It is true that the nerd tribe back in the “olden days” wanted more people to be into their hobbies and interests. Today, nerds of a certain age feel nerdom was better before the comics, films, books and games we love became popular.
I was extra grumpy the day James published that post. My reaction was more of a hot take than a considered response. I must not have had lunch yet.
The other comments were somewhat predictable. If you have been around gaming a while, you’ve heard them all before. Nobody is forcing you to play 5E. More players means more gaming. Blah blah blah.
One of the comments was from Mike Mearls (probably The Mike Mearls). He said that if so many people weren’t drawn into the hobby there wouldn’t be so many good games.
I don’t know about that. I have thoughts about that later in this post.
I have a framework to think about the business of game publishing and the subculture of gamers and I’m going to share it with you.
The myth of more.
Many people believe; more = better. More sales. More fans. More horsepower. More views. More does not necessarily mean better.
More young women are dancing on TikTok. Does that mean the American Ballet Theater is about to get an influx of great talent?
Of course not. It would be absurd to think so.
I think it is equally absurd to assume that the popularity of the instant-oatmeal of RPGs is spawning massive new greatness in the hobby. More is just more.
Have more players made the role-playing game hobby “better?”
We’re told that all these new players have made the hobby “better.” I put “better” in quotes because it is rarely defined by people making the claim. It’s better for WotC’s revenue. It’s better for sales of 5E compatible games but is it yielding more creativity and innovation in game design.
I don’t see any direct evidence that more people playing 5E has made the hobby better in any of the ways I care about.
Claim: 5E has spawned a whole new generation of creative people making new stuff for the hobby.
Sort of. There are definitely more people creating 5E products and those products mostly suck. There are some standouts but most of the material for 5E is terrible, including what WotC publishes.
We were getting more varied and more interesting games before 5E was even a thought. POD, PDF, ecommerce, and crowdfunding is what caused the explosion of creativity and innovation in gaming. It was not the influx of new players in 5E. If you look at the reports published by the Orr group, the careful reader will note that most of the top games being played on Roll20 preceded 5E’s release. Many of the best selling products on DriveThruRPG are for games that preceded 5E’s existence.
For the first time in history, the gatekeepers of publishing have became irrelevant. You can use the information technologies available to anyone with an email address and an internet connection to sell the thing you make directly to a customer. You don’t have to pass through an editor, publisher, distributor or retail store. You can do it yourself or with your friends. This is the game changer. Not all the people who came in after watching Critical Role. Those people are followers, not innovators.
Wizards found a way to tap into the creator economy by creating DM’s Guild, a form of digital feudalism. The peasants get to keep some of the surplus but WotC owns the manor. The company dangles the carrot of reach and “exposure” to creators who can use the WotC IP and sell product on the WotC controlled platform. Creators give OneBookshelf and WotC the bulk of the profit. If WotC really likes your work, they can use it without paying up. This gives them access to the best work created by dedicated fans with the main cost being server hosting and maintenance. Cheap compared to the overhead of paying professional writers to create new lore.
Claim: There are more people to play. Sure there’s more people who play 5E, that’s true. Have you tried to get a local game of Shadowrun or Vampire going? That’s just as hard as it ever was. Even though there are plenty of players interested in 5E, there is a shortage of DMs. Many gamers are willing to pay quite a lot to professional DMs to run games. Many new players only option is Adventure League.
Every time someone new looks for a game on the Cleveland D&D Facebook group, Adventure League is recommended multiple times. More people in the hobby who think the typical campaign is a linear, railroady, interactive narrative masquerading as a game is a good thing?
Claim: 5E provides a market for self-published designers and small game companies. More 5E players is driving the game industry toward a dominance of the 5E rule set. The ruleset is fine, but it has limitations and other rule sets are better suited to certain settings and playstyles. Many game companies have released 5E versions of their creations, settings and adventures even though the system is a bad match. In some cases, this might be a survival decision. In others, it’s a move to take advantage of an opportunity for profit without consideration for the long term consequences.
I saw ad on Facebook yesterday for a Kickstarter to release a 5E version of Talislanta. Some of you will remember the ads from Dragon.
Is that “better” for the hobby?
Wizards of the Coast is going to make the One D&D brand as big as it can with multiple, highly accessible points of entry. It will be very convenient, comfortable and safe. There will be more ways to consume D&D than you have ever had before. You won’t need books. You’ll be able to play with your phone, your watch, augmented reality and Oculus. Anything and everything with an ampersand will be available for you to purchase and it will be delivered to you at your front door, free shipping. More people than ever before will LOVE Dungeons & Dragons.
Is it crazy to suggest that having more fans of “D&D“ isn’t all unicorns and rainbows?
My people, Not more people.
More than ever, I am disinterested in American mainstream pop-culture. It’s OK. There’s some cool stuff being made by big names. Most of it is convenient, safe, expected, and uninspiring.
More gamers isn’t much of a boon if the only game company they support is WotC and publishers of 5E compatible games. More publishers dependant on Wizard’s of the Coast. More players who ignore any game that doesn’t have a 5E engine behind it. More Adventure League events crowding out other games at shops and conventions. More shelf space in your FLGS taken up by WotC product instead of work by creative independent publishers. That’s better?
The best art, music, games and film is coming from small creators taking risks, and finding edges. That’s where I want to be. I buy that kind of art. I go to those kinds of concerts. I read those sorts of books.
What I want is more metal heads, horror fans, sword-and-sorcery fans, grimdark fantasy fans to come back to or take up fantasy adventure games. I want more people who like cheesy 80’s fantasy movies like Hawk the Slayer. More people who read books about history, myth and legend.
I want more people whose entertainment isn’t safe and sanitized for your protection.
I’m not looking for more people. I’m looking for my people.