In years past, I wrote a series of articles about the best-selling games of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s20102011, and 2012, as well as some lists of favorites.

Obviously, there are some gaps there, and so I’m going to use this penultimate column for 2020 to fill in some of those holes and look at the top RPGs of some of the more recent years.

ICv2’s Top RPGs: 2005-2009

ICv2 has long remained an interesting source for top RPGs. Since 2005 they’ve put out an approximately quarterly list of the top five RPG systems based on “interviews with retailers, distributors, and manufacturers”. Mind you, their information needs to be taken with a large grain of salt, primarily because we don’t know their collection methodology and secondarily because it appears to be self-reported. Nonetheless, especially when aggregated, it can provide an interesting look at how RPGs rose and fell.

The following list covers the top RPGs from 2005-2009: all of the ’00s that ICv2 covered. These composite ranks are based upon how many times the game systems appeared in ICv2’s rankings, and at what levels; the weights generated by these rankings are shown in (brackets).

  1. D&D (100)
  2. World of Darkness (60)
  3. Warhammer 40k RPGs (25)
  4. Warhammer Fantasy 2e (19)
  5. Exalted (17)
  6. Mutants & Masterminds (17)
  7. Warhammer Fantasy 3e (12)
  8. Pathfinder (9)
  9. Shadowrun (8)
  10. GURPS (7)
  11. Star Wars (6)
  12. Scion (5)
  13. Song of Ice and Fire (4)
  14. BESM (1)
Top RPG Lines of 2005-2009: ICv2

One of the interesting things about seeing the rankings of the late ’00s is how much things were in motion.

To start with, D&D (2000, 2003, 2008) was in a clearly unassailable position (ranking #1 through all 20 listings), while Pathfinder (2009) was the plucky newcomer. But by Q3 2010, the two games would be tied, and by Q2 2011, Pathfinder would have attained dominance as Wizards of the Coast sputtered through the years of D&D 4e’s downfall.

Similarly, White Wolf’s World of Darkness (1991+) looks very strong here, but what isn’t apparent from this composite is that it slid during this half-a-decade, moving from the regular #2 spot to the regular #3 spot. By 2010 it would fade entirely. White Wolf’s Exalted (2001) and Scion (2007) games had even less staying power: they both dropped off the lists by the end of the ’00s.

If WotC was #1 in the late ’00s and White Wolf was #2, who was #3? The best answer is probably “Games Workshop”, though in truth all of their products were now being produced by licensees. The alternative answer is “Fantasy Flight Games” who did very well with GW’s Warhammer 40k RPGs (2008), though their Warhammer Fantasy 3e RPG (2009) was a flash-in-the-pan, where Green Ronin’s work on Warhammer Fantasy 2e (2005) had been much more evergreen.

The other possible answer for #3 is Green Ronin: they did well with Warhammer Fantasy 2e before they lost the license, while their Mutants & Masterminds (2001) was the last major hold-out of the d20 boom of the early ’00s. Even their Song of Ice and Fire (2009) was charting. However, even if Green Ronin was in the #3 spot at some point in the late ’00s, they would quickly be eclipsed by FFG.

A few other entries are of note:

  • GURPS (1986) was definitely a game waning; with Steve Jackson Games’ increased focus on Munchkin (2001), we wouldn’t see its like again.
  • One might think the same of Shadowrun (1989) too, but no, it continues to pop up here and there over the years, making it a strong contender for a top-five game even in the late ’00s.
  • Finally, Star Wars (2000, 2007) is surprising for its weakness. This was the d20 edition of the game, released in its second “Saga” edition in 2007. The fact that Wizards couldn’t even crack the top ten of ICv2 RPGs for the late ’00s is shocking.

ICv2’s Top RPGs: 2013-2019

The years 20102011, and 2012 were covered in their own posts at the time, so instead we jump straight to 2013, and see what the rest of the ’10s looked like according to ICv2.

Like its predecessor, this list covers all the RPGs that ICv2 listed from 2013-2019. It’s again weighted by number of appearances and ranking in each appearance.

  1. D&D (73)
  2. Pathfinder (64)
  3. Star Wars (49)
  4. Shadowrun (18)
  5. Starfinder (14)
  6. Fate (7)
  7. Iron Kingdoms (6)
  8. Vampire (5)
  9. Fantasy / Dragon Age (3.5)
  10. Numenera (3)
  11. WH 40K RPGs (2)
  12. Adventures in Middle-earth (2)
  13. Alien (1)
  14. Call of Cthulhu (1)
  15. Genesys (1)
  16. Star Trek Adventures (1)
Top RPG Lines of 2013-2019: ICv2

Obviously the shock of the ’10s was that D&D and Pathfinder (2009) were running neck and neck. This was entirely about the fall of D&D 4e (2008), which left D&D sales wobby and lifted Pathfinder to #1 for a few years. Ironically, Pathfinder faced the same issue late in the decade. When Paizo announced that they’d be publishing Pathfinder 2e (2019), Pathfinder sales fell off a cliff, only recovering after Pathfinder 2e released.

Meanwhile, FFG clearly settled in as the #3 RPG producer (previously on the strength of WH40k, now on the strength of Star Wars, far outshining Wizards’ d20 work on the line); and Catalyst made a strong argument for being #4, based on the strength of Shadowrun (1989). (The usual caveat: this is self-reported data, likely from retailers in the US, and the absence of big ’10s companies like Modiphius from the listing should provide all the grains of salt needed.)

There were a number of games that had short-time surges, suggesting they were strong third-tier lines, but unable to sustain evergreen sales. These included Evil Hat’s Fate [2013-2014], Privateer’s Iron Kingdoms [2013-2015], Monte Cook’s Numenera [2014], Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu [2016], Cubicle 7’s Adventures in Middle-earth [2017], and Paizo’s Starfinder [2017-2019].

Finally, it’s hard not to comment on Vampire: The Masquerade (2019), which received some brief attention in 2019. Compare that to the World of Darkness’ strong second-place standing in the late ’00s, and it’s clear how far the mighty have fallen (and how much damage a corporate sale can do to a brand). Granted, Onyx Path, who does most of the publishing work nowadays, is focused on POD and PDF, so a lot of sales won’t turn up in retail stores. (If we could look at DTRPG sales, they’d tell a very different story, but unfortunately their public stats turn over too quickly to be of use. But online sites like Roll20 might be able to tell the story …)

This time around, there are also a few general lessons about RPGs in the ’10s.

  1. Players don’t like out-of-date editions. The announcements that Wizards was working on D&D 5e (2014) and that Paizo was working on Pathfinder 2e sent both lines’ sales spinning.
  2. Game system matters, as witnessed by the the huge improvement in the fortunes of Star Wars as it shifted from the d20 system to Fantasy Flight’s own design.
  3. Classic games do remain in the minority of modern sales, but Shadowrun reveals how a classic game can still find high success if supported and marketed well — a lesson that the new Chaosium repeats when we look at online stats.

Roll20’s Top RPGs: 2014-2020

The ’10s have given us new ways to measure the popularity of roleplaying games. We’re no longer dependent upon numbers from polls, brick-and-mortar retailers, or distributors, but now can also see the popularity of games from various online sites.

Roll20 is a virtual tabletop, who has been producing lists of their top games since 2014, as “The Orr Report”. Following is a look at three different reports, from 20142017, and 2020. In a few places the data has been massaged because it was reported differently at different times. The rankings are based on the “games”/”campaigns” count from Roll20, not the “players”.

Top RPGs: 2014

#1 Pathfinder 1e
#2 D&D 3.5e
#3 D&D 5e
#4 D&D 4e
#5 Warhammer RPG *
#6 Star Wars **
#7 AD&D
#8 Shadowrun
#9 World of Darkness
#10 Dungeon World

Top RPGs: 2017

#1 D&D 5e
#2 Pathfinder 1e
#3 D&D 3.5e
#4 Warhammer RPG *
#5 World of Darkness
#6 Star Wars **
#7 D&D 4e
#8 Shadowrun
#9 Call of Cthulhu
#10 Fate

Top RPGs: 2020

#1 D&D 5e
#2 Call of Cthulhu
#3 Pathfinder 1e
#4 Pathfinder 2e
#5 Warhammer RPG *
#6 World of Darkness
#7 D&D 3.5e
#8 Starfinder
#9 Star Wars **
#10 Apocalypse-Powered ***

* Include every Warhammer Fantasy & Warhammer 40k RPG. Yeah, it’s an awful category.

** Includes Star Wars d6 and d20 and Saga and FFG.

*** Any game powered by the Apocalypse. Except, apparently, Dungeon World.

Top RPG Lines of 2014, 2017, 2020: Roll20

Obviously, this data is different from any distributor or retailer sales numbers, because it talks about what people are playing, even absent the constant churn of supplemental production. And, that data tells several interesting stories.

First, it pretty graphically display that D&D 4e (2008) just didn’t win the support of Dungeons & Dragons players. The much older D&D 3.5e (2003) beat it out on every one of these listings, and as of 2020 D&D 4e was gone entirely (actually, it was around #24 on the list), while D&D 3.5e still continues to ride high (albeit, not as high as 5e).

Pathfinder continues to be the #2 FRPG in this venue too, though it’s notable that a year after the release of Pathfinder 2e (2019), over twice as many players continued to support the original edition.

Seeing WarhammerStar Wars, and Shadowrun (1989) in the Orr lists supports data from other places, but there are two games found here that are surprising. The first is World of Darkness: its presence on the recent Orr lists affirms that Onyx Path is doing well using its retail-lite sales model. The other is Call of Cthulhu (1981), which did phenomenally in 2020, racking up 11% of Roll20’s campaigns. I think one can credit that to the new team that took over Chaosium in recent years — one that actually pays attention to things like marketing and partner support.

It’s interesting that all three years have shown indie games in tenth place: Fate (2003), Apocalypse World (2010), and Dungeon World (2012). At least at Roll20, tenth place seems to be the place where indie games intersect with the top ten lists (bringing in 2% of games in 2014, 1% in 2017, and .5% in 2020.

So that’s a look at top RPGs over the last 15 years.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #41 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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