Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dreamblade and the 'Miniatures Cycle'

Poking around a bit today looking at the early info up on WoTC's new Dreamblade miniature game, officially announced this month at the GAMA Trade Show. I have to admit that the early pics of the figures do look neat. I've always lingered right on the fringe of... miniature games. WoTC removed one barrier for me by sticking to pre-painted (and fairly detailed) miniatures, rather than relying on my paltry painting skills, but I've still never really made the jump.

The Dreamblade announcement has me thinking a bit about the balance between miniature games and mini-less RPGs.... As most people know, RPGs developed out of mini-scale wargaming. Since then, the ties between miniature gaming and RPGs have ebbed and flowed quite a bit. Several modern games- D&D, for instance- have a fairly tight connection with a miniature line. Other games, like the World of Darkness line, have never had much to do with them. The ability to sell miniatures has been a make-or-break proposition for some games (like early v1 WFRP), and a negligible sideline for others.

The consensus seems to be that the mini business is more lucrative than text-only RPG publishing. I think at times this has created a little anxiety on the part of the RPG community as to the future of their hobby. Right now, with the popularity of miniature gaming and collectible card games (not to mention the growth of MMORPGs), it sometimes seems that traditional RPGs are in danger of being overshadowed or swept from the field by their cardstock and tin counterparts. Certainly a majority of the announcements coming out of GTS seemed to focus more on CCGs and miniature games than on RPGs.

(Unrelated note: Battlestar Galactica RPG. Please. Yes, I know about the fan projects on the web. That's not what I want. I want a well thought out and well supported, gritty, low-tech BSG roleplaying game sold in glossy thick volumes replete with pictures of the cast and sets, and tons of additional official technical details and background. I'd play it. My wife would probably even play it. And where are the neat, lavishly illustrated technical books for the new BSG series? Star Wars is rotten with them, and compared to BSG the tech in Star Wars only seems plausible if you've taken a nasty blow to the head.)

Overall though, I think that RPG fans don't have too much to worry about. I don't doubt that the popularity of CCGs and miniature games right now is taking some market- especially on the younger end- from traditional RPG products. I also don't doubt that they are stealing some focus away from roleplaying games in the development schedules of companies like WoTC and others. In the long term though, these games may be what's ensuring that there is still a strong market for RPGs ten or twenty years down the road despite the major threat to every non-electronic hobby presented by the growth in PC and console gaming (not to mention Tivo!).

Miniature games and card games have an appeal to younger gamers that traditional RPGs really can't match. First, they are generally less complicated than RPGs (as a lad, I once had a conversation in a hobby shop with a kid a few years younger who had given up on AD&D because he and his friends couldn't figure out the THAC0 rules. He also pronounced it 'taco'.). Second, despite the predictions made by Back to the Future 2, games where you get to hold something, play with something, or collect something are deeply appealing to our inner shiny-thing collecting ape self. How many roleplayers have a dice collection that looks like a desperate attempt to attract a female magpie? How else to explain the popularity (albeit brief) of pogs?

But while new gamers are likely to become attracted to card and mini games, it seems that many of them will eventually the same compulsion that led Gygax and Co to move from miniatures into actual RPGs. It becomes much less fun to spend money on collectible games when it's your cash, rather than mom and dad's. And while pushing minis around a table or stacking cards can certainly be interesting, there's no story there, and if you're interested in the world that forms the background for the game (and a lot of games seem to be creating a fairly extensive background for their CCGs and standalone miniatures), you're ultimately going to want more. In the long term, miniature and CCG markets feed RPG markets. A gamer that no longer has time or inclination to shop for and tote around miniatures may well enjoy sitting around the gaming table with some friends, some dice, and some beer.

Which leads me to believe that we can expect the announcement of a Dreamblade game from WoTC sometime in the next couple years, assuming that the line overcomes the initial risks and becomes a viable product. The background material is scant right now, so it's hard to tell if there is a full game in there or not. It's quite possible that WoTC will treat it much like Legend of the Five Rings; a supplement/expansion for an existing line (likely a psychic powers expansion for d20 Modern), combined with farming out work to another company to produce some additional supplements.

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