Another year has come and gone, so as usual I’m writing about the highlights, lowlights, and trends of the year in the roleplaying world.
In Memorium. Unfortunately, 2018 was horrible for some of the most notable innovators of the roleplaying world. Several of them passed beyond the Pale.
Greg Stafford may have been the third most important creator of the roleplaying form. That’s obvious just from his creations, especially the world of Glorantha, which led to RuneQuest (1978) and Heroquest (2000+), and the Pendragon (1985) and Prince Valiant (1989) games. Then add on to that all the work he did enabling other creators at Chaosium, which most notably led to Call of Cthulhu (1981). However, Greg may have been even more important for his reimagination of the roleplaying form. He brought RPGs out of the dungeons, imagining games centered around our religions, our families, and everything else that makes us human. I’ve recently written a memorial to Greg as well as an updated history covering the Chaosium Renaissance.
Duke Seifried is less known today because his greatest impact was in the ’70s, and it was primarily related to miniatures; nonetheless his shadow lies heavy upon the modern industry. He introduced 25mm fantasy miniatures to the United States. He also invented the idea of miniatures blister packs and the concept of molding similar miniatures with slightly different poses. More central to our own field, he coined the term “adventure gaming”, which was the first real recognition of roleplaying games as being separate from the older wargaming hobby. In the ’80s, Seifried was brought into TSR to head a new miniatures manufacturing division and was poised to have an even larger impact on the industry, but he fell victim to TSR’s first big purge in June 1983.
Carl Sargent got his start in the industry working on Warhammer Fantasy (1986+), but he’s best known for his brief “From the Ashes” (1992-1993) era of Greyhawk production, which created a setting that was entirely consistent and well detailed for the first time ever — though some fans found it too dark or at odds with the original conception of Oerth. He also wrote for the Known World line snd penned some Fighting Fantasy books (1982+) under the pen name Keith Martin. Sargent’s Shadowrun writing is today considered seminal, and he was poised to have his own greater impact on the industry in the mid ’90s, when he was hired as FASA’s new line developer for Shadowrun (1989+) … but he mysteriously disappeared on the way to the airport to take that job. He wasn’t heard from for twenty-five years; when asked about his disappearance from the industry, shortly before his death, he simply said he’d “got very tired of it”.
Donald Saxman was known for a single roleplaying product: Superhero ’44 (1977). It was the first superhero roleplaying game.
Farewell to Companies Too. It’s startling that some of the industry’s earliest companies are still around, but their numbers are ever-decreasing.
Mayfair left the roleplaying industry before their first death (and subsequent rebirth as Iron Wind) back in 1997. However they closed down totally in early 2018. Their lines went to Asmodee, who is eating up the entire hobbyist gaming industry — some previously when they spun off Catan Studio, and some at the moment of their dissolution.
I’m Not Dead Yet. Palladium is still around, and is likely to be around as long as owner Kevin Siembieda wants to make games. However, they had catastrophic problems in 2018. That began with Robotech Tactics, a massive Kickstarter that they’d been unable to fulfill for years, which then had the rug pulled out from under it when Harmony Gold decided not to renew their license. This followed years of slow book production supported primarily by Palladium’s relatively regular publication of their The Rifter magazine … except now they’ve put The Rifter on hiatus as well, for at least two years.
And Farewell to Services. And finally, the roleplaying industry saw the end some of the services that fans depend on for their communication and community.
The Google+ shutdown, scheduled for early next year, is likely to have the largest repercussions, as it was a haven for all sorts of roleplaying groups, especially those in the OSR community. Fans have already begun moving to other social networks, but it’ll be hard to find something that has the reach and openness of Google.
On a smaller scale, Cubicle 7 shut down their forums this last year due to the GDPR, an sweeping set of European privacy requirements that are great for individuals but almost impossible for small companies to manage. (For both of the forums that I personally manage, I’ve considered whether we have to block European readers, something that could still happen depending on how exactly the GDPR is interpreted and litigated over the next few years.) It would be unsurprising if there were a huge drop of European roleplaying forums in the near future, which could be as devastating as the loss of Google+.
Meanwhile, the scant few roleplaying magazines are dying out. I already mentioned the hiatus of The Rifter. Steve Jackson Games has also ended Pyramid magazine with v3 #122 (December 2018).
A Great Year for D&D. From 2011-2016 I talked about the problems with the core D&D brand, primarily focused on its lack of publication. In retrospect, I misjudged their low point by a year or two. Certainly, D&D was at a nadir in the late years of D&D 4E (2008-2012), and the years afterward when they stopped publishing new D&D books entirely, but the game started on its way back up when Wizards published D&D 5E (2014), and it was definitely flying high again by 2016, when Wizards took publication of D&D 5E back in house and also improved its linkage with their Adventures League. (It’s often hard to see these bigger trends in year-by-year histories, which is why Designers & Dragons is always most accurate when it’s looking at least a few years back, and why I came to better understand D&D’s current position when I updated the full Wizards of the Coast article for the upcoming German edition.)
Which all leads to Hasbro’s claim that D&D is having its best year ever. Now frankly, I don’t believe that D&D sales are better than they were at TSR’s height in the ’80s, especially not when adjusted for inflation, but I can believe that Hasbro is seeing its best sales ever for D&D, particularly in modern dollars. As I wrote in my Wizards of the Coast update, organized play and streaming games both seem to have made a big difference.
Speaking of streaming: one source claimed that by 2017, 9 million people had seen others play D&D on Twitch; then this year, Encounter Roleplay and D&D Beyond created RPGSportsTV to run competitive esports D&D games. (Team Kobold won $5,000 in the first event; we’ll have to see if it was popular enough for Encounter Roleplay to repeat the experience.)
Other Companies Rockin’ It. Wizards of the Coast wasn’t the only roleplaying company rocking it. For many years, ICv2 has been pretty consistent about reporting the top three roleplaying publishers: Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, and Fantasy Flight Games. But there are other big movers in the industry.
I’ve written about Chaosium’s resurgence in past years and in my updated history. If there was any doubt that they were back as one of the most important publishers in this industry, this year’s publication of the updated Masks of Nyarlathotep (2018) and Rune Quest: Roleplaying in Glorantha (2018) should have quashed them.
Two other notables are both British. Modiphius is one of the RPG companies to most consistently ship retail product over these last few years. Their biggest products nowadays are Vampire: The Masquerade 5E (2018), Star Trek Adventures (2017), and Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed of (2017). They’ve in fact doubled in size this year, though that’s due to their introduction of miniatures and the Fallout: Wasteland Warfare game (2018). Cubicle 7 has meanwhile found success with Adventures in Middle-earth (2016), The One Ring (2011), and Warhammer Fantasy 4E (2018) and has doubled their own staff this last year as a result. Of course, the big specter hanging over both these companies is Brexit. It’s already crashed the pound by 10-20% and created a huge amount of economic uncertainty. Fortunately, Cubicle 7 may be somewhat insulated: they moved to Ireland this last year in part to minimize the impact of Brexit, and will now be able to stay on EU trade terms.
Of course, nowadays there are other companies that rock it through Kickstarters, not traditional sales, and we’ll get to them …
Pathfinder Reboots. Of the various top roleplaying publishers, the future is the most up in the air for Paizo. They’re currently working on Pathfinder 2e (2019?), and they’ve also slowed their Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) production in the last few years while they work on a revamped version of the base game (2019?). We’ll find out next year what that all means.
The OSR Wars. The culture wars have gotten very harsh in recent years, and the OSR community has continually made news for their struggles over where they lie on these divides.
Alex Macris, the president of Autarch and the creator of the Adventurer Conqueror King System (2012), got attention in 2017 and 2018 as the President of alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulos’ MILO, Inc. — a position that he’s since left. This may have been a factor in Gus L. shutting down his OSR blog, “Dungeon of Signs”; Gus explained: “destructive ‘alt-right’ views are becoming increasingly prevalent, even among some of the more significant publishers in the community.”
More recently, James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess posted a picture of himself with Jordan B. Peterson, a reactionary psychology professor who denies the existence of patriarchy and white privilege, who argues against using genderless pronouns for students that identify as non-binary (which earned him a letter from his university stating that those were “discriminatory intentions”), and who attracts an audience spanning the spectrum from libertarians to neo-Nazis. This led to condemnations from some of Raggi’s fans and from Kiel Chenier, one of Lamentations’ long-time designers. It also caused Stuart Robinson, the creator of the OSR logo, to revoke rights to its use for people engaging in hate speech; he then left the OSR entirely. OSR artist Evelyn Moreau left the entire gaming scene around the same time, saying: “Toxic shit in the soil make me move away”.
As Gus said in his final Dungeon of Signs post, “This isn’t to say that there aren’t still wonderful creatives and writers within the OSR community”. I agree: I’m personally looking forward to writing histories about the OSR in the years to come, because it’s a hotbed of personal creativity, matched only by the indie design community. If anything, the conflicts of this last year show that there are a wide variety of people within the OSR community, and that many (probably most) do not agree with alt-right minority that caused these departures.
The Vampire Wars. However, the biggest challenges of the year were probably faced by White Wolf v4, the company created by Paradox Interactive to publish new World of Darkness games. Early in the year, fans were calling them Nazis because of the (minor) inclusion of Neo-Nazi references and the (accidental?) use of the number 1488, a Neo-Nazi dog whistle, all in the Vampire: The Masquerade 5E preview (2018). Vampire producer Jason Carl pushed back hard, saying that they weren’t endorsing neo-Nazism.
Then things blew up even more when Camarilla (2018) for V5E imagined that the real-life gay genocide in Chechnya was a vampire plot intended to distract people. Chechnya officials are said to have lodged complaints against White Wolf and contemplated legal action. Shams Jorjani of Paradox Interactive swiftly stepped in to announce that White Wolf had been shut down as a separate entity; licensees were to push the lines forward in the future. It was perhaps the biggest slap down in the history of the roleplaying industry.
It should be noted throughout all of this that there was never any definitive indication that White Wolf v4 was pro-Nazi or anti-LGBT; in my opinion, their main crime was excessive edginess, which didn’t play well in a world where Poe’s Law has become a way of life and the Overton Window is in danger of shifting to accept neo-Nazi viewpoints.
OK, onto something lighter …
Classic Returns. I’ve been saying for years that classic properties have been making a return, and that trend stretched into 2018. As already noted, Chaosium brought back both RuneQuest and Masks of Nyarlathotep. The whole White Wolf fiasco was in service to the publication of Vampire The Masquerade 5E. Warhammer Fantasy came back thanks to Cubicle 7, Warhammer 40k thanks to Ulisses Spiele, and Legend of the Five Rings thanks to Fantasy Flight Games. Wizards of the Coast brought back Eberron, not through print publications, but through the DM’s Guild and organized play. Steve Jackson Games kickstarted The Fantasy Trip (2019?) and Frog God Games did the same for Bunnies & Burrows (2019?). One classic company even returned, when R. Talsorian got serious about publication again, starting with The Witcher (2018).
Diversity Rises. Some trends are a long time coming, but then mature in a rush, and I think that’s the case for the rise of real diversity in roleplaying publication. I’d trace the trend back to the release of Pathfinder (2009), which broke new ground with its truly diverse iconic characters. But it’s only the last few years in which that seems to have exploded into a true panoply of (admittedly small press) roleplaying games.
First, New Agenda Publishing was founded in December 2017 to “polish and promote the games of people of color and other underrepresented voices”. Harlem Unbound (2017) for Call of Cthulhu was released around the same time, and went on to win three 2018 Gold ENnies before being picked up by Chaosium for a second edition. Harlem Unbound uniquely expected characters to all be black, while The Watch (2017), also out that December, instead expected characters to be women or non-binary.
This trend has continued into 2018 with games like Mutants in the Night (2018) and Behind the Masc (2018), which focus on marginalized communities and non-cisgender masculinity respectively. A whole slew of other diverse games were Kickstarted this year, including John Silence, Nahual, Orun, and Bastion, touching upon Afro-american and Mexican fantasy, urban fantasy, and space opera.
(And thanks to Vox Orbis and Zed at RPGnet for their helps with these references.)
Working Out the Kickstarter Kinks. Kickstarter of course continues to be a big force in the roleplaying industry, with a shocking 34 roleplaying products topping $100k in 2018, almost 50% more than last year. However, this year also revealed some cracks in the Kickstarter foundation: nothing that indicates that the underlying model is in danger, but rather than it’s not the panacea for all woes.
Evil Hat and John Wick Presents were both big Kickstarter successes in recent years, thanks to Fate Core and the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (for Evil Hat) and 7th Sea (for John Wick). But this year, both companies laid off staff. The problem seems to be that they transferred one-time Kickstarter earnings over to ongoing costs and then couldn’t support that with their normal income stream (or even with additional Kickstarters). This may mean that Kickstarter can’t support the traditional, professional staffing model used by larger roleplaying publishers, which is a big problem when evergreen retail sales are down. Certainly, indie and OSR publishers have shown that you don’t need full-time staff to create great games, but that won’t support the supplement treadmills of past years, for better or for worse.
The other notable kink in Kickstarters this year was highlighted by Blades in the Dark (2017), which promised numerous stretch goals that turned out not to be funded by the Kickstarter itself; instead, friends and associates were kicking in work for free. (One stretch-goal author said: “this is not an uncommon arrangement. … it’s [almost] always me volunteering my time to support a project I believe in.”) However, many of those goals still aren’t fulfilled almost four years later (though John Harper was still reporting on their progress as of December 31st). There are obviously problems with incentive in this sort of setup, and they raise questions about how stretch goals should be modeled, how they should be funded, how they should be produced, and what assurances supporters should have. There probably aren’t good answers for all situations, but Blades in the Dark demonstrates that the best intentions from everyone involved can still leave some backers feeling like they didn’t get what they paid for.
The Kickstarter Listing. And finally, the massive Kickstarter list for the year, highlighting RPGs that raised more than $100,000:
|1. Strongholds & Followers (+streaming)
|2. Your Best Game Ever
|Monte Cook Games
|3. Savage Worlds Adventure Edition
|4. Things from the Flood
|5. The Expanse
|6. The Deck of Many Animated Spells for 5E
|7. Invisible Sun
|Monte Cook Games
|8. Dragon-blooded for Exalted
|9. The Fantasy Trip
|Steve Jackson Games
|10. John Carter of Mars
|11. Creature Codex for 5E
|12. Cthulhu Mythos for 5E
|Sandy Petersen Games
|13. Good Society
|14. Torg Eternity: The Living Land
|15. Torg Eternity: The Nile Empire
|16. Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000AD
|17. Trinity Continuum
|18. Nights of Payne Town for City of Mist
|Son of Oak Game Studio
|19. Lex Arcana
|20. Rappan Athuk for 5E
|Frog God Games
|21. The Labyrinth for Delta Green
|Arc Dream Publishing
|The Adventure Guild
|23. HeroBook for 5E
|24. Over the Edge
|25. Mutant: Elysium
|26. DCC Annual
|27. Emmissary Lost for Coriolis
|28. Stormlands for Trudvang Chronicles
|29. Chicago by Night for V5E
|30. Geist: The Sin-Eaters
|32. Tales of the Old Margreve for 5E
|33. Legendary Dragons for 5E
|34. Spectacular Settlements for 5E
To a certain extent, this is business as usual, with many of the same big names, including some serial Kickstarters, some big publishers using Kickstarter for the occasional one-off, and some small publishers managing a high level of success from compelling products.
However, there were increases all around in quantity, showing that the marketplace is still growing. Matt Colville’s Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter brought in $2.1M, over 50% higher than the $1.3M raised by 7th Sea two years previous. Colville also brought in an absolutely astounding 28,918 backers! Mind you, it was a slightly different sort of Kickstarter, raising money not just for a hardcover book, but also for a livestreamed campaign. This is probably another huge data point for the success of streaming RPG games. As already noted, there were almost 50% more campaigns over $100k, and the 16 campaigns that exceeded $200,000 was another record.
The other notable blip in this year’s Kickstarters is the eight 5E-related Kickstarters, which itself is another sign of the strength of D&D 5E, despite Wizards’ own slow production.
So even if there were trials and culture wars within our industry, there’s still lots of evidence of its external success.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #24 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.