Another year gone by. By the end of the year, most folks were hating 2016, but what did it bring for the roleplaying industry?

The Farewells. Sadly, a few more industry notables fell in 2016.

Joe Dever was the most historic loss of the year. He was the author of Lone Wolf (1984-1998+), one of the three great gamebook series of the industry. Fighting Fantasy (1982-1995+) demonstrated that choose-your-own-adventure books could be true games, while the related Sorcery! (1983-1985) books extended that into a campaign. But Lone Wolf was something more: it created an evocative world and it revealed a campaign longer than most tabletop adventures.

Steven Russell was the most shocking loss. His Rite Publishing is the epitome of a micropress that built itself up from the d20 (and Pathfinder) boom but also defined its own voice.

Jack Chick was the most unmourned loss, but there’s no way to argue that his hatred and bigotry cast a shadow across the lives of many young players in the ’80s. We can at least appreciate his irrelevance to the industry today, because his roleplaying fear-mongering is now decades past, to the point where we laugh when we read his uninformed and ignorant tracts.

Company Farewells. Although not nearly as traumatic, we do have to say farewell to some companies as well. Margaret Weis has retired from roleplaying development, which presumably means that Margaret Weis Productions is done. However, not all is lost: she licensed the Cortex and Cortex Plus systems to Cam Banks.

Meanwhile, Fantasy Flight Games is halving their roleplaying production due to a divorce from Games Workshop. One can’t help but see this as an entirely expected result of their new marriage with Asmodee. For the moment, FFG’s Star Wars roleplaying is holding on.

Really though, the story that fiction (in Weis’s case) and board games (in Fantasy Flight’s case) are doing better than roleplaying is a decades old issue.

The State of D&D. In recent years, one of the big questions has constantly been, “How is D&D doing?” And once more, Wizards of the Coast has served up a disappointingly slim meal of D&D books in the last year: Curse of Strahd (2016), Storm King’s Thunder (2016), and Volo’s Guide to Monsters (2016). There’s even some fear that the D&D fiction might be fizzling out, after just four novels in the last year.

However, Wizards of the Coast’s partners are waxing, and they seem to point to the future of the the brand. Gale Force 9 and WizKids continue to put out nice accessories, but Candlewick Press actually put out a book, Matt Forbeck’s Dungeonology (2016).

Partner DriveThruRPG may have been the real savior of the D&D brand in 2016*. It was their fourth year of publishing PDFs of classic modules, and they’ve now got about 750 official D&D books out, from a total set of 1000-1200 publications, depending on what you want to count as professional (and notable) products. Even more importantly, late in the year DTRPG started to make some of their D&D PDFs available as PODs. They only put out about 20 PODs in 2016, so that’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s also six times as many print products as Wizards produced last year, so there’s huge, huge potential here for the old to become new again for D&D.

And that may not even be DTRPG’s most exciting expansion of D&D in 2016. The new DMsGuild website turns over D&D to the players, letting them produce commercial D&D products and even use some of D&D’s worlds. By requiring sales through the DMsGuild web site, Wizards is controlling this new expansion better than they did with the original OGL, but they’ve also given access to a lot more IP. Finally, DTRPG has also been publishing Adventurer’s League material. Over the decades, TSR and Wizards have produced the occasional organized-play product, but this is the biggest outpouring ever.

Wizards really went all-in on third-party publication in 2016, because the DMs Guild announcement went hand-in-hand with a new D&D 5e SRD and OGL. We haven’t seen a d20-like boom, but books like Cubicle 7’s Adventures in Middle-Earth Player’s Guide (2016), which legally combines D&D and Tolkien for the first time ever, show the potential. Green Ronin, Kobold Press, and others are also producing handsome 5e hardcovers.

Overall, Wizards’ D&D has continued at the very minimal level of support that has been the story of the ’10s, but if you add in classic PDFs, classic PODs, organized play PDFs, DMs Guild PDFs, and OGL releases there’s more D&D material coming out now than at any period since the d20 boom.

I still have qualms over the future of the brand. I want to see more on actual retail store shelves to bring in new players, but I thought 2016 was a good foreshadowing of a necessary change.

The State of Paizo. When talking about the big companies of the industry nowadays, you have to touch upon Paizo too. They haven’t been quite as high profile as they were during the years when Wizards wasn’t publishing RPGs, but they still seem robust and strong with their RPG, their Adventure Card Game*, and all the rest. Their most notable event of the year was probably their Pathfinder Humble Bundle, which sold 77,524 bundles. Some of the top RPG companies have occasionally exceeded that count for their top-selling products, but that’s quite good for a book Humble Bundle; in fact its $1.3 million dollar raised beat the old record.

The Resurrection of the Old. The reappearance of all those old D&D books as PDFs and PODs is part of a large-scale trend that’s been highlighted in recent years primarily through the growth of the OSR — a subindustry that continued to publish notables like Maze of the Blue Medusa (2016) last year. But in 2016, for the second year in a row, all kinds of old systems were making their come-backs.

After coming under the new ownership of Moon Design, Chaosium managed to get both Call of Cthulhu 7 (2016) and RuneQuest 2 (2016) into game stores. Meanwhile, Arc Dream, the inheritors of Pagan Publishing, released Delta Green Agent’s Handbook (2016) — at last fulfilling some of the most exciting Cthulhu development of the ’90s(!) with a full roleplaying game. Similarly, Nocturnal Media has not only acquired the remnant rights from West End Games (containing just the d6 System nowadays), but they’ve also continued to expand their work on Greg Stafford’s Arthurian games, including a successful Kickstarter for a new edition of Prince Valiant (2017?)*. Meanwhile, over in Sweden, new licensee Helmgast is working on Kult: Divinity Loss (2017?). However the biggest news may be that John Wick’s 2015 reacquisition of 7th Sea (1999) led to a big, big Kickstarter … but we’ll get to that.

Some existing companies also managed to get their old properties back in print (or at least funded). Steve Jackson has returned to print publication of GURPS (1987) with Discworld Roleplaying Game (2016) and Mars Attacks (2016) appearing and Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (2017?) planned for the near future. Similarly, we should soon see Unknown Armies 3e (2017?) from Atlas and Deadlands Classic (2017?) from Pinnacle, while the new Earthdawn (2015, 2016) from the revamped FASA finally hit print this year thanks to Studio 2.

Perhaps the weirdest resurrection had to do with the Rifts (1990) RPG. Palladium has continued to quietly publish it since their Crisis of Treachery a few years back, but last year they licensed Pinnacle Entertainment, with the result being several Savage Worlds Rifts (2016) PDFs and maps.

The Continued Rise of Indies. For several years now, I’ve been talking about the rise of indie games, as several once-indie companies have become major players in the industry. In 2016 a few of them started collecting together other games, turning themselves into publishing houses that go beyond just the particular ideas of their owners.

Evil Hat* was the most notable, with their expansion occurring thanks to the success of the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017?)*. They’ve hired a few people on as full-time employees, which is a luxury in today’s roleplaying industry, let alone the indie industry. Meanwhile, they’re printing and distributing a few successful Kickstarters: Blades in the Dark (2017?)* and Karthun: Lands of Conflict (2017?).

Burning Wheel strikes me as a smaller, more casual organization, but they similarly picked up the publishing and distribution of a few indie games: Dungeon World (2012) and Jared Sorsensen’s Parsely games (2009-2010). This also seems like a more casual partnership, mainly amounting to Burning Wheel HQ, Sage Kobold, and Memento Mori combining forces, like in the Gen Con Forge booth of days gone by, but between Burning Wheel (2002), Torchbearer (2013), and Dungeon World (2012), you have three of the most notable indie fantasy RPGs, all under one roof!

Last year also offered one more example of the indie movement growing and maturing: the blockbuster Apocalypse World (2010) got a second edition (2016).

The Inevitable Kickstarter Report. As in recent years, I’m going to end this review with a look at Kickstarter. And, I think the only description of Kickstarter this year is: wow. I mean, it’s been good for the industry for years, but in 2016 it notched up a higher level of success than ever before.

To start with, we suddenly had 26 pure RPG Kickstarters that raised more than $100,000 in 2016, after years of hovering below 20. Most notably, 7th Sea raised $1.3 million! That’s almost double the previous high, which was Deluxe Exalted 3e, which raised $684,755 in 2013. 7th Sea’s 11,483 backers also beat out the 10,103 backers for Evil Hat’s Fate Core from 2012-2013, a number that I thought might be unassailable.

Here’s the precise numbers for the top RPG Kickstarters of the year (and let me know if I missed any from 2016):

1. 7th Sea 2eJohn Wick$1,316,813
2. Invisible SunMonte Cook Games$664,274
3. ConanModiphius£436,755
4. Rifts for Savage WorldsPinnacle$438,076
5. Tales from the LoopFree League PublishingSEK 3,745,896
6. Changeling: The DreamingOnyx Path$380,058
7. Scion 2eOnyx Path$334,714
8. Kult: Divinity LostHelmgastSEK 2,746,655
9. Worlds of the Cypher SystemMonte Cook$304,430
10. Trudvang ChroniclesRiotmindsSEK 2,709,837
11. Unknown Armies 3eAtlas Games$266,084
12. Mutant Crawl ClassicsGoodman Games$206,806
13. PugmireOnyx Path$193,404
14. DialectThorny Games$189,742
15. Deadlands ClassicPinnacle$181,359
16. Dungeon FantasySteve Jackson Games$176,450
17. Shadows of Esteren: DeargAgate RPG$173,684
18. Apocalypse World 2eLumpley Games$149,681
19. The Dark EyeUlisses Spiele$147,512
20. Coriolis: The Third HorizonFree League PublishingSEK 1,233,574
21. Bluebeard’s BrideMagpie Games$129,820
22. V20 Beckett’s Jyhad DiaryOnyx Path$116,706
23. Judges Guild DeluxeGoodman Games$115,112
24. Open LegendSeventh Sphere$110,630
25. Burning Wheel CodexBurning Wheel HQ$108,362
26. City of MistSon of Oak$104,313

A lot of the successful resurrections of old games came about due to these Kickstarters. But just as stunning is the heavy presence of international publishers. I mean, there were four different Swedish Kickstarters in that top 26, from three different companies. This list also includes a British publisher, a German publisher, and an Israeli publisher. To date the story of Kickstarter is how it saved the existing roleplaying industry, but between international successes and indie successes, it’s increasingly becoming the story of how it’s enabling the next generation of creators!

I also thought that several of Onyx Path’s Kickstarters were of particular note. Traditionally, Onyx Path has produced short-run books through their Kickstarters, but this year’s Kickstarters for Scarred Lands (which was run with Nocturnal), for Pugmire (which was run with Pugsteady), and for Scion (which was their first independent Kickstarter) were all intended to create traditional print books for retail distribution. Uneven retail support has long been an issue with Kickstarters that I feel will shrink the industry instead of growing it, so this is an important change.

So yay for Kickstarter in 2016 and lots of other things looking positive for roleplaying, in a year that was a bit dire for the larger world.

My Own Story. It’s now been almost two years since I put Designers & Dragons: The Platinum Appendix (2015) to bed, as the final deliverable for our 2014 Kickstarter. I sadly haven’t written any new company histories since, though I’ve spent some time doing research on OSR companies and on Rite Publishing. That’s in large part because I’ve been writing histories of individual D&D products since 2013, with the ultimate goal being 3-4 books talking about the history of every mass-market, official D&D book ever. I’ve got 600 product histories done, totaling about 500,000 words (though some of that will be cut back as I remove redundancies in the histories). So that’s where my history work is going right now! I’ve probably still got at least a year of extensive original writing, as DTRPG moves toward finishing up the whole run of TSR and Wizards books in the next year or two, but as of January 2017, I’m also going to start forming the early materials into chapters. So what I hope will be the next Designers & Dragons volumes are officially in process …

* A few caveats: I’ve been involved with a number of the things I mentioned here, so be aware my ideas of their influences and importance could be high as a result. To be precise, I write histories for DMsGuild, I write PFACG strategy articles for Paizo’s blog, I contributed an episode to the Prince Valiant Kickstarter, I was published with Evil Hat, I playtest with Eric Vogel and gave some particular thoughts on the Dresden Files card game, and I was a backer for the Blades in the Dark Kickstarter. Whew! Busy year!

Thanks as always to the folks at RPGnet for offering thoughts on the year in game.

The Designers & Dragons 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!).

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #10 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.

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