The Seven-Sided Die

Hooking the Harry Potter crowd

Posted Saturday August 01, 2009 at 08:11 AM

There are a tonne—a metric megatonne, actually—of roleplayers on the Internet who have never picked up dice, who have never heard of E. Gary Gygax, and who wouldn't recognise what we call "roleplaying" as having any relation to what they do.

Trollsmyth recently wrote about the Harry Potter generation, who have never done any of those because they skipped right by traditional roleplaying and re-invented the wheel on LiveJournal, forums, and in chatrooms.

There is a huge number of kids out there reading, writing, and yes, even roleplaying right now. A sizeable groundswell of interest in fantastical fiction and play that crosses gender lines has risen up in the Harry Potter generation, the likes of which have probably never been seen before.

But you'll notice I mention nothing about games. Regular readers know what I'm talking about: fanfic and free-form roleplay. It's easy to laugh and dismiss this sort of thing (just as RPGs were laughed at and dismissed in my youth, when they weren't being blamed for suicide and devil worship), but here are a bunch of kids so desperate for roleplay that they have built websites and software and communities to facilitate their play. They've done it all on their own.

To be accurate it's not just Harry Potter roleplayers, of course. There are as many online roleplaying subcultures as there are fandoms. In fact, that's why there is little to no connection between "our" roleplaying culture and "their" roleplaying culture: being a natural outgrowth of the connective power of the Internet and the rise of vocal fandoms, fandom roleplaying is a creature without a trace of OD&D's genetic legacy.

But that's all background. My thought is that a lot of these roleplayers are good, and what's more a lot might really enjoy the sort of roleplaying that "we" play. I don't think that there's anything wrong with roleplay that has no connection to traditional pen-and-paper roleplaying or that there's some mythical "real" roleplaying that they're missing out on, but I do think that offering people more options is a great idea.

So why hasn't there been more outreach to this generation of roleplayers growing up under our collective noses? No—the better question is, what's stopping us?

At Places to Go, People to Be, Herb has an excellent thought:

Wouldn't it be great to see every theater with a midnight showing giving out a Harry Potter goody bag sponsored by local gamers. Along with the branded products it could include a version of the S&W quickstart with a more Harry Potter like adventure. Maybe a GORE quickstart (or CARE for Classic Alternative Roleplaying Engine) aimed at the same crowd with 2-3 adventures. Maybe a "welcome to tabletop adventures" website linked to with additional free and pay products building on those materials.

A crazy marketing nightmare? Maybe. It also might be an idea to help the hobby grew a new generation.

So really, the question I want to ask is: What would it take to make this happen?

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Greyhawk any more

First off, I have to disagree with Herb that an old-school quickstart and some HP-like adventures are a good introduction. I haven't talked here about my MU*ing days or the friends I know who do freeform roleplay on LJ, but those experiences and observations give me some immediate insights into how very different are the expectations of this crowd. Dungeon crawls, even featuring young wand-wielding wizards, are not going to be widely successful. These are people who cut their teeth on interpersonal drama, non-violent character conflict, and heavy emotional investment in their characters.

What would S&W look like to someone who's most familiar with player-driven plots and heavy internal roleplay? Some might be able to parse what they're looking at, but the majority are going to find it extremely heavy on rules and wonder what the point is, if they can even make heads or tails of it.

One long-running online roleplay site I know of[1. Otherspace, to be precise.] has (or did) for a long time use FUDGE as a lightweight conflict-resolution system. For online roleplay, even that is pretty heavy. For the purposes of a Harry Potter opening night giveaway, though, something lightweight and very friendly to stories heavy on the character drama would be necessary.[2. Yes, yes, I know you can roleplay with any system. Not every system explains how you can roleplay with it, though, let alone features a core system that makes it obvious how it can be used to play the kinds of stories you already play.] We like our crunch, but crunch is not what will impress this crowd.

So, that's one component such a goody bag needs: A simple, but evocative and flexible system. (Preferably something that uses d6 exclusively, since these are plentiful and familiar.[3. I read a design blog recently that made this point clear to me, and now I can't find it. If anyone knows, let me know in the comments.])

What the heck is this?

Secondly, but rather more importantly, such a goody bag would need a cover sheet that explained, as straightforwardly as possible, answers to the questions "What is roleplaying?" and "What's the point of rules: can't I just make up stories?"

There are some great (and many not-so-great) What Is Roleplaying texts out there among the many roleplaying games that have been published, but all of them assume that you are a complete stranger to roleplaying already. These people aren't the implied reader of those texts. Already being roleplayers, and possible quite sophisticated ones, these readers need to be addressed in the context of the roleplaying that they already do. We want to show off this hobby we enjoy as a new addition to the roleplaying they already enjoy. Talking to them like they're clueless won't fly, nor will any misguided implications that this is somehow "real" roleplaying and what they're doing isn't.

Of course, not everyone in line for a midnight opening of Harry Potter is going to have roleplaying experience. Though many will, the introductory sheet would need to explain things in novice terms as well. That's a tall order, but I think it could be done.

That's the second component needed: A novice-friendly introduction that still appreciates the breadth and depth of roleplaying experience they already might have.

Lend a helping hand

A roleplaying game, even with a good "What is Roleplaying?" introduction, is still going to baffle a very lot of people unless there's something to guide them. This is especially true of people who are already familiar with roleplaying and may not realise there are many different ways to play. An introductory scenario—I hesitate to use the genre-biased term "adventure"—or two that presents a possible template for play would go a long way.

Apart from offering a clear set of signposts to answer the "what now?" question, the included scenarios should also acquaint the players with novel concepts and meta-roles particular to pen-and-paper roleplaying: game masters and dice rolling instead of player consensus, playing a group story instead of a collection of interconnected personal stories, and world against player conflicts, to name just a few.

The goody bag

We know what's in the goody bag now:

  1. A novice-friendly introduction that still appreciates the breadth and depth of roleplaying experience they already might have.
  2. A simple, but evocative and flexible system.
  3. An introductory scenario to model play.

As lovely as the theory is though, is this something that the blogging community could put together? The work involved staggers me and my paltry free time, but the idea of being able to hand out a friendly, curiosity-piquing booklet to the adults and kids lining up outside the next big Harry Potter movie, and to know that the same is being done at theatres across the continent, would be a wonderful thing indeed. It's wonderful enough that my free time is slinking nervously into a corner as I get that look in my eye.

Comments (17)


Saturday August 01, 2009 at 09:19 AM

There are several good Harry Potter themed games out there already. You cant go wrong with Jared A. Sorensen's Broomstix although it does require a certain pre-knowledge of roleplaying. Jared of course is best known for InSpectres:


Broomstix Character Sheet:

For a more traditional take on it you could look at Wizardry and Witchcraft. This has a nice what is Roleplaying section:

I hate it, but Witchgirls adventure may well appeal to the new crowd. Its visually stunning and looks a good introduction. Theres also some nice free downloads:

The obvious mainstream alternative is Witchcraft which these days is available as a free download:


Saturday August 01, 2009 at 04:42 PM

I think if it really took off, anything that featured a setting remotely like Harry Potter would get hit with a cease-and-desist or copyright claims. As much as that would be bogus, Warner Bros wouldn't care and has deep enough pockets to ruin an independent game designer even with a frivolous suit. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

Besides, it would have to be extremely lightweight. A booklet of four or twelve pages is, I think, the right amount of text to throw at unwary people waiting to buy tickets at a movie. More will just turn a lot of people off (these are rules-free roleplayers already, keep in mind), and will be expensive for local gamers to print.

I also think IMNSHO that a generic system is what's called for, for two reasons. First, these existing roleplayers have no trouble taking nothing but a chat client and creating an involved and months-spanning roleplaying troupe. To attract them to pen-and-paper roleplaying we only need to give them a handful of mechanics to give them a taste of traditional roleplaying.

Second, I would want to make this a toolkit useful for introducing people to traditional roleplaying regardless of their particular fandom. There are people busily roleplaying in more fandoms that you can count: Star Trek, Twilight, Firefly, Discworld, Neopets… I think it would be a small shame if the end product was so focused on Harry Potter that we missed the opportunity to invite so many other roleplayers to the table.

This would really be a gateway RPG. It would need to be lightweight to be easily digestible so that the important message can get through: rules can add interest to the roleplay, people already do this around kitchen tables everywhere, and they're invited to check it out.

However! That is an excellent pile of links for putting on a website and sticking the URL in a "for more information" page in the back of the game booklet.

Callan S.

Monday August 03, 2009 at 03:44 AM

Well, what if the harry potter roleplayers came and handed us, the Gygaxians, a roleplayers kit. To show us the right way of doing it?

Why are we so set to be missionaries that ernestly convert the natives to the 'correct' path, here?

Roleplayers always seem to be trying to convert other roleplayers.


Monday August 03, 2009 at 04:25 AM

They mostly wouldn't, because they don't really know we exist. That's really the point.

I took pains not to say that the way they play is wrong, or that the way we play is right. The point is that if they don't even know that this kind of roleplaying exists, how can they know whether they want to try it? I suspect that quite a lot of them might enjoy the kind of roleplay we enjoy and add it to their roleplaying options. Who said the different kinds of roleplaying are mutually exclusive?

Callan S.

Monday August 03, 2009 at 10:32 AM

I dunno. Offering it implies it does it better (or atleast does some part of it better) - otherwise they'd just stick with what they have if it were no better.

I suppose I'm thinking if you were to just offers our RP just in a general sense, it implies in a general sense it's better.

Is there a particular feature of any system you'd offer them, that is better? Where a certain feature is better (thus worth playing with that system), but its not as if overall it's better?


Monday August 03, 2009 at 04:09 PM

@Callan: Would some be offended? Maybe, but I think an equal number would be willing to check it out. A lot of how that came across would be in d7's intro sheet...instead of "why do I need rules" it could be phrased "why rules are sometimes fun" or similar. Remember, I'm seeing this as part of a broader bag that includes HP themed items so they don't know we're "telling them how to RP" until they engage at which point it's easier to make clear.

@d7 I choose S&W's Quickstart because I was riffing off Trollsmyth...anything would be good. I particularly agree about d6s although I did consider the idea of including dice. FUDGE is an okay choice. I also commented on the idea of a 2d6 version of Microlite74 being perfect. Finally, a more HP like adventure wouldn't be a dungeon crawl but a mystery at a wizard's school or something similar.

I think the HP question, however, is just a gateway. We need to start getting at kids who read because reading tracks strongly with RPGs. I think the skills of imagination required for RPGs are similar to those required for reading but are strongly divergent for those more interested in things like WoW.


Tuesday August 04, 2009 at 09:41 PM

Are roleplaying games better than board games? CCGs? Video games? Wargames?

Table-top roleplaying is different than online freeform roleplaying. There's no reason that one has to be better than the other. A friend of mine does both, for instance, while other of my friends prefer one over the other.

It has much more to do with individual tastes. Offering something and saying, "Try this, you might like it," doesn't have to have the implication that whatever they already like is worse. People can like many things.

Callan S.

Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 05:07 AM

Well, by the same token why isn't this selling to the chess crowd, or video game crowd, as well?

I assumed this was banking on multiple parralels between our RP and HP RP. If it isn't, theres no need to just think of the HP roleplayers, you can think of the chess players and such as well.


Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 05:39 AM

@Callan: How is selling based on parallels inherently "ours is better" and if we're selling on differences then parallels don't matter.

Chess, beyond being a game, has nothing in common with TTRPGs: there are no random elements, social interactions, variability in starting conditions and goals, and research and experimentation are of entirely different types.

As for the video game crowd, there have been many cross over marketing attempts not the least of which are many design choices in D&D IV.

In this case we're saying "Look, our thing has similar ideas to your thing. We thought based on those you might like our thing too."

To take it to another realm, let's say I just found out you love Heinlein juveniles and his early "Future History" stories. If I hand you a H. Beam Piper anthology and say, "hey, if you like Heinlein you might like this too" will you think I'm trying to tell you Piper is better than Heinlein. Similarly will you think it's just as smart to hand the Piper to fans of Lawrence Block?

Callan S.

Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 08:34 AM

squinty look this isn't a...thing? RPG systems are like wood carving tools - they are not a wood carving in themselves. They are not a thing. They are tools to make a thing.

Well maybe that's my perspetive, but fron my perspective it's a tool kit and associated techniques. That does mean a direct comparison of what tools and techniques the HP crowd uses. But it's not like showing them a completed wood sculpture and going 'hey, you like wood sculptures, do ya like this one' - because an RPG system, not an end result.

Or atleast that's where I'm coming from.


Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 08:49 AM

Fine, if we're going to be obtuse.

My ex-wife was both a stone and wood carver. She clearly did one first and then realized the other was similar. Seeing that she enjoyed one she tried the other.

HP fans enjoy one set of roleplaying with their tools carving the stone of Rowlings's world. We're offering them a few set of wood chisels to try it because the process strikes similar pleasures and they might enjoy trying it.


Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 08:53 AM

Also, roleplaying game is a noun phrase. Nouns are persons, places, or things. Given you claim it's not a thing are rpgs people or places?

Referring to a process or activity as a thing is quite normal.


Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 07:06 PM

Callan, you're thinking too much like a designer. Designer thinking would be useful for figuring out what to put in such a hypothetical Goody Bag, but it's not very useful when considering whether fiction fandom roleplayers would like it or not because they're going to be looking at it like players, not designers.

Callan S.

Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 11:55 PM

Well, I take it they are carving wood and we are also carving wood. Were not terribly different. We'd be offering them no new thing, like stone carving is. The best we could offer are new tools and techniques - and heck, they might be able to offer us some new tools and techniques as well.

Also you can refer to a hammer as a thing as well. A novel is an end product though, while a hammer is not an end product. But I'm suspecting non charitible reading so I'll leave it there for now.


Thursday August 06, 2009 at 12:14 AM

Having done and witnessed both, I can say that fandom roleplaying and tabletop roleplaying are not the same—they are not both "carving wood."

However, even if they were the same, you just provided the "why" behind such a Goody Bag. The tools that we have and the tools that they have for roleplaying are not the same thing. Everyone benefits from the cross-pollination of tools and techniques that happens when people move back and forth between two related hobbies (hence why I posted a link to the Improv Wiki recently).

My purpose for asking if roleplaying games are "better" than boardgames was to point out that most roleplayers are also board gamers, so arguing about exclusive activities and which is better is strange.

To continue the analogy, many kids discovered the Red Box (or Blue Box, or LBBs) back in the 70s and 80s because they were already playing wargames or board games. Should Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson have never invented roleplaying because it would implicitly say that it was "better" than wargaming or board games? Was it an act of disrespect of their chosen hobbies to invite wargamers and board gamers to play Dungeons & Dragons? No.

You really seem to be stuck on the idea that I secretly or unconsciously think fandom roleplaying is somehow inferior. Is there something I can say to disabuse you of this belief?

Callan S.

Thursday August 06, 2009 at 10:21 AM

Well, you are saying that fandom RP doesn't share the same place as our RP does/it's not wood working. That it's lacks what's required to share the same place as our RP.

I'm thinking some HP roleplayers are going to see what you do as just some different techniques on the same thing they do. How would you tell them their wrong, apart from just informing them they've never done our thing?


Saturday August 08, 2009 at 07:45 PM

I've had one of those people in my group. The person in question had some experience RPing on instant messaging and with her friends in school.

RPing in D&D 3.5 came very easily for her. As a matter of fact she was doing it better than some of the more experience players.

Game mechanics were a different story. D&D was very intimidating and it too her several months to feel comfortable with the it.

I say that her instant messaging and school roleplaying directly translated into playing a traditional tabletop game.