More Thoughts On White Wolf Giving Up

In my previous post I opined that the World of Darkness core rulebook was a sign of White Wolf giving up on the idea of their products being people’s entry point into the hobby. I’ve been thinking more about that and come to more general conclusions.

Examples of play and “What is roleplaying?” sections in tabletop RPGs are, I think, important. If you include them, do a good job on them, and don’t bury them (like The World of Darkness does with its explanation of roleplaying) then in a way that’s a declaration of your aspirations: you are intending to include enough in your core rulebook not just the tools for playing the game, but the tools for understanding it.

In principle, beginners can be introduced to tabletop RPGs via any game if they have a referee with prior experience willing to run a game for them; yes, some games are very complex, but a) beginners are inexperienced but not necessarily stupid and b) in my view a good referee will offer to take on more of the burden of operating the game system if they realise a player is overwhelmed. But that means it isn’t really the game or publisher in question which is bringing new people into the hobby – it’s novices being initiated into the hobby by old hands, like it’s some oral tradition. The only really sensible metric by which you can judge a game’s approachability for complete beginners is whether it is viable for new people to pick up your core rules, read them, and then run a game for a group of fellow first-timers. It doesn’t have to be a brilliant, scintillating game – it doesn’t even need to apply most or any of the rules properly – but at the very least it should be a game which we’d recognise as resembling the general format of the RPG in question. (So, for instance, if the beginners ended up with a Fiasco game where one player doesn’t make a player character and takes the primary responsibility for establishing the scenario, or a Dungeons & Dragons game where everyone communally creates one character and shares the duties of setting the scenario in an egalitarian fashion, you can say that that group has failed to understand the basic, fundamental model the game is based on – and if numerous beginners find they have that problem, then you can accuse the game of failing to properly communicate its core premises in a way that inexperienced readers will understand.)

In this respect, the “What is roleplaying?” section and example of play, where present, is crucial. I’d actually say the example of play is, in some respects, even more important – a novice can fairly quickly get the idea of “what is roleplaying?”, but may have little clue as to “how is roleplaying?”, and a good example of play is a really good way to convey that. The World of Darkness talks a lot about how White Wolf would like the roleplaying hobby to be, and promotes their “Storytelling” style as the epitome of good taste in gaming, but doesn’t offer a single example of play to demonstrate what they are talking about. And come to think of it, it’s the lack of an example of play even more than a botched “What is roleplaying?” section which really makes me think White Wolf gave up on the idea that they had any role in recruiting new people into the hobby.

I am toying with the idea of glancing over the books on my shelves and doing mini-reviews of each of their “what is roleplaying?” sections and examples of play. Would people be interested in reading such a project?

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12 thoughts on “More Thoughts On White Wolf Giving Up

  1. I for one would be extremely interested in that.

    I hadn’t really thought about the new players thing before (perhaps because my gaming started out as everyone’s first game ever), but it’s a good point that actually running something that feels like the game is all that’s necessary, rather than clinging to every rule. I think Quick Start rulesets (and sometimes pregens) have a very valuable role to play in enabling this, because it’s both less intimidating and just more practical as a tool to let both players and GMs understand the basics or refer to at the table without slowing down play.

    But as you say, you really need something that offers you at least one version of “what should this game be like to play” to help turn the text into mental images. This is where I personally turn to Actual Play, but very good examples of play can also help out (and at least you can generally assume they’re right about the mechanics, which doesn’t hold for APs). I think one problem is that people like writing gamefic more than tight examples of play, and probably find it easier to do, but unfortunately no game ever gets closer than kissing cousins to a slice of gamefic so they’re only useful in terms of general flavour and attitude.

    1. Actual Plays are useful, especially podcasts or YouTubes of actual sessions, but on the other hand a new player needs to a) be aware that such things are out there and b) bother to go and look for them and invest the time in taking them in (whereas I’ve never seen an example of play which couldn’t be digested in a couple of minutes).

      They can be damn useful once a new person has convinced themselves they are interested in giving a game a try, but I’d say they are no substitute for a quick to read, easy to follow example of play which is right there at the front of the book.

      1. Oh, definitely. For actually getting people into games, the rulebook really needs to grab them. I suppose a GM might suggest a podcast to a potential player, but more to prepare them than to persuade them, because if you’re not already considering slipping off the fence you’re not likely to bother listening. It’s very unlikely people who’ve just heard of a game will start off that way without prompting unless they are incredibly into podcasts in general.

        I’d say APs are far more useful for people who don’t yet game but are considering GMing (for mechanics reinforcement and some idea how things might feel in practice), and of course for existing players thinking of trying something new.

        On reflection, I’m sure some people have got into roleplaying because they already listen to a podcast/read a site and the hosts appear on an AP podcast they decided to check out. Things like the Penny Arcade/PVP podcasts, say, basically fan-transfer. But that’s going to be a pretty small proportion, and far more have probably just taken the direct route of “person I like enjoys this, will consider” without a podcast in between.

        Wonder if anyone actually has figures on how people started gaming..?

      2. I’d say that getting into gaming through the podcast route you describe (or, indeed, because it’s mentioned in a major webcomic like Penny Arcade) really comes under the umbrella of new people being brought into the hobby by the community, rather than because game companies are marketing to them.

        It is, of course, possible that White Wolf (along with others) have decided that their own fans do better at marketing to new players than they ever have, so they don’t bother to expend the corresponding effort themselves because they know they can rely on the fans to do it. It’d be nice to see the sort of statistics you’re talking about because it’d go a long way to showing how justified they are in that. A lot of gamers of a certain generation were self-starters via products like red box Dungeons & Dragons, and I suspect that the statistics will show that the proportion of self-starters has tailed off as the likes of TSR/Wizards/WW have become less interested in doing anything other than preaching to the choir.

      3. True, that is basically a community thing even for the handful that are publisher-supported.

        It strikes me that fan-based marketing has some moderate dangers, though. One being you’re fairly likely to reinforce existing demographic bias because you’re relying on personal connections, whereas things like the Red Box were maybe more likely to make contact with new markets. The other one is that fans might also flag over time if either they feel a bit cut loose, or the newer editions don’t seem to support their recruitment efforts with accessibility.

        Interestingly I can’t think of the last time I saw an P&P RPG ad anywhere other than an existing RPG site, whereas I feel like there used to be a bite more cross-pollination between things like books, magazines and different types of gaming. I mean, White Dwarf ran ads for Metal Hammer. Seems to me that not having Vampire ads in the back of YA novels is missing a trick.

      4. White Wolf’s total failure to engage with the YA vampire boom in its marketing is downright baffling. You think they’d at least give some thought to issuing some sort of PG-rated beginner’s version of Vampire, but nooooo.

        It is possble that they are afraid of a moral panic but that’d be profoundly silly because a) moral panics more or less always help sales, and b) any vampire-based moral panic is going to have far bigger targets at the moment than White Wolf.

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  3. I am 99% certain that there is an example of play in the NWoD rulebook. I’m pretty sure it’s shit, but I’m pretty sure the one in V:tM was shit as well.

    … goes off to check … (this does not take long, as I use my copy of the NWoD rulebook as a mouse mat)

    Yup, it’s on pages 182 to 185. I agree that this is a crappy place to put it, and it’s not really an example of play in any real sense of the word – it’s a prose example of rules use which bears no real resemblance to anything that might actually happen in a game session, but it is there (and that’s *always* what WW examples of play have been).

    1. Then WW have never understood what an example of play is.

      What you have there, as you point out, isn’t an example of play, it’s a rules example. These are useful when you are trying to understand how a complex rule works (and I can see why WW includes such long ones because based on their rhetoric they seem to regard all rules as complex and burdensome necessities), but they convey nothing of what happens in *play* – the actual dialogue between referee and players which constitutes the actual action of a game session – and so they don’t, as you note, qualify as examples of play.

      Again, evidence of WW’s success at inspiring actual play being a matter more of sheer dumb luck than actual skill.

      1. Again, I think to an extent it’s a deliberate strategy. White Wolf has always distanced itself from the frankly unsexy image of a bunch of unshaven blokes sitting around a table rolling dice and pretending to be something else. They’ve always wanted to emphasise the “storytelling” aspect of the game where “storytelling” means “relating the events of the game, in retrospect, as if you were talking about a movie.”

      2. But again, if it’s a deliberate strategy then they’re downright inept at deploying it. Expansive rules examples with a lot of focus on the numbers don’t get across “relating the events of the game, in retrospect, as if you were talking about a movie” – it’s more reminiscent of Arnold Rimmer reciting every single dice roll in a Risk game he played once.

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