What did 2011 bring for the RPG industry? Following are my thoughts on the biggest trends of the year. —SA, 12/31/11

This article was originally published as Designers & Dragons: The Column #9 on RPGnet. Its publication followed the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011) and preceded the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The Platinum Appendix.

Roleplaying Has a Bad Year: As the economy continued to fight through the doldrums of the Great Recession, the RPG hobby had more downs than ups. Hero Games let go two of their three full-time staff, effectively ending their ability to produce new products on a regular basis. White Wolf had big layoffs, but those affected their MMORPG team, not the scant remaining folks working on tabletop RPGs. Goodman Games’ production dropped to a mere handful of products.

And then there was what was going on at Wizards …

D&D Has its Worst Year Since 1979: I don’t say this lightly, but I think that D&D (and Wizards as an RPG publisher) had its worst year for as long as the game’s been a professional and public hobby. I think this is best shown by the fact that Wizards only released eight actual RPG books: Heroes of ShadowThe ShadowfellMonster Vault: Threats to the Nentir ValeNeverwinter Campaign SettingMordenkainen’s Magnificent EmporiumMadness at Gardmore AbbeyHeroes of the Feywild, and Book of Vile Darkness. The first half of the year looked even grimmer, with only three of those books out before GenCon. Yes, there was DDI content too, but considerably less than you used to see in the Dragon and Dungeon magazines.

If you want to niggle, you could generate a higher product count for 2011 by including Dungeon Tiles, a new edition of the DM Screen, a Gamma World expansion, the D&D Free RPG Book, or even the D&D Encounters books–but by whichever benchmark you use, 2011 was a historic low. Using the same criteria, it’s down from 25 books in 2010. In fact, I had to go back to 1979 to find a year during which the makers of D&D put out fewer RPG books. That year primarily saw the release of AD&D Dungeon Master’s GuideS2: White Plume MountainT1: The Village of Hommlet, and B1: In Search of the Unknown (maybe; some sources say 1978 for this last one), but there were also a half-dozen print issues of The Dragon and enough third-party products to make the modern Wizards weep (primarily thanks to Judges Guild).

1980 had more new D&D books released than 2011, thanks to the introduction of the second-generation Basic D&D Set, the Expert Set, and the first four-color covered adventures. So did most years after that (though TSR occasionally put more focus on other RPGs they were rolling out, such as in 1982 ,which also seems to have seen pretty low year for D&D production, but during which TSR also supported Boot HillGamma WorldGangbustersStar Frontiers, and Top Secret). Even in 1997, the year that TSR stopped publication and went out of business, around 20 D&D books were published (primarily thanks to Wizards of the Coast).

It initially looked like D&D might have hit its nadir when Bill Slavicsek was let go in June–a pretty obvious fall-guy layoff for the continuing problems with the D&D brand. Production picked up after that, including one previously canceled product eventually hitting print. The rehiring of Monte Cook also looked like the work of a company once more wanting to expand into the future. But now, the first half of 2012 looks like more of the same, with just two RPG books scheduled in five months.

This isn’t to say that Wizards isn’t doing well overall, as Magic: The Gathering continues to be a phenomenon as is their D&D fiction. Wizards has also made a real hard push into board games, from Conquest of Nerath to The Legend of Drizzt–a topic I’ll return to. However, D&D support proper really appears to be suffering at Wizards. Again, you could argue economics of DDI (versus subscriptions that Wizards used to get for Dragon and Dungeon magazines, which probably are the same order of magnitude as DDI, at least when the mags were at their best), but a 60% drop in production, the layoff of Wizard’s RPG department head, a right-hand turn toward board gaming, and a considerable dwindling of new RPG products in stores combine to paint a grim picture for the industry’s lead roleplaying producer in 2011.

(Generally, Wizards of the Coast has given me whiplash over the last few years. In 2010, they seemed to be faltering, then Encounters and Essentials exploded onto the scene—only to have Essentials trail off in ’11 with at least one book cancelled, following by a wholesale slow-down of the D&D line. Things were looking up again with the schedule at the end of ’11, only to have … nothing appear on the schedule for next year. However, the end may be in sight, as industry folks Margaret Weis and Matthew Sprange have both suggested that 5e is on its way, possibly for 2013.)

PDF & POD Come of Age: PDF and print-on-demand technology have been increasing in importance to the RPG hobby for the last decade. However, back in 2009, I said that Wizards’ decision to pull out of PDF showed that the format was still bleeding edge. Two years later, Wizards is still (surprisingly) out of the PDF business, but the rest of the digital market has matured enough that their singular (if important) absence is no longer enough to hold the rest of the industry back.

For years, we’ve seen small press use PDFs to get cheap entrance into the RPG market. More recently, however, we’ve seen it really blossom as a way for publishers to get their extensive backlists back into print. Thus ICE Mk. 3 has spent much of the year getting their old books online as PDFs, while White Wolf has been doing much the same.

Meanwhile, DrivethruRPG has made POD an option for an increasing number of their PDF books, putting backlist like Pendragon back into actual print again. White Wolf, DrivethruRPG’s sister company, has meanwhile announced that all of their future releases will be POD. Extending the low-entry-cost of PDFS to a low-entry-cost for print books is a pretty exciting move for the future of an industry that has dwindled in size from its hey day(s).

Crowd Funding Appears: Another exciting innovation for the future comes from the ideas of “crowd funding” products, which really hit the mainstream this year thanks to KickStarter and other companies that let customers pre-pay for books (and associated privileges). We’ve got over 30 pages of notes on crowd-funded RPGs in the forums, and many of those have been successful. Bulldogs! hit $13,430 of its $3,000 goal, Stealing Cthulhu hit $13,001 of its $1,000 target, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple made a massive $24,383–over $20k past its $4,000 goal–to list just three of the earliest big successes.

By mid-year, there was no doubt that crowd funding could be used by small-press and indie publishers to get books to market. However, I think the scope of crowd funding became more obvious when more experienced publishers like Savage Mojo, Black Wyrm Games, and Arc Dream got involved.

As already noted, the end of the year brought with it a nasty downturn for Hero Games. In previous years that might have been the end of the company. Instead, they’ve turned to Kickstarter for their next product, The Book of the Empress. They’ve got a more ambitious kickstarter goal of $10,000, but that’s within the range of some of the strong, early crowd-funded products. In another 30 days, we’ll see whether the crowd-funding revolution is strong enough to support an existing game line like Hero’s.

Though PDF, POD, and crowd funding all offered new opportunities for roleplaying production, the old methods were still there too and they did well within certain constraints.

Licensing Hits Big: Licensed RPGs have been on the upswing for years. However, I think that several-year trend really crested in 2011, when all five of my top-five RPG licenses were put back on the playing field:

  1. The Lord of the Rings reappeared thanks to Cubicle 7’s well-received The One Ring (2011), perhaps the best-themed Middle-earth game ever.
  2. Star Trek proper is still missing-in-action (which seems to have been a general problem with licensing since their reboot), but Amarillo Design Bureau has kept Prime Directive (1993, etc.) in print for a variety of systems and Mongoose is getting ready to release A Call to Arms: Star Fleet (2012?)–thanks to connections made during the fact checking of Designers & Dragons itself.
  3. Star Wars is under license to Fantasy Flight Games. They do have the RPG rights, but haven’t announced an RPG game. Yet.
  4. The DC Heroes are the focus of not only the DC Adventures (2010) Mutants & Masterminds game from Green Ronin, but also the Smallville (2010) game from Margaret Weis.
  5. The Marvel Heroes, finally, are being developed for a new game from Margaret Weis (2012?).

Though not on my top-five list of historically strong RPG licenses, Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (2009) and Evil Hat’s The Dresden Files (2010) show other modern licenses that are doing well.

However, recent years have also shown clearly how troublesome licenses can be. DC AdventuresDoctor Who (2009), and Dragon Age (2009) have all been subject to extreme delays, which we can guess are at least partly due to slow licensor approvals. Meanwhile, the Doctor Who and DC Adventures games showed off an even bigger problem: the source material changing under you.

Cubicle 7 announced its Doctor Who license in late 2007. By the time they got their core game out in 2009, Matt Smith had been announced as the new Doctor, replacing David Tennant and requiring Cubicle 7 to start revamping their books as soon as they had them out the door. Green Ronin faced an even more surprising problem when the DC Universe was very suddenly rebooted in mid-2011, while they were partway done with their DC Adventures releases. Though Green Ronin’s game has generally depicted “iconic” versions of the DC Heroes, some of their histories were nonetheless wrong as soon as they went to print.

Finally, Mongoose displayed another problem with the lack of ownership of licensed properties. With the d20 boom thoroughly dead, they wanted to shift the Conan RPG (2003, 2004, 2007) to RuneQuest, but the licensors refused. The Conan line is thus now dead at Mongoose, while the Conan licensors–apparently waiting to get a better offer from a new licensee–seem to still be waiting.

Old is New Again: The trend of old games reappearing has also been building for several years. Designers & Dragons covers some of this trend with its discussion of “Retroclones” (p. 366). Starting with games like Castles & Crusades (2004) and OSRIC (2006), designers have used the d20 OGL rules to create games mimicking old D&D rules. Meanwhile over at Mongoose Publishing, many games from the ’80s reappeared (see pp. 397-401), such as Paranoia (2004), RuneQuest (2006), and Traveller (2008).

If anything, both of these trends have accelerated in recent years. On the Old-School-Renaissance (OSR) side of things, the market may be oversaturated, with multiple retroclones existing for some versions of D&D. Simultaneously, some OSR publishers are using their success to expand beyond D&D, such as Goblinoid Games who has licensed Starships & Spacemen (1978, 2010) from FGU and Timemaster (1984, 2011) from one of Pacesetter’s successors.

Mongoose, meanwhile, has continued to bring out classic games through their Flaming Cobra partnerships. Most notably, Redbrick is returning to the ’90s with new editions of Earthdawn (2009) and (in the near future) Fading Suns (2012?) and Blue Planet (2012?).

However, I marked 2011 as the year when old RPGs really became a trend mainly because of how it impacted the mainstream. That’s when White Wolf announced that they were relauching their Original World of Darkness as a new product line thanks to the success of V20, the Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition. A company returning to an old game system and an old setting like this is pretty unheard of.

(Personally, I also see this trend in Wizards’ rehiring of 3e architect Monte Cook, but we’ll probably need to wait a bit to see how that plays out.)

RPG is IP Again: A few years ago companies like Hero Games and White Wolf were getting scooped up by corporate entities because of the value of their IPs. That didn’t work out too well, but it may have caused RPG companies to think about their own value in different ways, and thus begin produced auxiliary products that originate in their RPG worlds.

I see this most strongly at Wizards of the Coast, who has long published novels based on their game IPs, but just turned to board and card games in the last year or so with products such as the aforementioned Legend of Drizzt Board Game (2011) and Conquest of Nerath Board Game (2011). Meanwhile Wizards’ top competitor, Paizo, is moving forward on a Pathfinder MMORPG. Fantasy Flight Games doesn’t actually own the Warhammer IP, but they’ve been sure to develop the property into both RPGs and card games like Warhammer: Invasion (2009-Present). More generally, FFG is also pushing their board game lines like Arkham Horror toward novels. Even the indies are getting into the trend, with Race to Adventure (2012?), a card game themed for Spirit of the Century, planned for next year.

Next Year: Despite another down year, 2011 has really shown the resilience of the RPG industry–with PDFs, PODs, crowd-funding, and related board and card games being some of the ways that RPG publishers have responded to today’s challenges. As some politicians in Washington seem to be purposefully keeping our economy depressed to score political points, more of this will be likely required in 2012, but I’m hopeful companies will excel in the environment and end up poised well for new growth afterward.

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