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:
- A novice-friendly introduction that still appreciates the breadth and depth of roleplaying experience they already might have.
- A simple, but evocative and flexible system.
- 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.