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Author Topic: Shaping Gamer Culture (Looooooong)  (Read 33371 times)
Josh Roby
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« on: November 23, 2005, 01:12:06 PM »

Okay, so see if this sounds familiar to you:

You go to your Favorite Local Game Store.  The clerk there shows you a new book that just came out.  You look at the bulletin board and see that somebody's trying to get a game together, or alternately you decide to get your friends together to play.  You buy the book and take it home.  You call or otherwise contact the other players, do the big long dance of finding a timeslot that everybody can get free on a regular basis and decide who is going to be the Game Master.  The Game Master then goes through the book and somehow finds a few hours of her free time to be spent "designing the adventure" to be played.  On the day, everybody shows up, creates characters to play, and you begin roleplaying.  The GM quietly observes everybody's cues to figure out what they like and what they don't, because sometime between now and the next timeslot, she's got to find more time to spend in further "designing" and she wants to make sure it appeals.  The GM is a good GM and everybody appreciates all her hard work.  You spend six to eight hours playing (padding out the experience with food runs and socializing, it's probably half the day) and go home.  Players occasionally visit their FLGS and pick up game supplements to broaden their understanding of the game world and introduce and inspire new content.  The next time you get together, hopefully everybody's there, and you basically to the same stuff, enjoying yourselves as you guide the same characters session after session through new and interesting worlds doing new and interesting things.  Eventually there's no more new or interesting things in the game, or it seems like there are more new and interesting things in another gamebook that somebody just picked up, and the game ends.  Maybe things are brought to a narrative close, maybe things just sort of fizzle.  Repeat.

As far as I can tell, this is the basic cycle, the basic structure, of what most people will recognize as roleplaying culture.  This is what we, as people, do to engage in the hobby and call ourselves gamers.  This involves a boatload of assumptions (which isn't a bad thing) which are direct results of a number of external factors in terms of our broader social environment and the gamebooks that we play out of.  It is also the foundation upon which (I use the term with great trepidation) an industry operates.

Here's the thing: those external factors?  The social environment and the gamebooks?  They're changing.  We're changing them.  These changes to the base conditions alter the way in which the entire culture operates.  I'd like to talk about some of these changes and their effects, and I'd like to hear what some of the wise voices of the Forge have to say about them.  Cause here's my thesis: we are fundamentally changing what roleplaying games are and how we play them.

The GM   The Game Master is the "most important" player in the typical playgroup, because the Game Master invests more time and effort into the process and play cannot proceed without the Game Master's presence.  Many a potential game has been stalled, postponed, and forgotten because a Game Master could not be found and no one would volunteer.  Taking on that burden is a burden, and a large time commitment, so both the importance we attribute to the GM and the hesitation to be the GM are totally understandable.  And then Ralph and Mike and Tony come along and offer games that don't have a GM in the first place.  The result?  Greatly reduced prep time and greatly increased ease at getting a game going.  No authority figure to which to enshrine, consult, and villify.  A profound change to the power relationships within the playgroup.

The GM and Game Prep  The typical GM has to spend tons and tons of time prepping the adventure, statting up NPCs, providing contingency plans, and trying to second-guess the players.  She needs all or most of the gamebooks in order to correlate information.  The great and marvelous structure that she creates has little to no relationship to the actual characters who will play the adventure, because the adventure is designed before the characters are created.  In fact, the players usually involve their characters, not because there is a compelling in-game reason for the characters to become involved, but because there is a compelling out-of-game reason to become involved -- not doing so is boring.  In any case, the GM usually designs the adventure start to finish, outlining a branching path of possibilities or planning to railroad the players through the one path she's created.  This is a whole lot of work.  And then Vincent tosses out Town Creation rules, a nice specific procedure tailored to the game to produce the situation to present rather than the entire story to run the characters through.  Result: again, drastically reduced prep time.  Dramatically improved precision in having something for the characters to make meaningful decisions about.  Toss in the proto-NPC templates and assigning NPC stats on the fly, and prep time goes from being measured in hours to being ten or twenty minutes.

The GM, Cues, and Mindreading It is often assumed that the GM can create an entire adventure applicable to her gamegroup without any player direction at all (one reason for this is the Supplement Mill; see below).  Further, the GM can continue to provide this without any feedback on what she delivers.  She does this by reading player cues, or simply by reading the players' minds.  Forge Games propose the revolutionary idea of having the players actually discuss what they want to play before anything is prepared (some one toss me an example of a game that does this and has a GM?  PTA has the Pitch, but there's no GM).  Result: greatly improved precision in hitting player expectations, increase of player enjoyment of the game, decrease of filler material or time spent trying to figure out what the players will respond to favorably.  Prep time is also again reduced.

The Campaign  A good game is a game that has "long-term use" -- or so it is assumed in countless game reviews that I've read.  Gamers won't shell out twenty bucks for a game unless they're sure they'll be able to play the thing for months.  Experience Points are drastically important, because since you are of course going to play the game forever, you of course need to advance the characters.  After all, since we're trying to recreate the Lord of the Rings, we need to let Pippin learn to use that sword of his.  But this is, like so much else, an assumption that is not necessarily true.  Emily's Breaking the Ice is played not just in one session, but can be played while waiting for the rest of the game group to show up to play some other game entirely.  Other games which aren't coming to mind right now are also designed for or amenable to one-shot play or simply three or four sessions instead of dozens.  Result?  A lesser time commitment required in order to even consider playing the game.  A shorter, quicker reward cycle means more players will actually complete the cycle before giving up, which increases player enjoyment.

The Endgame Another Campaign assumption, we'll just keep playing this game until we get bored with it.  This totally ignores a potent axiom of show business: always leave them wanting more.  This strategy infalliably results in boring play, since you play until the play is boring.  It also results in the directionless spiral of power to no discernable purpose.  Not so in My Life with Master and the Mountain Witch -- the game gives structure, purpose, and ends things, leaving the players both satisfied and wanting more.  Really, in terms of crass marketing, this may be the best individual technique to come out of the Forge entirely.  Result: increased player engagement, decreased time commitment.  A parallel result: games end, allowing new games to start, whether they be another game of MLwM or tMW or a different game entirely.  More books are bought!

The Timeslot We've all done this dance before.  When can we play?  This was lots easier when I was fourteen.  Now I have a job to go to, a commute to drive, classes to attend, a wife to spend time with, a home and a car to upkeep... and my fellow players do, too (well, my wife actually has a husband, but you get the picture).  Finding not only time to play but a timeslot that we can reliably play during for the foreseeable future is increasingly difficult.  Some of you have children.  I have no idea how you ever played.  But now we're introducing games where not everybody needs to be there reliably -- an ongoing Capes series can play no matter who shows up.  Assuming a one-town-one-session guideline, the same goes for Dogs.  Result?  More flexible scheduling, less time commitment required, more roleplaying getting done.

(Tangent: How to Host a Murder assumes the players will be coming as couples (me and my wife, her sister and her husband), which is a good assumption given their target market.  This sounds like it'd be a sound principle for some RPGs, as well.  I suspect Polaris will be played like this.  Alternately, for those with-kids folks, can a game be designed to incorporate the kids and the parents, somehow?)

The Half-Day Session Roleplaying goes on for hours and hours.  We've got to spend a full hour at the beginning of every session allowing the players, one-by-one, to go shopping and sharpen their swords in town.  Stock up on the sodas and chips, cause we're going to play and play and play until something interesting happens.  Not so with Primetime Adventures, where every scene is intrinsically tied to something that a character cares about and is defined as such -- the game systemically produces engaging situations, rather than playing hit-or-miss until you get to something juicy.  Result: more time-efficient sessions, which result in shorter sessions (less time commitment, greater ease of setting up a game) or more content in each session (more points of engagement, greater player enjoyment).  Either way, discarding the chaff results in greater player enjoyment more of the time.

The Favorite Local Game Store & the Distributor We love our game stores; we gild them with memories, we feel safe there, we feel one with a larger community.  It was there where we found fellow gamers, it was there where we heard news of the industry.  It was the hub of our gamer culture.  And we're not going there half as much as we used to.  We have the Forge and RPGnet and a dozen other sites that let us feel one with a larger community.  We have direct access to game publishers, indie and mainstream, through their websites and press releases.  We can buy direct instead of going across town to the FLGS, cutting out the distributor entirely.  We can find other local gamers through FindPlay or Meetup.com.  No specific game is responsible for this; this is a sea-change that is affecting more than just RPGs  (remember when you used to see hobby stores full of models and stuff?).  Result?  Greater, broader communication among our much larger communities.  Arguably, a higher bar for entering those communities.  Less or no reliance on distributors, which decreases cost of publication, which increases the number of games out there (which isn't necessarily a good thing).

The Supplement Mill  In the Mindreading entry, I pointed out the assumption that the GM can create an entire adventure for her players without any feedback.  This utterly moronic statement is backed up by a sound economic principle: that's exactly what the authors of gamebooks are doing, and that's the product you're buying.  Trust me, I wrote these supplements.  Additionally, and a bit more recently, we've started to see "crippleware" titles that cannot be played with a single book, but require the core book and the setting book and the splatbook and and and.  In many ways this is a simple market response to provide (not necessarily exploit) a fetishized demand for more content.  Portions of the RPG market have become a collectible market.  But nearly any Forge game comes in one package, and we have very few supplements among us.  Primarily this is because Forge games tap player imaginations and have players provide content rather than providing another textual authority to reference.  Result?  Increased player ownership of play.  Decreased prep time.  Decreased time commitment to "learn the setting," resulting in more games more often.  Oh, and bonus: fewer cross-book rules exploits.

Net Effect
I've already gone on way too long, but to summarize, I see us doing the following:

  • We are streamlining roleplaying to require less time commitment on everyone's parts, increasing the frequency of -- gasp -- actual play.
  • We are decentralizing roleplaying to an individualized and personalized experience, authorizing player investment in idiosyncratic and meaningful ways.
  • We are expanding roleplaying to embrace global communities, diversifying roleplaying experiences.

In short, we are making roleplaying simpler, bigger, and more significant.  I like to think we're trying to pare down that big long description at the top of this post to something closer to this:

Some people get together and share an enjoyable experience.
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Marco
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« Reply #1 on: November 23, 2005, 01:22:37 PM »

Here's an article I wrote on my approach to traditional games:
http://www.jagsrpg.org/index.php?name=PNphpBB2&file=viewtopic&t=7

It does the decentralizing (players have input before the real prep-work begins). The streamlining is up to the participants (the participants have an expectation about what the game will involve so if they want to spend their time shopping that's their own look-out). It doesn't expand anything, I guess.

-Marco
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Chris Peterson
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« Reply #2 on: November 23, 2005, 02:42:01 PM »

Player of big brand games like D&D often invest $100s in books and supplements. That investment is a barrier to entry for little indie games. How can indie games combat this? I think they mostly create small, self-contained core rule sets with no or only a couple supplements. Think Sorcerer or Dogs in the Vineyard. GMs and gamers might spend $20 on an impulse buy of an indie game, if they are assured "batteries are included" and they don't need to buy extra stuff later. Unfortunately, this strategy might also limit each individual indie games' potential market size..?
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chris
Josh Roby
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« Reply #3 on: November 23, 2005, 07:23:25 PM »

Okay, maybe I wasn't very clear.

I'm not talking about how we should design our games; I'm not talking about how we market our games.  I'm interested in the effect that our current designs and marketing have on the gamer culture that uses them.
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #4 on: November 23, 2005, 07:59:21 PM »

Excellent article, Joshua.

Nothing more to add than that.

yrs--
--Ben

P.S.  Except that PTA does, in fact, have a GM-figure.  The Producer is pretty GM like.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: November 23, 2005, 08:38:28 PM »

Hiya,

Joshua, apologies in advance if you've seen these, but if not, check out the Infamous Five threads sticky'd in Site Discussion. They all go together, but I think you'll be most interested in the Actual Play one and the Publishing one, including the daughter threads they spawned.

Otherwise, not much to say except for total agreement.

Best,
Ron
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Arpie
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Posts: 83


« Reply #6 on: November 23, 2005, 08:41:46 PM »

I agree with the theory of decentralizing game control, I'd certainly like to see a quick-start GM-less game, but I have a few worries... and some bad experiences... and very reluctant players... to contend with first.

Primarily, the games that I have so far encountered which encourage GMless play, also encourage doing away with Avatar-oriented aspect of the hobby (the role you take on is the role you own, so to speak). That's VERY unattractive to both myself and most of the stage-shy people I enjoy playing with (we're very pretty or charismatic.)

On the other hand, I would very much like to see an avatar-intensive, GMless LARP. I really Dread the idea of a GM in a LARP. The only ideas I've seen in THAT category have been to do with making the GM-ship of LARPs more competitive, sort of splitting up the class of players into GM-level and player-level. It'd be great if such a system could be balanced so that the GMs powers are dependant on player choices or something where the player-class characters can counter balance or otherwise reign in GM authority - but I suppose you'd have to apply economic theory to the basic dynamics of your system and that'd get ugly.
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Justin Marx
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« Reply #7 on: November 23, 2005, 11:01:08 PM »

I'm wondering how long term campaign play can be integrated into this sort of quick-start approach. I like the comment on how Forge games using this more streamlined method become more efficient (as in, more good play per game session) but what I want to know is, how often do campaigns come out of these games? Personally, I want more out of each session than I get out of traditional play, but character and story attachment makes me want to play THIS game more, not a new game. I don't want to split the thread, but I'd be very interested to see how this pans out in Actual Play - Campaign Forge Games. If anyone can recall any actual play threads I'd be interested to read them.

It seems to me though that Forge games work better in the short term (not saying they don't in the long term, but most of the AP posts I read seem to be one shots or short sessions). Is it a function of a short reward cycle that character and story resolution happens faster and as such, the narrative importance of a character becomes boring after a certain pivotal resolution? In traditional play, the campaign mode makes every session like a chapter in a Robert Jordan fantasy book, slow slow slow character progression and reward cycles. In Forge games, each session is the book itself. The latter is vastly preferable to me, but do you often see whole series of novels (to strain the metaphor) being produced, or as good artists, do you end the games once the character inputs are resolved?

'Cause there's nothing worse than ANOTHER sequel to a sci-fi/fantasy book (wish someone had told Asimov, Jordan et. al. that point)....

Justin
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Merten
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« Reply #8 on: November 24, 2005, 12:30:23 AM »

On the other hand, I would very much like to see an avatar-intensive, GMless LARP. I really Dread the idea of a GM in a LARP.

Do you mean a LARP with no GM power during the actual play or eliminating the GM/larpwright/writer influence from LARP preparations (character backgrounds, relationship maps, plots - all the content that's been prepared by someone other than player before the actual LARP begins)? I'd have some experience on the first choice, less in the second, if you're intrested (in a new thread, I presume).
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Jukka Koskelin | merten at iki dot fi
Arturo G.
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Posts: 333


« Reply #9 on: November 24, 2005, 05:37:41 AM »


Justin Said:
Quote
I'm wondering how long term campaign play can be integrated into this sort of quick-start approach. I like the comment on how Forge games using this more streamlined method become more efficient (as in, more good play per game session) but what I want to know is, how often do campaigns come out of these games?

There are very nice Forge games which are designed for longer play. PtA for example is run along a full session of a TV series: 7 or 9 play sessions if I remember correctly. Another example is Polaris, which is designed for a long term campaign where the characters get experience at the same time they are lead to a tragic ending. In Dogs in the Vineyard the characters may visit town after town (session after session) solving problems, as far as they want.

I don't know. Perhaps many AP examples are one-shot tries of people playing a games for first time.

Anyway, I think this is somehow out-of-topic here. If you are interested in discussing it perhaps it would be better to open a new thread.

Cheers,
Arturo
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contracycle
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Posts: 2807


« Reply #10 on: November 24, 2005, 06:18:49 AM »

The GM   The Game Master is the "most important" player in the typical playgroup, because the Game Master invests more time and effort into the process and play cannot proceed without the Game Master's presence.  Many a potential game has been stalled, postponed, and forgotten because a Game Master could not be found and no one would volunteer.  Taking on that burden is a burden, and a large time commitment, so both the importance we attribute to the GM and the hesitation to be the GM are totally understandable.  And then Ralph and Mike and Tony come along and offer games that don't have a GM in the first place.  The result?  Greatly reduced prep time and greatly increased ease at getting a game going.  No authority figure to which to enshrine, consult, and villify.  A profound change to the power relationships within the playgroup.

Again and again we say, do not confuse preferences with universals.  The fact that some people have found this mode of play satisfying does not remotely imply that all people will find such satisfying.  There is, therefore, no prospect at all, IMO, than GM-less play will supplant GM-lead play.

Quote
The GM and Game Prep 

And unfortunately,m in this regard, the fact that SOME progress has been made has been taken as the cue to prevent any further work!


Quote
The Campaign 

Agreed, as long as you don't think the micro-games are going to replace the campaign.  They aren't.

Quote
The Endgame

Agreed

Quote
The Timeslot

Agreed, but like the point above, I would like to see more discussion of the structures these games employ, and to see those broadened to other games.

Quote
The Half-Day Session

Agreed

Quote
The Favorite Local Game Store & the Distributor We love our game stores; we gild them with memories, we feel safe there, we feel one with a larger community.  It was there where we found fellow gamers, it was there where we heard news of the industry.  It was the hub of our gamer culture.  And we're not going there half as much as we used to.

Sort of agreed, but I suspect this was mostly a US phenomenon anyway.  The game store does not seem to have had such a significant presence elsewhere.  Most of my early stuff was bought in model shops, for example.

Quote
The Supplement Mill 


Many of the points here are valid but I do not feel the conclusion is valid.  The appropriate response to the "demand for content" which you recognise is to produce content, not to fail to do so.  This is precisely why I find many of the Forge designs uninteresting; they have effectively just palmed the production of content off onto me, but that is exactly the thing I am most willing to pay for, and exactly the same problem that existed previously.  The fact that existing supplement model is not very useful does not imply that the production of content should be abandoned en bloc; what should be happening is a search for a way to produce such content that does not ehibit the problems we already know and loathe.

Quote
In short, we are making roleplaying simpler, bigger, and more significant.  I like to think we're trying to pare down that big long description at the top of this post to something closer to this:

Well I would like to think this is the case, but I fear that the assumptions in this article indicate why its not going to happen: it assumes a particular mode of play that is simply not very widespread, IMO, and chooses to ignore some forms of gaming that are very popular, such as the campaign.  Worse, the hostility to the "supplement treadmill" seems the threaten the production of content as content at all!  That would be an outright disaster, IMO.
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Roger
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« Reply #11 on: November 24, 2005, 09:26:26 AM »

Here's the thing: those external factors?  The social environment and the gamebooks?  They're changing.  We're changing them.  These changes to the base conditions alter the way in which the entire culture operates.  I'd like to talk about some of these changes and their effects, and I'd like to hear what some of the wise voices of the Forge have to say about them.  Cause here's my thesis: we are fundamentally changing what roleplaying games are and how we play them.

I wish I could agree with you, Joshua.

Sadly, I cannot.  The numbers just don't support your thesis.

In 1998, there were 1.5 million people playing D&D every month in the US.

By 2002, WotC had sold five hundred thousand copies of the Player's Handbook.

As much as I'd like to believe that we're effecting a change to gamer culture, I just don't think we have enough penetration or influence to warrant that conclusion.


Cheers,
Roger
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: November 24, 2005, 09:33:46 AM »

Hello,

Roger, I direct you as well to the Infamous Five threads and their spawn, sticky'd in the Site Discussion forum.

It's actually not about shaping gamer culture. It's about finding people who realize they are, after all, unhappy in gamer culture (which would describe nearly everyone who's posted here at the Forge) and also the people who aren't in gamer culture at all, and would never want to be, but who love role-playing without knowing it.

It's exactly the same as distinguishing between comics, and their vast potential, and "comics fandom" which is hyped about superheroes. A lot of long-time Forge participants are very much about the former and consider the latter to be grossly irrelevant.

People who want to get the mainstream interested in comics by showing "them" how cool superheroes are, are mistaken. People who want to convince fandom how much non-superhero potential comics have are also mistaken. Same goes for gaming.

Best,
Ron
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Josh Roby
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« Reply #13 on: November 24, 2005, 09:36:52 AM »

Roger, Gareth?  I'm not saying we're the borg, and resistence is futile.  I'm saying we're making changes to games, and games inform gamer culture, and therefore we are making changes to the culture.  The Forge publishers are not autocrats over the gamer world and dictate changes that are applied unilaterally and without exception, but we are also not without input or without effect.  I'd like to talk about those effects, not how we're taking over the world.
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Roger
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« Reply #14 on: November 24, 2005, 11:08:13 AM »

It's actually not about shaping gamer culture.

Ron, I think it is, and I think the text of this thread -- not the least of which, the Subject -- will bear this out.  I'll happily concur that the Infamous Five threads were not, in the main, about that subject, which may well imply that this thread is not a close relative.

I'm not saying we're the borg, and resistence is futile.  [...] The Forge publishers are not autocrats over the gamer world and dictate changes that are applied unilaterally and without exception

If I have characterised your position as such, Joshua, I sincerely apologize.  I understand that this is not your position.

Indeed, you state your position well and clearly in both posts:

Here's the thing: those external factors?  The social environment and the gamebooks?  They're changing.  We're changing them. 

[...]

Cause here's my thesis: we are fundamentally changing what roleplaying games are and how we play them.

I'm saying we're making changes to games, and games inform gamer culture, and therefore we are making changes to the culture.  The Forge publishers [...] are also not without input or without effect.  I'd like to talk about those effects, not how we're taking over the world.

My position is that you are incorrect.  I believe we are not shaping gaming culture in any significant or non-negligible way.

I realize that you are eager to discuss the various effects and changes.  I think the danger in doing so without carefully examining your thesis is that we may fall into the trap of post hoc ergo proctor hoc -- incorrectly ascribing the causes of those effects; in this case, to ourselves.

I agree with you that, in the general case, any publisher of any game has some effect on that great mass we call gamer culture. 

Of course, some publishers and some games have a greater effect than others.  I hope you would agree that if, for example, there were a game that was purchased by only two people, and played only once, that the effect of that game on gamer culture would likely be very small, to the point of being negligible.

The Forge publishers, as a group, have sold games to many more than just two people, and they have been played, and continue to be played, a great many times.

However, it is my assertion that their effect is still negligible when one considers that over a million people play D&D every month, and the core rulebooks for the system have sold half a million copies.  Even if these numbers are off by a factor of one thousand percent, I think my conclusion is still reasonable.

I don't necessarily disagree that roleplaying games, and how they are played, are undergoing important changes.  But I cannot conclude, based on a preponderance of this evidence, that we are the cause.

However, I am willing, even eager, to be proven wrong.  I'd like to know the reasons which lead you to the conclusion that we are responsible for inducing the changes to gamer culture.  I may well be swayed by them.


Cheers,
Roger
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