This post bemoans the gradual death of the original-property roleplaying game and blames it, in part at least, on licenses and the prevalence of licensing over original story content. And I think he’s right to bemoan the death of original roleplaying settings; I love Deadlands and Rokugan and Theah1 for the awesome settings they are. I like tweaky old Shadowrun, despite the fact that playing it required about a million six-sided dice, and I can even spare a kind thought for the World of Darkness.2
But licensed games aren’t the reason original roleplaying settings have gradually died out. Original roleplaying settings have died out for a very simple reason: roleplayers, as a market, aged. Midway through the 1990s, the replacement rate of old RP gamers by young RP gamers started dropping, and it’s never really reversed trend despite numerous attempts to revive the hobby among young people.
Here’s the thing: old gamers mostly don’t want a new, dramatic setting. They want what they know, both in terms of rules systems and in terms of settings. That’s why the D&D revivals – third edition, “3.5,”, fourth edition, and Pathfinder3 have been the truly important releases of the past decade. Steven Long’s list of “major RPG releases of the past five years” misses things: the Gamma World rerelease, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying rerelease, Shadowrun’s 20th Anniversary Edition, and so forth.
And if the RPG market has aged ungracefully and grown more hostile to anything they don’t know already – and I think there’s pretty good evidence that that’s the case – then what can an RPG publisher rely upon to generate new customers? The answer is simple: licensed product. Licensed product offers publishers the opportunity not only to get wary older roleplayers’ attention by offering them rules for intellectual properties they’re already familiar with and like, but is also the best remaining way for those publishers to attract outside attention from non-roleplayers, by offering them a gateway. Most of those non-roleplayers will never buy anything but the licensed product, of course, but so what? They still bought it.
And if you’re looking for original roleplaying settings – well, not to get all Doctorow on you or anything, but it’s just moved. It’s all on computers now. Look at Bioware’s output of the last decade: Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Dragon Age. Any one of those could be a pen-and-paper RPG book setting, and a detailed and enjoyable one at that. Look at games like Arcanum, Morrowind, Oblivion and Fallout 3. There’s really no shortage of options. Now, granted, these are computer RPGs and therefore inherently inferior to pen-and-paper RPGs in that the game master doesn’t have to cheat horribly to get players back on track with his plot because the computer will do it automatically, but the point remains.