Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Subtle Distinctions

Upon reflection, it appears that my “generational observations” from yesterday may have been a bit more gross or general in nature than what is useful. Which is a wordy way of saying I need to break it down with a bit more specificity.

Or not. Maybe it IS impossible to pigeon-hole gamers. The problem that arises when trying to draw “generational lines” comes down to a couple big precursors:

- HOW one was introduced to the RPG (THAT was covered a bit yesterday), and
- WHAT was a person’s first RPG(s)

The second doesn’t define which generation of gamer one is (for example, someone introduced to role-playing with the 1st edition of Tunnels & Trolls in the 70s is still a “1st Generation Gamer”), but it DOES alter the future gaming development/direction of the individual, as well as his or her basic presumptions about gaming.

Speaking as a 2nd generation gamer, and having gamed mostly with (what I called yesterday) "2nd generation" gamers, there appears to be real split that occurs depending on what game was your introduction to role-playing. In fact, there more like four or five (going on six!) generations of role-players, rather than the three I hypothesized yesterday.

[Remember, in terms of gamer “generation” I’m not talking familial generation (grandparent, parent, kid), nor am I using the term like generations of software/computers/I-Phones (i.e. this is not “version numbers”)]

1st Generation: the primogenitors. Those first individuals that wrote the games and were still really discovering what the role-playing hobby was “all about” (I’m not claiming it’s been figured out yet). These folks did the ground work, made the big mistakes, sometimes codified assumptions that weren’t necessarily necessary, and formed the foundation upon which the 2nd generation would be built. In general, the 1st generation joined the hobby circa 1972-1976.

2nd Generation: in my mind, these are the first wave of kids (including teens) that were introduced to the hobby through the industry by direct marketing to kids. Yes, there were kids in the 1st generation (for example, Ernie Gygax and Rob Kuntz), but they were part of the blossoming hobby, not a demographic. These kids, the 2nd Gen, were generally introduced via some form of “Basic D&D” game (Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer) and thus can be equated to anyone joining the hobby from 1977-1984. These individuals are characterized as having a pretty solid grasp of key concepts (D&D/role-playing-wise) as per those introductory rules and have a penchant for adopting many aspects of the Basic game into the sometimes mucky AD&D game once they "graduated" to that realm.

There are some members of this generation who are introduced directly to AD&D, generally via older siblings/cousins/friends, but I’ve known many of these to either A) drop role-playing altogether (once their original group with its “esoteric knowledge” skipped the picture) or B) at some point picked up at least one of the Basic sets (often Mentzer) as a type of “remedial training.”

Those 2nd Gen gamers introduced to the RPG hobby through a non-D&D game at this point is still generally A) a kid/teenager, and B) starting with some sort of easy-to-learn system. This is the period when the hobby really starts to become an industry. These kids (DOB circa 1958-1974) will one day form the core group of today's game designers.

3rd Generation: this is the group I lumped in with the 2nd generation in yesterday’s post. The difference between gaming generation and familial or version (software) generation is that gaming is a retail product. Familial generations…well they can’t help but happen in waves. And software versions force one to upgrade if you want your computer or apps to work. RPGs were (prior to the internet) published “off the shelf” and stores carried and promoted what was “hot” or had “buzz” (I assume…retail stores do the same today), thus skewing what was available for purchase. Only insiders (i.e. people already playing and keeping up with The Dragon or people in the game publishing industry) might be able to form an opinion on new offerings on the shelf…and from what I recall of those days, EVERYTHING was touted as being great and revolutionary anyway (it was all very Rah-Rah in those days).

To me the 3rd generation comes into role-playing circa 1984-1991. There are several different factors influencing players introduced to gaming at this time:

- A huge explosion of various RPG in all shapes, sizes, and colors

- Nearly all games having some sort of higher moral code/standard and/or disclaimer language, probably in direct response to negative media attention on gaming

- More Intellectual Property being made into RPGs, though generally of the heroic or comic book variety (Star Wars, ElfQuest, Marvel Superheroes, Robotech, TMNT, DC Heroes, etc.) as opposed to the darker IP of the prior generation (Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu were both published by Chaosium in 1981); again emphasis is on the “moral high road” for most games.

- The publishing of “universal systems” (GURPS is published in 1986, Palladium's nominally universal system is published in this period which fails to synch with its original Palladium RPG of 1981) and systems that use universal mechanics for all actions (for example, Marvels color charts).

- Skill Systems become adopted as normal in RPGs, following in the footsteps set by Chaosium (at least, they appear to have done it earliest and best). AD&D books begin adding “non-weapon proficiencies” with each new tome; D&D Gazeteers do the same (finally codifying the system in the Rules Cyclopedia); other old TSR systems are issued in new editions with skill systems added (Top Secret SI, Boot Hill 3rd edition)…I don’t think there’s a single RPG from this period that does NOT have a skill system of some sort, including Steve Jackson’s Toon!

Players introduced to role-playing in this era end up with a lot of new assumptions about role-playing that the 1st two generations don’t have:

- Playing a game means “playing a hero – like in your favorite comic book or movie!” This appears to be the easiest way to simultaneously explain and sell new players on an RPG (no one wants to play a farmer or beggar anymore, like one might in the 1981 Stormbringer RPG!).

- RPGs are presumed to need skill systems.

- RPGs are presumed to be for kids, generally lacking any mature or adult themes in and of themselves.

- Complexities of games (i.e. larger page counts) are handled by making all or mostly universal systems (Star Wars, Shadow Run, GURPS, Marvel, etc.), rather than hodge-podge’s of different systems. This is the preamble to WotC and D20.

***EDIT: Also, members of the 3rd generation often did not discover D&D through Basic, but rather were introduced to the game through AD&D (1st or 2nd) and grew up with a loathing of race as class, mocking it at every opportunity.***

4th Generation (i.e. the Lost Generation): Circa 1991-1997 and possibly longer (?) this is a small group of people that got introduced to RPGs NOT as kids but as young adults. These are the World of Darkness crews that may not have played RPGs as kids but got into darker or “mature” role-playing with the advent of the first wave of "new blood" game designers in the early 90s (these are those 2nd generation gamers coming into their own). Games like Ars Magica, Vampire, Over the Edge, and late edition Chaosium games all provide a backlash and negative counter-point to the “heroic role-playing” of the mid-late 80s. Whether or not these folks continued gaming after college…who knows? Some moved into LARPing, some “grew up,” and some may have moved into Indie games. Generally NEVER played Dungeons & Dragons and thinks the idea of being an elvish ANYthing is shit-ball crazy.

5th Generation: This is that “3rd generation” I cited from yesterday…the children of 2nd and 3rd Gen gamers. Approximately introduced to the game anytime between 1998 and, well, probably the present day, but maybe only as late as 2005-2007. This group has never known TSR, being introduced to gaming long after TSR went under (and was purchased by Wizards of the Coast). In fact, their initial foray into “gaming” might well have been Pokemon or Magic collectible card games. Unless they had some fairly open-minded and enlightened parents or mentors, their gaming assumptions are probably based on the tenets of WotC:

- Combat is King at the RPG table (see D20, 4th Edition, and even Magic Cards)

- Production, Art, and Style trump substance (bigger is better, slicker/flashier is better)

- Most to All of the 3rd generation factors apply (again these are KIDS being introduced to the game, not adults).

Adults coming to the role-playing table at this time are a fairly different (i.e. weird) bunch. At least the adults I know: if they didn’t start role-playing in their youth they’re probably not interested now. If they are, they are MORE interested in Indie and/or “rules light” RPGs than in learning some D20 monstrosity (though they may purchase an RPG for a particular IP brand they like…say Serenity/Firefly).

Again, 5th generation gamers (of the kid variety) are the most likely to take to 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons as a “logical extension” of D20, and probably will NOT be looking to play older games unless they’ve had significant mentoring or an unusual amount of curiosity. Or unless they’re fed up with computer-style gaming (I’ve met some kids that are…DOB circa 1995-1997)...but these latter may just be “weird.”

Will there be a 6th generation of gamer? Lord, I don’t know. Can you introduce a child to Sorcerer, My Life with Master, or Dogs in the Vineyard? I don’t know…I know I have NOT (and I’m all about introducing kids to role-playing). And if we’re not introducing kids to out-o-the-box indie games are we going to be teaching them through 4th edition and (presumably-soon-to-be-released) 5th edition “Dungeons & Dragons?” Because from what I’ve seen, Hasbro/WotC’s newest game doesn’t really teach “role-playing” at all.

Certainly, the 6th generation might be taught role-playing through retro-clones and older editions, but there’s no guarantee they'll continue to play when they're grown up…and will these “niche-niche” designers and publishers still be around putting out stuff when they are adults?

Damn…I can certainly see the possibility of the 5th generation being the last generation. There’s just not much soil here for seeds to take root and grow.


  1. Interesting. On a strict reading, I'm 4th generation. I started gaming in 1994 or 1995, at our equivalent of high school, with Shadowrun, but quickly moved on to Call of Cthulhu, which was my main game for five years or so, before I got out of the hobby altogether.

    I played D&D three times back then, as I recall. Once with AD&D2, and twice with the "black box" version of the basic set. But it was never really our thing, and it was just one of the many games we tried out between Cthulhu and Shadowrun scenarios.

    The World of Darkness didn't really register on our radar. I think we played a session of Werewolf once, and there was a copy of Vampire floating about the group, but no one ever did anything with it.

  2. I actually think that my grandkids (and others of their generation b.2001) have a chance at being that 6th. I'm playing Savage Worlds and Swords & Wizardry with them. They are very creative. See my blog for some posts. If we can keep the creativity going -- the hobby won't die. :)

  3. Again an interesting post, but you are letting some biases show that might otherwise be a very astute observation.

    "- Production, Art, and Style trump substance (bigger is better, slicker/flashier is better)"

    Why can't there be both? Can you honestly say that just because a product is flashy it also must be true that there is no substance to that? As gamer I know this not true and as a game designer it most certainly not true. High production values are the norm today, to not have them will get your product ignored.
    For example: You own B/X Companion looks AWESOME. I would expect the production values to be high, even considering you are a one-man show. WotC, WW, Green Ronin have paid employees, I expect their work to be equally as high. The Dresden Files is one of the nicest looking games on the market today, AND it is full of quality stuff.

    "“Dungeons & Dragons?” Because from what I’ve seen, Hasbro/WotC’s newest game doesn’t really teach “role-playing” at all."

    I play D&D4 with my kids and it is full of role-playing. In fact I have them writing paragraphs about their characters as writing practice this summer. There is still plenty of role-playing in D&D4, they just don't spend the same amount of pages on it as they do combat or how to use skills.

    So these aside, your observations have merit. They are by their nature, fairly D&D-centric. I know lots of people that are gamers and never played D&D at all. There are just so many games these days that D&D is not "the gateway drug" it used to be.

  4. I'm an interesting case. I was 9 years old when I was introduced to AD&D. Guess what year that was. 1999. After that I player 3.5 for a few years and 4th edition with a few people in high school and my freshman year of college. Now? I've got them all converted and we're playing my homebrew variety B/X, pendragon (3rd edition), and one of my roommate's home brew system that feels a lot like 2nd edition Runequest.

    As for what's going to happen next. I think we're going to see a lot of blending between the new and old school ideals. Games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Pendragon will start to pop up and eventually become more widely spread. The 5th edition of D&D will take non-random character generation, some of the "story now" concepts, and force them into working with 3rd edition D&D.

    I could be completely off, but that's my guess.

  5. Thanks for the detailed, interesting posts on this! I guess I'm in your 3rd generation. If you want to look into my personal gaming history (if you're at all interested), you can start here:


  6. @ Kelvin: I know quite a few players that got introduced to RPGs in college circa 1992-1995...they missed the 2nd and 3rd generation as kids, possibly due to the stigma of "Satanic D&D" (and their parents not wanting to buy it). They tended to play games like Shadow Run, Rifts, Ars, and (especially) World of Darkness...games with (surprise!) more ambiguous hero-types or anti-heroes, or outright profiteers...similar to the older editions of D&D! AD&D2 and BECMI didn't appeal to 'em, at all.

    @ Jim: I hope you're right, man. I know I'm going to continue to introduce kids to RPGs (of various types)...I just hope we can achieve a critical mass to keep the hobby alive.

    @ Tim: There absolutely CAN be both! What I'm saying is that kids introduced to a retail game in 2002 is being exposed to a very different product AS A NORM than in the past...and they do judge books by their covers.

    There ARE quality games out there that don't look as polished and hip as the Big Boys' for whatever reason. My book, for example, has a B&W interior and no fancy fonts (though I'm not claiming its any stupendous masterpiece, believe me!) and certainly pales in comparison to say, Rogue Trader. Meanwhile I know of many games, extremely pretty, that pale (quality-wise) compared to books nearly as simple as mine. In my own opinion, B/X is a superior product to 3rd edition D&D...but then, so is Sorcerer and InSpectres,

    As for D&D4 and its "role-playing" potential, I admit that I've never played the game. I am basing my statements on the reviews of its books I've been reading this book, and conversations with friends who have owned and played the game. Your experience seems atypical.

    On the other hand, I don't consider character writing exercises to be "role-playing." I consider role-playing something that occurs in game, and I don't simply mean talking with a funny accent. But that's perhaps a post for another time.

    @ Ian: I don't think your experience is atypical. I imagine that you were introduced to AD&D by an older family member or friend that played? That puts you square in the 5th generation in my book...assuming you spent any time reviewing the games that were for sale once you got older and had more choice in what games you purchased?

    I'm glad you've been able to break away from the "WotC Machine" and buy into some other games. Sounds cool to me! But I'm not sure if your prediction will come to pass regarding DND5. I'd guess: no. If hasbro offers a game that allows the crafting of stories, instead of just tackling well-crafted encounters, people will stop buying their well-crafted encounters. That's MY prediction, anyway.
    ; )

    Drance: Yep, I think you are. And you are certainly not alone...it's you younger types that are so good with the internet stuff these days (my wife is only a year younger than me but a technical genius with computers compared to my plodding anachronistic fingers!).

  7. I do wonder if things would have been different if Tim, that first GM back in '94, was into a different game. He was a Shadowrun nut, and we were introduced to rpgs in general through him. He's only about a year older than me, by the way.

    He was the one who introduced us all to D&D too, as he had a big games library, but as I mentioned above, it never really clicked with us. I can't really say why; the games we did play were fun, particularly the two sessions of basic D&D, but we just never felt the urge to go back.

    It is only now, after getting into gaming a second time, that I'm looking at D&D again.

  8. you can't learn RP simply by playing "SYSTEM X".

    no system can teach RP. RP is thought by playing in a group. heck, i learned how to RP by beating the neighborhood kids senseless with sticks while they did the same to me, playing he-man, ninja turtles, power rangers and whatnot. we didn't roll dice or have any intricate tables to cross-reference. we ran around the backyard & in the fields whacking each other with sticks and yelling "by the powah of graaaaaayskull" or "cowabunga".

    my first "RPG"? i can't remember which exactly but it was either DragonWarrior, FinalFantasy or Legend of Zelda on the NES. i played all 3 quite furiously as a kid. it's from there i leaned about the old Fighting Fantasy books and eventually AD&D 2nd ed.

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  10. I really, REALLY wish that you wouldn't talk about how 4th Edition is all about well-crafted encounters instead of story crafting without having played it. For someone who defends the role-playing potential of old-school games as not being about mechanics or system at all, arbitrarily ruling that a game you've never played before is somehow not conducive to roleplaying seems incredibly petty.

  11. @ Jamie: You should really read System Does Matter, by Ron Edwards. A quick link: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/system_does_matter.html

    A summary: You can have good experiences with any system, but it's easier if it doesn't waste time and space with the elements that aren't needed and focuses instead on that which is needed. In this case, one could make the argument that 4e is, indeed, more about well-crafted encounters because it lovingly spends time detailing exactly how to make an encounter fun and exciting, down to the last experience point. It then skims, vaguely, over campaign themes, story arcs, and resolution in only a couple of pages.

  12. @ Mark: Your idea of role-playing may be different from mine (and different from several of this blog's readers). For what it's worth, this is a blog about table-top role-playing, not video games. Two very different things.

    @ Jamie and Nick: Ugh. I guess I'm going to have to throw up another post.
    ; )