|illustration by Noobaka
At the core of what makes playing an RPG different from other games are 4 central concepts
1) the lack of pre-defined endgame
2) the lack of singular victor
3) the shared success or failure of an adventure by the group as a while
4) One person creates and referees the game
Do these unique game concepts create an insurmountable barrier for potential players?
If I were to explain monopoly or poker to someone--the basics are the person with he most $ wins. If you have no money you lose. The dice rolls or cards dealt will influence your choices-but it is you against everyone else--the person with the most stuff wins.
The all or nothing mechanic is also true of a game like Risk--you lose your countries, you are out of the game, the person with the most countries (all of them) wins.
Pretty basic stuff, and overly simplified, but pretty clear to on what my goal is as a player. We all start on equal footing and then based on my skill--and the luck of the draw or roll I work to beat all of my opponents. We are in competition against each other--and only one of us can and will win.
This is a more difficult thing to try to do for an RPG:.
-We are not in competition against each other (usually)
-We each have varying abilities/skills/spells/powers
-There is no victory condition, beyond completing the adventure--but the game never truly ends
-If your character is killed. You can make a new one and get back into the game.
-One person creates the adventures, manages the game experience and acts as the antagonists and narrator describing the scenes--and a bad one can ruin the game completely.
You can't explain it as the person with the most: gold (?) Hit Points (?) Magic Items (?) wins--because success isn't just about individual achievement. It's about survival--both personal and group as well as completing the mission/adventure. A player may have an individual goal but achieving it at the loss of companions, and instead to finishing the mission, can destroy the game experience and swiftly end your session-as well as your place at the table for good.
Okay so what's my point?
I am not sure--except to say as RPG's are so unlike the usual gaming experience--it is unreasonable to expect a mass market player base.
It takes unique individuals who want to experience a theater of the mind game/story game in which there are no easy/clear answers. They are thrust into strange and difficult situations in which their own wits, some dice rolls and some scribbled stats/skills/spells on a piece of paper represent their arsenal against the unknown.
Further, It takes a unique individual to dream worlds and create them not only for their own enjoyment, but to inspire and to befuddle a group of potential interlopers ready to break stuff and set about exploring this unknown land. Worse than just spending time creating? You then have to bring it to life--verbally--and you have to referee not only the game in process but act as referee between players if they come into conflict. All the while being impartial and allowing the players to have the flexibility to explore that strange hole in the wall, sound in the well, or misty mountain in the distance that you had no intention of them exploring. Flexible, impartial, creative and colorful is a tall order and a rare skill set.
But key to all of that? For me in RPG's it is all about exploration: There are strange caves in the Borderlands, and old underground temple in the jungles of Parwu, a lost dwarf mine in the Hills of Greth, the rat cult growing in the sewers beneath Dolon, the lonely abandoned tower of the Elf Lord on the frontier, the crypt of the necrogazer, exploring the ruins of Dothar Keep or setting sail to the Dread Islands.
It's a unique type of game that posits exploration of the unknown as a key and central game concept. The reasons for exploring may be different: ship wrecked, recover an artifact, find loot, rescue a person, defend a city, destroy evil--but the central concept is that the player will have to go into an area/location that is totally unknown to them, risking life and limb with boon companions to achieve a mission/adventure goal.
Now to me? THAT is exactly my jam--sign me up every weekend I am good to go!
To many though, I am not sure it holds much interest. It takes time, it takes working together, it takes suspension of disbelief, it takes active participation and it takes some mental creativity on the part of all involved to make the dream real.
If I take someone and describe "a group of five man sized, yellow-eyed, slavering, brown tusk toothed creatures holding stone axes and spears, making menacing gestures and noises approaches--what do you do?" Not many will want to stick around or even enjoy that sort of thing. But like the explorers of old--we few, we happy few--find those encounters and explorations to be best gaming experience money and time can buy.