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Popular Licenses = New Gamers? Not Any More.

This editorial has been brewing for a few days. It’s the result of a growing dissatisfaction with the RPG industry that was highlighted in a recent e-mail conversation with Gav (whom I hope is still talking with me) and a trip into Games Paradise on Tuesday, October the thirtieth.

Probably the biggest draw card for any roleplaying product is its use of a “license” – the right to create and publish a game based on an existing media franchise – and the best licenses to acquire are those for popular television series and movies. Existing gamers will often leap at the chance to play in an established universe which they, and other players, are going to be familiar with – and more importantly, a roleplaying game based on popular TV show or movie will have a much easier time attracting people who’ve never been into RPGs (and considering what a niche market RPGs are, the untapped potential here is huge).

With the debut of the D20 System – first seen in Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition line and made available to all thanks to the Open Gaming License – companies that have acquired some popular movie and TV licenses have started writing roleplaying games for these franchises using the D20 system.

It’s a sensible business move. Thanks to D&D, the D20 System is popular and ubiquitous. It's likely that if you know roleplaying, you have a D&D core rulebook sitting on your shelf somewhere (I do, although it took nine years after I got into the hobby before I broke down and bought the second printing of the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Player's Handbook). A roleplaying game that uses the D20 System will be familiar to the majority of gamers. It can be easily adapted to existing D20-based campaigns, and any new gamer is more than likely going to be able to find other players who like and are familiar with the rules, reducing the time taken to get a campaign started.

These D20-based roleplaying games, though, are often incomplete. The rules that would be “doubled-up” between the D20-based RPG and the 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook (usually character creation, Skills and Feats) are removed from the D20-based RPG and a “This product requires the 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook to use.” sign is placed on the back cover. Again, this makes some business sense – if the existing player base is likely to have a copy of the D&D Player's Handbook already, why waste pages re-printing rules that a player would either already own, or would use once (such as Character Creation)? The saved page-count can either be used for more setting and background material or just excised from the book, cutting down on printing costs.

The problem I have with these strategies is that they are potentially very unfriendly to new gamers. As so much focus is given nowadays to the D20 System, some genres or styles of play are being adapted to D20 when perhaps they shouldn’t be – and the “D20 RPG, requires 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook” trend may drive the cost to purchase a complete, working RPG beyond the budget of potential new gamers.

Probably Wizards of the Coast’s second best-selling RPG line (the first, of course, being D&D) would be Star Wars. After the previous owners of the Star Wars RPG license, West End Games, foundered financially in the late nineties, Wizards of the Coast successfully bid for them at around the time that the first of the Star Wars prequels was in pre-production. The Star Wars Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook was released at around the time The Phantom Menace hit theatres, and a Revised Core Rulebook was released with Attack of the Clones. I bought both books, and although I’ve not actually used them often, I’ve read them several times.

There are two elements of the Star Wars RPG that have always bothered me, even slightly. The D20 System is based on the concept of “levels”; players earn “experience points” as rewards for playing well, and once they have earned enough, they receive a bundle of enhancements that they use to improve the game statistics of their characters. Some of these changes mean that skills that were previously expensive become cheaper, so if you wanted to create a seventh-level Scoundrel (roughly equivalent to Han Solo at the beginning of A New Hope), you would have to create him one level at a time. This process can be extraordinarily tedious, and requires a comprehensive knowledge of the available skills and feats so that you choose the ones that are, if not the best choice, then at least of reasonable use to your character. (The old West End system was even guilty of this a little; the write-ups of the movie characters were veritable shopping lists of skills, and the number of dice that could be rolled would slow down any fast-paced, tense scene by having to add all the dice up.)

Also, the write-ups for some of the movie characters (the Skywalkers, especially) give them bonuses that are simply not available in the character creation and advancement rules; they also break the standard upper limits for player-controlled characters of the same classes and levels.

A common viewpoint taken by the Star Wars fan community is that, to paraphrase a good friend, the “main characters” of the setting aren't always bound by the rules that the “other” exceptional people of the universe – every player character, in essence - have to stick with. I don’t think the blame for this can be laid entirely at the feet of the D20 System. There’s an unspoken assumption within the RPG community that a newly-created player character is a "rookie" and ought to have a rookie status (relative to the power scale of heroes in that universe); the mechanics of play and experience (a.k.a. “levelling up”) in many RPGs are geared around that assumption, and trying to do something different often results in more work.

There’s also the fact that geeks like me, who love to immerse ourselves in the universe, the novels, the supplements, the computer/video games and all of the rest of the product of the Star Wars merchandising engine, can accept there's only one Luke Skywalker, and any characters we create will be mere shadows - we've told ourselves that's how it ought to be.

The root of the problem, from my point of view, is that very adherence to some mythological "continuity" can quite easily get in the way of having Star Wars-style fun. I think the Star Wars RPG should also cater to those who point to the movies and say, "I want to do that. That is Star Wars, and I want to play Star Wars." I feel that it's a shame that those who want to do the sorts of things that the Luke, Han, Leia, Anakin, Obi-Wan, Jango et. al. do (because, ultimately, they're the only examples of player characters that the Star Wars movies have) are forced to slog through the tedious task of improving their characters level-by-level, rather than being able to create an experienced, veteran character one with only a little more effort than a rookie (who, if you take the example of Luke Skywalker, who was an able combat pilot after only having seen a military aircraft an hour or so before, will be about as competent anyway).

Perhaps I’ve been reading too many articles by Steve Darlington of the Places To Go, People To Be webzine, but I think the mood and tone of the movies/TV shows that a licensed game such as Star Wars is trying to emulate should be supported by the system, instead of the mood and tone being altered to fit the system. The complexity of the D20 System is, I think, going to scare away some customers who would otherwise find a Star Wars RPG the perfect introduction to the hobby.

Then there’s the other problem that the D20 Phenomenon has created.

I do most of my RPG browsing in Sydney’s Games Paradise (simply because it has the most stuff), and whilst poring the New Release shelves, I noticed the Stargate SG-1 Roleplaying Game nestled on the top shelf. Now, I think a Stargate SG-1 RPG is a good idea. It’s one of the most popular science fiction shows on TV. (I think it’s in its seventh or eighth season, which is excellent for a modern science fiction show, and in Australia, it’s one of the very few to have never been relegated to a graveyard shift time slot a fate that Babylon 5, Farscape and even US mega-shows such as the Star Trek spin-offs have been doomed to suffer.) It’s got action, intrigue, travel to other planets, funky aliens, crunchy high-tech bits and a player character premise that doesn’t require monkeying with existing continuity; unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where (I think) there can be only one Slayer at a time, it’s quite easy to have the players set up as one of the several other “SG” teams whom we never meet in the show.

There are two problems with this particular Stargate SG-1 RPG, though. One: it’s A$100 (perhaps reasonable for a full-colour, 300-page hardback). Two: It’s "Powered By Spycraft".

Now, you’ll have to forgive some vagueness here; I’ve tried to research this question without going back into GP, but a solid answer to my question is hard to track down on the Web. Spycraft is an OGL line of supplements for D&D/D20 Modern, and although the core Spycraft book is marketed by its publishers as the Spycraft RPG, I believe it’s not a stand-alone product (in other words, it requires the 3rd Edition D&D Player's Handbook). At the very least, in order to be able to use this A$100 book, you need to already own, at the very least, the Spycraft RPG, which retails for around A$80 – and quite possibly also the 3rd Edition (actually, now the 3.5 Edition) D&D Player's Handbook, which retails for around A$50.

This means that a person who liked the series and would otherwise be amenable to getting into roleplaying will have to pay between A$180 and A$240 in order to actually have a complete, workable Stargate SG-1 RPG, and it’s entirely possible that they won’t even be interested in dungeons, dragons or spies; that’s around A$60-120 worth of rules, equipment statistics and source material they may never particularly want to use.

And even existing players aren’t made out of money; there are only so many core books we can afford. $80-100 for an incomplete RPG is definitely pushing things uphill, for me at least.

Other licensed games are guilty of this, although not quite to the same extent. The Farscape RPG is published by Alderac Entertainment Group, the publishers of the Stargate SG-1 and Spycraft RPGs, and Mongoose Publishing have recently released a full-colour Babylon 5 RPG. Both cost around A$80 and require the D&D Player’s Handbook; again, if the potential buyer is an SF fan, the very thought of purchasing a fantasy product in order to play a game based on their favourite SF show may well be enough for them to spend their disposable income elsewhere.

Paying $80 for a core rulebook for a roleplaying game may be a big enough turn-off for anyone, especially a potential new gamer, the perfect audience for a licensed game. Basically, the cheapest way to buy any of these RPGs is if you already have the D&D Player’s Handbook; in other words, if you’re already in the hobby. And I think that’s exactly the approach publishers are taking. Wizards of the Coast’s FAQ for Open Gaming Definitions states: “One way to help publishers make products that will be more interesting to consumers is to allow them to use standardized systems that have large networks of players.” Matthew Sprange of Mongoose Publishing wrote in the designer’s notes of the Babylon 5 RPG: “The d20 System was chosen early on, as we were looking for rules that most roleplayers could pick up and use with the minimum of fuss”. the strong implication in both statements is that the D20 Open gaming effort is aimed at the existing player base; the untapped pool of potential new entrants into the hobby is neglected or ignored.

On one hand, I can understand it. At the risk of sounding elitist, RPGs seem to only attract those who already have active imaginations; much of the regular viewership of the shows and movies that licensed RPGs are based on would never be interested in gathering around a table, rolling dice and pretending to be a fictional character, even if the setting is their favourite show. The RPG industry is more likely to make their money from an existing player base – and those new players who would probably buy Dungeons & Dragons on its own merits anyway.

But on the other hand, it’s a very big shame to read the RPG industry effectively state, “We’re focusing on the existing market and not risking our money in any outreach products, even with popular licenses. Here’s our comfort zone, and we're not budging.”

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