Monday, November 22, 2021

The Two Worlds of RPGs

Obviously, the in-game experience for game masters and players is very different from one another. But something I think about a lot is how the out-of-game experience of RPGs, like, as a communal phenomenon, is even more different.

The two main examples of this that stick out to me are 1) the materialist experience, and 2) the social experience. Almost everything about the player-side of these two things is so completely alien to me, because they're just so weirdly segregated. And perhaps more than merely being different from each other, they're incredibly unbalanced. GMs get so much more from RPGs than players get, by and large. At least, I think they do.

I wonder if anyone else has considered these things before. Let me delve into some examples.

The Materialist Divide

The bulk of RPG products are intended to be consumed by game masters, not players. Or at least, the ones that are core to the hobby. For example:
  1. Most groups are only expected to buy one copy of the core book(s) of their system of choice, almost always by the GM. Players are sometimes encouraged to purchase additional copies of the rules for themselves, but sharing has always been the norm.
  2. Related, in most games that have multiple core books, many of them will only be "core" for the GM. For example, in D&D, while a player could buy their own Player's Handbook if they're invested enough, they'd pretty much never buy their own Monster Manual or Dungeon Master's Guide unless they either plan to be a DM themselves pretty soon or if they're simply a completionist.
  3. Adventure scenarios are for GMs to buy. A player buying one kinda defeats the point, because they'd just be spoiling things for themselves if they read it.
  4. Similarly, setting books are usually meant for GMs to buy. A player actually has a much better reason to buy one of these, though. Better player knowledge of the setting can supplement the lack of character knowledge that would hold them back. But again, the norm is to share books.
  5. Traditionally, if you rely on miniatures then the main mini collection is owned by the GM, along with any terrain.
  6. There are a ton of supplement books that are just GM advice and adventure design advice, probably the 4th most common type of RPG book after systems, settings, and adventures.
  7. Modern fancy supplemental game materials like spell cards, most D&D apps, virtual tabletops, etc. are marketed primarily at GMs.
  8. Dungeon magazine, being a collection of adventure scenarios, was GM-exclusive. But Dragon magazine was arguably for anyone and everyone in the hobby, and is one of the only things I can think of that successfully achieved this.
This creates a very strange market dynamic in this hobby. The problem with relying on GMs as your primary money makers is that they only make up about 1/5th or 1/6th of all the people in your hobby. At every gaming table, there are 4 or 5 people there who are technically "your audience" but who probably aren't giving you money in any way. I'm not sure I can think of any other industry like that. Books? Movies? Music? Video games? Pretty much every individual audience member is purchasing their own individual experience in those mediums. But in D&D, only a fraction of them are. So commercially speaking, RPGs are only a fraction the "size" of what they "should" be.

Don't get me wrong, the low barrier to entry is one of my favorite things about RPGs. I think it's amazing that so many people can jump into this exciting hobby without paying a single cent. But from the viewpoint of business owners, that's a huge untapped market that they could be squeezing money out of. Thus, we see a wealth of products and services that exist solely for the purpose of targetting RPG players instead of GMs. Finding excuses for players to drop their paycheck into a technically-free hobby is almost an art form at this point. For example:
  1. Dice. Dice dice dice. Players fucking love buying dice.
  2. Custom miniatures. After all, each player does need at least one mini, so why not charge the big bucks for them to have a perfect little recreation of their OC?
  3. Commissioned artwork (go see the wasteland that is the r/DnD subreddit to see what I mean)
  4. Coloring books, kids' books, goofy things like The ABC's of D&D, etc.
  5. Tie-in media (novels, comics, video games, etc.)
  6. Knick-knacks (pins, stickers, decorations, etc.)
  7. Apparel.
  8. And probably the most important of all, supplement books that include new character-building options (Xanathar's Guide, Tasha's Cauldron, etc.)
It's really just that last one which has the most "legitimate" place within RPG spaces, since it directly expands the actual experience of playing D&D. Of course, I won't knock anyone who spends their money on the rest of that stuff. I myself do commission-based artwork for RPG players, so by all means, spend your money in a way that brings you joy. But it's funny to me that these all seem to essentially be borne from "an excuse to just spend money." I frequently get the sense that a lot of people in this hobby are uncomfortable with it being free. They want to spend their money on something, if for no other reason than to at least feel more invested in it.

The Social Divide

This one's a bit trickier to put my finger on. The question here is, "what are RPG spaces used for?" Most online discussion about RPGs is GMs talking to other GMs, who are usually talking about game design, scenario design, GMing advice, and maybe sharing or reviewing products that fall within those categories. Oh, and then there's gossip and politics, I suppose. There's no reason why gossip and politics need to be GM-only topics, yet they seem to be nevertheless. And the only people I know who are even aware of the Ennies's existence are hardcore GMs.

When I see players congregating online, these are the sorts of things I see them discussing and sharing:
  1. Character builds and theorycrafting
  2. Related, discussing roleplaying and backstory and shit like that
  3. Memes and comedy sketches
  4. Related, entertainment-focused content on YouTube and TikTok
    • One of my players gave me his list of channels he's subscribed to: JoCat, Zee Bashew, Ginny Di, XP to Level 3, CritCrab, Runesmith, MonarchsFactory, Tulok the Barbrarian, Davvy Chappy, Pack Tactics, and Den of the Drake. I've heard of, like, maybe two of those? I think?
  5. Game tales
  6. Goofy debates about things like whether or not dragonborn have tits or whether D&D should include guns or whatever. "Is it necrophilia if they're undead?" and shit like that.
  7. D&D live streams (e.g. Critical Role, Acquisitions Inc., Dice, Camera, Action, etc.)
I don't really get any of that "player-side" stuff because I've always been the GM. Even now that I'm a player more often than not, I'm still culturally a GM. Thus, I've noticed that 1) I'm always far more "into" RPGs than any of my players ever are (and I don't think it's just because I'm an obsessive freak) and 2) all my investment in the hobby is on "GM-side" stuff. Players are almost never as invested as GMs because there just isn't as much there for them to get into, y'know?

But at the same time, you sometimes get those enthusiastic players who really, really want to get invested in the hobby beyond the game itself. And sure enough, all my most gung-ho players are exclusively into the player-side stuff, and almost never venture into the DM-side realm.

I own a huge miniature collection but only 4 dice sets (1 of which was a gift and the other 2 were included with some other RPG products I bought). I read tons of blogs and forums and participate in RPG design discussions, but I never even peek at character-building threads. I'll try to keep up with industry news and drama, but I don't really get into D&D memes or sketch videos. Most of my players enjoy those "Crap Guide to D&D" videos but I've never watched one of them all the way through. I've never been able to get into Critical Role or any other live play, but boy do I own a lot of RPG books and PDFs. The one exception I can think of is that some of my players (the ones who are either GMs themselves or at least dabble in it) will watch Animated Spellbook and Seth Skorkowsky, but I don't think I ever find myself dipping my toes in their side of the divide (except occasionally laughing at D&D memes that are sent to me. Occasionally).

Of course, my experience could be completely wrong and weird. Maybe most GMs own a billion dice and D&D t-shirts and they love D&D memes. But I've been in this hobby for about 11 years (12 maybe?) and I've played with a lot of people, and this pattern seems to be fairly consistent from my own anecdotal experience.

An Explanation?

The GM-side stuff has always been around, largely because it's mostly required for the hobby to exist. Many of the player-side things have been around for a while, but they've really ramped up in the last 7 years or so. With the rapid climb in mainstream popularity that RPGs have enjoyed these past few years, something that's come with that is content overflow.

This is technically as old as culture itself, but it's an especially pronounced quality of the internet. When a cultural artifact attracts a community who can connect, there inevitably comes an overflow of content by those who want to keep it alive, for a variety of reasons. An example familiar to most people is whenever a TV show becomes really popular. The most recent one was Squid Game, I think before that it would have been Tiger King, and one that really sticks out in my memory was the first season of Stranger Things. When a show gets big, it can never just be a show. There's an entire industry centered around making it more than a show. Obviously, fandom is a big contributor to this, but at least fandom is kind of a "pure" expression of how one engages in the work. I mean, I don't really like fandom culture at all and I pretty much never get into it, but I at least understand people who theorize, make art, write fanfic, etc. The meta-content is coming from those who are simply passionate about it. But the true "content overflow" comes a lot more from people actively attempting to capitalize on the attention of others.

People are fucking hungry for content and seemingly anything you put out there will be eaten up. I'm sure you've seen the perverse devolution of media journalism that's resulted from this ("leaks of a rumor of the speculated release date of a potential announcement of the teaser for the trailer of an upcoming commercial!"). YouTube is another place tainted by this, with fucking hundreds of channels popping up out of nowhere whose only goal is to just be a part of the conversation somehow, no matter how contrived their contributions are. Like, I grew up really interested in fine art and art history, and it's never been something I've really thought of as a part of "pop culture." But after watching a single painting tutorial a couple years ago (I was struggling with a palette knife), my recommendations have been flooded daily with fucking artist clickbait. I never in my life imagined that I'd see shit like, "HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR ART! 💪🎨✨ | 6 Tips for Artists at ANY Level" before, but here I am.

And of course, then you get the merchandising.

People will sell literal garbage on Etsy and others will buy it, just out of content starvation. Notice how many of those player-side materialist examples are just, like, silly little luxuries. I understand the appeal of them a lot more than the merch from most other hobbies, but I think my point mostly stands.

Of course, possibly the biggest source of demand for player-side content overflow is the "looking for game" crowd. I don't know if anyone's been able to conduct a really wide-reaching survey of this, but I strongly suspect that the number of people who'd like to play D&D is much, much larger than the number of people who actually play D&D. Getting a solid and consistent group together is fucking hard, and can take years. They need shit to satisfy them in the meantime. Critical Role is mind-bogglingly successful partially because it is well done, yes. But moreso because it's the first thing people find when they want to play D&D but have no one to play with, and it fills the hole. It's not actually as though Critical Role is introducing people to D&D. People find it because they're already interested in D&D. Critical Role just sucks them in and gives them expectations about how D&D and RPGs work and play and all that. Back in my day, that's what Order of the Stick was for.*

Add all of these together and you get a classic case of content overflow. Just 6 years ago, D&D's online presence was almost entirely confined to blogs and forums. Now it's on fucking everything, with everyone in the world pushing and shoving to be a part of the conversation or to be a platform that hosts the conversation. And while much of that is motivated by trying to capitalize on the attention of the players who otherwise wouldn't have much to read or talk about between sessions, I still feel like I've yet to see nearly as much of it going on as I've seen the GM stuff. We game masters can't shut the fuck up, even without any money involved at all. I do this shit for free.

Is this a bad thing?

No. I don't know. Probably not.

It's simply the nature of the hobby that players and GMs have a different experience from one another. It's more natural for GMs to have something to talk about all the time because the game simply doesn't happen if the GM doesn't put in a lot of work between sessions. Players can get away with just showing up with their character sheet on game nights and never think about D&D in between. And for those who want to get more out of it, I guess there's all that content overflow to satisfy them, and who am I to question that stuff? We all get different things out of the hobby. So what if I enjoy game design discussion and my friends enjoy minmaxing characters?

But I've always secretly wanted more of my players to be in on the same conversations that I'm in. Everywhere I go in life, I'm "the D&D guy" to those around me. This is true of several exclusively-GMs I know and almost never true of any exclusively-players I know. And a nearly-universal sentiment I see expressed by GMs online is the desire for their players to have more GM-like qualities. Not that they want their players to run the game for them or anything, but that what they want to see from their players is basically more of the traits that we GMs have in common with each other. They want players who care about system and storytelling and the communal experience and basically anything deeper than just "goofing around" or rolling dice. I was once in a discussion on a Discord server where a GM said this:
So here's a question: where could one dig out a group of mature players ( not age limited, just maturity level limited ), who are novices, yet who have a strong interest in playing an RPG. Alternatively, experienced players who are fully aware of the type of gaming experience they want, who don't care at all about the system, and are willing to help the GM rewrite the system as the group plays, to match the group style. The goal is to have a group with full Player story participation, collaborative world building, and group system creation/Homebrew hacking.  The novices are just a group that can be trained into the latter experienced set ( they just don't know that's what's being asked is unusual, so they have no preconceptions or objections ). All of this for an online game. I think this is such a specialized niche ask for a game group, that it's nigh-on impossible to find. But there's a lot of smart experience people in this server - maybe someone has a genius idea.
And I said to him, "Sounds to me like a party of experienced GameMasters playing together."

And I'll admit, I do usually feel like people become much better players after they've given GMing a try, even just once. And shit, I'd love to not have to explain stuff all the time. I know dozens of people who've been playing D&D for years and years of their lives and yet I'm always the only one who knows shit like "Eric and the Dread Gazebo" or Dark Sun or who the hell Robin Laws is. You know how often I have to tell someone what Blades in the Dark is just so I can mention an example of something from it in passing? Way more than you'd think, considering its blinding popularity within the medium. Shit, half the people in my group still don't know the term "OSR."

I mentioned that Dragon magazine seemed to be one of those things that united most RPG fans, both on the material and social side. It had new game content for both GMs and players to use, new lore to read, listicles, interviews, theorizing, rules discussion, goofy comics, short fiction, and, yes, ads for shit people wanna sell you. I don't think there was ever any hope that the magazine format could truly be preserved in the internet age, and admittedly it's probably better for there to be about a million Dragon issues' worth of discussion happening every single day instead of only getting it once per month. But at least anyone who had a subscription to it who wanted to get their money's worth was gunna expose themself to every part of the conversation, not just the stuff that fit in "their" sphere.

Another social activity that seems to be fairly split (after polling my own group members) is just reading about lore and worldbuilding in various forms. That one right there is evergreen, so I guess the real trick is to put more effort into putting some Dark Sun lore in front of people's eyeballs. I'm just consistently amazed that I'm somehow never reading the same D&D lore that any of my players are. My 5E group just reached level 20 and I'm still the only one who knows who Vecna is, I think.

[EDIT: polled my players, a couple of them at least vaguely knew who Vecna is. But they didn't know any demon princes, except for one guy who knew Dagon, of all people.]

Appease Me

If we were to consider a merging of these two halves to be something desirable, I have some ideas about what would encourage that.

First of all, WotC already figured out that they should be putting more character-building content into all their books so they could reach the wallets of that other 1/5 of their audience. I spent the first 4 years of 5E's lifespan trying to explain to seemingly everyone around me that WotC wouldn't be releasing books like they did back in 2E and 3E (setting guides and splatbooks galore) because it was completely at odds with their new business model. No, they'd release exactly 2 or 3 books each year, and every one of them would include all the types of content you'd be getting out of this edition so that everyone in your group has a reason to buy it. You want new player building options? It comes packaged in the setting book. You want new spells, magic items, and monster stat blocks? Gotta buy the new adventure path to get them. And so on. It's a very savvy method they figured out, but it meant that they couldn't risk releasing something like a brand new setting until very recently.

It's been kinda frustrating to live through, but at the same time, I really do think that books like Xanathar's Guide and Tasha's Cauldron are sort of the perfect products. Everyone in my group owns both those books and we frequently get hype for new releases like that together.

Here's another type of product I'd like to see more of: player advice books. Half the shit that GMs talk about online is "how to deal with players" and time and again we keep rediscovering that actually, yes, there is such a thing as being a "good player" and a "bad player." If you put some new character-building options in the back of the book to entice them, maybe you could get players to buy a book that spells out for them the terms of the gaming social contract, the kinds of considerations the GM is making while running the game, and basic shit like taking notes or reading the rules your own damn self.

Similarly, I don't think the game benefits from so much DMing advice, rules, and tools being segregated out of the PHB and hidden from players. I think everyone benefits when a lot of that stuff is in full view for both GMs and players to read. This is something I've really tried focusing on with Brave: if there's anything I want referees to know, then chances are I also want players to know it and, therefore, it should go in the main text of the game with no indicator of which paragraphs are directed at the referee and which ones are directed at the players. For example, in the section on Dungeons, I wanted to spell out how mapping the dungeon works, how random encounters work, and how traps typically work. Normally, all that stuff is only ever presented to the GM, but I feel like a lot of problems and misunderstandings and differing expectations could be avoided if the players are also just directly told those things.

And of course, I do kind of want to see a more widespread encouragement of players trying out the GMing role at least once. Maybe not for a complicated game like 5E, but if rules-lite, games tailored for one-shots become more and more pervasive in the hobby then maybe we can normalize the ritual of having each player dabble in running them between long-running campaigns. If nearly every player in the hobby can also credibly call themself "something of a GM" then now the bulk of participants fall into both groups, and we might see more of that materialist and social division breaking down.

Of course, maybe I could start by doing my part and trying to get into D&D memes and sketch comedy. Ugh.


*And yes, just like Critical Role, it gave me a lot of silly and probably bad misconceptions about how the game "should" be. I still love Order of the Stick, but I love it as a comic, the same way a truly-seasoned D&D player will learn to love CR as a show.


  1. This is a great read. You can see the social divide - particularly in what online spaces people frequent in the preferences for classes when you look at forum surveys (which DM's fill in) vs what comes off D&D Beyond or other tools (that players use). DM's like spell casters, players like fighters and rogues.

    I wrote up what I saw after gathering a bunch of sources - it fits what you are pointing out.

  2. "I frequently get the sense that a lot of people in this hobby are uncomfortable with it being free. They want to spend their money on something, if for no other reason than to at least feel more invested in it."

    Oof. I see this so much. It feels like a scapegoat for actually putting in an investment into a game or group? Additionally (and in parellal), all these splatbooks and extra "stuff" are very much an attention hogs for the actual experience of the at-table game, and not nearly as satisfying (imo).

    1. Couldn't have said it better. I strongly suspect that if we cracked open the data from DriveThruRPG and, we'd see that free stuff gets less downloads than stuff with a fair(ish) cost more often than not, just because of a perceived lack of quality in free stuff.

  3. I immediately got distracted by their not being a space between "more" and "different" in the first paragraph, please fix at your earliest convenience.

  4. This rings SO true to me. Especially this one: "Shit, half the people in my group still don't know the term "OSR."" ... you know, like, I'm running an actual OSR game, been running it for half a year, with weekly sessions, and I'm certain I've mentioned the label OSR quite a few times by now, and still I think if I asked my players only one could answer what OSR is.

  5. Your bit about how players and DMs somehow don't tend to read the same lore and worldbuilding stuff really struck me because I just started running my first game, and it made me want to go look at stuff(in the forgotten realms) like the hells and the abyss, demon princes and the relationships between gods. And only some of it was prompted by my friend who is more often a DM saying "look at this cool thing". idk exactly what I was reading before I DMed anything but I don't think I got much deeper than elementals.
    I've definitely read a whole lot more Pathfinder lore than D&D, even if only 2 people including myself in my group seem at all interested in the system, so more recently getting into forgotten realms lore has been a weird trip of "wait I know this, no I don't that's a bit different in Golarion". Kinda fun to see the bits pathfinder brought along when it diverged and how it changed, generally I think I like Golarion more than Faerûn but I don't really know if I can articulate why.

    ramble end

  6. I'm reminded of how the last time I ran D&D for a group of players as part of an event, many of them seemed astounded of the fact that I had basically never touched D&D beyond. I had vaguely heard about it beforehand, but what they considered a pivotal institution of D&D I considered a largely unnecessary expense given the fact that I rarely have need to make characters of my own.

    1. Same here! Several of my players swear by it, I've never even touched it.