Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 21, 2014
An ailing hobby

In many ways a tabletop role-playing game is very social. You sit around a table with friends and interact a lot with each other during hours. In other ways however the hobby is somewhat insular: Your table is the virtual world, and that world does not necessarily have much connection with other virtual worlds or players out there. Even the companies making those pen & paper role-playing games aren't quite sure how many people are actually out there playing, as any given sold rules book could either be long lost in the garbage, or be the centerpiece of a group of several people. Having myself played tabletop RPGs, mostly various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, for over 30 years, I always considered this to be an active hobby with many other players out there, even if I didn't see them. I might have been wrong.

In a recent market study, the North American "hobby game market" was found to have hit $700 million at retail in 2013. But of those $700 million collectibles made $450 million, miniatures $125 million, board games $75 million, non-collectible card and dice games $35 million. What about tabletop role-playing games? Only $5 million. Wow! That is nothing! There are single Facebook games that earn more money than that!

While it is theoretically possible that people play on forever with old books, such low sales volume are indicative of an ailing hobby. With a game like World of Warcraft making over 100 times more money per year than all pen & paper role-playing games together it appears obvious that people interested in fantasy role-playing today are online, and not sitting around a table with friends. And if you look around for example for role-playing material on YouTube you'll find that the people there don't exactly look like teenagers; this is a hobby with not much fresh blood and a lot of 40+ year old players.

Obviously Wizards of the Coast hopes to revive the hobby with the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I've seen several games stores reporting the new Player's Handbook having sold out on the first day. I went to a local games store yesterday and could only get hold of a Starter Set. There are a lot of things that make 5th edition quite suitable for people new to the tabletop role-playing hobby: The Starter Set is affordable, the Basic Rules are free, and while 110 pages of rules might still seem daunting to some people, that is already a lot less than previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder (and many of those pages are actually spell lists).

The biggest obstacle to playing a tabletop role-playing game is organization. Already in MMORPGs it is only a small fraction of the players who meet online regularly for a continuous block of several hours to play together. A pen & paper game not only requires that block of hours, but also for people to physically travel to the same location, and you'll probably want some food and drink there as well. But as a reward you get a game which feels a lot less restrained by the limits of technology and the imagination of some game designer. Instead of meeting to kill the same boss mob for the tenth time, you get a fresh story every session, limited only by the collective imagination of all the players around the table. That is well worth the organizational effort. I hope that the role-playing hobby can recover from it's current low.

Only a transition to online versions of PnP (which are still playable socially - tablets may actually help a lot with this) will help, IMO.
I'll have to have a better look at the relative ages of the other tabletoppers at PAX Australia this year.

Last year, there was a whole building of it - and it seemed popular. My son & I played a couple of games and started our Pathfinder journey there. We're both still going strong & my son is really enjoying it still.
The big thing about PnP RPGs is that you don't need to spend a lot of money to play. In fact, if you want to, you don't have to spend any money at all to get a full gaming experience.

That last portion, the "full gaming experience", is the part that F2P MMOs constantly fall down on. Most electronic games don't have a full gaming environment for free, because the company wouldn't be able to get any more money out of the customers. While boardgames have the same issue as PnP RPGs, they've evolved into a boutique environment where people collect games like other people do garden gnomes. (Of course, the most popular boardgame we play is our copy of Settlers of Catan, which is 18 years old.)

Based on my playing habits, if I wanted to, the last PnP RPG I would have purchased was 3.0 Dungeons and Dragons, well over a dozen years ago. My gaming wouldn't have suffered one bit.

Perhaps WotC can change that with D&D 5e, but to do that they have to have broad appeal to their new edition.

Based on the table activity I saw at Gen Con, the age range of the players there were 20 and up. There were very few kids and teens, but that's as likely due to the cost of signing up for games as anything else.

On my own experience, I know of at least 3 kids in addition to my three who play Pathfinder and Savage Worlds regularly.

I believe the numbers you cited only reference brick and mortar retail. Online sales -- such as amazon -- are not included. I think this is significant because the largest player in RPGS -- Paizo/Pathfinder -- has a direct retail system that emphasizes subscriptions to physical media and pdfs.

Still, even if you double the 5 million figure that is still not much money. It helps explain why D&D only supports about 8 employees (and why they are forced to free lance a good portion of their releases).

Somewhere on the internet there is a Ryan Dancy post that claims that D&D 3.0 at its height was pulling in roughly 50 million or so from all sources (books, minis, etc).
The encounters game at my games club has around 24 players at the moment, with three to four tables running at once. It's built up from several years ago when I first went, where it was hard to get even a couple of players together.

Redbeard: WOTC put out a basic version of D&D 5e for free, probably in regard to what you're saying:
@Callan-- I've got the Basic D&D download, and based on that alone I thought it worthwhile to get the PHB. So far, I'm enjoying the read, and hope to get a game in soon.

Alas, our DM isn't going to change from 3.0, so we'll just make do there.

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