Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Essay: Two Areas for Improvement in the Tabletop RPG Community

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

I'm a big fan of RPGs, especially Dungeons & Dragons, but unlike many gamers out there, I wasn't playing during the Gygaxian era. My first D&D game involved a D&D Basic Set (using AD&D Rules for levels 1-3) that was set in Mystara, featured character templates using what I would later find out to be Dragonlance Art, and included a CD that described specific locations and encounters. I was the GM for my first game that involved two of my classmates and it lasted for about an hour before I tucked the box away, never to be opened again. Luckily, 3rd Edition came along and renewed my interest and I quickly progressed from neophyte to rules lawyer. So you could call me a D&D 3rd Edition baby but this essay isn't about the glories of 3rd Edition. Rather, it's about me witnessing some changes in the RPG Industry/Community, and how various gamers don't take advantage of these changes.

The first issue I want to tackle are PDFs. To some gamers, the immediate response when you bring up the topic of PDFs is that "I don't want 'em, I want something to hold in my hands". Well, if you don't like to read on a computer screen, I won't try to convince you otherwise but there's a point where I think people are exaggerating how much they can't stand reading on the computer. I mean if this was a person complaining to me about PDFs in a face-to-face conversation, that's perfectly fine but when you're reading about it in a message board that's ten pages long, well, how bad can it truly be?

Of course what I want to clear up with PDFs when it comes to the RPG industry is that products aren't limited to reading texts. There's a misconception that PDFs equal rule books or adventures when that's not always the case. Small, independent RPG companies out there are publishing PDF products that are neither rule books nor adventures. They could be maps. They could be tokens. They could be three-dimensional figures which you cut up and fold. They could even be sound clips which you can insert into your game. I'm not saying that there's a PDF product for every gamer out there (although there most likely is) but don't immediately shut down your options just because you have a bias against PDFs. Give them a look and when you find that you have no use for them, that's fine. But bear in mind that PDFs are more than just a book of rules not printed on paper.

And then when it comes to PDFs that are actually full of rules, well, here are some advantages of the medium. First off, there are the bookmarks (assuming the PDF publisher included this in the product) and search function. You don't have to bring your PDF "book" to your actual game but during game preparation, finding that piece of nugget is easier than scanning through the table of contents or the index (let's not even get started with indexes in game books). It's for that same reason that I find the online d20 SRD more useful than the actual Player's Handbook/Dungeon Master's Guide/Monster's Manual when preparing for games or making characters. Second, if you're the person that types their GM notes or characters on the computer, PDFs are a godsend. It's easier to multitask using various PDFs and your word processor (especially on a Mac) compared to you-and-your-one-dozen-books and your word processor. And let's not forget the convenience of copy/paste. Third--and this might very well not apply to you--some gamers find it more convenient to lug around their laptop or their flash drive as opposed to their half-a-dozen gaming books. You might have no use for PDF products but other gamers or someone else in your gaming group might. Fourth is the price. If you're tired of buying gaming books that costs $30.00 and you're only using 25% of it, the PDF market is the place to buy books wherein you use 100% of the material and is costing you significantly less than $30.00. Just want one class or prestige class? You can probably buy a PDF of it for $1.00. Just want all fluff? Or all the crunch? There's probably such a PDF product. The PDF market isn't limited by shipping and economies of scale after all.

Moving on, the second issue I want to tackle are podcasts. Yes, I'm being biased here since I love podcasts and I'm one of the people who compiles the various podcasts on the Internet, but many gamers don't even give podcasts a second look, or are simply unaware of them (between PDFs and podcasts, the former is more ubiquitous). Perhaps what irks me the most is that many people are asking for help or suggestions in various other mediums yet it's freely available in podcasts. Want interviews? There are a lot of podcasts that interview various people in the gaming industry, whether you're a Steve Jackson or Fred Hicks. Want GMing advice? There are a lot of shows which tackle that particular topic. Game reviews? Check. Gaming anecdotes? Check. Retrospectives on old games? Check. And here's one feature that podcasts are able to deliver that other mediums can't: actual game recordings. Why would you want to listen to an actual game recording? Well, for one thing, it shows you how other people play the game. It's your one-part free intro/preview into the game and your one-part game review without the reviewer directly telling what's good/bad about it (you're free to judge for yourself). Other podcasts like Virtual Play (oh no all that editing!) even enhances their game discussions by giving concrete examples based on their actual experiences on the game table.

Oh, and podcasts are free! And are portable (you can listen to them on the computer, burn them onto a CD and listen to it on your car stereo or on the game store's CD player, or upload them to your mp3 player). Here's my own podcast story: I love making stat blocks, whether it's my PCs or monsters. But let's face it, for some people, those pre-game preparations can be boring. During those times when I'm writing stat blocks, I listen to podcasts. It alleviates the boredom and apparently I can multitask reading game text (but not fiction) while listening to podcasts. The same logic extends to when I'm commuting. Or waiting for my gaming group when they come to the game late.

I know how some gamers can be reticent when it comes to change but hey, look at all these great tools that are available.

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