Why are some roleplaying games more popular than others? Why do some games seem to have an ongoing and steadily growing base of fans while other games, just as interesting, seem to never grow beyond being indie games?
I’ve often wondered why some games are more popular than others, especially with the recent and incredible growth of D&D 5e. For some reasons, some games seem to become house-hold names, games that almost all roleplayers either know or have played. What do these games have in common that can explain their popularity and great number of fans?
Naturally, one looks at the marketing of these games. Many have pointed out that in recent years the explosion of podcasts and webshows, like Critical Role, has helped making D&D more mainstream, and it has even appeared on hugely successful TV-shows, like Stranger Things. However, the same can’t be said about games like Call of Cthulhu. In fact, when looking at Chaosium‘s history it seems that the company has been in many ways rather ill-managed. True, the same can be said about TSR, WoTC‘s predecessor.
Still, roleplayers persist and stay true to these games and keep playing them year after year. Are the game systems in these games superior to the indie games? Or is it something else?
The importance of a shared narrative background
Roleplaying is a social activity. We meet other people and spend hours together taking part in and shaping a narrative. The background to that narrative is our common understanding of the setting, whether it is Athas, Trudvang or London in the 1920’s. Despite the fact that each of the participants comes to the table with their perception of the narrative background, each of us agree on the background and what rules apply to that background.
For most of the hugely popular roleplaying systems you can find so much literature to help you shape that background. There have been published dozens upon dozens of D&D novels and sourcebooks throughout the last three decades, The One Ring RPG has the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, all the sourcebooks by Cubicle 7 and the films by Peter Jackson, Call of Cthulhu has all the short stories by H.P. Lovecraft and other weird fiction writers and the sourebooks published by Chaosium and other publishers.
This is, of course, really helpful when shaping a shared narrative background at the table. For a system like D&D it is even easier, since for most people it is easy to relate to fantasy where there are dragons, evil undead and people that need saving. After all, this is a narrative that has been told for generations. Having the shared narrative background makes it easier for players and game masters alike to suspend their disbelief and enter the fantastic without any qualms.
The common factor of popular roleplaying games
One of the factors that are common with popular roleplaying games is the shared narrative background, but that in itself does not guarantee that a game becomes hugely popular and widely played. There are games that rely on highly successful brands that are nowhere near as popular as D&D or Call of Cthulhu. Great games like Star Trek by Mödiphius, Star Wars by Fantasy Flight or The One Ring by Cubicle 7 will find it hard to best these two in terms of sales, brand awareness or penetration of the market.
True, both D&D and Call of Cthulhu are old games and have been around for almost half a century. D&D was initially published in 1974 and Call of Cthulhu in 1981, so yes, these two systems are quite old. Yet, roleplayers have been playing games that use the other shared narrative backgrounds for just as long. Star Trek has been available as a roleplaying game since 1982, Star Wars since 1987 and Tolkien’s setting as a roleplaying game was published in 1984.
Granted, the last three have seen changes in system and publishers, but if you’d bring out the D&D red box and all the editions of D&D or Call of Cthulu you’ll notice that there have been as well some dramatic changes to these systems as well, though the core dynamics are still the same.
The reason we play roleplaying games
To truly understand why one roleplaying game is more popular than the other, we need to look at why we play. And for most roleplayers it is not to enjoy the workings of a great game system or to beat the game master by building a powerhouse character. It is because we enjoy storytelling. It is perhaps one of the most human thing we do, telling and fabricating stories. No other animal, to our knowledge, has the ability to create and spin stories as we do. Ever since we were hunter-gatherers we’ve enjoyed telling stories and fables. Just think of all myriad of narratives that we have of Greek, Egyptian or Norse gods. This is what makes us human.
By participating in a roleplaying game we are taking part in a shared storytelling. Every participant can add to and affect the outcome of the story. And this is what I believe makes roleplaying games popular.
I believe that WoTC understand this. Their publication schedule for 5e has mostly been made up by modules. Chaosium has always had this at heart in their publications. These two publishers have made sure that players have narratives to share. Narratives that are easy to relate to and build heavily on the shared narrative background.
It’s about the Modules
The reason why D&D 5e is so popular right now is, in my opinion, not because the system is so great. In fact, it has its merits and flaws just like any other system. The same might be said about the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. Though marketing plays a huge role here and, of course, history and convention, I also don’t think that we can fully explain the reason for this success by solely looking at these factors.
These system have in common a very high number of modules. And many of these modules are legendary, epic in nature and require a huge investment by players, while other modules are short and can be played in a session or two. These modules build on a cemented layer of the narrative background of these games, making it easy for game masters and players alike to enjoy partaking in the narratives. For many players and game masters, the modules are a gateway into the game or the setting. If you have many different modules it is even easier to find one the suits you and your group’s playing style.
The many modules of these games are, in my opinion, the key to understanding why so many players have been avid fans for years and keep bringing new players to the table. We like the narratives, we share the narrative background and the fact that it is all a game makes it even better. Good marketing, highly tested and edited game systems and word-of-mouth builds on that.