One thing I realized as I finished writing Gamer Chicks and Chicks who Game: Why We Need Both is that my argument hinges on the mainstream element. That is to say, the article generally assumes that going mainstream is a good thing for every system and an end worth pursuing by the industry as a whole.
That isn’t necessarily what I wanted to say.
Mainstream is better for its future players, but we have to be cautious as to how we affect the current games on the market. Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition and its Essentials line stand for that move I was talking about before–inspiring a new generation of gamers and providing an easy “in” to the genre. Many of the old guard hate it, and as I dabble in other systems, I see that its simplicity and lack of customization tarnishes the luster it once had for me.
4th ed just doesn’t suit the advanced role-player’s palette, the same way that wine coolers pale besides the complexity of a micro-brewery’s lager. They both get you tipsy, but the experience is entirely different.
The mechanics speak to the nature of the game, and 4e is primarily focused on powers and combat. Certainly, there can be as much role-playing as you want there to be (just ask me and my Marrakesh group), but it wasn’t built for complex social intrigue (Song of Ice and Fire RP) and character backgrounds that have an effect on gameplay (FATE).
But 4e has its place. It was perfect for introducing new players to the hobby, and now I have a group that could much more easily transition to Pathfinder and build characters on their own. But throwing them into 3.5 from the start would have been like throwing them to the proverbial lions.
The point of “going mainstream” is not to make all games simple enough to appeal to the masses. It’s the idea that collaborative storytelling is a human trait, and that role-playing should be universally enjoyable. Hook them with the streamlined games, engross them with the detail and personalization that the big-books can offer, titillate their senses with the indie intrigue games, and give them a damn-good time with the rest.