2021 was in many ways a long wait for normalcy — and it hasn’t arrived yet. But the roleplaying industry persevered, and maybe even grew. Meanwhile, I’ve continued to do my own work for the next set of Designers & Dragons books, and that’s included 17 articles here and 16 new company histories over at my Designers & Dragons patreon, for eventual publication as Designers & Dragons: Lost Histories and Designers & Dragons: The ’10s. At this point, I’ve got just more than 50% of that new three-book sequence drafted; I hope to be closer to 80% by next year. But for now, let’s talk about the trends and news of the larger industry!
Rest in Peace. More of our industry heroes passed last year, at least one of them from the ravages of the pandemic that has beset the world. Among the best-known were:
- Terry Amthor. One of the founders of ICE, Terry was known best for his creation of the Shadow World setting. He was also a leader in encouraging the acceptance of LGBTQ members into the roleplaying family, with his “Queer as a Three-sided Die” article, which ran in White Wolf #48 (October 1994), being a groundbreaking discussion of the topic.
- Richard Halliwell. Halliwell was a wargamer who did early work with Bryan Ansell and Citadel Miniatures. This led to his original design work on Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1983) and later collaboration on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986). The effect of these games, and Citadel Miniatures, on the roleplaying field is almost impossible to fully state. Not only did it lead to a darkening of fantasy worlds, but it also created the first true competitor to D&D, which was Halliwell’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle.
- Dave Nalle. If you want a true industry original, that was Dave Nalle, who was opinionated and never afraid to state his own beliefs, but who also was an infectiously enthusiastic designer, starting with his own Ysgarth (1979). He interacted with many designers of the early industry, and everyone knew who he was. In his later years, he continued to influence the industry, albeit as a font designer at Scriptorium and Fontcraft. He died of COVID when it was still running wild in the United States and few had had the opportunity to be vaccinated. For more see: Giants of the Industry: David F. Nalle.
- Blair Reynolds. There is perhaps no one else in the industry whose art was as truly horrific as Blair Reynolds, who is best known for his work at Pagan Publishing, including some ghastly The Unspeakable Oath (1991-Present) covers, but who also did work for other games such as MegaTraveller (1987) and Blue Planet (1997).
- Steve Perrin. One of the most influential people in the industry, Perrin helped to kickstart fantasy gaming (and the SCA!) in the California Bay Area, but is better remembered as the author of RuneQuest (1978). The game popularized both skill systems and Greg Stafford’s World of Glorantha. Other than D&D (1974) itself, the BRP system underlying RuneQuest may be the game to have the widest influence, acting as the foundation for everything from George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series (1987-Present) to the entirety of the Swedish gaming scene (which is now in turn influencing the rest of the world). For more see Giants of the Industry: Steve Perrin.
- Robin Wood. An iconic Dragon magazine cover artist of the ’80s, Wood may be best known in our field for the cover to Dragon #97 (May 1985), showing a harper playing for a dragon, but she was published widely, from her own Tarot deck (1998) to portraits for Anne McCaffrey’s World of Pern.
- Chris Harvey. One of the foundational RPG publishers in the UK, Harvey was best known for his Tunnels & Trolls releases, but he also published Morrow Project as Flying Buffalo UK.
There were many other losses in 2021, among them Joe Adams (SkyRealms of Jorune), Matt Adelsperger (TSR graphic design), Andrew Hackard (Munchkin), Stephen Hickman (Amber), Bill Larson (TSR book department), and Dick Wolf (DragonRaid) … and certainly many others not in my archives.
The Pandemic Continues. It’s impossible to talk about 2021 without talking about the COVID pandemic. It slowly started to lessen over the course of the year, as the distribution of vaccines increased and as the public tired of restrictions, but by the end of the year there were still masking and meeting restrictions in the states talking the science seriously. So there were conventions this year, but they were all squished toward the end of the year, with Gen Con, Origins and Pax West all happening in September and stepping on each others’ toes. As a result of COVID and the competing cons, attendance was limited: Gen Con 2021 ran about 35,000 attendees, half of Gen Con 2019. Unfortunately, this year’s major gaming cons were a bit scary for their refusal to require vaccinations, which easily could have caused an outbreak given how close they were all scheduled. Dragon*Con showed how it could be done this year, and for next year Gen Con and Origins have already announced they’ll be requiring vaccination.
It was probably the international shipping problems caused by COVID that had the largest impact on the industry. Due to a calamitous breakdown of shipping channels, costs skyrocketed, with some publishers reporting their shipping costs were up tenfold over 2019 (threefold or fourfold seemed more common), which is absolutely unsustainable for our business. Add on the fact that shipments were constantly delayed, in large part due to problems at US shipping yards (such as Long Beach Refusing to Stack Containers More than Two High for Aesthetic Reasons). We may not have yet seen how dire this slowdown will be, but Ravensburger North America halting North American orders may offer a preview. Overall, it’s shocking that we haven’t seen a flood of roleplaying companies in bankruptcy given the notoriously thin margins of the industry. There’s always 2022, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that everyone manages to hold on.
Of course online roleplaying continued in 2021, unshockingly given the necessities of the pandemic. But the market may already be saturated: Astral tabletop couldn’t make a go of it even given the very favorable conditions. Nonetheless, there remain scrappy young companies ready to go up against the big dogs at Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, with Owlbear Rodeo being the newest example of a lighter, more casual virtual tabletop. A more interesting development may have come from Monte Cook Games, who released The Darkest House (2021), a game specifically designed for online play. Where online play will go post-pandemic is still to be seen!
RPG is Becoming Content. I’ve written in recent years how we’re seeing new mass-market streams such as DC Universe All Star Games related to roleplaying games. In 2021, it became clear that this is part of an increasing trend of roleplaying games feeding media content, much as has happened with DC and Marvel comics.
- D&D Live 2021 was streamed on Peacock, the newest streaming TV station.
- Warhammer+ launched with animations and weekly hobby shows. Unfortunately, this also led to them cracking down on fans producing animations, creating yet another public relations fiasco for GW.
- The World of Darkness Universe was announced for TV & film.
- The D&D movie was also announced as part of a larger universe.
Meanwhile, the streaming classics that helped launch D&D to its current level of high success continued, led by Critical Role — who, thanks to a leak, we learned earned almost $5 million a year for the past few years. (Some people were inexplicably upset over this revelation, rather than being thrilled for the success of someone in our community.)
Wizards of the Coast Leads the Industry. There’s no doubt that Wizards of the Coast continues to lead the industry, with D&D 5e (2014) making roleplaying games more popular than ever. They’ve apparently learned from the mishaps of D&D 3.5e (2003) and D&D 4e (2008) and have opted not to rock the boat. They’ve announced that they’ll be producing new versions of the D&D 5e books for the anniversary in 2024, but are very clear that they’ll be entirely compatible, and thus likely not a new edition. It’s a nice change from the constant rebooting of the ’00s which badly destabilized the industry (especially when D&D 4e crashed and burned).
Overall, Wizards was so successful that their revenues were up a massive 24%, which they attributed to “record-setting sales for both Dungeons & Dragons … and Magic: The Gathering” (emphasis mine). Hasbro is so pleased with Wizards’ growth that they’ve reorganized the company into three units, one of which is “Wizards & Digital”. In other words, Wizards is now considered to be one of the biggest and most important properties at Hasbro.
Meanwhile, Wizards also seems fairly determined to lead the industry as stewards of diversity (standing on the shoulders of a lot of smaller companies who have been pushing the ideals for years). Candlekeep Mysteries (2021) contained a first of its kind wheelchair-accessible dungeon, then Wizards announced the existence of good drow, who were more fully revealed in R.A. Salvatore’s Starlight Enclave (2021) — all in the name of fighting against the racism of biological essentialism. Each of these announcements seemed to bring contempt and complaint from two different sides of the internet: on the one hand, you had bigots fighting against the new diversity coming into the industry, and the other hand you had progressive purists shouting it wasn’t enough and Wizards was badly flawed. Often the complaints involve gross misrepresentations, such as recent claims that Wizards was eliminating alignment and turning beholders and mind flayers into good guys (none of which were true: these were full-on lies related to much more subtle changes focused on the removal of suggested racial alignments and of standard personalities for those and a few other monsters). It’s rather stunning that Wizards has maintained their course despite the criticism from all sides.
R.A. Salvatore’s work is also notable because it’s been the only fiction derived from D&D since the fall of Wizards’ fiction department in 2016 (which is a somewhat surprising reversal of the trend of RPGs being turned into content, but has to do with how difficult life has become in the world of fiction publishing). But that’s about to change. After the successful conclusion of their lawsuit against Wizards, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman have announced their next Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Deceit. The introduction of a new heroine, who appears to be black, reflects right back on the diversity initiatives at Wizards proper.
Paizo Struggles. For a few years, it was hard to see how Paizo was doing, with Pathfinder 2e (2019) getting decidedly mixed reviews for the same sin that it was created to combat: too much variation from D&D 3.5e. But, a few years beyond that, there seems to have been more acceptance of the game, with players appreciating the simplified action economy, the better balance, and the ease of gamemaster design. Maybe. Roll 20’s stats still seem to indicate that PF 1e is doing better than PF 2e, at least for their online play. In any case, Paizo seems to still be the #2 RPG producer, with the only threat being R. Talsorian, likely in a short-term blip due to the mass-market attention garnered by Cyberpunk RED (2020) thanks to the video game.
With that said, Paizo still faced considerable struggles in 2021. Part of that is that they’re in the same uncomfortable position as Wizards in wanting to make their games progressive and receiving critique from all directions. After apologizing for their police-focused Agents of Edgewatch adventure path in 2020, this year they were called to task for their continued inclusion of slavery in Golarion.
But that’s all burying the lede, because Paizo’s big crisis in 2021 originated with a tell-all Twitter thread, which suggested that Paizo workers were being badly taken advantage of. The veracity of at least some of that complaint became clear when Paizo workers unionized, and with support from freelancers (who withheld work from Paizo), was ultimately recognized by the company. It was the first such unionization of a roleplaying-focused company … ever.
The Rest of the Field. Following Wizards and Paizo (and perhaps R. Talsorian) there are a number of companies that are successful and/or prolific in the modern day, including Catalyst, Chaosium, Cubicle 7, Modiphius, Mongoose, and the mishmash of people working on World of Darkness games, but the one other company that most caught my eye in 2021 was Fria Ligan (The Free League). Their kickstarter for The One Ring 2e (2021) brought in $1.8M dollars, making it one of the most successful Kickstarter ever; they resurrected the GDW classic Twilight: 2000 (2021) following another great Kickstarter last year (that one bringing in about $600k); and they acquired rights to Drakar och Demoner, the game that got the very successful Swedish roleplaying field going, just in time to produce a 40th anniversary edition next year!
Community Content is Here to Stay. There weren’t necessarily any big historic moments for community content in 2021, but it’s increasingly obvious that it’s here to stay and that it’s producing content that often is just as good as that produced by the publishers themselves. Call it the ’20s version of small press, but with big-press production standards. And they’re genuinely presses now, because we’ve got community-content publishers appearing to work on games for multiple systems — so this isn’t just fans producing content for a singular game.
I also don’t think you can talk about community content without talking about Chaosium, doubtless the most successful community content publisher after Wizards and the DM’s Guild. As of this writing, they hold the top eleven community-content spots at DTRPG, and that level of success has been typical over the whole year. (Of those eleven, ten are Gloranthan releases, which recalls the huge explosion of Gloranthan fanzines in the ’90s: what’s goes around comes around.)
The Kerfluffles. Does every year in roleplaying have this much drama, or it is just that everyone is locked inside their homes and bored on the internet?
The story of the Fake TSR was certainly the one you couldn’t take your eyes of, like a horrific car accident. Russ Morrissey has recorded most of the data points. Basically, Justin LaNasa and associates, including Ernie Gygax, acquired old TSR trademarks in a way that Wizards of the Coast is now saying were fraudulent, tried to license those trademarks, formed a new company called TSR, made a number of transphobic and anti-diversity statements, and then tried to sue Wizards of the Coast (in the wrong jurisdiction). Meanwhile, Wizards has sent along a Cease & Desist (which seemed to result in the abandonment of many of their trademarks) and is now asking for the rest to be cancelled. The big question here is whether the TSR name has been irrevocably tainted by all of this.
The other big kerfluffle came when Luke Crane ran a kickstarter for “The Perfect RPG” in a way that many felt was intended to restore his friend Adam Koebel’s reputation. When it was revealed that Koebel was involved with the project, many other contributors to The Perfect RPG felt used and ended their participation, the project was cancelled, and then Luke Crane left his position at Kickstarter as Community Head following a “mutual decision.
Rehabilitating reputations in the industry can be difficult, especially when it’s felt like the person in question never apologized. So two other wildly successful Kickstarters this year were seen as problematic because of their leaders: Mark MacKinnon led Anime 5e (2021) to a success of just over $600,000, but continues to face questions over his crash of Guardians of Order in the ’00s, and the many unpaid professionals; while Magpie Games’ Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game (2022?) brought in an astronomical $9.5M from 80,000 backers, despite questions over Mark Diaz Truman’s attack on people opposed to a problematic designer, several years ago. But perhaps the kickstarter successes speak for themselves, even if people continue to have questions.
At Last, the Kickstarters. I’ve been recording the success of crowdfunding roleplaying games since 2011, when I reported that Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple made a “massive” $24,383. Within a few years we had a half-dozen RPG-focused products (e.g., not miniatures or dice or tables or whatever) a year breaking $100,000. But we’ve never seen a year like 2021, when a similar number broke a million dollars. That’s nearly a ten-fold increase in a ten-year time span.
|1. Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game
|2. Fools Gold Campaign (5e)
|Hit Point Press
|3. Tantares RPG (5e)
|4. The One Ring 2e
|5. Heliana’s Guide to Monster Hunting (5e)
|6. The Seeker’s Guide to Twisted Taverns (5e)
|Tuesday Night Games
|8. Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire (5e)
|9. Dungeons of Drakkenheim (5e)
|10. Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent (5e)
|11. Coyote & Crow
|Coyote & Crow
Obviously a lot of this is D&D related (which is another data point for the extreme success of D&D 5e), but a lot of these games such as Avatar Legends and Mothership instead evolved out of the indie side of the industry. Though some of these Kickstarters were supported by multiple book releases or in at least one case miniatures, every one had 10,000 or more patrons, demonstrating a high level of growth. (80,000 backers for Avatar Legends!) The 10,000 backer mark was a shock when Evil Hat hit it back in 2013 with Fate Core; the fact that so many more publishes are doing that well now speaks to how much the industry has grown since.
If Kickstarter helped to ramp the industry back up in the ’10s when it was suffering from D&D 4e doldrums, it’s now defining the industry.
Let’s end on that positive note for a somewhat trying year and hope that 2022 will see more tremendous success and fewer pandemic problems.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #60 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.