Friday, January 29, 2010

Graph Paper and Vinyl, or, "You Old People Just Don't Get It, Do You?"

I am what might be described as a "whippersnapper." Started blogging when I was still in my teens, still much younger than the average RPG blogger out there, and probably younger than the average RPG player, period. I gamed all through my teenage years, and still game with high schoolers occasionally, so I like to think I know a thing or two about "kids these days," at least in the gaming world. And every so often I'll read something somewhere out in blog-land that just utterly clashes with that understanding, to the point where I wonder if I managed to find the only high school, college, and youth group in the country that wasn't each populated by drugged-up cyborg freak-children.

Take this gem I saw over on The Core Mechanic:

It Appeals to the Younger Generation. Grognards need not apply. If the D&D brand is going to survive they need to figure out a way to appeal to the masses of tweeting, texting, facebooking teens who barely have time to sit still to eat breakfast let alone play a 4 hour game of D&D on a regular basis. If WotC fails to do this - the D&D game won't make it in 10 years, or it will be marketed to people at retirement homes (that would be awesome!). The D&D Encounters organized play format has all kinds of features that are aimed at appealing to younger teens and college age "young adults" (read:young whipper snappers!). Tangible trinkets, prizes, and rewards with in-game benefits for playing in D&D Encounters are all signs that WotC is trying to lure new players to the game table. Plus, you have the D&D team pushing D&D WizBook, Facebook connections, and actively Twittering - these just reinforce WotC's connection with a new, gadgeteering younger generation of gamers.

Yikes. Where do I start?

First, I want to make clear that while I'm picking on Jonathan a little bit here, I can understand why he has the view of "them young folks" that he does, and in its broad strokes its even pretty accurate. There's a kind of teenager who will be much more interested in D&D Encounters than a traditional kind of RPG experience, for a lot of the reasons mentioned in the text I've quoted above. And most of what I have to say about "kids these days" is based on my own fairly narrow experience. So take everything I'm about to say with that grain of salt.

(And jazzy title notwithstanding, if you're reading this, you're not "old." And honestly, I think the youth obsession our culture has currently is a big source of what's wrong with it. But it does make for a snappy title.)

Nevertheless, that quote represents a fundamental, and fairly common, misunderstanding of modern teenagers in general, and modern teenage gamers in particular.

Consider, for a moment, the music industry. The last ten years have been all about mp3s, iPods, downloading tracks from the internet. The album is dead. The music industry is flailing around trying to get people to start people to pay for songs without a physical object attach to them. Music has entered the digital age. That's how young people have always known music. And do you know what's gotten popular lately?


Seriously. Check your local music store. It's not just a baby boomer nostalgia thing, either. Nine Inch Nails put out its latest record on vinyl. It's a huge part of the indie music scene. And while things like Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon top the vinyl charts, that's largely because young people are buying them. They listen to classic music, and some of them want it in the original format. I'm not discussing this in a theoretical way: my boyfriend has a record player hooked up to his media set-up, and the serious music geeks I know love it. They think the sound quality is better. They like the way that vinyl feels.

Most teenagers aren't ever going to pick up a vinyl record. They're going to keep listening to their iTunes library or discovering new music on Pandora. And even the people who love vinyl don't listen to it exclusively. Digital music is too convenient. But there are a number of young people, a significant number of young people, who want to have a place in their lives for an older, slower, more aesthetically focused, aggressively analog kind of music. They like vinyl for the very physical presence that makes it so un-digital.

Young tabletop gamers feel the same way about the games we play. The guys I know who play Magic: the Gathering, Warhammer 40K, and D&D 4e? They like buying miniatures and handling cards and seeing all the stuff of those games laid out on the table. It's a physical, tactile, social experience. They like it for the very things that make it different from the digital graphics, constant stimulation, and online anonymity of the computer gaming that they'd otherwise be spending their free time on, the features that characterize so much of the rest of their lives. It's old school. It's retro.

It's for that reason, as well as my own experiences introducing people my age to Swords & Wizardry and the old school megadungeon crawl, that I suspect, for at least a certain variety of teenager, "old school gaming" actually has a stronger appeal than the slick, glitzy, D&D Digital Initiative direction of gaming that a lot of folks seem to think the hobby is headed in. I know I don't want a tabletop game that requires an iPhone to play. If I want digital, I'll play a video game. I, and a lot of folks like me, play D&D because it's a simpler kind of game.

I've talked about my attempts to get my boyfriend involved with gaming here before; it took a long time to get him to start playing Dungeons & Dragons, and even after he'd tried it, there was a long time when he was willing to play but didn't think it was "his thing." A video game, he said, had better graphics than his imagination. Then he started making his own dungeons, and discovered the joys of drawing little worlds on graph paper. He's working on a scenario now that he's going to run online, through a chat program, but all of his notes are on paper.

Look at the kind of roleplaying that young people (particularly young women, who for various reasons aren't all that interested in the standard "bits of plastic and math" tabletop gaming that currently dominates on the strength of its appeal to those young guys I talked about a moment ago) already do, all the time: online freeform play. Yes, this is an "online," digital thing, but pay close attention to what freeform gaming is not: like a video game in any way. It's text, maybe some illustrations, based on collaboration and social negotiation and writing. Doing it in forums and chat rooms lets it happen at a reasonable speed, but otherwise it's about as analog as you can get these days.

And while I'm getting a little more personal here, maybe excessively so to be useful, I think there's a lot to be said for the appeal to young people of the rules light, exploration-focused, long-running, and sometimes deeply involved gaming that characterizes the neo-classical games I'm in now and that I see happening all over the place in OSR blogging. I know I wouldn't have gotten involved in D&D if all it was to me was an encounter a week at a local gaming shop. What interests me about gaming is the campaign, the world, the characters. Having this thing in my life that I go back to every week, and watching it evolve a little bit at a time. Because so much of my life is brief and fast and digital, there are times when I prize the slow, the involved, the difficult to reduce to a simple, forgettable formula.

But all that proves is that people like me exist. I'm willing to entertain the idea that I'm deeply weird in that preference, even perhaps when included amongst the older generation. Still. I look around at the folks I game with, mostly college-age or a little younger, and I see folks who are entranced by the things that make D&D "D&D" and not Baldur's Gate or Dragon Age. Many of them don't even play video games; these days I'm mostly in that category myself. I have better things to do with my time. Roleplaying is one of them.

Now, not all young people are like that, but D&D is never going to be a mainstream thing. The average kid is going to keep on playing World of Warcraft and Halo, no matter how hard we try to make tabletop games friendly to "the masses of tweeting, texting, facebooking teens who barely have time to sit still to eat breakfast."

But those of us who do continue to embrace roleplaying are doing because of its analog refusal to conform to the digital moment. Those teenagers and college students want something that's different from video gaming and the online, digital world. Just like there still are, and will always be, kids who read novels, play outside, and listen to vinyl, there are still kids who are going to be turned inside out and upside down by dice, graph paper, and good old fashioned D&D.


  1. Excellent post wipper-snapper. I run a 4th Ed game with four 40 somethings and four 20 somethings. The common denominator is imagination.

  2. I don't think you're deeply weird about enjoying the slow and analogue aspects of roleplaying. I think I'm about half a generation ahead of you, and the contrast between the fast, information-rich digital flow in my life and the slow, in-the-moment, cellphones-off roleplaying isn't quite as stark for me as you describe it, but I prize that large chunk of devoted time carved out of the rush of the week just the same.

    I suspect that it's not even weird among older gamers. The constant refrain I hear from older gamers is a nostalgia for the high school days where you would play for hours at a stretch once, twice, or more times a week; then they contrast it with the three-hour sessions twice a month that they currently make time for.

    I've heard it said that WotC is playing a losing game if they try to chase the video-gaming market since where RPGs and video games overlap, video games always do it better. The strengths of RPGs are things that video games can't do. This post really underlines why that is.

  3. Great post. You're pretty smart for one o' dem der youngins. I'm glad to hear there are people like you out there. Gives me hope. Game on.

  4. Great post. :)

  5. Hey, when I am DMing 1E AD&D at the local gaming store, we get a lot of "wow... cool!"'s from the cadre of 4E and M:TG players...

  6. I'm a technically-savvy 40-something who turned away from video games to get back to the connected humanity of the tabletop. It doesn't surprise me that others (regardless of age) would find tabletop gaming satisfying. Often people choose to criticize in order to feel better about themselves. I'd bet that the average age of D&D players is creeping upwards. I'd also bet that some people feel insecure about that. Rather than belittling how they play, we should be praising them for the new energy they bring to the game. Thanks for your energetic effort!

  7. You've pretty much said it all. Video games are fun, but the paper and dice and figures and actual people sitting around a table have something that a computer just can't replicate.

  8. @odyssey - Wow. What can I say? Well - for one; I'll echo what everyone else had said "Nice post!" Your skill at writing is a real pleasure to enjoy.

    Now, I think there's something that is distinctly missing from this discussion though. You makes some excellent points about playing "neo-classical" games such as S&W and all the myriad of other indy, grass roots style games that are out there. You miss something that's key I think to this whole discussion: RPGs as a product vs. RPGs as a culture.

    WotC is a business that must move products to survive. D&D is a brand that must sell, or it dies. While it may never be "mainstream", the executives at WotC are required to _try_ to make it mainstream. They have to think of ways to get the D&D brand in front of a new generation of gamers. That's the truth of it - and that's why there's a RPG Counter Culture that plays grass roots games like S&W and BF.

    Have you ever been down to your local hobby shop when there's a Pokemon tournament going on? It makes the hairs on my neck stand up because I realized, in an instant, why FLGS shop store owners love these tourneys -- the store was filled literally a hundred pre-teens who had parents in tow and fists full of cash (OK, hyperbole - but you get the point?).

    I can appreciate your nostalgic affections for vinyl, 1E D&D or S&W, playing (hippy ;D) storytelling games and sitting around for hours on hours making up stories about wizards and dragons. Trust me: I loved to play that way when I had the time. Nowadays - I'm amazed that continue to play at all (SW Deadlands campaign at the moment), but when I do it's for about 3 hours twice a month if we're lucky. If I'm anything of the "norm" - I doubt my play patterns are something that is going to sustain the D&D brand (heck, I don't even play currently D&D). They need to do something to increase the _draw_ - get people in the stores to play games and buy shit. That's the game they are playing.

    My experience is one of rare opportunities to escape and play some roles, roll some dice, and hang with friends. My concern lately (that I've been writing about on TCM) is how can RPGs become more accessible. I firmly believe the next big thing that is going to invigorate the RPG community is going to involve imaginative role play that throws out the table altogether and embraces the technology. Sort of a cross between social media games and traditional role playing games.

    You've linked to a number of posts that I also linked to in my post last month (The Future of RPG Industry") and it strikes me that we are on opposite sides of the technology fence. While I expect there's always going to be a gaming counter culture of low tech / old school RPGs for some time to come, the _industry_ behind that broader RPG market is going to die unless something completely new comes along. I mean - it's obvious, right? After buying S&W White Box - do I need to ever buy anything ever again to play? Nope. Perhaps an adventure or two. Maybe a subscription to Fight On! ?

    So, with D&D Encounters - WotC is taking another approach altogether/ They are creating something that you can't take home with you: An Event. And this event is aimed at drawing new players to the hobby faster than the word of mouth, bookstore end cap, product placement marketing approach that has (failed) been the standard for the last few years. I wish them the best, and honestly hope they succeed.

    At the very least, D&D is a great "gateway game" to the whole hobby - hopefully we can agree on that.

    Cheers! -- Jonathan

    (BTW -- did you see my announcement of the 2nd annual (lol) Balt/Wash RPG Bloggers Meetup? You're local to DC, right? So far I've got something 12 people coming. Perhaps you'll come out?)

  9. Spectacular. And it does give hope for the future.



  10. Jonathon: Maybe I'm misunderstanding you, but this doesn't seem to be so much a tech issue as a style issue. In fact, I'd say WotC's approach is anti-tech; it only works if players are willing to go to their LGS and play there. It might work with an online virtual tabletop, but I doubt it would be as effective.

    The current plan of Wednesday games not only dangles the carrots of cool tactile toys and having fun with friends in front of gamers but also brings people into the store, which has got to make the store owners happy. It's a neat double-play, providing a boost to the industry in terms of getting people to play and supporting brick-and-mortar stores. But that second part only remains true so long as this is a low-tech initiative. Keep a weather eye on the horizon for official three-dimensional, pre-painted modular terrain pieces for use with your D&D minis. If that happens, the virtual tabletop is dead-dead-dead!

  11. @trollsmyth - No.. Your right - the whole tech thing is another ball of wax. It is a style thing, that Odyssey alluded to in referencing gamers who love having hordes of gaming regalia (miniatures; books; cards, tokens; etc). vs. those who are more into ttRPGs for the story/experience (as I am too; I hate playing with mini's actually...) You make an excellent point in that the WotC thing may be anti-tech; but its still going to be wrapped up in a glossy marketing campaign _aimed_ at tech savy whipper snappers. =D

  12. Get off my lawn!

    Almost every time "Group A is *" is uttered by someone not in group A that someone is clueless. Whether it's some "kids these days" rant or "OSR is just geezers being nostalgic" BS. People place a set of negative characteristics and pigeon hole a group to distinguish themselves as "better".

    Calling people out on their BS, should happen oftener.

  13. After re reading this post - it strikes me that I may have somehow rubbed people the wrong way in my TCM post. Hmmm.

  14. Chris Newman of our Red Box group is in high school, and a great player who I think prefers old-school gaming for its open-ended freedom (which he takes advantage of in ways that put the rest of us greybeards to shame; if there's a fake eyeball that radiates magic, he's the one who's going to poke out his own eye so he can plop it in).

    I was super impressed by how often your group games, though - 60 sessions in a year! We've been looking at historical documents trying to figure out how quickly groups leveled back in the day, and one of the variables that's hard to pin down is how many hours of play did people put in.

    I think that 4E (like many modern games) are designed for older gamers who don't have as much time for gaming; my campaign meets a little more often than monthly. James in our group feels that the pace of old-school D&D is too dependent on spending a lot of time campaigning, and he wants something more like a limited-run graphic novel than a 400-issue stretch of Spiderman. I think this is partly due to personal preferences - I like long-form genre continuity and will pick up a book like Transit to Scorpio specifically because it's got 52 more in the series - but it's ironic that WotC is seen as appealing to teenagers when it makes changes like reducing the need for prep time that reward old people with lots of scheduling conflicts.
    - Tavis

  15. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Guess I struck a nerve, huh? ;)

    Jonathan: I was mostly using your post as a jumping off point to talk about something that's been swirling around in my head for a while now. And I'm glad you've mainly not taken it as a criticism -- I think a lot of the negative reaction people have had has been to *D&D Encounters* and what it represents.

    Overall, it's probably a good thing, getting folks in gamestores and everything, but it means "D&D" may soon officially mean something very different than what I mean when I talk about playing it, which is... well, annoying. But such is the way of things.

    Oh, and while there is definitely more of a style divide than a technological one, I *can* be a bit of a luddite, sometimes. I didn't get a Facebook account until my friends forced me to when we went off to college.

    muleabides: Mind that "60 sessions in a year" was in the solo game. Only two schedules to worry about interference from, and it's pretty easy to move game night if necessary. It started out as a Thursday game, moved to Sunday, then to Monday, and now is back to Thursday. And it's pretty easy, with two people via chat (no travel times!), to have an extra session here and there when time allows. ;)

    And yes, the time constraints definitely point to older gamers. Teenagers, still, have ridiculous amounts of time to devote to their hobbies. Lots of ways to fill that time competing with roleplaying, but those who take to it do tend to make it a priority.

  16. Heh. You kids, with your OSR and your drive-by-the-old-editions-and-gawk tourism.

    Ah, ya slay me.

    Now get off my lawn.

  17. Great post!

    My own personal problem with computer RPGs is that, not being a programmer, I am at the mercy of someone else to develop the setting, scenario, events, etc. for the game. I have NO control whatsoever. Plus, no computer game, no matter how elaborate, will ever match a good paper-based D&D campaign for flexibility, adaptability, and sheer creativity.

    Computer games are fun and have pretty pictures, but they always come off to me as cold and sterile compared to a good D&D campaign.

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  19. This is an interesting counterpoint to a post I made on my own blog, about the seeming lack of curiosity amongst what I thought of as "more recent gamers." I'm beginning to think that it isn't a time-in-the-hobby thing, so much as a difference in play styles. Put another way, I think that I haven't found the younger crowd interested in vinyl records or the OSR, simply because of how so many of them have gotten into the hobby - probably like your boyfriend, who needed some exposure to what makes Old School gaming cool. Hmmm - it now seems like there's more I should be doing, rather than blaming them. *wry grin*

    (Previous post removed and re-posted with edits for clarity - thanks!)

  20. An OT, strong, clear and insightful post. Best I've read in weeks. Good job.

  21. Good post. I'm in my twenties and used to run a RPG club for kids from my old high school.

    I think your observations are valid, now I dunno how exactly the situation looks in the US but here, in Poland, all the teenagers that play D&D are rather influenced by the alternative culture than the mainstream.

    Even if you look at the last edition of our favorite game, nothing has really changed.
    4e. might have been an attempt at appealing to the WoW crowd, but appart from the way it was written it's still an RPG. People who like and play 4e do still rolerpaly and do all the things everyone used to do...

  22. My son and his friends play D&D twice a week. Twice a week, grognard-style. Once at the game club at school, and once at somebody's house. Paper and pencils, those lovely three books, graph paper, D&D minis-game miniatures, polyhedrals clattering. Not a tweet or iAnything in sight.

    They play for the same reasons they used to play Pokemon: it's imaginative and exciting, An excuse to get together with friends and run wild in somebody else's playground.

    Oh, yeah: age of the DM and players? 13 and 14.

  23. Thanks for the well thought-out discussion.

    As always, there are going to be different styles of play for different people, and I suppose that companies experimenting with making rpgs more digital are doing just that: experimenting.

    You never know - it might work, and it might not. It might even introduce a whole new bunch of people to the idea.

    I still like my pen & paper, though!

  24. Holy god, thank you for writing that post. Stuff like the quote from "Core Mechanic" have felt deeply like Dr. Evil saying, "Look at me, I'm hip, tuk atuk atuk..." (Or, the really awful teacher who asserts the same kind of thing.)

    TSR/WOTC is in this perpetual Sisyphean tragedy over wishing that they were a video game company, when they're not. As I've long said, RPGs are to video games as theatre is to movies. The core competency is the live, immediate, spontaneous, personal, tactile experience; but by it's nature it's not mass-producible, and therefore orders of magnitude less income.

  25. Thanks again, to everyone who's commented here or passed links to this post around. It's very encouraging to see this click so well with people. :D

  26. For the record - I am not Dr. Evil.
    Nor partcularily "hip", or teacher. And, what does "tuk atuk atuk" mean? Is that some kind of new fangled teenage slang? I completely missed that one. Googling it gives me nothing. My iPhone just beeps at me with an error code "L053r" when I try to text it to people. I checked with 4chan and they had no idea either. What does that mean?

  27. Excellent post.
    I'm one of those people who learned a big chunk of social interaction from ttRPG gaming. And I just don't think you'd get quite the same thing even from the best online environment (though a good online enviro definitely teaches social skills).
    Also, I expect my wife and I will certainly try to run gaming groups when we're in the retirement home. Scheduling should be a lot easier! And I bet it's an excellent way to keep from going ga-ga and to distract one from what hurts.

  28. Does this mean someone using a sand table to play miniatures is doing something analogous to playing a 78?

    (And if you had to Google "playing a 78" you don't get to answer...)

  29. @Joseph - only if you were playing said 78s on the little Mickey Mouse or generic red players that had one speaker and a button that always seemed to snap off way too easily. :)

  30. "Guess I struck a nerve, huh?"

    You're making all us middle aged gaming guys all misty like phone commercial.

    Mostly because we know a lot of people who stopped playing in favor of the online WoW, which I think is responsible for the dominance of GMs and DMs in these blogs I've only recently been looking at.

    The video game experience gets a lot of people who just enjoyed playing, but it offers nothing to those who enjoyed doing the creating. Just like the sand table guys don't accept the transition to video, but the cardboard counter guys are just happy to have someone else do the counting. Teh sand table guys like the whole experience of making your own battles, your own men.

  31. Good thoughts. Yeah, a video game is just too easy to get into: pick up the controller and immediately there's a world to interact in.

    But speaking as a GM who has a group of two college-age players and three high-schoolers, none of which cared about this stuff three years ago, I'd definitely say that the hobby isn't going down hill too fast.

    What I most appreciate was the way this post reminded me to focus on the things that make this game unique and fun in its own way. Definitely going to think about that next time I plan the next part of my campaign.