than complete non-players.

An RPG by any other name

When meddling with the line between one thing and another it is useful to know what that line actually is. In my personal experience a practical no-nonsense way to draw such line looks like this:

The play activity produces shared fiction, where such fiction informs the rules while at the same time the rules inform the fiction.

In an RPG players have to describe stuff because it is the only way to convey what is happening at the table; then depending on what is described and how, different mechanics are activated; then depending on the mechanical outcome, the described fiction changes. This cycle of mutual influence (fiction-to-rules and rules-to-fiction) is what sets an RPG apart from other kinds of boardgame. When a player is unable or afraid to produce the required fiction the rules should help, support, and facilitate... but otherwise the fiction must be indispensable for the gameplay, and its absence should break the game.

If a game works like this, then the CORE experience is that of an RPG (or at least is inductive to it) no matter what shape it takes or which surrounding elements are involved. I'm sure other people has different opinions about this, and that’s ok; this definition is just a touchstone that I personally find practical when working on my designs, and thus will be the foundation for the rest of this article.

Dead End

The idea of charming boardgamers into trying RPGs is not, in and of itself, particularly novel. Many RPGs have boardgame elements, either because that was the best way the designer knew how to express their vision for the game, or because the designer was intentionally trying to “disguise” their RPG as a boardgame. But usually boardgamers easily recognise them as not-a-boardgame and dismiss them as a quirky novelty, something maybe enjoyable but nothing they would think of picking up and play on their own.

This happens because of a hundred reasons. RPG rules are too long, too complex, too conceptual, too relying on someone's judgment and arbitrations. Physical components are absent, or not toy-like, or not really functional within the scope of the game. Play lasts for too long, or has no definite end, or has no clear win condition, or requires a lot of creative effort with little mechanical support. Most RPGs sport one or more of such features, even considering the most modern and functional RPG designs. As a result boardgamers unmistakably spot these elements and recognise one such game as “one of those RPG things”.
Mission failed.

On the other side of the spectrum we can find games that are fundamentally not-an-rpg (by the definition offered above). But because they present a superficial look that some people readily associate with D&D, the general consensus is that they could be good “bridge” products, exposing non-roleplays to the charms of a roleplay-like experience.
Problem is, they do not.
Games like the classic Heroquest or the famous Descent or the funny Super Fantasy or the recent Gloomhaven all look like they could be kind-of-almost-maybe the same thing as an RPG dungeon crawl. The look is surely spot on, but unfortunately the game experience is radically different in all the places that truly matter (again, see my definition above) thus are of very limited effectiveness for “infection” purposes.

For example in Gloomhaven the game itself feeds a specific fiction to the players. The players then move tokens on the board, draw cards, roll dice and make “tactical” choices in order to achieve the game goal. But in so doing the players don't produce any fiction, they don't describe in a graphic way the actions and thoughts and motivations of their token-character. The game has no need nor space for this.

Boardgame dungeon crawls also have another inherent limit when it comes to mainstreaming RPGs. The dungeon crawler is a sub-genre of relatively hardcore boardgames. Lighter and more accessible ones do exist, like Super Fantasy, but represent only a fraction of the genre. What this means is, their target audience largely overlaps with the same target audience of RPGs such as D&D: people that (by boardgame standards) could be defined as hardcore players, with a penchant for crunchy rules, lengthy games, and a taste for heroic fantasy aesthetics. It’s not a new audience. It’s the same audience most RPGs have always targeted. And it’s a small, very small, niche of the boardgame segment. Selling RPGs to almost-roleplayers is still better than selling RPGs to already-roleplayers, but still, not really a way out of “the deep room”.

Why the Time is Now

In the past five years the boardgame world has seen the rise of two trends that have heavily impacted the whole industry and that could bring boardgame players ever so closer to RPG ones: Legacy games and Storytelling games. 

A boardgame has legacy elements when part of the game gets physically destroyed or permanently altered as a consequence of active play. This has little interest to me in and of itself, but one of the main side effects of such mechanic is that it brought back into fashion the concept of campaign play. To play the same game multiple consecutive times, with the same people, keeping tabs on consequences that carry on from one session to the next.

A boardgame is part of the “storytelling” genre when... well, opinions differ. But more or less it’s a kind of game that uses generous amounts of fiction to engage players beyond what the mechanics themselves offer. The game quite literally “tells a story” to the players, and that’s its main (but not only) attractive.

Neither are really new concepts, but in recent times they have become awfully popular and are currently very sought after games to design and publish. But most of all they attract a much broader and varied spectrum of players than the usual dungeon crawler crowd. Titles such as Above and Below, Near and Far, Time Stories, Tales of the Arabian Nights, etc are but a few examples.

But wait... a campaign game with a heavy focus on narrative? Sounds awfully familiar! True, but unfortunately these designs still lack the core elements of an RPG experience. Some allow the players to reminisce past game session as a story after the play has happened; Pandemic Legacy, just like many other “legacy” games, often has such effect. Some actually offer a whole story before the game even begins, allowing the players to discover it bit by bit through play and choices; TIME Stories is a bright example of one such design.
But none of them require players to produce and share new fiction.

More than ever before we have a broad market with an increasing taste for games featuring a campaign format and/or an engaging story. Unfortunately RPGs as a product still bear a stigma and are seen as undesirable by the average boardgamer. If only they knew... if only they could have a taste on their own terms...
What could be done?

If the design of legacy and campaign games is of particular interest to you, I’ve been made aware of a series of articles about the details of what makes such games tick. Part one, two, three and four are already available.

Learning From Others

My answer to the problem lays in game design. This comes from observing how the boardgame industry faced the same challenge to go mainstream, to appeal to a broader audience, to overcome the prejudice the public at large harbors towards you.

Publishers with a vision, and a desire for a steadier and healthier market, started investing in the design of aimed products with specific characteristics that could offer a “bridge” experience. Games aimed at a casual audience of non-players, these games need to be fast, unobtrusive, easy to explain, family friendly. The goal is to convince a non-player to sit down and play, discover that the experience can be enjoyable for them too, so that in time they can be lead towards “more proper” games. Selling Dobble today means cultivating future 7Wonders players tomorrow.

To spread this idea, pretty much all the major European prizes focused their selection rules to reward games with these very characteristics. It is sufficient to look at the past winners of the Spiel des Jahres to see this trend in practice: Azul, Kingdomino, Codenames, Colt Express, Camel Up, Hanabi, Dixit...

Same has happens with the italian Gioco dell’Anno held in the city of Lucca: Kingdomino, Potion Explosion, Colt Express, The Little Prince, Augustus...

This prize has an RPG counterpart, but regrettably it does not share the same goals and regulations of its boardgame twin, simply selecting an RPG with good production values (illustrations, print quality, editing, attractive setting) without care for its potential impact on the player culture. Some of the judges have candidly declared that the prize has no specific goal, and that using the same standards as its boardgame counterpart was initially attempted but readily discarded as a hollow and infeasible option. I mention this because it’s a topic I hold very dear, and it aggravates me to see such a great potential for long term change and growth be squandered. But I digress...

As these prizes hold a prestigious status throughout the boardgamer community at large, the winning games always see a spike in their sells; this rewards publishers that produce the “right” kind of game, influencing the hobby to set trends that have, on the long run, a meaningful impact on the whole industry.

The results are in front of everyone’s eyes. A steady and constant growth of the whole boardgaming market, more possibilities for new agents to enter the arena, better chances of progress and success for those that step up from their hobbyist roots and grow into a proper company of professionals. Everyone lamenting a saturation of games, and yet everyone increasing their productive efforts. More and more varied games being designed and published, with an overall increase in quality as better games set a higher bar that the players learn to expect as standard. Not everything is pink, and the push towards mainstreaming the hobby still needs to go a long way, but it’s happening and the results are already tangible.

The Bridge

What the RPG industry lacks is an effective “bridge” product. Clearly I’m not talking about one single game, but rather a whole class of games that people in the industry should start to produce with intent. Something similar already exists, but lacking purpose of design it falls short (I’ll talk about examples in a moment).

First of all, a bridge to what?
I have already discussed in a previous article why the Indie approach has, in my opinion, so far failed in captivating a non-player audience. Building on that, I believe that the ideal target for expansion would be the boardgamer community. They represent an audience of people that already plays analogical games, a target far easier to reach and sway than the mainstream public of non-players.

Secondly, what would a bridge look like?
RPGs carry a heavy stigma with lots of boardgamers also considering, as explained before, how they are just “wrong” as products for a lot of reasons (components, rules, effort, time, etc). So how can RPGs reach the boardgamer audience? And especially the extended pool of non-dungeoncrawlers?

My solution is to stop trying to charm boardgamers with RPGs, but rather give them what they want: a boardgame! A Trojan Horse of a boardgame that leverages the current craze for campaign and narrative games, but that somehow also does the extra step needed to offer the essential RPG experience I described at the beginning of this article, or that at least cuts as close to it as possible.

Games like StoryLine, Winter Tales and Hobbit Tales all lead players to produce a story through gameplay, but one way or another all fall short on delivering the RPG kernel I talk about. In most cases the narration doesn’t feel like an organic part of the game, but rather a separate element that the designers insisted on riveting on top of an otherwise independent tactical game. Other times the fiction production lacks help and support from the game mechanics, boiling down to “pick a card and come up with a story” which for most people is very difficult and extenuating to do, and even frightening enough to keep potential players away from even trying the game. Once Upon a Time offers perhaps the closest thing to the RPG core experience, but then falls into the same pitfalls that normal RPGs do when presented to a boardgamer crowd: too few/simple physical components, too shallow tactical element, blank page syndrome and largely unaided fiction production.

Let me be clear: these are not critiques to the games in their own merit, but rather comments on their ability to be turned towards a purpose (offering an RPG-like experience) which was never the point of their original design.

Since the aim is not to create a brand new game genre to bedazzle the market, the presence of games that more or less fit the role of “roleplay bridge” is actually helpful, as publishers will be able to fit such games in known categories. On the other hand none of these games were created to fill such a role, and this shows in the shortcomings I mentioned above. Thus the task at hand is to focus on designing games that can better and more fully deliver an RPG-like experience through an honest to God boardgame medium.

Another key element is, being published by an actual boardgame publisher rather than by an RPG one or independently. This is important for multiple reasons.

First of all, the boardgame industry has different quality and design standards than the RPG one; if a game gets the approval of a boardgame publisher it means it has what it takes to pass itself as a boardgame in the eyes of the boardgame community too.

Secondly, being published by a company known for producing boardgames sets the expectation that this new weird game too will be a proper boardgame, rather than “one of those RPG things”. This might sound shallow, but setting the proper expectation often makes or breaks a product.

Finally, it’s just a matter of numbers and size. In the contemporary Italian market, but I suspect the numbers will not be that much different in the rest of Europe, selling about 1000 copies of an RPG rulebook in a single year is considered a very good achievement, with "indie" titles obviously straggling a bit behind. On the other hand the average boardgame publisher usually deals in volumes of 4000 units per year, less if the resources are tight or the game doesn’t inspire too much confidence, more if the title is expected to perform particularly well for some reason.
If nothing else, this means that a boardgame product has the potential to reach a much broader audience than an RPG ever could.

Before anyone asks, I'm intentionally ignoring D&D as its numbers are so far above those of any other RPG (about 10.000 sells of the localised 5th Ed Player's Handbook in its first year) as to constitute an exceptional and unique phenomenon, thus irrelevant when analysing the overall RPG scene; it’s almost a separate market of its own.

Call To Action

To the best of my knowledge there are currently no boardgames designed to intentionally be a bridge experience towards RPGs. Especially not products that a “proper” boardgame publisher would ever consider publishing. And if there are, they are too few/old/unknown to really influence the boardgaming culture. So let’s try and fill this niche! Let’s make new games that could, one session at a time, training and conditioning boardgame players to look at “normal” RPGs as something not so alien after all.

In my personal view the ideal RPG-bridge game should have:
  • appealing physical components
  • a clearly co-op or competitive structure
  • a clearly defined single-session end/victory condition
  • a short session duration of no more than 60 minutes
  • simple, fast and accessible rules that fit in only a few pages
  • a family friendly theme and look
  • as much as possible of the fundamental RPG core (fiction-->rules + rules-->fiction)
  • the potential for campaign play
  • concrete mechanics to break down and aid the production of fiction

It’s not going to be easy. I myself are currently butting heads with the design of one such game. I hope in the near future I will not be alone in this endeavour.