Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Attracting Newcomers to Roleplaying Games

The recent discussion over at Tenkar’s Tavern and blog posts like Sword Peddler’s about the effectiveness of Free RPG Day started me thinking once again about how we as gamers, designers, and publishers can draw newcomers into the adventure gaming hobby. It’s a tricky gambit considering roleplaying games are still a very niche hobby, despite popular culture’s general acceptance of Dungeons & Dragons as a permissible geeky pursuit. Most people still associate roleplaying game exclusively with D&D without realizing how many amazing games exist from both established publishers and innovative individuals, in game stores and online, for sale and for free. How can we do a better job of sharing our hobby with curious newcomers?

Free RPG Day is an organized event meant to promote roleplaying games. Since it’s run by a game distributor it has the understandable bias of supporting sales at brick-and-mortar Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGS) that give them business anyway. Just as a distributor can’t force a store to conduct business a certain way, it can only offer unenforceable guidelines on what to do with the “free” loot provided for this event. Free RPG Day is, as its organizers freely admit, no longer about introducing newcomers to the hobby but more about rewarding the hobby’s ardent supporters with free gaming materials. This effort remains highly dependent on the FLGS whose facilities and enthusiasm in hosting these events vary immensely (as well as publishers providing appropriate material). I’ve heard of stores charging for the free items, hoarding them for later sale or giveaways, and not participating at all (like the two closest to me). I’ve also heard great reports of stores with busy play areas, gatherings of avid fans, and attempts at introducing newcomers to the hobby with demo games.

The organizers of Free RPG Day admitted it’s not an event focused on getting new players into the hobby (at least not after the first year they tried it) but it has become a day to encourage existing gamers to visit their FLGS for a free exclusive product...and hopefully a few extra purchases. Sure, there have been some basic quick-start rule and adventures among the freebies, but that’s only half the equation; to reach out to non-gamers an experienced gamer needs to run an engaging demo of the game, with the giveaway a “prize” to reinforce the play experience and encourage further exploration within the hobby. Free RPG Day gives everyone an opportunity to make the event a success – publishers, FLGS owners, and gamemasters – but organizers can’t guarantee a consistently successful impact down the line unless everyone puts forth an effort. Growing the hobby isn’t an undertaking for just one day...it’s a constant mission to which gamers and the hobby infrastructure must commit.

Ultimately success of the roleplaying game hobby – and its growth by introducing new customers into the mix – relies on the broad gaming community: game publishers and distributors, FLGS owners and staffers, and individual gamers. Everyone has some responsibility. Everyone has incentive to help. Publishers, distributors, FLGS and online e-storefronts naturally want to grow the customer base to increase sales. Gamers – whether they realize it – benefit from more gamers in the pool; the more people in the hobby the more potential players for games and the greater variety of game experiences they offer. The economic health of all these elements helps ensure the survival of these various components constituting the roleplaying game hobby.

The discussion about drawing new players into the roleplaying game hobby reminded me of a Hobby Games Recce piece I wrote five years ago, “Become A Gaming Ambassador.” It’s not terribly long or deep, but it outlines a few ideas behind becoming the public face of gaming. Free RPG Day draws people to stores that stock games, places often unfamiliar to newcomers. To increase the hobby’s reach gamers must take their activities into the public eye where they can invite curious onlookers to participate and perhaps even join a gaming group. I’ve seen events like “Read An RPG Book in Public Day” and such; they’re helpful in this overall effort, but we need more. Gamers must feel comfortable pursuing and sharing their hobby in the public eye. It’s not for everyone. Some of us who have more introverted tendencies (myself included) might have to find other ways to support this effort. Looking to the greater community of gamers for support might help. Already some have taken matters into their own hands to draft newcomer-friendly roleplaying game materials, either for use with an experienced gamemaster or as informative literature on its own. Websites like Learn Tabletop RPGs can offer reference points for those seeking to explore the hobby on their own. Awareness of and access to these resources among the gaming community can provide guidance and tools to those of us not normally accustomed to promoting our hobby among newcomers.

Exposure to newcomers must reach beyond the FLGS. Few non-gamers venture into stores with roleplaying games. Maybe the closest they get is a large bookstore or big-box retailer that stocks more mainstream board games and Magic: The Gathering cards...not likely places where they’ll meet fellow players or see a game demonstration. Of course gamers should support their FLGS, but they should consider expanding their gaming activities to other, more public venues where interested newcomers might watch, ask questions, and feel welcome to participate: public libraries (with the librarian’s permission, of course), fan events like comic book conventions, supportive restaurants and bars, community events and fairs, even the town park. In any arena people must step forward and make an effective effort to make a positive difference in their world. The gaming hobby is no different. It’s not for everyone, it takes a great deal of time and energy, but it can help improve our entertaining hobby overall and our own game experience.


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