Another year gone by, and the industry … has survived. So what’s going on? As usual, this is a discussion of highlights, lowlights, and trends, not a complete listing of everything that went on.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #8 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.

The Trouble with D&D. D&D 5e (2014) released to good attention in 2014, and every indication I’ve seen suggests that it continued to be well-received throughout 2015. There were four printings of the new Player’s Handbook (2014) by August — though we have no idea what those print runs were. More generally, players seem to still be excited. Based on social measurements, D&D seems to be doing well.


The problem is that Wizards of the Coast’s support of D&D is the worst that it’s ever been, except during the days when D&D 4e (2008-2012) was dead on the vine. It started with layoffs, when designer Chris Sims and editor Jennifer Clarke Wilkes were cut loose in January, leaving the D&D staff with somewhere around a dozen employees, depending on how you count them. One of D&D’s scant products for the year, “The Adventurer’s Handbook” was cancelled around the same time (with a much smaller free booklet released in its place). All told, D&D saw a scant five releases in 2015: a DM screen (2015), the PDF (and POD) Elemental Evil Player’s Companion (2015), Princes of the Apocalypse (2015), Out of the Abyss (2015), and Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide (2015). When you look at the credits and see that those products were in large part created by external design groups … it seems pretty obvious that Wizards no longer has the staff to create their own D&D products. Which is a pretty horrible situation for the industry leader.

Meanwhile, Wizards’ few D&D books for the year were positioned as tie-ins to other media products (an idea that started a few years ago, but has become ubiquitous with the 5e releases). Similarly, Dragon (1976-2007, 2007-2013) got replaced with the multimedia-focused Dragon+ (2015-Present) and even the official D&D podcast has been turned over to brand managers.

Finally, Wizards decided to end support for their own forums in September, claiming that social media had filled the niche, even though they had a very vibrant community.

Though talking heads at Hasbro are happy to tell us how well D&D is doing, I heard the same thing in 1996 when TSR was in a death spiral. Clearly there’s money up top, but the problem is that D&D isn’t seeing it. If Wizards of the Coast doesn’t license out production rights to D&D, and soon, I don’t see any success continuing.

And I’d be remiss without mentioning an important bit of licensing that Wizards did do this year: they licensed Fantasy Grounds to produce D&D material. After Wizards failed to ever release their own virtual tabletop for D&D 4e, this is a pretty big deal, and the sort of core licensing that I hope we’ll see more of.

The Trouble with Corporations. I should say, I don’t blame the fine designers, developers, and editors working on D&D at Wizards. I suspect they’re being slowly strangled by higher-ups at either Wizards or Hasbro who don’t see the importance of D&D because it can’t match the money-making ability of G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, or even Magic: The Gathering. That’s been the problem all along with RPG companies getting scooped up by megacorps: they quickly learn that their acquisitions have been peter-principled up to a playing field that they can’t compete on.

White Wolf hit a similar spot several years ago, after being acquired by CCP. Fortunately they had licensee The Onyx Path ready to step in while CCP worked on their Ahabian World of Darkness MMORPG. However, things got more complex this fall when CCP sold the remnants of White Wolf to Swedish computer game publisher Paradox Interactive. (For those keeping track, Paradox Interactive is a spin-off of Paradox Entertainment which was one of the entities that appeared from Target Games’ bankruptcy, as is discussed in the Metropolis article in Designers & Dragons: The ’90s. Whew!)

A new corporation taking a strong interest in the World of Darkness instead of an old corporation neglecting it seems like a good thing … as long as it doesn’t get in the way of Onyx Path publishing actual tabletop RPGs. So far, things look good; Paradox appears to have renewed their license with Onyx Path, and their “One World of Darkness” sounds like a good plan (even if the actual branding is so on-the-nose that it makes me grind my tooth).

I have more concern over the Fantasy Flight Games takeover, which solidified this year when Asmodee combined FFG, Days of Wonder, and Asmodee sales in this hemisphere as Asmodee North America. A lot of the press attention about the deal has focused on new sales terms which include opening up sales to more distributors while simultaneously limiting online sales. That sounds like good news to me, but there’s been no info on how the consolidation will affect existing lines … and roleplaying lines have always been a hard comparative when put up against board and card games.

Sadly, the fate of FFG now encompasses the fate of AEG as well. Alderac got out of the roleplaying business in 2015, selling Legend of the 5 Rings (1997) to Fantasy Flight. It seems likely that FFG’s main interest was in the CCG, which leaves yet another RPG in limbo at Asmodee North America.

In 2015, the best we can say is that these corporate mergers remain in progress. Will Onyx Path be able to continue pushing the World of Darkness RPGs without interference from Paradox? Will FFG’s RPGs remain successful enough to compete with 7 Wonders and Ticket to Ride? Will Wizards figure out how to publish more D&D? It’s something to watch over the next year.

I suppose it’s fair to ask, why are these older lines important? Can’t the industry just create new ones to replace the old? Fundamentally, D&D, the World of Darkness, and Fantasy Flight’s games are important because they’re not just some of the best-known games in our industry, but also some of the best crossover games in the industry. They’re the games likely to draw new people in.

However, the roleplaying industry is also obviously weaker than it was in the ’80s or ’90s, and right alongside that the retail industry is weaker. You put that together and I’m not convinced there’s as much opportunity to create popular and successful new RPGs in the modern world. So, I think it’s important to nurture these old games, and I worry when the old ones seem to be in bad situations, and I’m happy when they’re revived.

Revamping the Classics. One of the most exciting bits of news of the year was the resuscitation of Chaosium, which had been headed off in bleak directions since the ’90s. As I recorded in an updated history of Chaosium, Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen took the company over early in 2015. Afterward, they sold part of it to Moon Design LLC, which is owned by Rick Meints, Jeff Richards, Neil Robinson, and Michael O’Brien. Greg and Sandy are staying on as creative consultants, meaning that the newest incarnation of Chaosium has a great combination of energetic publishers and experienced veterans. Whether the crew can turn around a company that’s been largely moribund for a few decades is up in the air, but bringing RuneQuest to the forefront has already proven quite successful.

Chaosium’s RuneQuest wasn’t the only classic return for the year. Mongoose has begun playtesting a new Traveller, while Modiphus resurrected Mutant Chronicles, Atlas published Feng Shui 2, and Growling Door put out a new edition of Chill. Old settings also returned. Modiphius is working on a new Conan game (replacing past efforts by TSR, Steve Jackson Games, and Mongoose), and both Pinnacle and Goodman Games are releasing Lankhmar books (replacing old games by TSR and Mongoose). So clearly I’m not the only one who thinks that the old classics of our industry are worth preserving.

With all that said, we are seeing some new successes too …

Revealing the New. This year also saw the advent of what could be a very exciting new property: Green Ronin’s Titansgrave (2015) and their updated Fantasy AGE game. Players have been giving accolades to Green Ronin’s AGE system for years, but it’s now got the chance to really explode thanks to Geek & Sundry’s Titansgrave series. Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop has been giving great attention to these games of ours for a few years; a focus specifically on RPGs might be exactly what this industry needs (and the 170,000 people who watched all the way through the first season of Titansgrave would be the envy of any RPG publisher).

If I were to mention one other new RPG, it’d be Robert Schwalb’s Shadow of the Demon Lord (2015). It’s an old-school game with a dark sensibility, professional writing, and good support. I don’t think it’s going to get the same attention as Titansgrave in the long run, but it certainly shows how well a small design house can do in the modern day of Kickstarters, electronic distribution, and online sales.

Retrenching the Recent. When you talk about younger companies who might be helping to expand the industry, you also have to talk about Paizo … and they were surprisingly quiet in 2015. They seem to have dropped back to being the #2 roleplaying publisher again — which was obviously going to happen with the publication of the new D&D. For the most part, they’ve been quietly and successfully plugging away in their corner of the world, putting out a handful of products each and every month. At least that’s the story for their roleplaying products.

Other production seems more uneven. The fourth adventure path for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) was delayed, apparently because players were falling behind. Last year I applauded Paizo for finding a new niche just as D&D returned; now it’s obvious that the new niche has different advantages and disadvantages. Though players are willing to buy Pathfinder magazine (2007-Present) even if they don’t play it, the same’s apparently not true for the adventure card games. Meanwhile Pathfinder Online seems to have fizzled out. I was unshocked, because the funding model always seemed so unsupportable (because it depended on incremental kickstarters); fortunately Paizo protected itself from what now looks like the inevitable failure of Goblinworks.

The Inevitable Lawsuits. Too much of Designers & Dragons‘s history is taken up with lawsuits, so I have to mention this year’s most frustrating: Gail Gygax’s lawsuit against Gygax magazine — which has been supported by Gary’s sons, Luke and Ernie — to keep them from using the family name. It’s a frivolous legal action that dates back to 2012. Apparently, Gail won, and forced Luke and Ernie out of Gygax magazine because they weren’t willing to swear oaths not to criticize her. (The magazine continues, under license.)

Since Gary’s death, Gail has managed to pull all his properties from the market, so that no one is publishing Lejendary Adventures or Gord the Rogue or Castle Zagyg any more. Mission accomplished? …

It’s honestly pretty hard to fathom what’s going on here, since there are products that people would like to see on the market, and they were being successfully published before Gary’s death; this senseless lawsuit against the kids who once helped to shape the D&D game seems like a pretty mind-boggling coda to a pretty mind-boggling series of business decisions.

The Inevitable Kickstarter Finale. There’s no questioning the fact that Kickstarter has become a major part of our industry. However, it’s still a very young funding mechanism, and so it’s still finding its feet.

The biggest news about this new corner of the industry is that the FTC got involved in its first crowdfunding case, ordering a $112,000 judgement against Erik Chevalier of the Forking Path for his failure to produce The Doom that Came to Atlantic City. Meanwhile, Washington state has also been aggressive, fining Altius Management $20,708 to pay back the Washington backers of a set of horror-themed playing cards. These judgements may be giving Kickstarter backers the support they need to bring legal action against other lagging Kickstarters; the long-delayed Far West got some attention around the same time when a Washington state backer went to his attorney general (causing the creator to issue a refund rather than getting involved in an expensive legal case).

Of course, I should give credit where credit is due: Kickstarter failures have been a constant but low level backbeat since the advent of Kickstarter, but they’ve been minor enough not to spoil the overall medium. More surprisingly, some apparently failed Kickstarters that I reported on in previous years have turned around and gotten their product out. The Doom that Came to Atlantic City (2014) got completed thanks to heroic work by designer Keith Baker and new publisher Cryptozoic, while Dwimmermount (2014) got completed thanks to similarly heroic work by Autarch. Other lagging kickstarters seem stuck there though, like e20 which last said it was “Not Dead Yet” on August 20, 2014 and “Nystul’s Infinite Dungeon” which was supposed to begin publishing a level a week this summer and made it a couple of weeks. The first eight chapters of “Far West” came out around the same time, but since then it’s missed another Christmas deadline. (The lesson learned here? Have writing done before the Kickstarter, which has become the new standard since these years-old projects.)

If I were going to point to a new Kickstarter-related trouble in the last year, it’d focus on Ken Whitman, who’s started and ended a considerable number of companies over the years, but who’s getting some really horrid publicity lately due to failures related to a Knights of the Dinner Table live action series. A few different blogs have been started just to warn people off Whitman kickstarters, while other folks have unflatteringly summarized his work in the industry. And then there was the time that Ken Whitman blocked Jolly Blackburn from the KotDT Live Action FB group. Of course, Whitman has his own point of view.

Enough negativity! Kickstarter continues to rock the industry! Here’s a list of the top ones in 2015:

1. Corvus Belli’s Infinity: The RPGModiphius Entertainment£346,330
2. Numenera: Into the Ninth WorldMonte Cook Games$417,560
3. Delta Green the RPGArc Dream$362,324
4. Planet MercenaryAlan Bahr & Howard Tayler$348,641
5. Wrath: The Oblivion 20thOnyx Path$295,645
6. Changeling: The Dreaming 20thOnyx Path$268,074++
7. Dungeon Crawl Classics 4th printingGoodman Games$215,369
8. RuneQuest: Classic EditionChaosium$206,819
9. Tome of Beasts for D&D 5eKobold Press$191,431
10. Blades in the DarkJohn Harper$179,280
11. Grimtooth’s Ultimate Traps CollectionGoodman Games$170,509
12. Shadow of the Demon LordSchwalb Entertainment$140,122
13. V20 Lore of the ClansOnyx Path$138,674
14. Shadows of Esteren: OccultismAgate RPG$129,754
15. World of Darkness Dark ErasOnyx Path$128,290
16. Marmoreal Tomb Campaign StarterErnie Gygax$126,109
17. Beast: The PrimordialOnyx Path$116,383
18. No Thank You, EvilMonte Cook$111,750
19. Masks, Powered by the ApocalypseMagpie Games$107,328
Top Roleplaying Kickstarters: 2015

Generally, RPG Kickstarters seem to have plateaued at the healthy level set in 2013. There were eight tabletop RPGs that topped $100k in 2012, then 16 in 2013, 15 in 2014, and 19 in 2015. The top Kickstarters aren’t funding quite as much; in particular, the Onyx Path seems to have slipped off of its top Kickstarters of previous years which each raised two-thirds of a million dollars. But, there’s a little more breadth, even for smaller publishers (and I’m aware of several RPGs that just missed my arbitrary cut-off of $100k).

So, a funding mechanism that’s getting pretty good at reliably taking in $100k in preorders to get RPGs printed? That’s pretty cool, and I’ll leave the year on that high note!

The Platinum Appendix has nicely formatted copies of my previous yearly reports, from 2008-2014. And of course you can get the whole four-volume set of books from DTRPG (or your FLGS!).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.