2020 has certainly been the most eventful year ever, and that’s had real repercussions on the roleplaying industry, as we’ll discuss. Meanwhile, Designers & Dragons has also been eventful because changes in my work allowed me to make it a top priority, including work on Lost Histories17 new articles here, and a handful of interviews including talking with Petter Nallo of HelmgastMark Corbett and Jim Mozley of Pavic TalesErol Otus the fantasy artist, and Greg Porter of BTRC (with the rest of that last interview to come next week). It’s good that I’ve had the extra time, because it’s also allowed me to write a more extensive report on this year’s extensive happenings.

Thank You, Industry. Though this yearly report regularly lists some of the people who have passed in the previous year, it should always be taken as a thank you to those people, remembering the great things that they’ve done for our industry. Though more fell this year, including a preponderance of people from the industry’s early days, we can be thankful for what they’ve contributed to our hobby.

  • Tony Berry. Tony opened Leisure Games of London because the footwear wholesale store he worked for went out of business and he couldn’t find a good locale for a sports store. Of such happenstance is our hobby made. Leisure Games went on to become one of the most notable game stores in the UK. Tony was also an influence on people in the industry, including Angus Abranson, who started working for him at age 14 and later founded Cubicle 7 and Chronicle City.
  • Brian Blume. I suspect Brian has gotten somewhat of a bad rap, because he and his brother Kevin have never told their story about what happened at TSR. In any case, Brian was the one that put in the money to print Dungeons & Dragons (1974); without him, we might not have a hobby. He eventually sold out to Lorraine Williams, and the rest is history.
  • Jackie Cassada. Jackie was an RPGA author before she went on to a World of Darkness career, where she extensively wrote for the White Wolf games for over 25 years alongside her partner Nicky Rea. Together, Jackie and Nicky helped to break the glass ceiling for roleplaying development (following in the footsteps of Penny Williams, Jean Rabe, and others). She was one of a third of a million Americans killed by COVID-19 in 2020, due to grotesque mismanagement and politicization of the disease by the Trump administration.
  • Kim Eastland. Kim was the second director of the RPGA, who expanded it from Frank Mentzer’s strong foundation. Afterward, he wrote for a variety of TSR projects in the ’80s, including adventures for Zeb Cook’s Conan (1985), the Alpha to Omega campaign (1986-1987) for Gamma World Third Edition (1986), The Minrothad Guilds (1989) for the Known World, and some supplements for Marvel Super Heroes (1984) and Star Frontiers (1982).
  • Jim Holloway. Jim was an outstanding, often humorous artist, best-known for his iconic work on Paranoia (1984).
  • Len Lakofka. Though old-school gamers may know Len for his work on the Lendore Isles adventures, starting with L1: The Secret of Bone Hill (1981), his influence on D&D went far deeper than that, from commenting and critiquing early AD&D manuscripts to creating the Suel pantheon for Greyhawk. For more, see “Giants of the Industry: Lenard Lakofka”.
  • Scott Palter. Scott was the founder of West End Games and much later Final Sword Productions. His design work is relatively scant because he was primarily a businessman, creating West End to publish imported games (and a few of his own designs), bringing together superstars like Greg Costikyan, Eric Goldberg, and Ken Rolston, and securing critical licenses such as Star Wars. For more, see “West End Games in Designers & Dragons: The ’80s.
  • Monica Stephens. Another underacknowledged giant in our industry, Monica worked at Steve Jackson Games for nearly 30 years, doing everything from typesetting and editing to print buying and accounting to landscaping. The roleplaying industry is built not just by the best-known designers and artists, but also by thousands like Monica who more quietly make everything work.

Strange Happenings at the Circle W. It appears that something is going on at Wizards of the Coast, possibly something big, but thus far we can only see public repercussions, in particular two lawsuits.

But, to rewind a moment, things started happening last year when Hasbro took back Avalon Hill from WotC. Around the same time, long-time industry veteran Ray Winninger took over for Mike Mearls as head of the D&D team, something that WotC finally acknowledged this year.

That brings us to 2020, when two high-profile lawsuits against WotC were filed: Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman sued over Dragonlance novels while Gale Force 9 sued over other licenses. What really caught everyone’s eyes is that WotC appeared to be engaging in a really egregious and purposeful refusal to approve products for their licensees in both cases. We don’t know what the licenses read, of course, and we don’t know what the interactions were, but good-faith approval is usually a requirement of contracts.

This is all made more bizarre because WotC is enjoying its sixth year of consecutive growth and even nay-sayers (like me) are beginning to buy into the idea that D&D might be doing better than it was in the ’80s. So why the apparent upheavals at WotC? Is it just Hasbro tightening the choke collar on its subsidiary? Or something more?

I will say one thing it’s certainly not: the odds of Hasbro selling a valuable property like D&D seem close to nil, despite what would-be pundits have said. But as for what is? I hope we’ll learn in 2021.

The Other Goliaths. This yearly chronicle doesn’t try to report out everyone’s notable events, but it’s worth noting what’s going on with a few other big players.

Inclusivity Rises. I talked some about diversity in 2018, primarily focusing on new publications and publishers that reached out to people of all races, genders, nationalities, and sexualities. That has certainly continued into 2020, at places such as Chaosium, who has brought Harlem Unbound (2017, 2020) to the mass-market.

But in 2020 there’s also been a serious attempt to recognize some of our industry’s less inclusive publications of years past, and address them in the present. Evil Hat issued a disclaimer about H.P. Lovecraft’s bigotry in their Fate of Cthulhu (2020) RPG. Paizo meanwhile felt the need to apologize for their police-focused “Agents of Edgewatch” adventure path as soon as they published it because of our society’s growing attention toward the problems of traditional policing.

However, it was really Wizards of the Coast who was at the heart of reviewing and revising products to ensure inclusivity. They revamped D&D races to allow any intelligent species to be any alignment, fighting against racial stereotyping that’s actually enabled alt-righters and other racists. When a podcaster began complaining about the stereotypes in Oriental Adventures (1985), WotC added a “legacy disclaimer” to their older products. They thought the whole topic important enough that they then officially published an article on “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons”.

(Within all this, it should be mentioned that Wizards of the Coast was also accused of systemic racism at the company by a few different people, which bears note when talking about their work toward inclusivity.)

There is considerable complexity in this issue and in its solutions. There have been complaints about rewriting or demonizing our history. But there are also considerable advantages, the best being welcoming a larger number of people to our tables and making sure that they everyone has fun — which is ultimately the purpose of these games.

Mind you, there’s still a loathsome segment of the roleplaying industry that demands to retain their right to be racists, bigots, and nationalists. The difference is, they’re now being shown the door, so that they can exercise their rights over on parler and other hives of scum and villainy. So when Bob Bledsaw II and III began spewing racist nonsense, much of it antisemitic, Bat in the Attic, Frog God Games, and DTRPG all cut ties immediately. Similarly, when one of the OSR’s more problematic designers claimed that the OSR supported Trump (and thus racism and nationalism), there were quick responses stating, “Nazis Not Welcome”. The Warhammer 40k community is similarly having to fight its own racists.

To close out this topic (for 2020 at least) it’s worth noting that the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, which was focused on video games, also included some tabletop RPGs, including Blades in the Dark (2016), Lancer (2019), and Troika! (2016). Not only does this show the industry’s continued support for equality, but those are also RPGs that are available to 800,000 people! This was just one of the efforts spotlighted by the 2020 Diana Jones Award, who put a capstone on everything by granting an award for Black Excellence in Gaming.

This will probably be an ongoing issue that will reverberate throughout this new decade, as we find the proper balance in everyones’ levels of comfort and fun.

The Year of the Plague. Obviously, you can’t talk about 2020 without talking about COVID-19 and how it’s affected our industry (while affecting the whole world).

To start with, lots of game companies reported that they were working from home. Whether this will increase the virtualness of publishers in the future has yet to be seen, though companies going virtual was definitely a trend of the ’00s and ’10s.

Similarly, conventions went virtual. Gary Con may have been the first, rather remarkably stepping back from physical meeting way back in March. Origins dealt with things much more poorly: first living in an alternate reality where they thought they could reschedule to October, then canceling their virtual replacement for the June event due to a failure to follow the inclusivity trends of the year, then canceling their ill-conceived October event. Two conventions alike in dignity, but one who actually respected the varied environments of 2020 on very short notice, and one who did not despite having much more time. (Most other cons fell to the Gary Con side of things, with lots of virtual events replacing traditional get-togethers.)

For a while, it looked like the biggest COVID impact might be the temporary closure of Diamond and Alliance, the main distributors for comics and roleplaying books in the US. It was absolutely unprecedented, surely damaged some companies in the industry, and hopefully made people reconsider their use of a single distributor, but it was ultimately a blip as they opened back up two months later with considerably less fanfare.

Instead, the biggest change was probably on the players’ side of thing. Virtual gaming has been the much less-loved kin of tabletop gaming for many years, though Roll 20 and Fantasy Grounds have both found success. In 2020, those virtual games came much more into the mainstream. Just the increase in search terms for Roll20 speaks volumes. Roll20 themselves has seen a notable increase in new users while Fantasy Grounds has seen a tenfold increase in new users. Even the newer virtual tables got some attention: Astral jumped in with two months free credit early in the year, while the Foundry Virtual Table Top got its first full release. James Lowder may have offered the most nuanced statement on the trend, saying: “There was already a migration to online gaming that was happening in tabletop and this has accelerated it”. When the (virtual) Arcanacon talked about this all, they called it “Gaming with COVID: The Unplanned Table Top Revolution”.

Legacy Expands. Throughout the ’10s, I talked about how legacy products were returning, mainly referring to classic RPGs from the ’70s and ’80s. That continued into 2020, but one of the stories seemed to be that the definition of legacy is broad: we saw returns from a variety of decades, with fans being as excited for products from ’80s and ’00s.

  • The Fantasy Trip (’70s) has been back for a couple years now, but what’s notable is that it outsold GURPS, based on Steve Jackson’s full-year 2019 report.
  • Twilight: 2000 (’80s) had a very successful Kickstarter for Fria Ligan.
  • Cortex Prime (’90s, ’00s), the newest incarnation of the game system that began life as Sovereign Stone (1999), before being revamped for Serenity (2005), shipped in its newest incarnation, Cortex Prime.
  • Pathfinder (’00s) is still going strong, but a new version was also announced, Pathfinder for Savage Worlds, with a Kickstarter planned in a few weeks.

Back to the Masses. The mass-market attention to roleplaying has been the focus of several recent yearly chronicles, and that continued in 2020. Nowadays, roleplaying is obviously part of our cultural gestalt, not just a geeky little corner. And it’s not just about D&D!

Finally, the Kickstarters. So how did Kickstarters do in 2020? Quite well. Here’s a list of everything I found that funded for more than $100,000. I did my best to adhere to pure RPG books, excluding dice, game tables, streaming shows, miniatures, maps, references, card decks, and terrains. In some cases, however, the line has gotten very narrow, such as The Griffon’s Saddlebag, Book One, for 5e, which is a book that reprints magic items from cards. It was also harder than ever to pick out the RPGs from board games, because their art all increasingly looks the same, some of the RPGs are now shipping with miniatures, and the board games include increasing number of fantasy co-ops and “story-driven adventure games”. Convergence is certainly a trend for 2020.

In any case, consider this a 95% accurate listing:

1. Ptolus for 5e & CypherMonte Cook Games$782,923
2. Grim Hollow: The Players Guide for 5eGhostfire Gaming$741,685
3. Twilight: 2000 RPGFria LiganSEK 5,424,755
4. The Griffon’s Saddlebag Book One for 5eGriffin Macaulay$663,131
5. Heckna! for 5eHit Point Press$653,970
6. Deadlands: The Weird WestPinnacle$568,636
7. Creatures for 5eStudio Agate$531,172
8. Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove for 5eRuss Charles£370,302
9. Planet Apocalypse for 5e (& Board Game)Petersen Games$491,217
10. Hellboy for 5eMantic Games£360,519
11. Stargate SG-1 RPGWyvern Games$426,806
12. Tome of Beasts II for 5eKobold Press$413,021
13. Altered Carbon RPGHunters Books$372,547
14. Torchbearer 2e RPGBurning Wheel$359,031
15. Menagerie of Magic for 5eAdam O’Brien£250,766
16. Stibbles’ Codex of Companions for 5eEldermancy$340,087
17. Wanderhome RPGPossum Creek Games$306,511
18. Nightfell for 5eMana Project Studio€242,703
19. Thirsty Sword Lesbians RPGEvil Hat Games$298,568
20. Old-School Essentials: Advanced FantasyExalted Funeral$291,549
21. Roll & PlaySam Bartlett£209,486
22. Dark Matter Starter Set for 5eMage Hand Press$264,628
23. Svilland & Freyja’s Tears for 5eDream Realm Storytellers£189,398
24. Southlands for 5eKobold Press$251,861+
25. Trudvang Adventures for 5eRiotMindsSEK 1,934,145
26. BranCalonia for 5eAcheron Books€190,262
27. Horror Guide & Scenarios for KULTHelmgastSEK 1,839,910
28. Worlds without Number RPGSine Nomine$223,463
29. The Ultimate Guide to Alchemy, Crafting & Enchanting for 5eNord Games$215,371
30. Trophy RPGGauntlet Gaming Community$210,141
31. Fading Suns: Pax AlexiusUlisses Spiele€162,500
32. Carbon 2185 RPG & Terminal OverdriveDragon Turtle Games$196,906
33. Technocracy Reloaded for M20Onyx Path$193,720
34. Urban Shadows 2e RPGMagpie Games£182,198
25. Heroes of the Cypher SystemMonte Cook Games$178,643
36. The Red Opera for 5eApotheosis Studios€129,439
37. Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters for 5eEN Publishing£126,628
38. Age of Antiquity for 5eAruzian Publishin$163,105
39. Wondrous Expeditions: ForestsLoreSmyth$161,312
40. Scarlet Citadel for 5eKobold Press$155,429
41. Cult of the Blood Gods for V5eOnyx Path$150,391
42. Scion: DemigodOnyx Path$143,805
43. Dragonstew for 5eMetal Weave Games€115,654
44. The Book of Monstrous Might for 5eBrian Berg$139,971
45. Alice is Missing RPGHunters Books$138,723
46. Dark Romanticism for EsterenStudio Agate$136,333
47. Wildsea RPGQuillhound Games$135,840
48. Adventure Box Sets for 5eGooey Cube$134,180
49. Adventure Journal for 5eScott Kurtz$128,650
50. Complete Character Chronicles for PF2eBeadle & Grimm$126,781
51. Exalted Vales for 5eTheInkPlotCA $160,252
52. Asunder RPGAdam Lawson$118,992
53. Blackstorm Realms for 5eJetpack7$111,128
54. Dragonflight for 5e2CGaming$108,683
55. Xenolanguage RPGThorny Games$102,409
56. Hunter: The Vigil 2e RPGOnyx Path$101,564
57. Jiangshi RPGWet Ink Games$100,688

The 57 total RPGs that funded for more than $100,000 was only up a bit from 48 last year, but the fact that more than 40% of that was in the last quarter of the year says that we really have no idea how COVID-19 affected the total: would it have otherwise been much higher, or were the projects just deferred a few months? The number of Kickstarters that brought in more than $200,000 may tell a more complete story, as it approximately doubled from last year.

However, that increase in high-flying projects may in part be due to creators getting more creative in figuring out how to raise more money from a single Kickstarter. A few years ago, a number of publishers were Kickstarting a bunch of books all at once, but that seemed to result in some pushback from retailers who didn’t like getting a pile of SKUs dumped on them all at once. This year, close to half-a-dozen RPGs supplemented their game with miniatures (hopefully not leading to less attention to design, as many feel happened when the board game industry trailblazed a similar trend a decade or so ago), another few paired a core book reprint with an adventure supplement, and Sandy Petersen most uniquely mixed a board game supplement and a roleplaying adaptation of the same game.

The 57 RPG products were a real mixture of mainstream, indie, and OSR — though the OSR was the most lightly represented, perhaps because of the huge influx of 5e products. And it really was huge, expanding on the same trend from 2019. If you ever doubt Wizards’ statements of 5e’s success, its explosion onto the crowd-funding scenes in recent years supports that statement (but also speaks to the hunger for 5e supplements, given their relative dearth at Wizards). Those 5e supplements were also notable for how many were totally unique settings. This isn’t just adventure production (or at least, that’s not what’s raising the big bucks).

Kickstarters have gotten so successful for the roleplaying industry that this yearly list is becoming unsupportable at the current level. Compare it to the 15 products from 2014 and you can see how much Kickstarters have made the industry grow.

Farewell to 2020. That’s it for 2020. Expect to see lots more here in 2021, as Designers & Dragons continues to be one of my top priorities. Meanwhile, I’ll be continuing work at the Designers & Dragons Patreon to produce the “Lost Histories” and the “TSR Codex”, each of which will be a multi-volume set of works, and at least one of which I hope to see Kickstarted in 2022. Hopefully we can can make the over-$100,000 list too!

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #43 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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