Each of the four Designers & Dragons volumes ends with a look at ten major trends of the decade. Though I’m not yet ready to begin work on Designers & Dragons: The ’10s, as we still need to know more of the stories of the companies of that decade, I was ready to take a first stab at the trends of that decade. So, with the ’10s now a few months past us, here’s a first look at “10 Things You Might Not Know About Roleplaying in the ’10s”.
1. Paizo Ruled (for a Time) Many old-timers remember the one month in 1997 that D&D (1974+) dropped below the sales of the World of Darkness games — a month when TSR was on their way out of business and had stopped printing new products as a result. Thus, one of the most notable things about the ’10s has to be that the sales of D&D probably dropped below Paizo’s Pathfinder (2008, 2009) sales for as long as three years, from 2011-2014! Those numbers comes from ICv2, who polls game stores; the numbers have a self-selection bias, and likely a US-centric bias too, so they can’t be taken as absolutes (nor could the reports of that one month in 1997), but they’re certainly suggestive.
WotC’s drop in roleplaying sales (and Paizo’s ascendance) came as a result of edition wars: when WotC produced D&D 4e (2008) it was different enough from D&D 3e (2000) that many fans were unhappy. Meanwhile, WotC’s Open Game License (OGL), one of the major trends of the ’00s, allowed Paizo to produce Pathfinder, a game that was basically D&D 3.75e. Again, D&D’s drop in sales was due in large part to a drop in production: by 2011, WotC was also cutting back on new books, having internally recognized the problems with their new edition. The last 4e products dribbled out in 2012, and then there weren’t any non-reprints until D&D 5e (2014) premiered, at which point Wizards very promptly stepped back into the #1 spot.
So, maybe Pathfinder outsold D&D during the last years of 4e’s run, but in the later years, they were outselling a company that wasn’t producing new books, which was the same reason that D&D momentarily fell in 1997.
Still, Paizo’s extended rise was a very notable aspect in the first half of ’10s; it created a new giant in the marketplace.
2. The Old Became New Again Classic roleplaying games have made new returns since at least the ’90s, which saw the resurrections of already classic games like Traveller (1977) and Champions (1981), but that really kicked into high gear in the ’10s which saw classic returns becoming big business (and a major trend).
This new trend has its foundation in the ’00s, and first came to prominence as the OSR, or Old School Renaissance (or Revival or Rules or …). The OSR kicked off with early games such as Castle & Crusades (2004) and Basic Fantasy (2006), which were enabled by the OGL and which allowed their designers to mix together modern and classic rules. However, OSRIC (2007) was the game that truly created a movement of authors and fans who were publishing and supplementing retroclones of early editions of D&D. Meanwhile, lots of classics were appearing from mass-market publishers under license, with Mongoose Publishing being one of the leads, publishing new editions of games such as Paranoia (2004), RuneQuest (2006), and Traveller (2008).
This budding idea of the ’00s truly blossomed in the ’10s. Numerous small publishers appeared to produce OSR content, while existing publishers such as Frog God Games and Goodman Games dove wholeheartedly into the category. OSR RPGs such as Stars without Number (2010) and Zweihänder (2017) became bestsellers that matched the sales of mainstream RPGs. If the RPG industry of the ’00s was divided into two major categories of mainstream and indie releases, the ’10s offered a third category: OSR. Meanwhile, mainstream companies published even more classic revivals, with some of the most notable being Chivalry & Sorcery (2019), The Fantasy Trip (2019), Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (2018) and Villains and Vigilantes’ return as Mighty Protectors (2017).
But two stories of the old becoming new again might eclipse all the others. The first is how classic publisher Chaosium came under new ownership and was able to very successfully publish new editions of many classic products, including Call of Cthulhu 7e (2014), RuneQuest 2 (2017), and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha (2018). The second is how Wizards of the Coast picked themselves up after being eclipsed in RPG sales by Paizo and published D&D 5e (2014), widely considered an old-school version of their game. (And this was, of course, after years of work making old D&D products available on the D&D Classics website.)
3. Indies Hit Our Mainstream However, saying that the roleplaying field is divided between the mainstream, indies, and the OSR may be somewhat inaccurate in the ’10s. Already, top OSR games such as Zweihandër are appearing in book stores, but it’s the indie games of the ’10s that have really hit the roleplaying mainstream.
Dungeon World (2012) was one of the first indie games to notch up spectacular sales, with a Kickstarter that raised $82,879 — back in 2012 when that was still big money for a roleplaying crowdfunder. (And of course Dungeon World is notable for not just its indie mechanics, but also its old-school style, making it a true hybrid of ’10s trends.) Then Evil Hat hit it out of the park with their Fate Core (2013) Kickstarter raising $433,365 the next year. When indie publishers like Burning Wheel HQ and Evil Hat started publishing the products of other creators around the middle of the ’10s, it became obvious that they were no longer singular creators but instead actual publishing houses.
The awards have also reflected the new prominence of indie games. Following the early award of Grey Ranks in 2008, The Diana Jones committee recognized Fiasco in 2011, Hillfolk in 2014, and Star-Crossed in 2019, the first and last neatly bracketing the decade.
Finally, the indie movement has also influenced the rest of the industry with its mechanics focused on storytelling. This has caused much of the mainstream to step back from the rules-heavy publications spearheaded by D&D 3e in the ’00s — and was likely another influence on the successful, rules-lite D&D 5e.
4. Kickstarter Appeared Speaking of Kickstarter: that may have been one of the most crucial trends of the ’10s for the whole industry. The RPG field had already transformed itself with technology in the ’00s, which saw the debut of PDF and POD, but the new trend of crowd funding started to transform the industry even more beginning around 2011.
It was a big deal that year when Stealing Cthulhu (2011) and Fate Bulldogs! (2011) hit $13,00, while Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple (2011) raised $24,000, but now the industry is seeing dozens of projects exceeding $100,000 every year. Kickstarter has given newer companies like Onyx Path a never-before-seen business model, it’s offered classic publishers like Steve Jackson Games a way to raise interest in older games, it’s provided foreign publisher like the Free League a way to create international audiences, and it’s given indie and OSR publishers like Magpie and Frog God Games a way to reach their audiences.
Of all the trends of the ’10s, the advent of Kickstarter was probably the one to most affect the future of roleplaying.
5. RPGs Became a Spectator Sport Because there was another major, groundbreaking trend in the ’10s: the rise of campaign podcasts and liveplay streams, which allowed roleplayers and fans to watch other players game. Podcasts like Critical Hit (2009-Present) and Nerd Poker (2012-Present) led the way, for the first time offering windows into other peoples’ roleplaying games.
Twitch (2011) then offered the opportunity for people to not just listen to those campaigns, but watch them too. The idea hit the big time when gaming livestreams appeared that starred voice actors and other professionals, of which Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role (2015-Present) is the most successful.
There are many other podcasts and livestreams, each of them turning RPGs into a spectator sport. WotC even had one of their own: Dice, Camera, Action (2016-2019); they also ran a “Stream of Annihilation” event in Seattle on June 2-3, 2017 for many top livestreamers. So, that’s one sign of the success of this new trend. Another? The fact that streaming celebrity Matt Colville has twice raised over a million dollars through Kickstarters, eclipsing every other industry Kickstarter except John Wick’s 7th Sea 2e Kickstarter in 2016.
Liveplay streams (and podcasts) have become another way to enjoy the roleplaying hobby, and one that’s bringing in more casual fans, creating new opportunities for the future.
6. Roleplaying Became Somewhat Huger. Certainly, roleplaying was big in the early ’00s thanks in large part to the Open Game License (OGL) and d20 Trademark License, but it has hit even greater heights in the ’10s, thanks to some combination of livestreaming, Kickstarter, and the success of D&D 5e (2014). And, in many ways this was a greater success: one that impacted the larger world rather than just returning lapsed roleplayers to the fold.
Wizards of the Coast was quite vocal about their success in the late ’10s, saying that D&D has been doing the best that it ever had — and although there are questions about how its current success compares to the high-flying ’80s, before WotC entered the picture, we can certainly take their word that they’re doing better than in the d20 years. Meanwhile, a number of second-tier companies in the ’10s showed strength of their own, including of course Paizo (who was briefly first-tier in the early ’10s) and others such as Catalyst Game Labs, Green Ronin, Fantasy Flight Games, Modiphius, White Wolf, and the reborn Chaosium.
But the real marker of roleplaying’s success was its impact on popular culture, a trend that was led by the presence of D&D in Stranger Things (2016), but which later came to include everything from a “Gentleman” Pathfinder character class created by Old Spice to the Feast of Legends (2019) RPG produced by Wendy’s. Even DC Comics got into the act for the first time since their D&D comics of the ’80s, this time reprinting Mayfair’s old Watchmen sourcebooks, then using the same Mayfair DC Heroes (1985) RPG as the basis of a livestream of their own, All-Star Games (2020-Present), which broadcast on DC Universe just a few months into the next decade.
7. Roleplaying Faced Technical Difficulties. Despite the new hugeness of the hobby, it did face setbacks, mainly in the technical sector, where roleplaying fought against the trend of various technologies peaking in the mid ’10s, then declining. Google’s shutdown of Google+ (2011-2019) destroyed many online communities, while Cubicle 7 shut down their own forums due to the onerous requirements of the GDPR (2016, 2018): generally, companies deciding they couldn’t afford to run their forums was a trend. And, it wasn’t just online technology: Lone Wolf Development had long been a leader in producing roleplaying software, but after an expansion they were forced to layoff staff and cut back on their projects in 2019.
Virtual tabletops did offer a possible new way to game online, but their success was limited, with Wizards of the Coast having the worst problems, ultimately giving up on their own attempt to create a virtual tabletop in 2012 in the wake of D&D 4e’s failure. Nonetheless, two other companies did see some success: Fantasy Grounds (2004-Present) and Roll20 (2012-Present). At least four million accounts had been created on Roll20 by 2019, but virtual tabletops have still not received the mass attention of game-changing technologies like PDF, POD, and Kickstarter.
8. International Publishers (Finally) Came into Their Own. The UK has been creating great roleplaying products since the advent of Games Workshop in the ’70s, but the English market really came of its own in the ’10s. Mongoose Publishing continued on, Cubicle 7 hit it big with Adventures in Middle-earth (2016-2019), and Warhammer Fantasy 4e (2018-Present) and Modiphius Publishing burst onto the scene and quickly picked up licenses like Conan and Star Trek. Together these three publishers came to represent a fairly notable share of the RPG industry’s production.
However, just as notable is how foreign-language publishers finally got a foothold in the mainstream RPG field. This was a trend that first showed possibility in the ’90s, with projects like Steve Jackson’s In Nomine (1997) and Chaosium’s Nephilim (1994), both based on French originals. But at the time it was just too expensive to translate a game rather than just creating something new.
This changed in the ’10s when foreign-language RPGs returned to the English-language market with a vengeance. Tenra Bansho Zero (2013) marked the beginning of a tide of Japanese RPGs, while Cubicle 7 returned to the world of French RPGs with games like Qin (2006, 2009), Kuro (2012), and Yggdrasil (2012), but the Swedish Free League Publishing (Fria Ligan) was doubtless the most notable foreign-language publisher of the ’10s, with Mutant Year Zero (2014), Tales from the Loop (2017), and Alien: The Roleplaying Game (2019) all receiving international acclaim.
And everything’s connected in the trends of the ’10s: Free League found their success in part due to their distribution partnership with Modiphius and in part due to their very successful use of Kickstarter.
9. Fans Became Creators The thread of fan content goes back to the earliest days of the industry and APAs like Alarums & Excursions (1975-Present). Fanzines then proliferated in the ’90s, and online sites became mainstream in the ’00s. Meanwhile, Chaosium made fan content official in the ’90s with their Miskatonic University Monographs, which were short-run, semi-professional print books produced by fans.
However, the modern expansion of fan content really began in the early days of 2016. At the time Wizards of the Coast was having problems producing official content because of cuts to their roleplaying department, so they transformed the DnDClassics site, which reprinted old content, into the DM’s Guild, which allowed players and fans to create semi-official new D&D content. DriveThruRPG soon expanded this germ of an idea into an entire community content program allowing fans to contribute to 7th Sea, Call of Cthulhu, Contagion, Cortex+, Cypher, The Dark Eye, GUMSHOE, RuneQuest, Traveller, Torg Eternity, Unknown Armies, the World of Darkness, and others.
Do we celebrate the democratization of roleplaying content or do we mourn the possible loss of professional publications? Whatever the answer, community content quickly became the majority of roleplaying production in the ’10s, and that’s led some community designers to professional productions, at Wizards and elsewhere.
10. We Lost Our Founding Fathers. In the ’10s, the roleplaying industry celebrated its fortieth anniversary. And its forty-fifth. That means that the college kids who first picked up D&D in 1974 are now retirement age — and some of the industry’s founding fathers are even older.
It’s not surprising that we started to lose many of them in the ’10s. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson passed slightly earlier, in the late ’00s, but in the ’10s we lost many more founders of the earliest roleplaying companies (and their peers) including Darwin Bromley, Rick Loomis, Donald Saxman, Duke Seifried, Greg Stafford, Dave Trampier, and Loren Wiseman.
We are very rapidly losing our history, so I hope dearly that we will see more books recording the trials and triumphs of our industry’s earliest pioneers.
It’s been a pleasure to be one of those chroniclers.
My ten things about the ’10s eventually settled in at eleven, with a final trend that is one for our general society:
11. The Industry Faced Its Sexism The ’10s will go down into history as the #MeToo decade, when women spoke up against Harvey Weinstein and others. The roleplaying industry had its own #MeToo movement as early as 2012, the year that an author was called out for writing “In Defense of Rape” (as a plot element). In those early years of the decade, a maturing hobby spent time examining the tropes of the past, including sexist artwork and misogynist plot elements.
In the late ’10s, the #MeToo movement in the industry took on the same form as it did in the rest of the world. Women spoke out about harassment at cons and how editors and developers used the lure of success to manipulate them into sex. There were also more personal stories about sexual abuse in relationships. As with the #MeToo movement everywhere, some of those revealed as having feet of clay were luminaries within their parts of the industry.
Perhaps the #MeToo movement was more meaningful in the RPG industry because of its history as a hobby that has always been majority male — and which was almost entirely male in its earliest days, a time when gaming wives would write of being left behind to care for children and the household while their spouses went to cons. It was definitely a movement that shook not just the industry, but the world in the ’10s.
And that’s my look at the things that people may not know about gaming in the ’10s, when they look back at it from the ’20s and beyond. Did I hit the big points? Did I miss anything? Did I overrate anything? I’d love to hear you feedback.
Meanwhile, Designers & Dragons is entering an exciting time. On April 1st, I stepped back from my full-time work at Skotos (and at RPGnet) to devote more time to my personal writing. I’m still doing some technical writing, as one has to pay the bills, but I hope to be more regularly writing here about Designers & Dragons and also getting back to work on the next books.
As for what those next books are? I want to put the articles I wrote on D&D products for DnDClassics into a series of books, detailing the entire history of Dungeons & Dragons, one book at a time. And I’d like to write a book of “Lost Histories”, detailing companies from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s that I missed the first time around. And, yes, I’d like to write about the ’10s too. It’s going to take some time for the decade’s history to settle, but I’m going to be back here next month with a look at the companies I’m thinking of writing about.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #27 & #28 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.