I've read many ideas about the decline in interest of RPGs. Most, if not all of them, site a growing market in video games and the popularity of CCGs like Magic: The Gathering. I've come up with my own theory and think that the problem may be more dire than anyone ever thought.
Traditionally RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons have been played by a disproportionate number of male participants. Its hard to say why but that appears to be the demographic. It does appear that more female players are discovering the hobby, and that is good because they may be what saves it over the next ten or so years.
I've been working on a campaign setting that I think would be female friendly for a number of reasons with the most prominent being that everything that boys thought was cool in the eighties, mainly comic books, video games and heavy metal & heavy rock music, is now cool with girls currently in their 20's, and boys are rediscovering this stuff because its cool with girls. Table top RPGs seem to be the only big trend of that time that hasn't benefitted from the interest of a new generation of women, or at least not quite yet.
Just to make myself clear, when I say female friendly I'm not talking about anthropomorphic bunnies and romance mechanics. I sat in on a talk at Keycon 26 (in 2009) presented by Liana K on women in gaming. Although her talk centred around video games for the most part the main thing I took away from the talk was that women want pretty much the same from their games as men except they want to interact with cool characters. Character development is very important. This could be NPCs PCs, or monsters. Men want to vanquish, women want to see what happens over time, and will vanquish in order to do it, as long as the characters are cool and exciting developments happen to those characters along the way and toward the conclusion.
Tabletop RPGs have a number of great things going for them that computer RPGs do not. First they are a social activity. Who doesn't like getting together with their friends and making new friends around the table. Most importantly though I think the main advantage that table top games have is that they allow the creation of any scenario that one can imagine. If a person was to play a game like Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying (BRP) then they could literally play a game every session that took place in a different genre every time without having to play a new ruleset. That's a pretty powerful idea, and one that I think is under utilized by the RPG industry in advertising to its target audience (assuming that new players are a target audience).
On the other hand RPGs are seen as geeky and hard to play. A new generation of gamers including women is needed to break the geek stereotype. Rules light rulesets appear to be the right way to go. Its not hard to notice that D&D was at its peak in the eighties when Moldvay (and Mentzer) basic were on the shelves.
In the preface to Gary Gygax's Lejendary Rules for all Players (Lejendary Adventure RPG from 1999) Gygax states that:
"there is a waning interest in role playing amongst young game enthusiasts. This is understandable, for they have probably been introduced to gaming and fantasy through card games, games that are easy to understand and play. Meanwhile, roleplaying games tend to be supported by a diminishing number of aging players who demand more complexity, even complication, and whoi wonder why they are not getting the support material they desire. It is a matter of economics – as more and more esoteric material is produced the accessibility of the game diminishes, the audience shrinks, and the publisher sells less material. Support items are produced with less frequency and become even more complex and detailed, resulting in fewer being sold. The system is no longer viable and no more support materials appear.
What went wrong, of coarse was a failure to have a basic understanding of what keeps a role playing game vital. Participation is the critical element. This means active Game Masters primarily, but they, in turn, need players, and all need a game that facilitates play. To be truly vital, the RPG must have new GMs and playera all the time. There is attrition of the playing audience, and without replacement, the game begins to wither and is in danger of dying a slow death. A shrinking group of old grognards is about as useful to all concerned as an aristocracy is in a democracy. This is not said to denigrate the long-time enthusiast, but is intended to assist such a critical core in retaining a game vehicle that remains vital, growing, and expanding, continuing to entertain"
With the coming of the OSR a not insignificant number of players, including me, have returned to tabletop RPGs, and rules light is a popular trend providing for greater accessibility. Although a lot has changed since the above preface was written, and a lot of players have returned to the hobby, a significant trend is poised to make matters worse. Boys are reading less than they used to. Interest in tabletop RPGs is dependant on an interest in genre books. Without an interest in reading there will be no interest in reading rules to play in imaginary campaigns – based in no small part on written stories and specifically on their corresponding genres. In an industry who's major demographic is male this poses a serious problem for future sales and product development. The industry is only going to be able to attract a smaller amount of males than in previous years. Game developers need to make sure they are not catering to the tastes of young boys exclusively and males in general, as this will be a barrier to the only demographic that is likely to provide growth, young females. Role playing games need to become smarter and more attention needs to be placed on the characters instead of the mechanics. Unless game companies know something that educators don't, and can get boys to read more, they will not be the ones coming to the table in the amounts required to prevent the decline of the hobby.