The Dream of an Indie RPG Boom

I read with some interest Alessando Pirodi’s recent post on the so far limited commercial success of story games and other highly-coherent hobby games that take the lessons of the Forge to heart, compared with more traditional RPGs. I think he raises a number of good points, but may be overoptimistic in his long-range prognosis.

First off, he certainly seems to be right in his assumption that RPGs deviating from the “Incoherent/GM-centric/Traditional” format are a niche of a niche. This is one area where ENWorld’s charts of how much different games are being discussed online comes in handy. Although it’s possible that ENWorld are failing to track significant foci of indie RPG discussion, I can’t imagine they’d do that deliberately – if nothing else, the tracking includes the forums, which are exceptionally busy and which tend to be quite friendly towards indie RPGs. And what do we see? Consistently, a chart dominated by games which fall into precisely the sort of Incoherent/GM-centric/Traditional style Pirodi refers to, with perhaps a very few games like FATE and the various Apocalypse World derivatives which strive for greater coherence but don’t deviate very radically from the GM-centric and Traditional parts of the IGT puzzle.

That said, I question Pirodi’s understanding of the major sellers in the industry. As I mentioned, FATE and Apocalypse World are still GM-centric and Traditional games. Numenera is about as “IGT” as a game can get – yes, it borrows some mechanics from FATE, but simply including some mechanics usually regarded as narrativist doesn’t make a game coherently narrativist. (By definition, coherence isn’t about the presence or absence of a particular mechanic, but how all the mechanics included hang together.) 3rd Edition WFRP may or may not have been a success, but certainly wasn’t enough of a barnstormer to justify Fantasy Flight continuing to produce new materialEdge of the Empire isn’t a new edition of D20 or D6 Star Wars but a brand new Star Wars RPG with a system influenced by WFRP3, though notably it scales back an enormous number of the innovations WFRP3 brought in (hence Edge of the Empire not coming in a massive box crammed with components) and merely keeps the use of non-standard dice, suggesting a retreat away from the very experimental direction WFRP3 took. D&D 4E might have been coherently Gamist, but it was also a commercial disaster when compared to how every previous edition fared; 5E, meanwhile, seems to be explicitly embracing incoherence in order to provide a “Big Tent” RPG.

And it’s the last part which I think Pirodi is especially missing: the fact that the ideology of coherence inherently requires that coherent games direct themselves towards particular niches, rather than angling for a mass audience. In particular, I’m highly sceptical about Pirodi’s assumption that there’s a major target audience out there for these games that is being missed out. He talks about these Facebook RPGs that the kids are apparently into these days, but then hilariously imagines that a game designer out there needs to come in and make a fun and interesting game out of that to sell to that audience. This is ridiculous because the audience in question is already playing fun and interesting games in the form of their Facebook RPGs, and nothing could be more foolish than trying to sell people an experience they are already enjoying for free and which they probably understand better than you in the first place. As far as the power fantasies Pirodi talks about, that’s something which his “IGTs” already cater to perfectly capably – as illustrated by the fact he talks about being snared by Heroquest and Red Box D&D when he was 12.

Heck, I don’t entirely agree with him that indie developers are designing for other adults as a group – I think for the most part indie RPGs are designed for the sort of people who already play and design indie RPGs. The very fact that there are particular trends and fashions in indie RPG design that you can identify suggests that indie designers are consciously and deliberately targeting a very particular niche, after all. Ron Edwards’ Spione might not have been marketed along RPG channels (and doesn’t even describe itself as an RPG), but so far as I can make out it doesn’t result from Ron identifying a particular target audience and designing a game to meet its needs (the correct way to approach the concept of target audiences, as Pirodi rightly points out), so much as he wrote the game he wanted to write and then tried to find a target audience who might enjoy it.

The thing is, I’d rather indie and small press designers concentrated on writing games which they personally enjoy myself. We have Hasbro and Paizo and Fantasy Flight and other giants to take the corporate give-the-people-what-they-want approach, and when they allow themselves to take that route they tend to do quite well at it. Compare the warm welcome that the extensively playtested and survey-driven D&D 5E has enjoyed compared to 4E; compare the outcome of the centrally-imposed WFRP3 experiment (game line support dries up after a few years, and then after a long gap they eventually put up the white flag) to the success of the Dark Heresy 2nd Edition and Only War public beta playtests.

If you’re on the indie and small-press end of the scale, you’re better off producing something a few people love rather than trying to hit on something that vast numbers of people quite like, because if you go for the Big Tent approach you’re directly trying to compete with the biggest gorillas in the market and that doesn’t usually end well. If your game happens to be a runaway success, great – you’ve designed the new Vampire: the Masquerade and you are a fucking hero – but nobody can predict ahead of time whether they’re going to catch lightning in a bottle.

That said, Pirodi does correctly identify a bunch of trends in recent indie RPGs which seem doomed to limit their appeal still further than their dedication to coherence. In my experience, games like Fiasco or Hell 4 Leather do genuinely suffer unless everyone has been fully briefed on the rules beforehand, and they do demand that everyone is fully engaged all the time whether or not they’re feeling it; indie RPGs are also chronic for dreaming up their own idiosyncratic resolution systems to master from scratch, rather than basing themselves on more familiar resolution systems. In short, Pirodi is 100% correct that indie RPGs demand that all participants approach them from a “hardcore” perspective and tend to leave little room for engagement from a more “casual” angle. I think there’s a time and a place for all-hardcore games and there’s nothing wrong with that; I also think that this is an inherent outcome of coherence ideology and the Forge theories associated with it, since these intrinsically assume that everyone has a big fancy Creative Agenda going into a game that’s more developed than “have fun with my pals by mucking about playing pretend”.

Meanwhile in the Story Games discussion on this point, check out user AsIf’s first post, which is a really excellent takedown of the idea that coherent indie-type RPGs are inevitably going to take over from inherently inferior IGTs.


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