What are role playing games like?

A few days ago a friend of mine who doesn’t play tabletop RPGs asked me where to find written campaign reports (in Italian). A few questions later, I found out that he was looking for “descriptions” of gaming sessions – “you know, as if you were there”.

Campaign chronicles are as old as the hobby itself, and not that hard to find on the Internet. The Rythlondar campaign chronicles [1] are an excellent example straight from 1976. Campaign chronicles are usually written post hoc, with the purpose of documenting and recording the fictional events that occurred in the game.  You don’t have to search very hard to find several examples in Italian [2,3]. I have no idea why I’m talking about Italian stuff in a post in English, but… yeah, there it is.

Campaign chronicles don’t typically aim to convey the authentic “as-if-you-were-there” tabletop feel, as they may be edited or fictionalised to some degree. In fact, true session logs aren’t that common. The thing that comes closest to what my friend had in mind are the so-called”replays” [4].  Replays are very popular in Japan, but almost unheard of in the West. They are quite literally full transcripts of actual gaming sessions, even though they may be edited and re-written in order to make them more entertaining. When I say transcripts, I really mean it: in the typical replay you can read the actual lines of dialogue between GM and players, including table banter! As far as I understand, the main purpose of replays is entertainment, but they might also have an “educational” purpose (i.e. showcasing how a rpg works, which might be useful for beginners). R’lyeh Antique [5] is the only replay translated in English that I’m aware of. Replays are considerably popular in Japan, and some of them gave rise to multimedia franchises (like Record of Lodoss War [6]). An example of a Japanese-style replay originally written in English is The Broken Window ([7], Golden Sky Stories).

Actual Plays (AP) are somewhat similar to replays, and at the same time completely different. They were originally popularised on the forum The Forge [8] as written recaps of gaming sessions- but, unlike replays, they weren’t meant for entertainment, and they weren’t literal transcripts (usually). They were mostly meant as a self-reflection tool for players [9]. Basically you reconstructed the session after the game, dissecting and analysing it in order to better understand what worked, what didn’t, what could have been done differently, which rules were applied incorrectly…  In other words, an autopsy. APs were about game sessions that actually occurred, and included references to rules and possibly even to the surrounding social context, rather than conjectures or speculations about potential or imagined games – this is the reason why they were especially important as a self-reflection tool. Note, however, that APs weren’t necessarily detailed recaps of entire campaigns or entire game sessions. They could be “brief or long, detailed or sketchy“; and they could be “about the game as a whole across ten years of play, or about five isolated minutes of play“. The practice somewhat gained ground here in Italy, under several names (e.g. “Gioco concreto”, [10]), but there aren’t many examples outside of the communities dedicated to indie games.

More recently, the term Actual Play has been used to refer to a different phenomenon, closer to Japan’s replays than to The Forge’s “original” APs. Namely, in the last few years a lot of “actual play” videos or podcasts have been popping up all over the internet; these videos/podcasts consists of plain recording of gaming sessions. They are similar in scope to replays, in that they are meant mainly for entertainment. The main difference lies in the fact that they are recordings rather than transcripts. Some, like Wil Wheaton’s Titansgrave [11], or How We Roll’s podcasts [12], are more or less heavily edited and produced (HowWeRoll’s Call of Cthulhu scenarios are particularly impressive in that regard: they’re almost like a radio drama [13]). A simple search on google turns up a lot of these actual play videos and podcasts.

When it comes to actual play videos/podcasts, the Italian scene is not as rich and varied as the English one. DiceGames Italia [14] is the most active youtube channel, while Fumble [15] and GDR Unplugged [16] seem the most active audio podcast. Everything else consists of unreliable/irregular podcasts and channels.

Play-by-forum/play-by-post games are a totally different beast, but they might still be relevant for someone looking for written reports of gaming sessions reasonably close to the live experience. PbF/PbP are roleplaying games played on forums instead of face to face, so the interaction happens mainly via text. They are similar to the live experience up to a certain point. Since on a PbF everything is slower, the dynamics involved in the game tend to be a bit different – it’s more like collaborative storytelling. There are several variants (e.g. play-by-chat, play-by-email) but they are more or less the same thing – the main thing that changes is the medium. They are relatively easy to find, even in Italian [17].



Is GURPS slowly dying?

A few weeks ago SJG published its report to the stakeholders for 2015After several years of growth, the company experienced a decline in its gross income compared to 2014 ($6.6 million, down $1.9 million from 2014). This is the first significant decline in income since 2005 – nonetheless, the company remains profitable and it looks healthy: SJG is still making big money on Munchkin.

What doesn’t look very healthy is the state of GURPS. The venerable role playing game isn’t even in their top 40 products by profitability. SJG claims that they will be keeping the core books (i.e. the Basic Set) in print, but unfortunately many semi-core GURPS books (eg. GURPS Powers, GURPS Magic, and others) have been out of print for years and are currently available only as PDFs. They announced two new products (the Discworld RPG and GURPS Mars Attack) but, by their own admission, they’re not a priority, and anyway they are not products of broad appeal. Except for these two new books, there hasn’t been anything new in print for years. All the new stuff has been released almost exclusively in the form of (often short) PDFs.

In short, while SJG seems willing to keep GURPS alive, the support they are currently offering is arguably not the best GURPS has seen. Not that I can blame them as a company – GURPS is clearly not very profitable. However, as I see GURPS less and less played, I’m starting to worry about its future.

First of all, the move to a (near) PDF-only release strategy means that GURPS has gradually disappeared from the shelves of hobby stores. The lack of visibility could potentially result in a downward spiral on the long term, where the player pool progressively shrinks as old players retire from the hobby without being replaced by new players. Once the veterans stop playing, how will GURPS attract a new generation of gamers? If this trend continues, GURPS may end up dying of a slow death, eventually fading into obscurity.

Nonetheless, I believe that SJG made the right call by moving to PDFs back in 2005. That decision, perhaps risky at the time, is probably the reason GURPS managed to stay afloat all these years. Let’s be honest: GURPS is no D&D. Focusing on PDFs is a great strategy for a niche game like GURPS, whose returns are unlikely to make up for the printing costs; at the end of the day, PDFs allow SJG to support the line while keeping costs contained. And, in any case, physical book stores are sadly disappearing. All things considered, the loss of shelf space wouldn’t be a problem if GURPS had a strong online visibility. Many indie RPGs are released exclusively in digital format, but they thrive without problems all the same.  If you go full PDF, you need to bring attention to your product in some other way. You need visibility.

Unfortunately, GURPS is hardly being marketed effectively, especially to new customers. For example, I feel that sales/discounts would greatly help spreading the game, but I’m not aware of any discount on GURPS PDFs – at least, in recent times. $54.90 for the Basic Set (characters + campaign) is a fair price considering the quality of the content, but it’s still a high entry price for many people. Furthermore, in 2015 SJG participated in the Free RPG Day with a… Munchkin-related freebie. No GURPS-related freebie.

 On top of that, GURPS PDFs are exclusively sold on warehouse23, SJG’s own online store. Meanwhile, searching ‘GURPS’ on DrivethruRPG and RPGnow, the two major online stores for RPGs, turns up no GURPS product. If you want to buy GURPS, you have to look specifically for a second-tier online store, register a new account, and buy it from there. Again, this is by no means a terrible situation, but it’s not ideal either. DrivethruRPG and RPGnow are wildly popular, and GURPS would probably benefit in term of exposure if it was sold there as well.

And even when new players manage to discover GURPS (either in its physical or digital incarnation), what do they see? Boring, unattractive books. Don’t get me wrong, I love GURPS, but the books and the PDFs look straight out from the ’80s. And – no offence to the artists involved – the artwork is often not that great. I’m not saying that GURPS books should aim to look like 5E D&D, but the look and feel of GURPS really needs a redesign.

All things considered,  GURPS isn’t likely to die in the short term, but the long term perspective isn’t bright. How can we avoid the death of GURPS?

First of all, we (the fans) should promote the game. We should play it. We should talk about it. We should introduce new people to it. We should show them how awesome GURPS is.

SJG on the other hand should start doing marketing, and pushing the game more aggressively, rather than waiting for people to discover it. They should try to get GURPS (even third edition) on Bundle of Holding for example; or they could start doing time-limited discounts or other offers to encourage people who normally wouldn’t buy GURPS to buy it. 

Moreover, the whole line  would probably benefit from a reassessment. GURPS might not need a fifth edition (even though there might be good arguments for it [1],[2]), but at the very least its look and feel should be redesigned. I want attractive GURPS PDFs, not PDFs designed like a book from the ’80s.

That said, I think that in order to really revive the line, SJG should take a more drastic approach: GURPS should be released under the OGL or a similar licence. If you don’t have the resources to support effectively a line, open up to external contribution, like WotC is doing with D&D 5e.

At the moment SJG is doing a decent job keeping the line alive, but they’re doing just that: GURPS is merely alive, it’s not really growing. It’s not getting enough attention, since the focus of SJG is on Munchkin.[3]  The RPG industry seems to be moving towards rules light games. However, the fact that Pathfinder is still going strong suggests that there is a significant audience that might be interested in complex games – or at least, an audience that (potentially) is not deterred by complexity. I believe that GURPS could become popular among these players if it was marketed to them or if enough interest could be generated in the line thanks to an open licence.

In summary, GURPS is far from dead, but I fear that SJG’s strategy is doing more harm than good – especially in a long term perspective. At the moment, the game appears to be stagnant; it is isolated from the rest of the industry; and it is practically not marketed. If SJG do not have the resources for GURPS, perhaps they should open the line to external innovation. And we, the players, should continue doing what we do best: we should play more GURPS.

[3] As this whole post may seem like a rant from a disgruntled fan, I should add that I don’t think that Steve Jackson is incompetent. Steve Jackson is doing what’s right for the company – they’re focusing their resources on the most profitable product. And Munchkin is more profitable than GURPS could ever be. At the same time, I can’t help but feeling like GURPS has been left in a dusty corner.