The Specious Model Railroading Analogy

Recently, Ryan Dancy was quoted in an article in The Escapist where he repeated the canard that the tabletop RPG industry is “becoming a dead hobby”, because it’s falling into the same pattern as the model railroading industry:

“Kids stopped playing with
trains, and the businesses that remained dedicated to hobbyists who got
more disposable income as they grew up, until the price of the hobby was
out of reach of anyone except those older hobbyists. Eventually, it
became a high-end hobby with very expensive products, sold to an
ever-decreasing number of hobbyists. As those folks die, the hobby
shrinks. That is what is happening to the tabletop RPG business.”

The exact same argument (nearly word for word, interestingly), was recently featured in an anonymous guest post over at Wise Fugaros’ blog:

Historically there was a time when model trains were a popular gift,
the sort of thing that you give a child to occupy their time, or to play
with with their friends. Then over time the trains got more complex,
and the hobby got more and more focused. The kids grew up and kept their
model trains, but not too many new kids came in. Now we see an
interesting situation: it is hard to find a model train set for a kid to
just get into, and you don’t go looking in a toy store for one, you go
to a hobby shop.

Likewise, there was a time when an RPG (“Red Box” Dungeons and
Dragons) was a popular gift, the sort of thing that you give a child to
occupy the time, or to play with friends. Then over time the games got
more varied, and the hobby got more and more focused. The kids grew up
and kept their games, but not as many new kids came in. I’ll stop there
to avoid belaboring the point, but the parallels are pretty clear.

The fallacies here are numerous, so I’ll start with the most obvious.

The Hobby Manufacturers Association estimated that in 2010 alone the model railroading industry had sales of some $424,770,000. The tabletop RPG industry wishes it had sales anywhere near that. You can find model railroading magazines– at least a half-dozen different titles– at every Barnes & Noble in the country and a couple even in my local convenience store. That’s hard copy, not some dubious “online magazine”. If that’s Dancy’s idea of “a dead industry”, then I say bring on the mourners. As for the claim that “it’s hard to find a model train set for a kid to just get into”, well, this.

But the more general notion is that tabletop RPGs don’t attract enough kids. Without kids, the thinking goes, the hobby is doomed to die as the older players die off and aren’t replaced with fresh youngsters clutching a red box to their breast.

That, of course, is specious because it presupposes that all growth must come from kids. While it is true that a large segment of newcomers to the hobby back in the 1980’s were tweens and teens, I would argue that any attempt to recapture that golden era is doomed, and any attempt to make comparisons between the market today and how things were in 1983 is just not credible. Those times are gone, the product of a number of different factors that will never be repeated.

And you know what? I’m fine with that. Who says the hobby only has to grow through kids?

I’m perfectly fine with entrants into the hobby skewing older. Disposable income is not a vice! Just to take some anecdotal evidence, the folks I see playing D&D or Pathfinder at the local stores are in their early-mid 20’s. They’re not stymied by the lack of an introductory boxed set (a holy grail that some seem to think is the key to bringing back the hobby to its 1983 levels). They buy the core rulebook(s) and start playing. Whence this notion that people advancing from Pokemon when they’re young to RPGs when they’re older is a losing proposition? Why the need to dumb things down?

Plus, I would point out that most games today don’t have the same model as Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder. Not every game is an attempt to get the customers hooked through a “gateway drug” cheap and easy boxed set so they’ll feel compelled to step up to the heroin of endless $50 rulebooks. You buy Swords & Wizardry, or Labyrinth Lord, or Diaspora, or Call of Cthulhu, or Tunnels and Trolls, or any one of hundreds of games out there, and you don’t really need anything more than that. There’s no “starter set” required because the whole thing is self-contained, and can be played entirely as-is, with maybe an adventure module or pre-made setting for those who are inclined to use such.

That may not be good news for the RPG industry (which is built on the “call R&D and see if there’s a way to make the pages physically addictive” model), but it’s terrific news for the RPG hobby.

And every day dozens of new designers and publishers, often the much-maligned one-man-startups, are coming out with new games, new accessories, new ideas, and new twists on old ideas. That’s where the future of the hobby lies. There will always be a few Big Players, who can afford full-time staffs and salaries, R&D budgets and television advertising, but experience has shown that innovation rarely comes from such corners. Once the lean newcomers “make it big”, they begin to ossify, and are left in the dust by newer, leaner, entrants (I’m looking at you, White Wolf).

Personally, I don’t really care what happens to the RPG industry (aside from the personal effects on friends of mine who are in it), because it is distinct from the RPG hobby. I am most decidedly a hobbiest, and proud of it.

The RPG industry is changing and facing challenges from new technologies. Does that mean that we should all give up and start playing MMO’s? Well, Ryan Dancy might want us to, and belittle those of us who still think that getting together with friends… you know… across a table is an enjoyable thing, but I think it’s hardly inevitable. But even if Wizards of the Coast went out of business tomorrow, and Dungeons and Dragons went unpublished for 20 years, the RPG hobby would still endure, and probably flourish. Or at least be as “dead” as model railroading. And I’d be okay with that.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

14 thoughts on “The Specious Model Railroading Analogy

  1. Social games tend to grow through social avenues. You can't expect a game that's (generally!) geared towards multiple players to grow and succeed on the random whim of one person picking up a game and THEN seeking a gaming group. Certainly, there's the enterprising few who pick up the game and then make their friends play this 'new thing' with them, and that's great, but the real growth usually comes from friends introducing friends to pre-existing games and groups.

    Anyway, all that aside – I find that much of the flavor, much of the joy and pleasure of gaming becomes lost when it becomes a true "industry". Most, if not all, of the hobbies I've enjoyed and still enjoy were born as labours of passion made by passionate people that let their passion show through unfettered in what they released. As soon as things become a serious business things start to get sacrificed for that ever-present curse weighing down against creativity… Money.

    Also, props for the Thomas train set. I had one of those too!

  2. My son, just shy of his 4th birthday, got a Thomas train set for Christmas 2010, and this year got a TOMY Shinkansen set. Both easy for him to assemble (I helped with batteries only, and he can nearly do that himself now, too!), and affordable.

    He also got a set of polyhedral dice this year. I don't think model trains or RPGs need to worry about the future so much.

  3. As to wanting growth through kids:

    Gary turned 36 the year the wood grain box came out. Dave was a spring chicken turning 27.

    They didn't market the original game to kids (that didn't even start until the 80s) nor did they mostly play with kids.

    They aimed it at their peers.

    IMNSHO the marketing of D&D to kids in the 80s made the Blumes a ton of money and set the hobby back 20 years.

    We are today where we would have been about 1990 had that not happened but with a lost opportunity to establish a niche social hobby for adults without competing with WoW and other Internet games.

    So, while I have no problem bringing in teens (by this I mean HS) I'd say in general we're better off if the entry age is closer to 24 than 12.

    Even kids should come in with adults because making gaming the first place they are accepted as peers by adults keeps them in the hobby. If they play with other kids, they'll tend to abandon it when they grow up.

  4. There's always been a tug-of-war between the game and hobby aspects of RPG's. They have rules and best practices and can even be played to win, like a game. But, Monopoly doesn't have the craftsmanship required by an RPG to create an adventure and build a character, nor the endless supplements.

    One wishes that there was a Thomas the Tank Engine or a holiday train that only gets trotted out around the tree at Christmas (like I have)RPG, that could combine the imagination of the game, but simple rules and easy character and adventure creation creation of a tradition board game. For now, RPG's mostly just a game for hobbyists and the curious.

  5. Yeah, I have been thinking that the intro boxed set is a marketing dead end. Every other game is Single Purchace Full Entry, yet they still sell. Monopoly in all its forms, still sells well. Arkham Horror, Catan, Caracssone. All complete games. A simpler game where you can get the whole thing in one purchase was what was pushing D&D pre AD&D. Yes there were supplements, but you did not really need them. Also, the fact that there is a 65% male to 35% female (stat came out of my ass but its something like that) gender ratio in the D&D playing population and that D&D has a lot of topical crossover with numerous Disney Princess properties indicates that because WotC and TSR before did not focus on marketing to women they are missing out on about 25% of the potential revenue.

  6. My (admittedly anecdotal) experience over the holidays seems to be in direct contrast to what Ryan Dancey is saying here. When I offered to run either a Microlite20 (what we've been calling "D&D") or an ICONS supers game for my young nephews and nieces, something we've been enjoying doing together for awhile now, the game controllers, DS and other electronic devices went right down and everyone gathered around at the table to play in one of Uncle Joe's stories. When their grandfather (my dad) took the kids to a local holiday model railroad exhibit (his lifetime hobby), the kids enjoyed it so much that they asked him to set up their own model railroad layout in their basement with some of his extra trains, track and scenery and they are still playing with it. My youngest nephew (age 9) independently observed that we could make scenery just like grandpa's model trains and use it in a D&D game.

    Go figure… 🙂

  7. Ryan Dancey wrote a follow up article here:

    "In the Escapist articles I am quoted as saying that this process will be like the evolution of the model train hobby. What I could have been more clear about was that my belief in this transformation is driven not by escalating costs (as in the case with model trains) but instead by the lack of an effective acquisition engine to drive new players into the TRPG hobby, and by the continued subtraction from the TRPG social network caused by MMOs.

    Something else he said that I found interesting:

    "I think that commercially successful TRPGs of the future will be constructed more like a family game – something that can be unpacked, learned quickly, and played with little prep work. These games will give people a lot of the same joy of “roleplaying” and narrative control that they get from today’s Hobby Game TRPGs but with a fraction of the time investment. Wizards is already experimenting with this format, as is Fantasy Flight Games. It seems like a good bet that there is a substantially profitable business down this line of evolution.

    And, like Steamtunnel said, aiming an RPG at little girls with prinecess (and also horses and unicorns, as I've seen suggested elsewhere) could be a hit.

    What current RPG's lack definitely is the ability to quickly create interesting scenarios for an evening's play. Buying scenarios or painstakingly/haphazardly creating them are the only current options.

    Rock solid rules that minimize the need for adjudication and lawyering and min/maxing would also be key. Most importantly, this game needs to be able to work without any game board. 4e's demand for one in order to play, I think hurt it with long time gamers.

    The only question is: if this game was developed, would gamers accept it as an RPG?

  8. I'll pile on – This was a refreshing read!

    As for this:
    "What current RPG's lack definitely is the ability to quickly create interesting scenarios for an evening's play. Buying scenarios or painstakingly/haphazardly creating them are the only current options."

    I just don't think RPG's work that way. They aren't really quick at anything. There is a substantial time investment for most of them, both to prep and to play, and I don't think that's something that can just be designed out of them because people today "don't have time" – it's a fundamental part of an RPG. The answer to the lack of time for 30+ years has been to buy a published adventure, and with the quantity of free material available online now the barrier to doing that has gotten even smaller.

    The experiments Dancey mentions are basically a boardgame with a character sheet and while they can be a lot of fun there is still a board and they lack the complete open-endedness of an typical RPG.

    For questionable but probably better analogies look at where wargaming is now – where there was once a big dog (and even a potential rival to that big dog at one time) and the rise of alternative hobbies and the threat of being replaced by a computer version of the same thing, we now have smaller companies, smaller print runs, and probably a smaller audience but the stuff being produced now is just as good or better than the "classics" from the early days.

    Not all change is bad.

  9. Speaking of model railroading, I just returned to another "dead" hobby: slot cars! I was floored by how wonderful the slot cars are these days. Not quite as expensive as railroading, but still damn expensive. $$$$ AD&D and slot cars…it's 1982 all over again at my house! 😉 (and I can also pretend Angry Birds is just a rehash of my old Atari games…)

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