Posts Tagged ‘gencon’

On the Economics of Tabletop RPGs

January 28, 2012 30 comments

Almost 30 years ago, I wrote an article for TSR UK’s Imagine magazine on the subject of converting characters and adventures between different roleplaying game systems. I remember taking an unscientific poll at the time, and based on the content and advertising in the various RPG magazines I had to hand, there were around 50 tabletop RPGs on the market. Today, a quick look through turns up 97 game lines, and I’m sure there are many more that don’t sell through that site.

The year after my article was published, GenCon attracted 5,000 attendees in its first year in Milwaukee. Last year, a reported 36,733 people went to Indianapolis for GenCon, to say nothing of those who attended the various smaller GenCons around the world.

All this might lead the casual observer to believe that the tabletop roleplaying hobby has never been stronger or more popular – but I’m not so sure. Here’s why:

The FLGS Under Threat

In the 80s and early 90s, I was usually aware of 2-3 Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGSs to us game geeks) within a 30-minute drive of wherever I happened to be living at the time. They were places where gamers could go and browse, maybe play a demo or two, pick up new releases for whatever games they played, and discover new games.

Now, the FLGS is almost an endangered species. The major games – D&D, Pathfinder, and maybe one or two others – can now be found in big-box bookstores, but they don’t carry anything like the range of stock found in an FLGS, and small to mid-range titles are absent altogether. The online retailers carry a much broader range, but browsing takes serious determination. I suspect that game conventions are now the main way that gamers discover new games.

Follow the Money

When I quit Games Workshop in 1990 to set out on the uncertain seas of freelance game writing, I was paid between 2 and 5 cents per word. Twenty-two years later, that’s what most of the tabletop RPG industry still pays. A handful of the larger publishers pay 6 cents per word.

According to, a 2012 dollar is worth only 58 cents from 1990. So in real terms, payment rates have declined by more than one-third over the last 22 years. Many old-school tabletop RPG writers, myself included, now make their living in the better-paying electronic games industry. Many of the people I know in the industry – even those who own and operate RPG publishing companies – list a “day job” on their LinkedIn profiles, which is a sign that they can’t make a living from game publishing alone.

So what’s happening? Why do we see growth in the range of tabletop RPG titles and increasing attendance at game conventions alongside clear evidence of a drop in profitability? I can think of a couple of reasons.

Lowering the Bar

In the 80s and 90s, getting a tabletop RPG to market was a serious undertaking. Layout was still done with scissors and paste. The first desktop publishing programs were so expensive that only professional publishers could afford them. A print run of at least 5,000 copies was needed to break even, and publishers had to pay for printing and shipping before a single cent rolled in from sales. Nowadays, e-books and PDFs have slashed production costs and money tied up in unsold stock. Word can be used to turn out respectable-looking pages. Gamers who would have started typewritten fanzines in the 80s now run blogs and sell PDFs online.

I’ve always said that if you scratch a roleplayer, you’ll find a would-be game designer underneath. Today, the bar to entry is so low that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can start their own publishing house – and many have. For most, it’s just a hobby. For a few, it’s an attempt to make a living – or at least a little cash – from the hobby that they love. But almost no one outside a handful of the largest publishers is making any kind of a living at it.

So What About GenCon?

It’s easy to see how DTP, PDFs, POD, and various other acronyms have led to a growth in the number of tabletop RPG publishers. But surely the numbers from GenCon prove that the market is growing in proportion, right?

Yes, more people are attending GenCon than ever. However, if the market for tabletop RPGs is growing at all, I’m fairly sure it’s growing far more slowly than GenCon attendance. I would love to see how the age breakdown of GenCon attendees has changed over the last 20 years or so, but I haven’t been able to find any statistics on the subject. I suspect that a major factor in the rise in attendance is the increase in tabletop roleplayers’ disposable income as they get older. Couple this with the decline in the brick-and-mortar game stores, and for many people conventions have become the only place to mix with other gamers, play demos, and discover new titles.

But Don’t Panic!

Does this mean the tabletop RPG industry is dying? Far from it. It’s just not booming. It will never be what people hoped it would become in the late 80s, when TSR released a long-box edition of D&D aimed to fit alongside Monopoly and Clue on toystore shelves. For some, it’s a hobby that maybe brings in a little cash. For a very few, it’s a living doing something they love. There’s a lot to like about the fact that you can start your own publishing house from your basement or garage. As long as everyone realizes that the odds of striking it rich are vanishingly small, no one will get hurt.

It was Twenty Years Ago Today (redux)

May 10, 2011 6 comments

I already used this title for the entry on my first video game project, but what the heck – reduce, reuse, recycle, right? What prompted it this time was the announcement of a 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade. That brings back some memories.

1990-91 was a busy time for me, and in many ways my work on Vampire was what made it possible. Seeing that Games Workshop was de-emphasizing roleplaying games in favor of miniatures, I decided to jump ship. I ended up moving from Nottingham to Denver, getting married, writing a lot of material for Vampire and GURPS, and getting my start in video games.

By 1990 Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the reason GW had hired me in the first place, had become the red-headed stepchild of the GW family. There had been some expectation among the upper management that it would increase miniatures sales: those of you who bought the earliest editions of The Enemy Within, Shadows Over Bogenhafen, and Death on the Reik may remember that they came with miniatures deals, just like the Warhammer battle packs had done. WFRP came out alongside the first edition of Warhammer 40,000, and comparisons were made. Miniatures were where the money was, and games were seen – at least by some – as merely a tool for selling them. Roleplaying products became less and less important over the four years I worked there, until in 1989 a roleplaying division, Flame Publications, was set up with a staff of three: me, artist Tony Ackland, and editor/manager Mike Brunton. Perhaps significantly, we were housed well outside the main studio.

I saw the writing on the wall, and started looking around for other opportunities to write roleplaying material. My friend Ken Rolston, the creator of the acclaimed WFRP adventure Something Rotten in Kislev, passed my name along to a new outfit called White Wolf, who were making a game where all the players were vampires. This was a radical concept at the time, and I was interested. I also knew, as Ken would say, way too much about vampires, having graduated from Hammer to Montague Summers to Augustin Calmet and every other source I could get my hands on over the course of a lifetime.

I remember talking to Vampire creator Mark Rein-Hagen by phone from my living room in Nottingham. He had sent me a draft of the game, which I had read and commented on, and we were discussing a prologue which would set the scene, convey the tone, and give some basic information. The idea of a letter came up: a letter from a vampire who was moved by conscience to spill the innermost secrets of vampire society and culture. Just offhand, I said, “Why not make the letter from Dracula?” and Mark paused for a moment. “That sounds awesome,” he said, “but you need to make sure it sounds right. Throw in words from lots of different languages, to show how old and experienced he is.” We talked for a little while longer, and I ended up writing the prologue that appeared in first edition Vampire. Looking back, I think I was a little too clever with it, but people seemed to like it. I’ve lost track of the number of places it was reprinted.

I moved to the States in October 1990, and worked on a steady stream of contracts for the new game as well as writing GURPS Vikings and GURPS Middle Ages 1. White Wolf invited me to GenCon as their guest: I had never been before, because Games Workshop didn’t send people and I could never afford to go to Milwaukee from Nottingham on my own dime. Someone would meet me at the airport, I was promised. No one did. It was a late-arriving flight, and I sat while Milwaukee airport closed down around me. It was a time before cell phones, so I had no way to reach anyone, and I asked for a general page to go out for anyone from White Wolf Publishing, but it never happened. Eventually I got a cab and found a hotel, where the only room available this convention weekend was a suite that cost a fortune, and then I made my way to the Mecca center the following morning.

Arriving at the White Wolf booth, the first person who spoke to me was Travis Williams. Anyone who has met Travis can tell you, he’s kind of – well, imposing would be a good word. “WHERE the HELL was YOU?” he asked, in the tones of someone who was seriously considering busting a cap in my white ass. He’s not what anyone thinks of when they hear the word “roleplayer.” That memory has stuck with me ever since.

Vampire was the hit of the show, although few people – except perhaps Mark Rein-Hagen – had any idea of how big it would become. I hung out at the White Wolf booth, pushing copies and generally having a good time. My relationship with White Wolf lasted for five years, from the early Vampire titles through Wraith (I wrote prologues for the first and second editions: the first was a letter from from Byron – I felt clever because I was sure everyone expected him to be a vampire – to Mary Shelley, and the second saw Byron having hooked up with Hemingway to publish an underground newspaper for the dead and bitch about each other’s writing styles) and Mummy (I co-wrote the second edition with my buddy James Estes, and lobbied unsuccessfully to turn it into a full World of Darkness line – which did actually happen years later, and they were good enough to give James and me a “based on” credit). But my day jobs in video games development gave me less time for writing, and like many tabletop RPG publishers White Wolf became slower and slower at cutting checks as the great pre-d20 shrinkage of the industry set in.

Still, Vampire was a great experience for me. Financially, it helped me get through my first few years as a full-time freelance writer, and creatively it let me contribute to the founding of not just a very good roleplaying game, but a powerful IP that has lasted down the years.

But twenty years? Sheesh. . . .