An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

So, first up here’s my extracted “top RPGs as voted by Tabletop Gaming readers” list, along with details of whether games on it are new entries that weren’t on the Arcane list, and of those which were on the old list which have gone up and which have gone down in the rankings.

  1. Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Core (New entry!)
  2. Fiasco (New entry!)
  3. Rolemaster (Down 1)
  4. Ars Magica (Up 4)
  5. Cyberpunk 2020 (Down 4)
  6. Delta Green (New entry!)
  7. Star Wars (Down 3)
  8. Paranoia (Down 4)
  9. GURPS (Up 4)
  10. Pendragon (Up 3)
  11. Traveller (Down 5)
  12. Shadowrun (Up 1)
  13. Pathfinder (New entry!)
  14. Vampire: the Masquerade (Up 1)
  15. WFRP (Same)
  16. RuneQuest (Up 2)
  17. Call of Cthulhu (Down 1)
  18. Dungeons & Dragons (Up 1)

I will add a big fat caveat about the Star Wars entry here, in that in the article it was listed as simply Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game. It is not clear whether that represents D6 Star Wars – which, of course, was the only official system at the time the Arcane poll was made – or all the Star Wars RPGs lumped together. With that in mind, let’s do some analysis.

First, let’s think about what’s missing. Of these games, Ars Magica had the lowest entry in the Arcane poll at #19. On the Tabletop Gaming list it’s at #135; FATE Core is at 149. If we set Ars Magica as a “baseline” and assume that any RPG that was less popular than it back when Arcane did their poll would not be expected to appear on this list at any event, then these are the games we can consider to have “dropped out” in the intervening years – meaning that in the Arcane list they ranked above Ars Magica, but they didn’t make the grade for this list. Going from lowest ranked on Arcane list to highest:

  • Feng Shui
  • Bushido
  • Mage: the Ascension
  • Wraith: the Oblivion
  • Middle-Earth Roleplaying

Three of these drop-outs are no surprise. MERP has been out of print for a good long time, and other Middle-Earth RPGs have come and gone since. Feng Shui was the new hotness when the Arcane list was made, and it’s fair to say that this is no longer the case. Bushido appearing on the Arcane list was frankly a bit of a surprise at the time, and may reflect a vestigial Bushido fanbase in the UK which has waned in the intervening years.

The really interesting drop-outs are Mage and Wraith. Whilst Vampire: the Masquerade remains in a strong position – and, indeed, seems to have consolidated a bit as a result of Traveller dropping down below it – it is now the sole representative of the World of Darkness on the list. The fact that it has outperformed the other World of Darkness games is perhaps no surprise – it’s always had the first-mover advantage on them, after all, and it’s the game which really caught lightning in a bottle and made the rest of the line a viable commercial prospect in the first place.

The disappearance of other World of Darkness games from the list – and, indeed, all the other “1990s modern-day secret occult underground”-type games which it inspired – probably comes down to a combination of changing fashions, Vampire 5th Edition putting eyes on the product again, and the fact that Mage and Wraith were both games which, while they had their time in the sun in the 1990s and retain passionate fanbases today, at the same time were probably the sort of high-concept thing which suggest “cult following” more than “mass popularity”.

Setting aside the dropouts, few games have had especially major shifts in their fortunes – going up a little, down a little, but by and large 14 of the top 18 RPGs were also in the top 19 RPGs in the Arcane list. A tentative conclusion we can draw is that RPGs take a long time to lose their followings; once you have established momentum behind your game, it will tend to keep going. Few RPGs which were popular in 1996 dropped out of the top 18 in the intervening 22 years.

On the other hand, it also seems like it’s rare for an RPG to suddenly become much more popular later in its existence if it didn’t gain a following earlier on. There’s no instances here of a game which started out in the lower reaches of the Arcane top 50 (or which existed at the time but did not qualify) making a big leap up the rankings, unless you are inclined to regard Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment (or FATE as it’s abbreviated) as being a variant edition of the original Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine (or FUDGE), though since the aspects of that system people really rave about and consider its unique selling point are stuff like Aspects which weren’t in Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine I’m inclined to regard them as separate games for the purpose of this list.

Looked at on that basis, all of the new entries are games which emerged after the Arcane list. Pathfinder and Delta Green, of course, both have major advantages through connections with an already-established, already-popular game. In each case, the relevant publishers built a fanbase through producing third-party supplements for the games in question – the original Delta Green supplement line is extremely well-regarded, and it’s often overlooked that the Pathfinder trademark and its setting of Golarion originally applied to Paizo’s adventure path series before it was adopted as the name of their system.

However, before you start getting dizzy ideas of your homebrewed material or your favourite third party product line becoming the basis of a major RPG in the future, I think it is important to note that both Delta Green and, to an even greater extent, Pathfinder arose as the result of a perfect storm which you just can’t count on replicating. On the Delta Green side of things, the original supplement line was critically acclaimed, and perhaps represented the most well-received releases for Call of Cthulhu at a time when Chaosium were perhaps slackening off a little on the quality control front and weren’t so on the ball when it came to business stuff. Had the first Delta Green supplement released under the auspices of the current regime at Chaosium and had a similar reception,. I have to think that Chaosium would have at least raised the possibility of bringing it in-house, like they have done with Harlem Unbound.

As it was, Delta Green the supplement line rose to prominence under the Charlie Krank regime at Chaosium – a period when many talented creatives became frustrated at working with the company. One reason the return of Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen to Chaosium’s management and the installation of Moon Design as the new regime was so generally welcomed in the industry was because so many people had been burned during the Krank era Dennis Detwiller, in a conversation on the forums (members-only link) put it this way:

Chaosium owes me, and many others like me a chunk of money. I mean, not lottery money, but economy car money. Enough money to count for something. They have owed it to me for years. So long, it’s long past the possibility of collections. I have basically given up on it.

If you have noticed a churn of creators over the years (artists coming in, and then very quickly going back out) it can be traced back to this. Call of Cthulhu is a great beacon drawing creators, but when they realize their work is either co-opted without permission (multiple friends) or printed and the pay never fulfilled (me, and pretty much everyone else I know who worked for them at one time or another), you can understand such churn. It also explains the rise of such great games as Trail of Cthulhu (as well as others) with their own marvelous takes on this stuff. Why give your work away when you can make your own and maybe make a living doing it?

It is worth noting that the Delta Green Kickstarter ran very shortly after Greg and Sandy took back control of Chaosium, and careful preparations had been made for it for quite some time before this – preparations which clearly couldn’t be discarded so easily. Perhaps if Greg and Sandy had been in control five years earlier, we wouldn’t see a separate Delta Green RPG – just a new version of the supplements, with Delta Green‘s main additions to the Call of Cthulhu baseline (its tweaks to Sanity and the idea of Bonds) being presented as rules options in the supplements. Making your own fork of an established game is a bold move, but Delta Green had the critical acclaim to do it, and was conceived at a time when making your own thing independent of Chaosium was much more sensible than engaging with the Krank regime.

Pathfinder, as I mentioned, was born out of even more auspicious circumstances. Having been allowed to retain the mailing list after their time producing Dragon and Dungeon, and having gained a loyal customer base with their adventure paths, Paizo were at least as well-placed to market to the 3.X D&D fanbase as any other third party company at the time, and probably better positioned than almost all of their competition.

Then came the triple whammy. First, D&D 4E put a very strong focus on one particular style of play, which resulted in what was a much better-focused game but inevitably meant that you’d feel very differently about the game depending on whether the areas of focus were aspects of D&D you were very keen on or stuff you merely tolerated for the sake of whatever it was about D&D you did like; a splitting of the fanbase was inevitable.

Then you had an astonishingly shaky rollout of the game itself. These days, most of the advocates for 4E I talk to aren’t really advocates of 4E the way it was at launch; it’s generally agreed that Keep On the Shadowfell was actually a rather poorly-designed adventure, which meant that the introductory product that was most people’s first taste of 4E at launch didn’t present the game in the best light, and that various errata need to be implemented if you really want to make the game sing. (Skill challenges needed extensive retooling, and I think there’s a near-universal consensus that the original Monster Manual‘s monster maths is off, especially when it comes to hit points.) And that’s not even taking into account the virtual tabletop, derailed by an actual murder-suicide committed by a lead developer, and which had been such an important part of the strategy.

The split in the fanbase was exacerbated; the edition war was fought twice as hard and bitterly, because the anti-4E faction looked at the flawed early products and made their minds up then and there, whilst the pro-4E faction were increasingly annoyed at the detractors’ failure to look past the bumpy start of the edition. Then, amidst all this, the Game System Licence debacle caused outrage and consternation among third-party publishers, with at least one publisher opting to simply shut its doors and give up rather than accepting the GSL. Whilst revisions were made to it to alleviate publisher concerns, the damage was done; the 4E third party supplement market was dead on arrival, and publishers who’d made 3.X supplements were pondering how to continue marketing them now that they weren’t for the current edition of D&D. This third factor meant that, whilst the edition war raged, there was a strong motive for someone to come up with a nice, recognisable trademark that at the same time wasn’t owned by Wizards of the Coast in any respect which could be understood to denote broad 3.X compatibility.

Under such circumstances, once Paizo acted, the success of Pathfinder was a near-certainty, at least in the short term: there was a grumpy customer base all too happy to ditch 4E and take up Pathfinder, either out of affection for Paizo’s work or as part of walking away from Wizards, there were third party publishers who’d be only too happy to shift to marketing their work as “Pathfinder compatible”, and Paizo were well-placed to exploit this and had the background in working with the 3.X OGL that would allow them to both make meaningful adjustments to the system and stay well in the legal safe harbour.

That said, the continued success of Pathfinder into 2018 can’t solely be ascribed to a near decade-long middle finger directed at Wizards; with 5E D&D taking a more nostalgia-centric approach and the edition wars cooling off, and with ample other retro-clones out there, Paizo needed to keep up support for Pathfinder‘s product line if they were going to remain a popular game, and by and larged they seemed to do so up to this point. Of course, the poll was likely completed either before the announcement of 2nd Edition Pathfinder, or too soon after it to make much difference, and was published before anyone got sight of it; it remains an open question whether a fanbase cultivated in part on resistance to radical change will follow Paizo into the 2nd Edition era, especially when they have mountains of 1st Edition material to enjoy.

The common link here seems to be that both games rose during times of significant discontent within the fanbase for a game – whether due to generally declining standards as in the case of Chaosium before the Stafford-Petersen Reformation, or due to a massive fanbase controversy as in the case of Wizards (though even in that case it was fuelled by some own goals on Wizards’ part). Unless such discontent exists, and unless one already has the attention of a good chunk of a game’s fanbase, I’d say producing games with systems that are essentially mild tweaks to existing systems is not a good way to get popular. Yes, you might be wholly persuaded that your personal house rules for handling initiative or magic or whatever are the bee’s knees, but they aren’t going to be enough to outweigh the benefits of an established name and fanbase.

The other two new entries are Fiasco and Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment. Both games have their narrative-inspired aspects – Fiasco much more so than Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment – but combine that with a certain level of flexibility when it comes to setting concepts, with a broad range of Fiasco playsets and settings for Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment out there. In addition, their core rules are nice and approachable.

This is at odds with the very focused, often very high-concept approach taken by many narrative-oriented indie games from the type of scene that produced those two, but it makes sense. A lot of those games followed the lead of the Forge in trying to deliver a very precisely defined play experience, partly because some on the Forge pushed the idea that this was better for nakedly ideological reasons, but also because it’s just good advice if you’re self-publishing indie games. There just isn’t that much room at the head of the table for another big-tent game, so going for something high-concept both amplifies your unique selling points and allows you to deliver that high-concept experience with much more precision than a “big tent” game could ever manage.

Many of those indie games did not become majorly popular because they were not trying to hit that level of popularity – they carved out a niche in being loved by a few rather than merely liked by many, and that’s fine. However, if you want widespread popularity – the sort which makes your game appear on this sort of list at all – you want to go big tent over narrow concept, but at the same time you’ve got to be really, really lucky to actually get traction with a big tent game in the first place. Fiasco has the advantage that it focuses on a specific type enough of narrative that it was able to get early traction on the storygames scene, but proved adaptable enough to gain widespread interest, whilst Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment paved the way for its generic core rules by being used in much more focused games like Spirit of the Century first.

(It’s also notable that both systems are very distinct from any of the other systems in the top 19, further persuading me that games which are merely mild variations on existing games will struggle to gain traction.)

Call of Cthulhu may no longer be at #1 compared to the Arcane poll, but it can be proud of remaining a position close to the head of the pack at any rate. (In the full list of 150 games, it’s #3, with Magic: the Gathering in the #2 spot.) In retrospect it’s clear that AD&D was in a slump in 1996, which may have contributed to it not being #1 in the Arcane list. In fact, the list gives plenty of reason for the current regime at Chaosium to feel cheerful about their standing in the UK scene. RuneQuest is at #3, which may be attributed in part to hype around the new edition, but it’s still heartening, and Pendragon is looking pretty healthy too.

Clearly, the early advantage in the UK market derived from the Games Workshop partnership has translated into an enduring fanbase for Chaosium and Basic Roleplaying in the UK. A similar advantage may have been enjoyed by Traveller, though it’s probably the Mongoose line that has kept it within the top 10, though its star has faded more than any other game’s. Another Mongoose licence which used to be a Games Workshop licence, Paranoia, had its fortunes restored in the intervening years by the excellent Paranoia XP edition, though the latest edition of the game feels like a bit of a misfire.

Speaking of Games Workshop and licences, WFRP weighs in at the same spot it was in the Arcane poll, with Cubicle 7’s well-received 4th Edition likely helping here; in fact, the full top 150 list its position at #35, which is comfortably above Warhammer Fantasy Battle/Age of Sigmar at #43. (Warhammer 40,000 itself is at #20.)

Ars Magica, though little has come out for it recently, is resting on the laurels of a generally rather excellent 5th edition, which may help its standing here; Cyberpunk 2020 is likely holding in here in part on the strength of the Cyberpunk 2077 hype. GURPS and Shadowrun also seem to be persisting more on the strength of enthusiastic fan communities than anything else; it feels like an age since the actual GURPS product line did much of interest, and Shadowrun has been actively mismanaged and its latest edition was comprehensively botched.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here, however, is the presence of Rolemaster. This amount of affection for a system which has essentially been in limbo for decades is astonishing. I mean, sure, it’s towards the bottom of the list – but there’s tons of systems which didn’t even make the list and have more visible activity around them and a louder, more evident fan community than Rolemaster. Rumour had it that we were finally going to get Rolemaster Unified, the much-debated, widely rumoured, but still decidedly vapourware-ish new edition this year, but that clearly hasn’t happened, and as far as I am aware in 2018 people had little hope of it coming out any time soon. What gives?

4 thoughts on “An Arcane Followup

  1. A great post!

    I wonder if part of the reason for the persistent popularity of certain games is a failure to attract new players to RPGs in general. Do the charts just reflect the same people playing the same games?

    Of course, it still needs to be answered why existing players choose not to change games. Familiarity and convenience might be factors. Also, the high fixed costs of RPG production should mean the better selling systems are the most profitable, and so can afford to run deeper product lines.

    1. I suspect how much of the chart represents the same people playing the same games will vary from game to game. At the top of the table I think the likes of D&D and Call of Cthulhu are genuinely succeeding at attracting new players – though that may less be due to the success of the publishers themselves and more due to the publishers making the best of the publicity generated by the likes of Critical Role and similar.

      Certainly, I’m peripherally aware of people encountering new players very keen to play D&D but carrying over a lot of assumptions that home games are going to be just like Critical Role, which may need to be dampened because you aren’t playing with a cast of professional voice actors who’ve made improvisation and character a professional skill. And Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Starter Set sales absolutely surged after Critical Role did a CoC one-off. So there’s avenues through which people new to the hobby are being introduced to games.

      On the other hand, I feel like with Rolemaster you must surely be dealing with a bunch of die-hards. Maybe you have a tiny, tiny trickle of people who’ve gotten into Rolemaster over the past decade or two, but surely most of those will have done so because someone already into it invited them into an ongoing campaign or something.

  2. I always appreciate your take on the economics of the hobby. It’s remarkable how much deeply felt personal preferences in games are due, in fact, to extraneous, impersonal, economic factors. You persuaded me again.

    1. I’d characterise it less as personal preferences as collective preferences.

      Sure, any individual may have any idiosyncratic taste-based reasons to prefer whatever game they like. But when you scale out to the general public, you’ll find that on a broader level a game with active support, good name recognition, and good local distribution will have massive advantages when it comes to getting on people’s radar in the first place, and a game will never become your favourite if you never find out it exists in the first place, or can’t buy it even if you have heard of it.

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