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Why Old School Gaming Needs New Players

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Earlier this week I was asked what type of new old school adventure modules would interest me enough to part with what little money I have that doesn't go to basic survival or paying off the huge cancer bills. I looked at the boxes of modules from TSR, Judges Guild, Mayfair Games, etc. I have from the 1970s and 1980s -- that's probably 300 or 400 modules -- (plus modules from old Dragon, old White Dwarf, and old Dungeon magazines) and realized that I would be unlikely to pay the high per page (and shipping) costs associated with old school modules today unless the module was something I knew in advance that I would love as much as Tegel Manor, Keep on the Borderlands, the City-State of the Invincible Overlord, etc. And there aren't many modules likely to do that.

About all I buy these days are PDF copies of magazines like Knockspell and Fight On! (as I can be pretty sure that there will be something in each issue that will be worth the money even if Sturgeon's Law applies to the issue as a whole -- which it hasn't yet) and PDF copies of rules that look interesting. I'd rather have hardcopies, but shipping them is too expensive for me.

Let's face it. I'm a horrible target for publishers. I prefer to homebrew my settings and adventures, I already have more published adventures I can could ever use even if I never created another homebrew adventure, and I have very little money to spend on new material just to support it. While most old school gamers aren't unlucky enough to be in my financial condition, I suspect the majority of us homebrew and already own more published adventures than we could ever use.

This means that as long as we are around, the hobby of playing old school style games isn't going to die even if no new old school material is ever created by the RPG industry. However, if a part of RPG industry is going to survive on publishing old school material, this means they probably need to really concentrate on getting more old school players into the the hobby.

To be honest, I get the impression that a lot of the success of old school publishers thus far has depended on a (relatively) small group of long time old school players buying material they don't really need because they want to support the publication of old school material. I know if I wasn't spending all my disposable income on cancer bills, I'd be doing just that. While this may be great for jump-starting things, it can only go on for a limited time before people burn out on doing this -- especially as more and more companies create old school material and try to sell it. If an old-school RPG industry is going to survive, let alone thrive, they are going to have to find a way to attract a good number of new players to old school play. New players will not already possess 10 or 20 modules (let alone a few hundred as I do), copies of every major rule system out there, etc. and would therefore be a much better market for new old school products than old grognards like me.

Note that I said the RPG industry needs to to that, not the old school hobby. The old school hobby can easily thrive with a slow trickle of new players, it's the industry who need a steady and larger stream of new players, therefore most of the work of getting those players is going to have to fall on the industry. I've recruited seven new old school players over the last year. That fills up my game, so I doubt I will recruit nearly that many this year. I don't need more, but the industry does if it is to have a real chance of thriving.

11 comments:
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Jer said...
February 25, 2010 at 4:51 PM  

I guess there's also the question of whether the hobby is big enough and lucrative enough to support an industry though.

A lot of the stuff that TSR did in the 80s and other game companies have continued to do since then is the stuff that they did to build out from gaming being something for hobbyists to being something large enough and profitable enough to support an industry. But old-school gaming is somewhat a reaction against the actions those companies took and a look back to what the hobby was like before they took those moves.

Maybe I'm completely off-base, but it seems part of the appeal of the whole old-school idea is that it is a lot more DIY than modern RPGs tend to be. And most of the successful RPG companies have moved away from DIY and towards "here's a steady stream of rules for you to buy". It seems like a company looking to sell old school RPGs needs to find a different business model than that to be successful. Maybe it can be done, but it's going to take some creative thinking to come up with a way to generate enough paying customers with a hobbyist/DIY attitude to maintain a company.

(Of course Palladium has a fairly old school game and they use the "here's a steady stream of rules for you to buy" business model and it seems to work for them. But then, they're selling to a fanbase that they've carefully cultivated and kept for a couple of decades now, so they may be an exception just by virtue of their longevity. Someone starting a new company isn't going to have that kind of base to work with.)

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JoetheLawyer said...
February 25, 2010 at 5:31 PM  

I posted something related to this on my blog yesterday...

http://wondrousimaginings.blogspot.com/2010/02/retro-cool-how-to-spread-old-school.html

And I'm shocked SHOCKED that I'm not listed on the right... :)

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Timeshadows said...
February 25, 2010 at 5:54 PM  

Tekumel has had several different rules sets and the fanbase is always slowly (very slowly) increasing, and it is still very much alive.
--I think the key is to create compelling, high-calibre works of a detailed and intricate nature that can be mined for decades, not endless knock-offs and repetitive dungeon crawls which seem to appeal primarily to neo-grognards, whereas the true Old Guard players have played in their hombrewed campaign settings for so long that new players find them as 'opaque' and 'daunting' as Tekumel.

If the industry wishes to find new players, it must adapt the material to expand into new sorts of scenarios while still retaining the Old School ethos which has already attracted those players dissatisfied with 3.x+ game engines.
--Adaptable micro-settings in system-neutral statting write-ups built around new vistas for adventure, leaving behind the staid and well-trod clich├ęs of pseudo-mediaeval dungeons, cities, and wildernesses.

It may even require looking at smaller, episodic (read: low-attention-span) challenge-scenarios, that in and of themselves can be fropped into a group's play schedule for one session, but ingrained with enough flavour and hinted-at macro-fluff that if linked, they do more than imply a setting, yet one generic enough that any given part of the whole can be used by virtually any GM and gaming group.

Just some ideas I've had recently. ;D

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Flynn said...
February 25, 2010 at 5:58 PM  

Well, to be honest, Joe, neither am I, but I'm still new to the scene. :)

In Like Flynn
http://flynnwd.blogspot.com/

And thanks, Randall, for a thought-provoking post.

With Regards,
Flynn

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Stuart said...
February 25, 2010 at 6:58 PM  

I've balked at the "Old School" label a few times (I never played Kung-Fu Psychic Cowboys back in the 80s), but I think DIY is a very good way of describing the approach to RPGs we all seem to share.

I find all of you guys ("The Community") much more important than "The Industry" for my own enjoyment of my personal gaming hobby. :)

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Daddy Grognard said...
February 26, 2010 at 4:07 AM  

Randall, you and I must have some of telepathic link. As I commented on Joe's post the other day ,this is totally where I'm coming from. I also homebrew for reasons of cost and to avoid the Forgotten Realms syndrome, where one of your players is always going to know more about the setting that you and everyone is going to have an opinion about it. I've got heaps of modules as well, so I'm sorted for product.

While it is easy(ish) to woo players from other editions and even bring back those who have played and gone dormant, the real target for the OSR is those people who have never played but wonder what it is all about. I'm not dissing 4e but we need to give them a choice and show that there are multiple iterations of D&D (whatever it's called now) out there.

If only 10% of Old School players went out and brought someone new into the hobby, the effect would be amazing. Apart from the fact that it would counteract natural shrinkage of the hobby's membership, new players means new thinking and a wake-up call for some Old Schoolers who might have regarded the OSR as some cosy little club where we can have things just so while we reminisce about the good old days.

I wish you well on your efforts on this one; it's something that more people need to get behind.

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Randall said...
February 26, 2010 at 4:12 PM  

Jer,

Most old school gamers include the time TSR had D&D in the "big time" (circa 1979-1985) in their definition of "old school gaming." The "golden age" of D&D had come and gone by the time TSR started making lots of changes to the game that started to turn old school players off. D&D was extremely popular and mainstream (with huge print runs being normal) relatively early in its existence. Old school tries to recapture what D&D was in the early years before AND while it was very popular.

The business model back then was to sell mainly to DMs (AD&D1e players needed -- at most -- a copy of the Players Handbook) and to concentrate on bringing new players into the game to generate cash. The model today seems to be to come out with new editions to sell to the same players that you've sold to before -- and to aim at players instead of DMs because in a static market (numbers wise) there is more money to be made from getting players to have to buy lots of stuff. I suppose this is a okay model for this quarter's profits, but it's obviously an epic fail model over the long term.

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Randall said...
February 26, 2010 at 4:17 PM  

Stuart,

The hobby has always been far more important to me than the industry. In the first place, if the industry disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn't affect my part of the hobby at all. Of course, if the industry completely disappeared tomorrow, all that would happen is a bunch of new, smaller companies would spring up over the next few years. Thanks to software, the Internet, PDFs, and Print-on-demand publishers, the cost of entry into the tabletop RPG industry is very low.

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Randall said...
February 26, 2010 at 4:19 PM  

Finally, apologies to everyone who should be on my Old School Blog list and isn't. I really need to update it, but am so far behind in so many things that I just never seem to get around to it.

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Jer said...
February 27, 2010 at 9:21 PM  

The business model back then was to sell mainly to DMs (AD&D1e players needed -- at most -- a copy of the Players Handbook) and to concentrate on bringing new players into the game to generate cash.

Sure. The game was novel and growing from nothing, so this was a great business tactic to take for the industry. If you can get this model back then it's a huge victory. It's part of what I think Wizards was trying to recapture when they had their big push for third edition D&D back in 2000, mixed with the post-mid-80s trend of marketing to players instead of DMs because the player pool is larger than the DM pool and so there's more money there to tap into.

And that's why TSR and others had the shift from DMs to players in the first place. The market reached its saturation point and so they started figuring out ways to profit from a stable market instead of a growth one. The only real major expansions of the RPG market after the mid-80s were when White Wolf tapped into an entirely new market of customers that had never thought about RPGs before, and then again when 3rd edition D&D hit and Wizards managed to draw back a huge audience of folks who had drifted away from tabletop gaming altogether over the years (which wasn't so much an expansion as it was a re-expansion after years of contraction, I suppose).

Again I'm not saying that it can't be done. But I don't think it's going to be an easy thing to do. And while adding more players will help, it's not going to help as much as it would for the "modern" RPG market. Because the old-school style lends itself to products aimed at more at DMs than at players, so you not only have to recruit more players, you have to turn them into DMs. And then convince them to buy stuff instead of just making their own. When doing it for yourself is one of the huge draws of doing old school stuff in the first place. It's a tough nut to crack, I think.

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Kiashu said...
February 27, 2010 at 9:46 PM  

Don't hassle me, I'm working on it, damnit.

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