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before the D&D starter set comes out #8 “.. and then the internet”

May 21, 2014

Previously: first post, second post, third post, fourth post, fifth post, sixth post, seventh post

I’m looking again at rpg publishers’ business models as they really interest me and make me wonder how they could change with the change in distribution that the internet brings.

In episode 87 of the “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff” podcast, Ken and Robin answered a question of mine and explained some assumptions roleplaying game publishers have had up until now regarding the typical path to roleplaying.

The bigger publishers have always assumed that most players learn roleplaying not directly from their products but instead from people who already know how to play. Additionally, gamestores have offered some guidance to new players, explaining what products to buy and perhaps giving some roleplaying fundamentals and hooking people up with existing game groups in the area. For the second tier publishers, the assumption has been that they were writing their games for people who had already figured out what roleplaying is from playing the games of the larger publishers.

So here are two business models, neither of which are set up to specifically court new players and expand their markets. They each have bottlenecks to growth – and publishers have no control over the quality of those bottlenecks.

There’s been a group of potential customers that these business models have up till now left untapped.

These are the people who for various reasons prefer not to join existing gaming groups but who instead would rather start up their own group drawn from people they already know. For these people the bar to entry into roleplaying up till now has been too high. Learning the game cold, from existing gaming products for most people is too difficult and there have never been products written exclusively for first time players.

Roleplayings’ loss has been boardgames’ gain I guess.

But now, the internet allows publishers, regardless of size, to advertise their products directly at this untapped market. And, from the other direction, potential players are able to hunt out and find publishers and their games. Therefore I think publishers need to expand their thinking about who they see as potential customers and, most importantly, to design some of their products with this new market in mind. They need to cater to people who have never played roleplaying games before by producing a range of products that are entry points to the entire roleplaying hobby. These products need to be written specifically for new players and shouldn’t try to also appeal to experienced players – each group has different needs.


What might a beginners gaming product aimed EXCLUSIVELY at new players be like?

The core of the product must be a tightly scripted adventure – It is through this adventure that new players and GM’s will learn the game as they play it. Unlike typical adventures written for experienced players, it should be tightly scripted. Players will need to accept certain narrative constraints to their play so that they can experience all the typical core activities of the game and learn the rules surrounding them. For this to happen the adventure will have to railroad players to an extent that would make experienced players baulk. As long as the reason is clearly explained to new players I don’t think this will be anything near the issue it would be for experienced players. Finally, this adventure may be the first roleplaying game the players will ever engage in so, above all it should be a fun experience, showcasing the best of the game written by the best writers. This should be a showcase product.

The adventure must come with a large amount of pre-generated characters – instead of the 4-6 pre-gens most starter games usually have, there should instead be at least 20 so that players will be able to find at least one character they can identify with. Mechanically these pre-gens should not be too different as they need to fit well with the adventure, but they do need to offer as large a range of gender and ethnic groups so as to appeal to as much of the market as possible. Additionally, using pre-gens will avoid having to spend time teaching the players about character creation, meaning the they can start playing the game much faster. Scope for making characters should be delayed for later game products. For experienced gamers the idea of being able to customise their own characters is at the core of the game, but for the new player it is a complication that should be delayed until later, once the fundamentals of the game are established.

The adventure must contain teaching elements – the adventure must act as Robin Law’s “Patient Zero” for the players and GM, taking them through the nuts and bolts of roleplaying while making no assumptions to any prior knowledge. As the play through the adventure it should explain all the roleplaying concepts needed at the time – nothing should be considered too basic to be mentioned. I’m sure Robin Law’s upcoming guide to roleplaying will fit nicely in here as long as it is integrated into the adventure itself.

It must contain narrative examples of the types of stories the game supports – an example of this would be a well written short story featuring characters acting out the core activities the game supports. Such stories can bring all the players quickly up to speed on the types of activities their characters can get up to in the game. But this is not to be confused with a settings book, instead it is an engaging narrative that would act as both a play-example and a springboard to the adventure. (In a future post I’ll try and expand on this in relation to a short story in the Cthulhu anthology “The Book of Cthulhu II”).

It must contain it’s own marketing – as this may be the first point of contact the customer has with the publishers product range it must inform them of how the product fits within the range as well as informing them on their next step. In the case of the new player, the next step would be another, more advanced adventure. I don’t mean advanced in level, but advanced in scope of play – more gaming concepts and activities can be introduced as well as an increase in narrative scope. Eventually players will be ready for products that give guidance for character creation and development of their own adventures – but only once they have a good preliminary grounding in roleplaying.

The one thing it SHOULD NOT contain is a book of rules – I think the traditional rule book is the least helpful part of any starter set for new players. While traditional rulebooks may arguably do a reasonable job of explaining the mechanics of the game, they rarely teach anything about actual roleplaying. This starting product should only lightly touch game mechanics and instead should explore and explain roleplaying while players are playing the game – hence the focus on the adventure as the main learning tool. Any game mechanics that need to be taught can be taught as they come up in the game.

Above all, every part of this beginners product must show the game off at it’s very best. This may be the one chance for the publisher to catch and keep a player so it’s essential that publishers make a big investment here as these products need to act as the flagship that captures new players – not a secondary product or afterthought.


From → roleplaying

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