The Great RPG Transition
At Gen Con this year Critical Role, a web-show that features a talented group of voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons, filled a 1,500 capacity auditorium. The enthusiastic crowd prompted Morrus over at EN World to discuss the effect celebrity players have on the role-playing game industry as a whole.
Without a doubt we are seeing the rise of celebrity players. For several years now we've been seeing people slowly becoming known for how they play role-playing games through podcasts, web shows, and the like; but in doing so we've also missed a critical aspect of what such things have been doing for us as a whole. Mike Mearls, Lead Designer of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, put it a little bit of an interesting spin on the whole thing:
I believe that the rise of 3/3.5e and online discussion forums created a massive, fundamental shift in how RPGs were viewed and used (source). 3e, and then into 4e, D&D was very dense, rules heavy, complicated, and filled with character building options. That was the game (source). That spread to other RPGs, placing the baseline complexity of the typical RPG at the extreme upper end of what we saw in 80s/90s (source). At the same time, online discussion veered heavily towards character optimization and rules details. It was a culture of read and dissect (source).
Both the indie and old school design movements rose in counter to this, focusing much more heavily on actual play at the table (source). However, the prevailing, forum-based online culture made it very hard to communicate meaningfully about actual play (source). That changed when streaming and actual play vids became accessible to the average DM. The culture of actual play had a platform (source).
As game designers, we can actually watch how RPGs play and what rules and concepts facilitate the effects we’re looking to create (source).
The tension between theoretical discussion vs actual play has always been a big part of RPG design (source). I believe at the table ruled for a very long time, swung hard to theory, and now back to table-driven design (source). Theory is useful, but it has to be used in service to actual, repeatable results in play. And I say this as someone who veered to theory (source).
So in a series of 14 tweets, that’s why I see Critical Role at GenCon something that can be very good for the hobby and designers (source).
Addendum: This ties into the huge success of 5e and the growth of RPGs – people can now learn by watching. The rulebook is not a barrier (source). We don’t learn sports like baseball or soccer by reading the rules – we watch and quickly learn how to play (source). The rulebook is a reference, like the NBA’s rulebook. Comes out only when absolutely needed. Barriers are now gone. Design accordingly . . . (source)"
By and large Mike knocks this one out of the park. D&D 3e and D&D 4e were both cumbersome in the sheer volume of rules, and rule variants, they presented - and that's spoken as someone who loves Third Edition - to the point where it became a challenge just to learn enough of the rules to begin play. Fifth Edition, and to a large extent most modern role-playing games, have moved in the opposite direction going towards a play centered focus where rules not only can be hand-waved when they get in the way of actual play but where it's actually encouraged by the designers to do so. After drowning in the sea of rules Third Edition dropped on us it's like a breath of fresh air.