Greg Christopher wrote a post on Errant RPG that I have been turning over in my mind. Most of the post, I'm afraid, suffers from the weight of a lot of gaming scene references that gaming scene people seem to think everyone has a deep, personal experience with. For example, where Greg is describing what a "story game" is, he leads with ... well, here's the quote:
"These games really began to rise to popularity with White Wolf's triad of games; Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage. It dominates the independent gaming scene and has a lot more ink on paper than many realize. The success of FATE has been essential in moving the independent elements of this design wing into FLGS locations."
I want to say that I've never played any White Wolf game. Until coming online, I'd never heard of White Wolf. I can't remember ever seeing "White Wolf" written on any product box or booklet anywhere. I probably have, but what I'm saying is that it just didn't register. I didn't care. This seems remarkable for something that dominates the independent gaming scene. It absolutely has a lot more ink on paper than I realized, since I've given the matter zero thought except for the occasional reference to White Wolf in someone's blog that has caused me to think, "Oh, that shit again, I don't care." It is something along the line of the music freak that goes on and on and on about Frank Zappa ... assuring you over and over that the emptiness of your life is a direct result of not owning at least a dozen Zappa albums. And in this line of thought, I'd also like to add that I don't know what the fuck FATE is, or how it has been 'essential,' or what the fuck an FLGS location is. I'm certain I could look up FLGS online, but I just can't be bothered.
Greg does start to give an actual definition to story games halfway through the paragraph, but true to journalistic dogma I've already given up and moved on. It wasn't until I'd reached the end of the post, and had decided to write a post about it, that I motivated myself to actually reading the whole paragraph that had lost me on my first attempt.
Story games, apparently, are player-driven games. It's actually that simple.
I think it's a little funny when an 'in-house' writer can make obscure references to in-house games, that no one outside the hobby can possibly be familiar with, but can't use the term 'player-driven' with the certainty that other in-house people will understand what's meant. It's sort of like someone in the industry assuming you'll know the meaning of Fracking, but that you'll have to have drilling explained to you.
But I'm speaking somewhat derisively about Greg's post, which isn't actually my intent. Up to now, these are just things that bug me. I don't think they bug other people - particularly those deeply familiar with the wonders of White Wolf products. Having explained three types of roleplaying (that just sound like one type to me), Greg asks the question, where are all the players?:
"There has been extensive talk in the community about RPGs dying. We have hemorraged players for the past decade. Why?"
Okay, first of all, do we have numbers on this? I'm a statistician, you see, and if there are hard numbers describing the RPG hobby both in 1985 and today, I want to see them - because that would be, you know, cool. I suspect there aren't any numbers, however, because if there were they would be posted on hundreds of blogs, with everyone saying "Look, 83,844 players in 1985, and 51,087 players now! My god, what's happening!"
And without numbers, I've got to say, we've got the premise to describe absolutely zilch. I know people are probably remembering that conventions in the 80s had more people ... when there were, A., less conventions, and there was, B., less divisions in the kind of RPG you played. I know people are probably remembering when it was easier to get a game started on campus when A., campus authorities gave less of a shit what people did in empty lecture halls, and B., virtually everyone who played the game were less than 23 because the game was ten years old. Today, of course, there's a 50/50 chance that one of the people in a gaming group is 19 to 22 and has moved out from their parent's house, so a campus meeting room isn't needed. In 1980 to 1985, the mass of growth in the hobby was aged 8 to 15 - older people being ignorant to the hobby's invention, since it was sold exclusively in children's gaming stores - but I have no statistics on that, so please give those numbers absolutely no credence whatsoever.
Listen, I know there's a sense that things must be on the skids, but as human beings we have to learn not to trust these pessimistic inclinations. Gut instincts are primarily fashioned to keep you from getting lost or getting injured. Your default setting is don't trust anything. Your sense that things are going badly is the same sense that makes you check every three minutes or so to make sure that your fellow pubcrawling buddies haven't ditched you while you're over here hitting on this boob-endowed bartender. Yep, still there. Yep, still there. Better check again ... if they take off I'm fucked.
Yet still I'm not at the point where Greg inspired me to write this post. I just want to get in my points that we don't have the slightest clue how many people are out there playing the game. We really, really can't go on the basis of anyone's sales figures, anywhere. I play D&D with 10 other players now, counting those not always present, and some of those players are heavily involved in bi-weekly Battletech game, and I can tell you for a fact that the total income these people transmit most months to the gaming industry is Zero Dollars. That's because we don't need to spend any money to play the things we love. We already have all the things we need to buy. We spend more money on videogames because we can't just keep playing the same video game forever. Videogames are not built that way.
It's as though saying that the decline in music sales by the masters of the industry plummeting was proof positive that people were losing all interest in music, and not just that they were getting their music from other sources, or stealing it. Sales make the worst sort of statistics. They only apply to the companies that are accounted for, and they're not translateable to the number of people buying, since the only measure is money. One buyer who drops $3,000 in an afternoon cannot be compared to one thousand children who can only afford to buy one d20 this month. Which, I ask you, is relevant to the popularity of the hobby?
At last, however, let me get to the motivation. Greg has given me plenty of fuel; I've casually been tossing log after log on a nice, warm fire, driving off the chill of the room and offering plenty of eye-candy as the flames ripple. But as the logs crumble down into embers, I'll get to my purpose.
Greg's answer to the disappearance of players is that there are weaknesses in the various RPG styles. Here's how he describes the flaw in player-driven (story style) RPG's:
"This style requires too much of the Players. There are some really great players out there, but we cannot design the game assuming that the players will be virtuousos ... most of the complaints against this style that I have read on the web focus on this aspect, that the players don't want to have to make everything up. They don't all want narrative power. Some people just want to show up and drink beer and not read the rules ..."
There's just one little flaw in this flaw. It fails to take reality into account.
Let's consider, in comparison, the existence of the piano. Oh sure, there are those who just want to show up and listen to people play a piano. There are those who don't want to invent songs for it, or learn to play it, or who find the traditional piano a lot of trouble and would rather just play an organ.
But taking that as evidence that pianos shouldn't, therefore, be designed to enable the existence of virtuosos is ... dumb.
Let's consider the difficulty in making a piano. A Steinway Concert Grand, one of the best pianos in the world, takes about 11 months to fabricate. Excessive effort goes into choosing the type of wood, cutting it to as near-perfect shape as is humanly possible, polishing it, perfecting the interrelationships of the parts, etcetera, etcetera. As of 2010, the company Steinway has built approximately 600,000 pianos, about 25,000 of which are of the highest quality (D). The cost of the piano is so high that on the Steinway website, they don't quote a price - you have to write asking for more information. Through other sources, the price ranges upwards from $165,000. For $1,590, you can rent a Steinway D-274 for a day.
How long does it take to learn to play piano? Most educational factories that teach piano will downplay this question, arguing that you can "immediately," since what they want is your money and they know most of you will quit in the first few weeks. In reality, it will probably take a year of steady interest to bring you to the point where you'll be able to play a variety of songs without much difficulty, reading them from sheet music. In two or three years, you'll start to feel quite comfortable with the instrument, and in five years you will be the kind of talent that can sit down at a piano at a party and play for an hour or so without difficulty. Some people do it more quickly than this; some people never do it.
Most piano players will never have any idea how good the piano they're playing on is. All will "sense" this particular piano is better or worse, but that's almost always how out of tune the piano is, and not the actual quality of the piano. Only somone on their way to becoming a virtuoso will be able to tell that a particular part of the piano has been badly made ... and that's because a virtuoso will do more than play. They will learn to take pianos apart and to tune them, and thus become far, far more involved with the existence of the instrument.
Let's go back to Greg's assertion: "We cannot design the game assuming that the players will be virtuousos." I'm sorry Greg, but this completely wrong assertion is based on the fact that - until now - every game has been designed on the belief that players cannot possibly be virtuousos. Or, alternatively, if there are such mythical persons, they are so rare, and so few and far between, there cannot possibly be any monetary value in creating a product that would satisfy such a tiny, insignificant number of buyers.
Therefore, every game in existence has been designed for MORONS. Dumb, beer-swilling fucks with a tiny bit of money, who wouldn't know a good game if it jacked them sideways up the butt with a frac-injection system. Games are designed for MORONS because companys that are run by MORONS are convinced that only people like themselves exist in the world and have money. People who don't have the 'player will' to sit down at a game for more than a few weeks without throwing up their hands with the positive certainty that "I WILL NEVER LEARN THIS!!"
I have one more contention to air. Greg writes,
"... these games are way too complex for a new person to master. For better or worse, kids today are not as willing to read a huge book of rules and learn them all. They just aren't."
These wacky kids and their inability to understand complex things. Especially anything with a huge book of rules, like the legal system; or anything else that's extraordinarily difficult to master, like human anatomy; or complicated subject material, like astrophysics, computer design, geology, mathematics and chemistry; or things with endless amounts of written data that needs to be read and assimilated, like history or literature.
It's really a terrible shame that there are no children who are insanely fascinated with any of those subjects, otherwise they would exhaustively spend their time digging out every imaginable piece of material and consuming it like self-educating fiends in an effort to understand precisely the tiniest detail. But there are no children like that, anywhere in the world. The only children who exist are those who hope someday to drink beer and arrive ready to play a game that someone else has taken the time to buy.