The State of the Scene

A while back, Sami Koponen requested a number of Finnish gaming bloggers to write articles about their views on where the Finnish role-playing game scene is now and where it is going.

Me, I think it’s doing pretty great.

First, a preface on what’s my background for all this. I’ve been gaming since the mid-90s. From 2009 to 2013 I worked in the organizing committee of Ropecon, Finland’s most important gaming convention, the first four years as the role-playing games manager and the last as part of the program team. I’ve also been consulting for Tracon, which is the second-most important. Additionally, I’m a minority partner with the Myrrysmiehet game company, wrote a book on RPGs in 2007, occasionally do some minor freelancing for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and other publishers, write every so often for LOKI, dabble in academic games research, am involved with the RPG clubs of both the Universities of Tampere and Helsinki, and last but not least, serve as the Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain for Finland.

No, I don’t know how I find the time for sleep either, but I do have a pretty decent overview of the lay of the land. Nevertheless, I’ll be doing a lot of speculation and there are a lot of invisible quantities involved here that I can only guess at and some things I just can’t plain talk about before they’re publicly announced. Take what I say with a grain of salt.

The Convention Scene

The convention scene is livin’ it large. Ropecon is financially stable, the attendance is stable, and it’s been going for 20 years now. We have an excellent reputation abroad for taking good care of our guests of honour, and the convention is generally the venue of choice for new releases. Ropecon has the biggest Pathfinder Society participation, more scheduled tabletop RPG sessions than every other Finnish gaming convention combined twice over, and is the convention where I feel most at home. This year’s Ropecon is in July from 25th to 27th, in the Dipoli conference centre, Espoo.

I foresee Ropecon going on for another 20 years, no problem. However, there’s a challenge in the near future, since the conference centre was just sold to a new owner, and will likely be renovated either next year or the year after that. It is possible but unlikely that this will not affect Ropecon. More likely, we’ll have to find new digs for a year and I have no idea where those will be. This does not make me think happy thoughts, since Dipoli is the best damn venue in the country for a gaming convention.

Second in line is Tracon, which keeps growing. It is actually the largest convention in the country at the moment, but accomplishes this through the anime fandom. The RPGs are a small but significant part of the convention and in the past few years it has become the place where the game publishers converge to talk shop, with fewer distractions than Ropecon. Tracon also invests well in their RPG guests of honour and last year’s Ross Watson is one of my all-time favourites.

There are also smaller conventions such as Maracon, run by the gaming club of the University of Oulu, CRYO. It’s a two-day event twice a year. I am occasionally able to attend, but it is a bit far for me. It’s nice, but the Oulu gaming scene feels somewhat insular.

There’s also Conklaavi, an event of comparable size in Turku. They’ve been plagued by really poor communications for a number of years and I’ve traditionally only found out the dates after I’ve booked the weekend for something else, but this year I’ll be there to run a couple of sessions of Pathfinder Society. The convention actually takes place next weekend. Expect a report.

An interesting curiosity was also Pampcon, a Swedish-language convention in Bennäs, which is one of those places I have trouble placing on a map. It was organized for the first time this year, and I have no idea how it went or if it is going to happen again. I couldn’t make it, but I’d be interested in trying next year.

I don’t think we’re going to see the rise of another major RPG convention anytime soon. However, as proven by Pampcon, smaller conventions can pop up quite easily. I also think there is demand for a small convention sometime in the first quarter of the year. As it is, there is nothing south of Oulu in the five-month gap between Tracon and Conklaavi. I can scratch my convention itch with the Tampere kuplii comics festival, true, but I believe there’s an audience for an RPG event in Tampere or the Helsinki region at around this time. Anyone? Build it and I will come?

The Industry

Okay, let’s admit right off the bat that the Finnish tabletop RPG industry is not a major economic force. Nobody is making a living off this, or at least not much of a one.

Currently, there’s a crapload of small RPG publishers in Finland. Some of them are proper corporate entities, like Myrrysmiehet, Ironspine and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, while others are private individuals like Tuomas Kortelainen or Sami Koponen. The biggest players are Lamentations of the Flame Princess, whose stuff is in English and is not constrained by the limitations of a language area of 5,000,000; Burger Games, whose Praedor and Stalker have both cleared the magical 1000-copy sales threshold; and Mike Pohjola’s Heroes of the Storm, which has an actual company with multiple full-time employees moving some marketing muscle behind it. Below the surface we have something like ten other companies that turn out, on average, more than five but less than ten new products a year.

So, the industry is lively, there are lots of people publishing lots of stuff, some of which is damn good, and selling it mostly to each other, which is basically what happens when you have a niche hobby and primarily operate in a language that nobody speaks. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. Many people do not want to turn their hobby into something that their livelihood is directly dependent on because that sucks away some of the fun. It’s no longer voluntary. On the other hand, is not the job of the professional game designer one of the coolest in the world?

Apart from the small audiences, another thing that’s holding back many companies is the business model. Burger Games is probably the best example of this. Both their games are magnificent works, some of the best game design I have ever seen. Their mechanics are elegant and their prose clear. You get everything you need to play in one book. That’s all you need and that’s all you get. There are no supplements, just standalone games. Apart from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Northern Kings’ Bliaron, this is how everybody operates. There’s nothing more for the player to buy even if they wanted to. The end result of this is that my Pathfinder RPG collection alone is bigger than my entire collection of Finnish RPG material.

Recently, though, more publishers have figured out that it’s possible to break into the English-language market. PDF publishing and companies like DriveThruRPG and make storage issues and warehouse costs obsolete. “Out of print” is becoming an archaic phrase. The investment of creating a presence in the market is becoming trivial. I foresee more and more companies taking advantage of this, possibly in languages beyond English.

Another trend I am observing is trying to aim for the next generation of gamers and designing stuff that parents can run for their children to introduce them to the hobby. Heroes of the Storm was the first, and Myrrysmiehet is following that up with Robin Hood, and Ironspine with Astraterra.

Is anyone going to make it big? If I could predict a thing like that, I’d be writing this in a much larger apartment.

Everything Else

The individual gaming communities is where things get really hazy. The thing about RPGs is that while it’s a social hobby, once you have those four other people to game with, you’re set for life and there’s no strict necessity to meet anyone else, or tell anyone else, or even know about anyone else. This makes it difficult to estimate how much gaming there’s actually happening. To my understanding, there’s even an active Pathfinder Society GM somewhere in Finland with no contact with the rest of the community. It’s somewhat maddening.

For instance, I know there’s a number of active gaming groups in the Tampere region, but the university gaming club has been in hibernation for some time. The sense of community is weakening, which is sad. I think there’s a real value to meeting your fellow gamers and sharing what cool things you have come up with.

Pathfinder Society, my personal bailiwick, is doing fine. I think the play numbers have plateaued, more or less. I figure that with the size of the gaming community, having two conventions a year capable of supporting a five-table special module is sufficient. Now the thing is in trying to expand to other cities and get something going there, however small. With Oulu I failed, but Turku looks like it might have potential.

The blogosphere is active, at least, as evinced by the wealth of responses to Sami’s original call for articles. The English-language ones are at Heidi Larpwise, and Domain of Man, and new players have stepped on the field as old ones have fallen silent, which is as it should be. The Pelilauta forum is still going and still a source of interesting conversations, as is

As for the inevitable question of whether RPGs, the RPG industry or the RPG scene is dying off, I have too much respect for anyone who’s read this far to waste their time with that particular topic, not to mention better things to do with mine.

Over and out.