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Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons' common enemy

Steve Jackson Games
Car Wars

The pending arrival of the Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons has brought up the question of how a resurgent D&D brand will affect the sales of the dominant Pathfinder role-playing game. The question was put directly to D&D Lead Designer Mike Mearls and CEO of Goblinworks Ryan Dancey at a PAX East panel, What Is Happening to Roleplaying Games? Goblinworks is the company creating the Pathfinder Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) and Dancey was one of the masterminds behind the Open Game License during his tenure at Wizards of the Coast. By the end of the discussion it became clear that all role-playing games have a common enemy.

Dancey explained that he saw the next few years as a battle between two giants (presumably Paizo and Wizards of the Coast) for dominance, with one "laying on the mat." Mearls disagreed, and used a story to illustrate. He used his experience with the game Car Wars to demonstrate what has changed about tabletop gaming in general, as reported by Morrus on ENWorld:

So I kinda have this theory I developed, I call it the Car Wars theory. So back in 1987 when I was 12 I bought Car Wars, it was the game I bought that month, and it had a vehicle design system. And I spent hours and hours and hours building new Car Wars vehicles and drawing maps and just playing with all the things around the game but very rarely able to actually play the game, because in order for me to play the game I had to get my parents to drive me to a friend's house and then get that friend to actually want to play Car Wars and then teach him all the rules and all that other stuff, right? And in addition to having Car Wars, and D&D and other stuff, I had my Nintendo and I had my Apple, too. And I bought new video games at about the same rate, maybe once a month if I did chores or I had a little part time job, I'd get maybe one new game a month.

So what changed? Mearls explains:

What has changed now is that a game like Car Wars can work very well if I'm not getting a new constant stream of games. Because I have all this time where I want to be gaming but I can't play a game, so I'll do all the stuff that exists around the game. But now thanks to, like, this phone... [something] smartphones, tablets, Steam, uh, XBox Live, PSN, I can buy games whenever I want. I mean, I was at the airport yesterday and I was bored so I bought Ten Million for my iPhone and I just started playing. Because I have other games on my phone, but I thought, nah, I'm sick of the games I have, I'm just gonna buy a new one. That would have been perfect time, back in the 80s, to like work on my D&D campaign, or read that month's D&D expansion, or work on new designs for my, uh, for for Car Wars.

Steve Jackson Games
Steve Jackson Games Car Wars

Steve Jackson Games

The enemy of D&D isn't other games, says Mearls, but time:

But what's happening is we have so many new games coming in that the amount of time that one game can take up without having you actually play that game, like World of Warcraft where you just log in and play, or you do things like in the auction house, that's part of play, right, trying to get resources, you're selling stuff for actual money that's helping you play the game.

The time issue is particularly problematic with game masters, as The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games confirms:

Game worlds are massive universes, fabricated by another game company or by the Game Master. As such, each game universe is only as detailed as the amount of time and effort invested in it. There's only so much diegesis a game universe can realistically convey. By focusing on macro- or micro- levels of information, such as the population numbers for a particular race across a continent or the different kinds of microbes that infect a peculiar breed of sheep, the game breaks down. It is up to the Game Master or Coding Authority to fill in the blanks, sharing the right information at the right time.

Mearls agrees:

I believe that's what's really happening to tabletop roleplaying, is that it used to be a hobby of not playing the game you want to play. And there are so many games now that you can play to fill all those hours of gaming, you can actually game now, and that what's happening is that RPGs needed that time, we, a GM or DM needed that time to create the adventure or create a campaign, a player needed that time to create a character, allocate skill ranks and come up with a background, and come up, you know, write out your three-page essay on who your character was before the campaign. That time is getting devoured, that time essentially I think is gone, that you could play stuff that lets you then eventually play a game or you can just play a game. And people are just playing games now.

I espoused this same theory in The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games:

There is a currency that all forms of fantasy gaming have in common: time. Experiencing a role takes time. Because fantasy gaming is a recreational experience, this time commitment requires a player to make a tradeoff by choosing gaming over some other activity. But fun has a price. It's keeps us from doing work and potentially neglecting our other responsibilities. Different forms of gaming have different considerations to retain and grow the player base, not the least of which is replayability.

Wizards of the Coast
Wizards of the Coast Ryan Dancey

Wizards of the Coast

Mearls' solution? Cut down on the time it takes to play D&D:

And what we're really doing with D&D Next is we're really looking at thriving and surviving in that type of market. If you've playtested the game, you see we've run much simpler with the mechanics, things move much faster when you play... one of our very early things was was to say, look, I was playing Mass Effect 1 or 2 at the time. I can complete a mission in Mass Effect in about an hour and a half. So why can't I complete an adventure in D&D in that time? Why does it take me 4, 8, 12 hours just to get from page one of the adventure to the end? I mean, yeah, you can have huge epic adventures but I can't do it in less than four hours.

But there's a risk in doing that, again from my book:

The nature of fantasy gaming is experiencing a role, and the shorter the time engaged, the smaller the window for the player experiencing agency...The temporal cost of fun has repercussions for the future of gaming. Modern economies provide workers with much more flexiblity than ever before, but as a result of that flexibility, free time is divided into smaller increments. Games with easier access that accommodate this new structure of free time are likely to survive as a mainstream hobby.

In the end Mearls identifies rival entertainment choices as the real enemy:

And so for us, it's really been looking at the entertainment, not just tabletop roleplaying, but entertainment as a whole, everything that people do now to engage themselves in stories, thinking where can D&D thrive within that terrain? And what can we do, starting with the tabletop roleplaying game, to make it more acessible, to get that new generation of players in. And even the current generation who are strapped for time and have a million other options, what can we do to live within that environment?

Wizards of the Coast
Wizards of the Coast Mike Mearls

Wizards of the Coast

So it appears that both Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons can benefit from cross-pollination with a common enemy. Morrus sums up the conclusion from Mearls' discussion:

...D&D (as in its settings and characters) is focusing on doing those other entertainment things rather than just being a tabletop roleplaying game - the goal, obviously being that "D&D" as a brand flourishes. And, further, that that means it doesn't matter to them what Paizo is doing with Pathfinder, because D&D doesn't need to be the top-selling tabletop RPG (not that I'm saying it won't be - I expect it will be again come next year, though time will tell) as long as D&D as an overall entertainment property is doing a whole bunch of things.

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