why the rpg business model fails…

Over here at youtube, you can see the “Future of D&D” Panel. At minute 7:45 of the video, Mearls says the thing that makes me cringe. And makes me say, “RPGs are a flawed business model.”

Video Link

And Mearls, if you’re watching buddy, I love you. But I’m not attacking you. I’m targeting the group-think that postulates these notions…. and because I’ve never heard anyone in the industry say what I’m about to say, I’ve got to get it off my chest.

Mike says, “The GM is more important than the designer.”

Yes. Correct. This is 100% correct when you look at the experience of the “game” vs. the experience of the product. It’s conversely, the reason I hate more video games.

But it’s also the unstable hinge upon with all editions of D&D rest after 1st edition.

Let me provide an analogy if I may:

A Mechanic buys a toolbox from Snap-On Tools (you probably go to Sears, but be goes to Snap-On). He buys a wrench and a ratchet and a hammer and vice-grips and a screwdriver. He, the mechanic, is a sapient tool user, so he uses these tools until the day they break. Just like a GM who runs his favorite edition of something, until he doesn’t work for him any longer. The Mechanic is more important than the tool. This means he only needs to buy a very good tool once. He might own duplicates of the same screwdriver or wrench or whatever, but he can only really use one at a time. And he isn’t expected to buy expansions to his tools.

To make matters worse, if the mechanic is bad at his job, he loses customers, just like a GM who loses players. However…

… and this is where the RPG business model fails…

…the tool company does not lose money because the mechanic screwed up your tune up.

But a RPG company’s income is based upon the need that the GM brings value to the brand. Their entire connection to the hobby is contingent on a GM being good at his job. If the GM is an overbearing control freak, chances are he is not inspiring a new generation of players.

And I don’t even know if game companies see this dependence? Do designers who are good GMs just assume that their game will always attract a new crop of players?

The entire philosophy that requires good demo sessions, run by quality GMs, who may in turn sell one $40 RPG after a two-hour long demo… It’s just… what the hell?

Mearls goes on to explain it’s how the GM expresses the world that matters — in fact a good GM can pave over the problems with the design… essentially just selling a “baseline” to me.

So, Mike and WOTC… you’re selling me “modularity.” Well, I hate to tell you this, but you’ve sold me FOUR DIFFERENT editions of modularity, which have inspired 5000 derivative games (most importantly successful games like OSRIC and C&C). Why do I need another edition?

And how are the sales of a GM-powered product that requires no expansion expanded into the expansion-product market driven by expansion books inherent in the second half of the business model? Ouch. I hurt my keyboard.

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5 thoughts on “why the rpg business model fails…

  1. Fuck yeah! Absolutely right on. I have never heard it put better.

    I started to watch the YOUTUBE video of the panel earlier, but I got distracted. I’ll see it at home tonight.

  2. Instead of building the proverbial better mousetrap which shows us GMs a better way to do things (and thus provide a reason for dropping our old ‘tool’ in favor of a superior one) what they rely on is our ‘obessive completionist’ tendencies and our conflation of ‘newer’ with ‘better.’ And eventually we’ll say “enough” This reliance means they must have a neverending series of new GMs who haven’t already bought their toolkit…

  3. i could talk ad nauseum about this subject. and how the that local stores going away has only promulgated the problem of “examples of better play.” GMing is really a learned skilled. without a example to “see” how to do it better, you’re really just guessing. okay. tangenting not making sense now.

  4. I remember back in the day when TSR’s motto was “Products of your imagination?” That is something that I took to heart all the way back since first edition.

    As I progressed in gaming I really began to look at game systems as a loose bag of parts that allow me to construct the framework necessary for my players to interact with my narrative. Mind you, I didn’t say that they allowed me to construct the framework of my narrative, but allowed me tools by which my players may realistically or sometimes fantastically interact with it. Once those tools were in place and allowed me a “physics” to my game, the rest was really up to me.

    Now that is not to say that I didn’t go out and buy source books once I had the base book. If I came across some story elements I found compelling I would get the book and use it as a springboard or inspirational material. But I found my imagination to be fertile enough to not have to purchase everything that came out and discovered I could pick and choose the things I wanted. I was always confused by some of my friends who would give White Wolf their credit card number and just have the newest supplement automatically shipped to their house. (cough, cough, Steve, cough)

    With games like D&D, Rifts and some others like L5R who’s supplements added things like advanced schools, heritage tables and ancestors its a little difficult to not have a newer better cooler thing come out and have it eventually be brought in by one of my players and break my game. I find it difficult to say no to players who seem excited about a new game element, but feel the need to cut down on some of the “cheese” and keep some control over the power levels of my characters. I find this to be systematically true for games that have a) a really precise combat mechanic with multiple ability options and b) a game that has several “classes” of characters with their own unique capabilities. Add new abilities and classes to the mix and you get into combo building and things no longer being focused on story but on game mechanic.

    I am beginning to like systems like Savage Worlds more and more. I buy the base book that gives me an engine by which to tell a story and I can hop around and either apply that engine to anything I like or most likely find some supplement somewhere that can help me out.

    The thing about D&D is that it is no longer strictly an RPG. It’s, in my opinion, returned to its Chainmail roots. It is an evolution and derivation of MMORPG’s, CCG’s, miniature hobby games and the good old RPG. I do not think that D&D will ever become a pure RPG ever again. Nor would I want it to. Games who’s primary feature is not the story nor the story world nor the ability to tell stories in any setting, but who’s focus is the fun ways you can hack, stab, crush, burn, freeze, electrify, smother or otherwise maim an opponent, the game designer is more important than the GM because most of the options are in their hands to develop.

  5. people who say d&d allows you to do anything fail to understand that without d&d i can also do that. i don’t need d&d restricting my movements. rather, i need d&d inspiring my ideas. i don’t want to turn to a single tracking role to find the bad guys. i want an entire decision tree that reflects how tracking actually works. you don’t open a lock with a single roll, but rather with a series of decisions about which pick and/or acid works best to get through this situation. why do i spend 45 minutes fighting orcs, but only 45 seconds negotiating a peace treaty with them.

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