After 26 years as a professional game designer, I need an electrified wristband with voice recognition so that every time I’d say “Back in my day,” it would shock me – zzzzzt! It’s the only way to prevent Creeping Fogeyism as I view the moribund remains of my field: tabletop paper-and-dice roleplaying games.

Back in my d- zzzt OW! – in the two decades from the original 1974 publication of Dungeons & Dragons through the 1993 debut of the Magic: The Gathering trading card game, dozens of prominent adventure gaming companies produced hundreds of tabletop RPGs in print runs often exceeding 10,000, dispatched by a dozen major distributors to thousands of specialty retail stores worldwide. The D&D magazine Dragon had a circulation of 125,000. Data on the size of the market was always scarce, but I heard informal back-of-the-rulebook estimates around $100 million.

Today? Not even close:

  • Maybe 1,500 storefronts remain, many of them sickly.
  • Distributors? Aside from a few low-volume operations, North America has basically only ACD, Lion Rampant and, above all, Diamond, in whose immense catalog RPGs are a footnote (often handled through its affiliate, Alliance).
  • Among publishers, Wizards of the Coast still makes ends meet as a Hasbro subsidiary; White Wolf Game Studio persists at the pleasure of its owner, CCP (makers of EVE Online); half a dozen smaller stalwarts soldier on with annual grosses of perhaps $1-3 million each, doing runs of 1,000 to 5,000 copies. For the rest, none can outnumber the ant-hill swarm selling print-on-demand and .PDFs through OneBookShelf, Warehouse 23, Indie Press Revolution and the Indie RPGs Un-Store.
  • Dragon magazine died, succeeded (if not entirely replaced) by Wizards’ portal D&D Insider. Dragon‘s spiritual successor, Kobold Quarterly, is a modest earner. Knights of the Dinner Table apparently remains strong. Small-press gaming magazines flit about like mayflies.
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There are bright spots, but overall, this portends decrepitude. The entire tabletop hobby is shrinking and graying, and will eventually join model railroads and rocketry as an obscure, geriatric pursuit. The internet devoured my industry’s collective lunch.

Of course, every tabletop fan correctly (if reflexively) says multiplayer online games can’t capture the whole roleplaying experience. But these gamers overlook the wider ecosystem of online fiction, forum and wiki games, worldbuilding and mapmaking sites that, in aggregate, scratch the roleplaying itch.

And before gaming historians recall how the pre-web trading card game Magic: The Gathering devastated tabletop RPG sales, remember Magic benefited greatly from the internet. Even in 1993, when the World Wide Web consisted of a few hundred university sites, fans on Usenet compiled card lists and traded deck builds. That early networking boosted Magic from a hit to a phenomenon.

In a world where the internet never existed, people would still want to network in structured ways. Tabletop RPGs would still reign like brontosaurs before the meteor.

But you know what? That would be bad.

***

I wish no ill on the long-suffering “three-tier” industry of publishers, distributors and retailers. But without the net – in particular, without the indie RPGs that flourish here – I’m guessing my field would become artistically stuck, stagnant. We’d have little roleplaying theory. Diehard individualist designers would publish fanzine-format rules sets as always, but we’d have no cauldrons of creativity like The Forge, Story Games, 1KM1KT, 24 Hour RPG or Game Chef.

I suspect major RPG companies, absent indie competition, would become media factories like today’s leading comic book publishers, which survive (as Alan Moore told the Los Angeles Times “Hero Complex” blog) “for the sole purpose of creating not comics, but storyboards for films”:

It may be true that the only reason the comic book industry now exists is for this purpose, to create characters for movies, board games and other types of merchandise. Comics are just a sort of pumpkin patch growing franchises that might be profitable for the ailing movie industry.

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Wizards and White Wolf even now grow such patches for their corporate overlords. In an un-netted world, it would be worse. Today’s indie RPG hordes couldn’t gain attention – but indies bring the fire.

More to the point, roleplayers in a non-networked world might have less fun. These benighted players would lack play aids like RPTools and DungeonMastering, campaign chronicling via Obsidian Portal, art repositories, sound mixers and tremendous resources like the RPG.net Game Index. They’d lack ENWorld and hundreds of other quality roleplaying sites.

Perhaps those deprived folk might still enjoy DM of the Rings, Dungeons and Discourse and Advanced Dungeons and Discourse – maybe even some offline equivalent of GOLD (“The web series that does double damage”) – but could gamers hope for Epic D&D Vacations on the beaches of Kauai? (“Your opportunity to take a character from Level 1 to 30 … and get a tan while you’re at it!”)

The world is better for all these. And tabletop roleplayers, make your Morale roll at +6: Even among hardcore traditional roleplaying groups, the web, which has taken away so much, is now giving back. Through the web, even the act of roleplaying is getting better.

***

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Graying though they may be, tabletop roleplayers are increasingly exploiting the web. Take the “old school” movement. These unreconstructed grognards, such as tireless blogger James Maliszewski, still prefer 1974-era D&D, meaning the primordial three-booklet edition derived from the miniatures game Chainmail. They suspect even D&D’s thief class (introduced in Supplement 1, Greyhawk) as an adulteration. In an un-webbed world, guys like these would have met, at best, a few times a year at game conventions to roll some D12s and bitterly chaw their dentures. Now, coordinating through forums like Knights & Knaves Alehouse, they publish clever rules that capture the spirit of Ooooold D&D without violating copyrights (OSRIC) and write for the magazine Fight On!

This, in itself, only confirms how the web harbors micro-communities for every inclination. More interesting is the idea of moving the tabletop experience itself online – not in 3-D virtual environments a la MMOGs, but rather via voice chat (TeamSpeak, Skype, Ventrilo – just like your WoW guild) and “virtual tabletops,” where your screen shows grid maps and miniatures. With no more artificial intelligence than an automated die roller, your Game Master resolves all actions by hand using a tabletop rules system.

Virtual tabletop programs offer the roleplaying equivalent of wargaming “gameboxes.” Programs include OpenRPG, MapTool, Battlegrounds RPG Edition, Fantasy Grounds, Kloogewerks and many more, most in various stages of dormancy or abandonment. (Battlegrounds offers a good virtual tabletop links page.)

The best virtual tabletops offer niceties like fog-of-war and turn sequencing. Better, they can reunite old-time groups who played in college dorms but then scattered to the winds. They help isolated players find groups interested in their favorite games. Where so many other internet activities have devastated the paper-and-dice roleplaying hobby, virtual tabletops help keep it alive.

Man, if I’d only had these back when I was young – zzzzzzzzt OWWW!

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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