With an eye on designing a “house system” for Asparagus Jumpsuit, I’ve been narrowing down the problems I’m seeking to solve. I definitely want to create a system that appeals to veteran gamers, as well as new and casual players. The former I understand well enough; I fall into that category, of have in the past. To design for the former, I think it’s important took into barriers to entry to the hobby.
It Costs Money
When people think of tabletop roleplaying games, they tend to think of Dungeons & Dragons. Reasonable enough, since it’s the first RPG and still the 800 pound gorilla in the industry. The 5th Edition Players Handbook has a suggested retail price of $49.95. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook has a suggested retail price of $49.99. Then there are accessories, both necessary and optional, like dice and miniatures. It starts to add up quickly. There are also people somehow conflate tabletop roleplaying games with miniatures wargames and cases and cases of meticulously painted minis, or LARP with costumes, weapons, and other accoutrements.
Yes, there are less expensive alternatives — boxed starter sets, games with economical core books, PDF and ebook editions, used books, Amazon discounts, free basic and quickstart rules, and more. Yes, it’s relatively cheap compared to other hobbies and things like new video games and theater tickets. Yes, when you divide the cost by the number of players and the number of hours of play you’ll get out of a book, it’s ridiculously cheap.
But we’re dealing with perceptions here, and when most people see the hobby they see hardcore roleplayers who have invested in all of the toys, and big, thick, hardcover books on bookstore shelves. I’ve talked to people who think they have to buy all of those things, when they’re not even sure that they’ll like it. I invite them to my own games, loan them books, and point them to local game store and game day events where they can try before they buy, but I have to wonder how many potential gamers have gotten away because they think this hobby is expensive.
It Takes Time
My last regular gaming group had three teachers in it. Two of them also had kids. Carving out a few hours to roleplay was a big deal. Add game prep for the gamemaster on top of that, and it often meant we ended up playing Settlers of Catan. Even with multiple gamemasters, there were weeks when no one had any time to put something together. We used a lot of published adventures, but it still took time to read them through and become familiar with them before sitting down at the table and trying to run them.
Most of us like to tell tales of marathon sessions that ran all weekend, and epic campaigns that ran for years. That’s daunting to a lot of people struggling to find a couple of hours in their week for play. It makes time-restricted alternatives like going to a movie or playing a video game seem more appealing. They think tabletop roleplaying is going to require a lot of their time, and they’re not entirely wrong, so they have to decide how they want to spend their precious time.
Again, I’m aware that there are solutions to this, and games that are ready to play out of the box or book. Are new and casual gamers, who don’t have their pulse on the hobby, aware of this? Are the people who don’t browse forums or strike up conversations with the folks at the friendly neighborhood game store getting the word-of-mouth buzz about what’s available to them?
It Demands Familiarity
Roleplaying is thought of as a “geek” hobby, and “geek” implies genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and superheroes. While all of those things have become more mainstream thanks to popular television shows and movies, not everyone is into them in a hardcore way, or at all. They might be into games that offer tactical combat, or games that let them tell stories, or any of the myriad things that games allow you to do, but they might think they need some deep knowledge of genre to participate.
Yes, there are games in every conceivable genre and games without genre. We’re still talking about perceptions here, which again are based around D&D being the recognized brand name. If they think fantasy is stupid or science fiction is boring, and they think that’s what roleplaying is all about, it’s going to be a hard sell to convince them that killing monsters and taking their stuff, and exploring the relationships between fictional people they make up, can be fun.
It Requires Opportunity
Everyone roleplayer I know got into this hobby in one of two ways. Either we heard about a game, bought it, learned it, and ran it for our friends, or we were invited into a group someone else was running. There aren’t a lot of other options. You invite, or get invited. It’s rare, in my experience, for someone interested in playing but not running to seek out a group if they’ve never played before, or for a gamemaster to seek strangers to run for if they haven’t already cut their teeth running for friends.
Look, I know that there are game stores and game days and conventions and websites where players can connect. I know that there are people who jumped in with both feet and sought the company of strangers. There’s still a barrier to entry for people who don’t have an existing circle of friends who share these sorts of interests. It’s a stereotype that geeks are a socially awkward lot, and it’s not universally true, but there’s a kernel of truth to it.
It Has Its Own Culture
It’s awesome that we have game stores, conventions, forums, and all sorts of ways to connect and be part of a community. It’s also sort of terrifying. I’ve been roleplaying for over three decades, and I sometimes find gatherings of gamers intimidating. Imagine how potential new players and casual gamers who haven’t already found their place in a geek tribe — our RPG clans, or some adjacent form of fandom — must feel. The fact that we tend to fight amongst ourselves certainly can’t make outsiders feel welcome and, again, 30+ years in this hobby and there are corners where I still don’t feel welcome.
I’ve said this before, but I think that we need more games that don’t require interaction with the community at large. Yes, I know, you can play D&D and never interact with a forum, a game store, or a con and there are people who do just that. Yes, I know that the vast majority of roleplayers are very welcoming to new and casual players. Once again, I invoke perceptions of the hobby, and wonder what the outsiders who are interested in roleplaying think. We can talk about our experiences with RPG culture as insiders, but we don’t know if the culture is a barrier to entry, or how much of a barrier it might be, or what we can do about it. I can’t say that it’s a barrier to entry, but I also can’t say with certainty that it isn’t.
- I need to design a game that’s going to be affordable.
- I need a game that’s easy to prep and can be played in short sessions.
- I need a game that doesn’t require deep genre knowledge.
- I need a game that people can play with existing friends and family.
- I need a game that doesn’t require any sort of “geek cred” to play.