The Rise of RPG PDFs

It’s been a very long time since I last bought a pen and paper RPG book. It’s been well over two years since I last played in an RPG game at all. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember where my whisky tin full of dice is, although I know my collection of RPG books is safely buried in a mound of boxes somewhere in my mum’s house.

It’s a bit depressing – even after I’ve effectively abandoned the hobby – to read about how eReaders and tablets have taken over from giant hardback tomes.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I bought a Kindle and I found my iPad invaluable when I was still gaming, but I found that neither device could replace my RPG books. My Kindle hasn’t even come close to replacing any type of book in my life thanks to a nasty habit of buying the same book in both hardback and digital forms.

RPG books are a particularly special case though. There is something about the scent of the paper, the glossy illustrations and the crack and snap of the pages that is an essential part of the role playing experience. It’s a particular joy when someone has a newly released book which is getting handed round a group or when you find an old, out of print game in a FLGS or on eBay.

There are also advantages to paper books over their digital equivalents. It’s not unusual for game masters to ban players from reading or referring to particular books to prevent cheating, reading ahead in stories or rules lawyering. If the source books are 300 pages of glossy A4, you can’t really hide them at the table. With a Kindle or an iPad, you could be reading anything at the table.

On the other hand  PDF game books are a massive benefit to independent game designers and small publishing houses because they cut out the overheads and the middlemen, allowing direct sales to fans. Which is why they are here to stay.

Why Old School Is Bad For RPGs…and Good For Gamers

There has been a furore of late within the RPG Blogging community regarding “Old School” gaming.
The definition of “old school” remains vague, and everyone seems to have their own variation – be it homebrewed systems based on the Blue Box D&D, original World of Darkness, legacy GURPS or even classic Cthulhu. I’m not going to quibble over definitions however – for the sake of ease lets just take “Old School” to mean any game system that is still being played despite being replaced by a newer products or abandoned by it’s publisher, or any game which seeks to emulate such products (ie Pathfinder).

My recent survey regarding the age and length of gaming careers of RPG gamers, places the average RPG gamer in their mid 30s with more then 20 years of gaming experience. The respondents in their 20s were in a distinct minority.
On the other hand, Project Daedalus – a sociological survey of MMO players – places the average age of MMORPG players between 18 and 28 with 24% of surveyed males and 15% of females aged between 18 and 22. 23% of males and 27% of females were aged between 22 and 28.
Now, the numbers here aren’t very scientific, but this does suggest that I’m on the money. The average age of RPG players is continuing to rise and they aren’t being replaced by a younger generation because us young whipper-snappers tend to play MMOs instead.

This is a bad thing. As gamers get older and older, two things start to happen: we die and other interests take over. It also gets harder for younger people to get into the game if the perception of RPG gaming changes to it being an ‘old peoples’ game.

So what does thing have to do with Old School?

Well, Dungeons & Dragons, love it or loath it, is one of the most popular RPGs in the world and the best supported by a country mile. In my FLGS the only other games which comes close to the amount of shelf space D&D takes up is Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness. If people pick up an RPG book because they think it sounds like fun, it’s probably going to be D&D and it’s inevitably going to be 4e rather then the legacy systems.
John Smith with his newly purchased set of core rule books and WOTC branded dice set will need some help trying to get friends together, writing a campaign and even just playing for the first time. He’s probably going to turn to existing communities for advice.

And he’s going to find quite a lot of blog posts and even businesses rubbishing 4e. Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion and no-one should be evangelising about 4e if they don’t like it, however we as a community have to recognise that 4e is the single best tool we have to get people into RPG gaming.

The drive to make 4e old school and the debate around it is not going to help. It’s only going to confuse new players and alienate them from more established players.

When someone looks advice on 4e on the internet, they should be finding a helpful and supporting community. A community which helps them hone their skills, find players and provides a bridge into other systems. Not companies producing a product based on the fact that they don’t like the Dragonborn as a race.

That is why I believe that the old school debate, the forthcoming “old school 4e” products and the whining about 4e in general are bad for RPG gaming – they are helping to turn new players away.

But (and this is a big but)…the old school movement is amazing for established players.

The old school movement is doing a lot for gamer choice.

It’s amazing that games that are 30 years old are not only still being played, but being promoted and attracting new players. You don’t like one version of a game? You can pick up the books for a different version of the same game for half the price.

So, that’s that. There isn’t a good and bad side to this debate. Moral of the story: don’t rubbish 4e, we need it because it helps get people into gaming. But don’t rubbish old school either, because it gives us way more choice.