Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Getting Started

I am going to talk a bit about what I think is missing for people starting out in the hobby. To set things up I am going talk about how I got started in the hobby.

I first learned about RPGs through gamebooks. Gamebooks were like Choose your Own Adventure books with a conflict resolution mechanic. The first one I had was a Car Wars gamebook purchased at the school book fair. At 10 years old I was a Tolkein nut and it didn't take me long to learn that there were Tolkein Quest gamebooks. I grabbed the two availabe (they have a sordid publishing history) at the time and was hooked at once.

I have learned in the years since that these are considered by many to be two of the best gamebooks ever made. They had a full color hex map for overworld exploration and there were entries in the book keyed to the map. When you entered a hex you flipped to the entry for the hex and from there choices might lead you to another numbered section of the book. Underground sections were entered this way.

The books had a combat system of their own but they also had stats for something called MERP. What the heck is MERP? My friends and I started to ask around about it and found out that it wasn't available anywhere near us, but we were told it was just like a game called Dungeons and Dragons. We wanted that.

Sadly it was 1988 and D&D was forbidden by our parents. The level of penetration that the smear campaign against D&D had is amazing. My family is not even religious and they managed to scare my parents.

My friends and I managed to figure out that D&D was like gamebooks but with just the rules, you made up your own adventure to go on. We did the next best thing to getting D&D, we made our own game by taking rules out of gamebooks. We played this for several months before our parents decided that D&D was like Tolkein (safe) and we were allowed to play it. Enter the Red Box.

The smartest thing done in the Red Box was to make the instructional section like a gamebook. We picked it up right away without any trouble. We were literally playing by the end of computer class.

Now I will turn to the topic of how to introduce new players to RPGs today. It seems to me that there are two main geek kid markets at this point: computer games and Japanese manga/anime. Probably the best chance to grab these kids is through the manga section in Barnes and Noble and World of Warcraft.

I think that Fantasy Flight Games is on the right path for grabbing the WoW kids. They make pseudo-RPG board games that have mechanics very similar to a MMO. Descent and the WoW board game are great bridges to RPGs. Their upcoming Warhammer RPG also looks to be a great bridge game. I think that in the early '90s HeroQuest played this role, although in that case it was bridging the gap between traditional board games and RPGs.

I think that one way to grab the manga kids would be through gamebooks. These would have to be gamebooks laid out in the manga format, involving known manga properties, that are illustrated and sold right on the same shelf in B&N as the manga books. I think it would be great if these gamebooks were tied to things like the WoW manga or another property that already has a large draw to kids disposed to gaming.

The key is that today's kids are not going to be interested in a gamebook where you pretend to be Conan or John Carter. They don't want a board game where you take a barbarian and a Middle Earth elf and raid a dungeon with them. That is not their fantasy, that is their dad's fantasy. These products have to be designed to draw on the modern pulp fiction aesthetic not one from the first half of the 20th century.

I still think that a gamebook like product is the best way to explain the hobby and get people into it. I would love to see a Swords & Wizardry introductory gamebook, or a line for Labyrinth Lord. I would love to see an eastern animation style S&W gamebook even more. To kid young people you need to have something that looks familiar and put it on the shelf next to the books that they are already buying. I think the dream of some magic, modern, basic set in a box is for yesterdays market.