Under the Hood – The Wide World of Roleplaying

The Wide World of Roleplaying
By The Warden

Why, oh why, did I choose to take a break in August?

Over the previous two months, there was nary a story to latch onto for this column other than a few loose threads here and there related to a topic I had already chosen in advance. As the month of August approached, I told myself I needed a bit of a break to catch up on Killshot and a few more personal matters before diving back into the fall. At the time, it seemed appropriate because the previous summer months had been so slow and it worked out well for RPC because there was a flood of material to release and having a few open Sundays was perfect to make it all fit in a timely manner.

So what all’s gone on in the past four weeks? Let’s see. Gen Con. Numenera. tremulus. Reaper Bones. The return of FASA. The unusual choice of releasing the beta test for the latest Star Wars RPG. Chaosium’s open call for a kids RPG. Even the release of two free RPGs that caught my eye, Matrix RPG and Thief (based on the classic computer game). So where the hell am I supposed to start? Which topic do I choose as my focus this week?

That’s easy. All of them and none of them.


The sheer fact that there’s so much to talk about goes to show just how vibrant this industry is and how blood still pumps through its veins. Obviously, many would speculate this as the glass half full (increase variety equals more fun for countless fans across multiple generations) or half empty (too many games spread out over too few players will destroy the industry) and there’s no one right answer available… right now. Go ahead, predict as much as you like and gloat over it later on when the outcome of this new revival in tabletop gaming is said and done. Then be prepared to take it all back after another five years when it changes again.

As for myself, I’m an optimist when it comes to this wave of new games, but a cautious optimist. Obviously, not every headline mentioned above will become the greatest sensation to the industry and many of these announcements will be given less retrospective than the end of the Jersey Shore. It’s not surprising so much is going on at the moment because so little is happening within the top games we have available. Sure, there’s a massive open playtest going on for D&D, but that’s not going to make money until 2014 when it’s likely put on sale to help celebrate the game’s 40th anniversary. Even Pathfinder’s carrying on as they always have with nothing spectacular coming out from their camp save the usual stuff you’d expect from a newly successful powerhouse. 2012 is the perfect year for independent publishers to take a stand and make their move before the big guys shake the very ground with their next big thing.

Think of this period of independent releases as a film festival. While some major studios are highlighting their standard fares and parading big name celebrities onto the red carpets of the world, eager young directors are plugging their independent films to curious and willing distributors in the hopes of becoming the next big thing. It’s easier to become noticed when you’re an independent film because a $20 million box office haul is more impressive when your budget was only $50,000. It’s the same deal here. These games don’t have to bring in the same results as Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, or Fantasy Flight and it’s a lot easier when there’s a gap in the calendar. As soon as they do start filling up their schedules again, things will go right back to where they were before with perhaps one title in particular finding its way into the heap.


Titles may come and go, but there’s another possibility we can expect from the next 18 months of independent releases cramming through our computer screens for attention: a revolution in game design. It’s not enough for a new game to offering a unique and exciting setting; the push is on for unique and exciting mechanics. Last decade, it was all about signing on to the d20 System and perhaps pushing it to new limits. What remains now is the same number of people (if not more) with a taste for independent publishing looking to branch out on their own.

As an example, let’s take a look at Alea Publishing Group and their Kickstarter project, the Genesis Roleplaying System. Previously, Alea has produced very effective and highly professional products and supplements for d20 and D&D 4e and graduated into their own system. Using a deck building system mixed together with a roleplaying game, they have taken elements learned from their days in third-party publishing for the world’s most popular RPG and developed something entirely different and unique from their previous work.

Does this mean we’re looking at a new glut of RPG products, except now it’s a flood of new systems as well as new settings, titles, and more? You bet your ass we are and we’re all going to have to choose our titles cautiously to find those that speak to us. Welcome to the free market. Cumbersome and overwhelming though it may be now (and will continue into the next 18 months), something will spark and give rise to new concepts in RPG game design.

Dice pools, as a point, have become incredibly popular in numerous projects and upcoming releases I’ve been reading this summer. Whether the mechanics are a near duplicate to previous releases (such as the original World of Darkness products) or an alternate take gone in a new direction (including the award-winning dice pool mechanic of the Marvel Heroic RPG), designers are looking for new tools to help the dice make our characters look awesome. Even in the old school movement, designers are trying out new directions with Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and their d14s as a twist on the original dungeon crawl system.

The question becomes how effective the next few months and potentially thousands of releases will have on the future of this wonderful industry. More importantly, will it make an impact at all? Such an analysis is nearly pointless until the dust clears and we can see how deep the crater burrows into the rock, but never discount the potential for independent games in the overall market. Simply consider the current playtest version of D&D Next and its simplistic approach to the rules and you may just see an independent game designer or two winking back at you.

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