Why Fantasy RPGS Do Better: A Theory

When I was first getting involved in RPGs in the 1980s, and then in the industry as a professional in the 1990s, people often noted that when discussing success and popularity of Fantasy VS Scifi, movies and TV always skewed much more towards scifi, and RPGs towards fantasy.

Not that there weren’t scifi RPGs and Fantasy tv shows and movies, but they were less common, less popular, and less successful.

And people wondered why.

Now, Fantasy has largely broken the TV/Movie barrier since 2000, and I attribute that to better budgets, effects, and acceptance of fantasy stories as interesting and varied. (And I believe some of that influence came from games… but that’s another essay.)

That still leaves the question of why scifi (and modern, and old west, and so on) ttRPGs simply are not as successful or popular as Fantasy ttRPGs.

It cannot just be momentum or nostaliga. The first scifi ttRPGs came hot on the heels of D&D, and by the time most people were exposed to them there were peltny of both. And ttRPGs have seen several resurgences since their first hitting the public eye, and every time fantasy ttRPGs come out on top.

(There are some AWESOME, world-influencing, trend-setting, society impacting scifi and modern ttRPG IPs. They are just less common than fantasy, and tier-to-tier less successful.)

This of course rasies the question of why. WHY are fantasy ttRPGs better accepted by the general gamer community than other genres of ttRPG?

So, this is my theory:

Players are more forgiving of fantasy.

Yeah, that’s pretty simple, but I have seen it over and over in more than 2 decades of professional game creation, and nearly four decades of play. This increased forgiveness comes in two primary forms.

First, people are comfortable blending a wider range of fantasy concepts together than they are blending modern or scifi concepts.

For example: If I want to play a Knight of the Round Table, you want to play a character inspired by Conan the Barbarian, Jan wants to play a character inspired by Lord Darcey, and Robin wants to play a character inspired by Arjuna, most groups can accept those characters can interact and still feel close enough to their inspirations to be satisfying.

However, if I want to play a character inspired by Captain Kirk, you want to play a character inspired by RoboCop, Jan wants to play a character inspired by Luke Skywalker, and Robin wants to play a character inspired by Char Aznable, chances are we can’t all play in the same game without the differences in our characters making our characters not seem close enough to be satisfying, or having to ignore smart choices in order to stay true to our sub-genres.

Similarly, if a game has special powers fueled by magic, more players accept that magic is not real, and doesn’t need to make a lot of sense and thus just accept the game rules, compared to the number of players who will shrug and ignore rules oddities in science fiction they don’t like.

A simple version of this is that in a game where a target can expect to be hit and damaged with a greatsword 8-12 times and survive (clearly very uncommon in the real world), many players can just accept it. If pistol rules are then introduced and someone can be hit and damaged with a 9mm handgun 8-12 times and survive, a large number of the players who were FINE with the greatsword rules now feel the pistol rules are so “unrealistic” they don’t want to play them.

So, additional scrutiny and less suspension of disbelief is leveled as non-fantasy settings, leading to groups (rather than individuals) gaining mroe satisfaction from fantasy ttRPG properties.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on October 30, 2020, in Business of Games, Musings, Retrospective and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. My theory about gaming is the closer it is to reality, the more complications you, as GM or player, can think of that cause problems. In fantasy, if you kill someone in the streets, it’s forgivable if the guards aren’t there in 5 minutes, but in a modern day with cell phones, CCTV, etc. the cops show up quickly. We know what reality is like and we inject “too much” of it into modern/near future/future games.

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