Roleplaying is a living hobby, and it has evolved over its forty year history. The first RPGs were very close in design and play to the wargames they originated from; the setting was primarily fantasy, plots focused around military goals, and tactics were prioritised over characterisation. As more people came into the hobby, games started to change to reflect their varying interests. Science fiction and horror settings broadened the range of playable worlds; plots became more varied, and a number of games focused on characterisation and intercharacter drama.
Modern technological innovations like the internet have brought massive changes to all aspects of the world, and roleplaying is no different. Once upon a time, gamers found out about the new and cool from magazines, or game details sent to them through the post. The advent of the internet meant publishers needed to create websites; many of them hosted forums, where fans could discuss their favourite games. The spread of social media sites moved many of the conversations to sites like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter; and most recently, we’ve seen a big jump in live and streaming games on Twitch and YouTube.
For a publisher, keeping up with the current trends in roleplaying is vital. The roleplaying audience is, for the most part, tech-savvy and forward-thinking, embracing each new technology as it emerges, and a publisher who is not doing the same is liable to be left behind. Social media plays an important role in keeping up with new developments; publishers need to use these sites for dialogue with their customers, not as a broadcast system for sending marketing messages, and listen to how their audience are playing their games, and what tools they need to do that. Roleplaying conventions offer publishers the opportunity to speak directly to both their customers and other industry professionals. Like gaming stores, conventions serve as loci for new ideas, and most publishers use the opportunity to discuss games and the industry with others at these events.
As well as technological innovations, publishers also need to stay on top of changes to roleplaying itself. There have been some major shifts in the hobby with, for example, the introduction of White Wolf’s Storyteller system in the early 1990s, and the rise of story games in the early 2000s. The Storyteller system was designed for a more story-focused style of play, shifting the focus from tactics to drama and characterisation, and attracting a new, younger and more diverse audience in the process.
Independent publishers have been responsible for the biggest shifts in roleplaying technology. The story games they produce – with their endless variety of worlds, mechanics, narratives, and protagonists – have revitalised the roleplaying industry, and even industry stalwart D&D, in its most recent edition, has borrowed heavily from story games in its design. Story games have reminded roleplayers that ours is primarily a collaborative storytelling hobby, and eroded the historically antagonistic relationship between GM and players, leading to more systems encouraging GM and players to work together to create a better story, or abandoning the need for a GM altogether.
To stay on top of trends in roleplaying, it’s essential for publishers to have a regular gaming group that plays a variety of new games alongside favoured systems and campaigns. Great roleplaying games are not developed in isolation; they come from a deep understanding of what’s great in other games, and they build on existing themes, mechanics and systems. A knowledge of the games available, and open dialogue with other active roleplayers, shows publishers what’s not being covered by other roleplaying games, so they can innovate and expand into those gaps in the market.