2023 was a year that could have easily been eclipsed by Wizards of the Coast’s constant missteps. It’s not just that they’re the biggest company in the industry, but also that their missteps were so constant over the course of the year. And, to a certain extent they do overshadow the year. But there were lots of interesting repercussions of their least cooperative decisions, and there was some other stuff going on as well.
In Memory. But first, memories of some of the creators and friends that we lost this year.
- Bryan Ansell changed the face of the gaming industry through his foundation of Citadel Miniatures with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. From thence came Warhammer and Warhammer 40k, some of the few games to ever challenge Dungeons & Dragons (and beyond that, powerful and evocative settings that have generated universes of content).
- Russ Nicholson was an amazing black-and-white artist whose dense, textured pieces largely defined the look of fantasy roleplaying in the UK. Fans beyond the British Isles will probably best remember his work for the Fiend Folio (1981), including the eye of fear & flame, the revenant, and a variety of slaadi, while UK fans might instead remember his work in many of the early Fighting Fantasy books.
- Peter L. Rice was one of the co-founders of The Companions, a roleplaying publisher of the ’80s that was before its time in producing adventures with real-world themes that went beyond classic dungeons.
- Jonathan M. Thompson was the founder of Battlefield Press, a small press that produced Thompson’s co-designs including Gaslight Victorian Fantasy (2009) and the newest Robotech RPG (2019), focused on Macross. He also worked widely in the industry, including design on Prime Directive d20 (2005).
- Darren Watts was best known as the co-founder of Defenders of Justice Inc., who took over the Hero line in the ’00s. But he was also a lichpin of the roleplaying community, supporting others at a multitude of conventions.
- Teeuwynn Woodruff was a pioneering female game designer who worked for White Wolf and Wizards of the Coast and co-founded Lone Shark Games. She freelanced ever more widely.
Farewell also to Thomas Cook (Mayfair writer), Eric Dow (Steve Jackson Games staff), Kelly Grant (Call of Cthulhu writer), Adam Rich (the voice of Presto the Magician) and many others, and condolences to their family and friends.
The WotC Disaster. Wizards of the Coast unfortunately spent 2023 trying to spin gold into straw. In a year in which they should have gone from strength to strength, as Dungeons & Dragons exploded into the mass market like never before, they instead shot themselves in the foot. Again. And again. And again. And they alienated huge swaths of their fanbase as they did, let alone the entirety of the roleplaying industry.
That started, of course, with their attempt to revoke the OGL, a document that they’re encouraged people to build their companies upon, telling them it was eternal. As information leaked, and as Wizards tried to obfuscate and backtrack over the course of January, I wrote a series of three articles that remain important as historic documents: “Is the OGL Era Over? (Part One)”, “Is the OGL Era Over? (Part Two)”, and “Is the OGL Over Over? (Part Three)”. In the end, Wizards backed off their threats and instead dumped D&D 5e in the Creative Commons. But the damage was done: the industry had learned that Wizards was willing to try and exploit loopholes in their contracts such as the OGL and that trusting Wizards had the potential to result in disaster, so many of them moved on (more on that momentarily).
But Wizards wasn’t done. At a Creators Summit in April, bloggers, Youtubers, and third-party creators showed up to talk with Wizards about the year’s problems. But Wizards seemed more intent on a marketing event. The creators were non-plussed and eventually rebelled, turning the Summit into a referendum on Wizards’ business & hiring practices.
But the hits kept on coming when Wizards published Bigby Presents: Glory of the Giants (2023) with art that was so obviously created by an AI that it was caught by readers just perusing the book. Kind of not Wizards’ fault because it was a freelance artist who submitted the AI art, but kind of really their fault because they’d been seeing the extreme backlash against AI for almost a year, and they opted not to update their creator guidelines to forbid it. Except they finally did after they were caught out, but then Wizards turned around and (probably) used AI art themselves in an ad for Magic: The Gathering. Apparently the August ban didn’t include their marketing department. Things were so bad by the end of the year that they got called out twice more, once by fans incorrectly identifying art for the new Player’s Handbook as being created by AI, and another time by fans incorrectly thinking that an in-house graphic design position had to do with AI. Yes, fans were wrong those last two times, but it demonstrated how much Wizards had poisoned their relationship with their fanbase.
Magic: The Gathering was the source of Wizards’ other big PR disaster for the year, when a fan was accidentally sent copies of a new Magic: The Gathering set in advance, and Wizards sent The Pinkertons to threaten and intimidate the fan, to get the legally purchased cards back. According to unnamed sources, who remained nameless because they were afraid of retribution, Wizards has been using the Pinkertons since at least 2017. And, just in case you’re not familiar with them, they’re an extra-legal security force perhaps best known for their anti-union attacks, but generally bad guys with a history going back a hundred years. If not for the OGL debacle, their usage would have been a black eye that Wizards would have spent the whole year trying to overcome.
Historically, Wizards of the Coast’s actions of 2023 look somewhat similar to TSR’s in the 1995, when they were harassing Gary Gygax, driving GDW out of business, and threatening their online fans. Back then, it turned out to be some combination of terrible management and the desperation that resulted from terrible management. And though D&D and Wizards of the Coast are doing historically well, Hasbro laid off almost 2,000 staff members in 2023, or 30% of their workforce, including 1,100 just before Christmas, and including luminaries at Wizards such as Mike Mearls and Eytan Bernstein. Now that might look like desperation, at least for the larger Hasbro entity. It certainly represents the newest instance of a slow death of Wizards’ institutional memory, resulting in a disconnect with fandom and the industry, and disasters exactly like what we saw in 2023.
OGL Repercussions. Wizards’ frontal assault on the OGL had rippling effects across much of the roleplaying industry (demonstrating Wizards’ continued importance as the huge central figure in roleplaying).
To start with, many roleplaying publishers who weren’t Wizards of the Coast saw greatly increased sales in the early part of the year. Kobold Press said their sales quadrupled while Chaosium sold through months of Call of Cthulhu books in a single month and Paizo similarly saw an eight-month supply of Pathfinder and Starfinder disappear. Troll Lord Games announced $30,000 in sales of Castles & Crusades in just a week. Fans were obviously mad at Wizards and eager to try out other games.
But, it wasn’t all positive for RPG producers. Far from it! Many who had cleaved close to material found in the D&D SRDs suddenly saw their entire company in danger, and they had to figure out how to resolve that. For Paizo, potentially Wizards’ biggest competition, that meant stripping all of their SRD content from Pathfinder, down to the owlbears. It also meant created a new open-license for everyone to use, the Open Resource Creative (ORC) license.
Many members of the OSR similarly announced they were moving away from the SRD. Thus Basic Fantasy Role-Playing said they were going to excise SRD bits; Troll Lords announced a fire sale for their 5e material; Dan Proctor decided that Labyrinth Lord 2e wouldn’t be a strict retroclone; and Necrotic Gnome turned their Dolmenwood setting into a standalone RPG. It’s not entirely clear if all of these moves from 5e and/or standard D&D rules will hold, but if they do, the whole attack on the OGL may actually prove very beneficial for the OSR, because it’s providing room for games like Dolmenwood and Labyrinth Lord to really spread their wings and become their own things.
Speaking of their own things, at least two major new fantasy game systems are drafting off of the anger over Wizards’ attack on the OGL (though they both seem to have been in process previous to January). Kobold Press raised $1.1M for Tales of the Valiant, the game they originally announced as Black Flag, while MCDM Productions is doing even better with their MCDM Backerkit (unsurprisingly; Matt Colville could write a book on leveraging social media into a successful business).
We’ll likely recognize even more repercussions in the years to come, but the bottom line is that Wizards clearly didn’t consider the unintended consequences that would come about when they tried to take back a license they’d granted to the industry 23 years ago. Those consequences have gone far beyond a public relations disaster.
More on AIs. The birth of LLM-style AIs in 2022 seems like a billion years ago, but it turns out that Wizards wasn’t the only gaming company having problems with them in 2023. Public sentiment seems to have notably soured on the tech development. Over in the world of mass-media publication, the CEO of Sports Illustrated even got fired for using AI to make up fake writers(!). If anything, the anti-AI sentiment seems stronger in roleplaying than elsewhere because fans have a closer relationship with the creators producing the material.
Despite that, companies have been successfully Kickstarting with AI art. RiotMinds got called out for AI cover artwork but had a successful Kickstarter for those 5e books. Stronghold Games did even better with a new Terraforming Mars kickstarter. (This also reveals how flaccid Kickstarter’s anti-AI stance of 2022 was.) So are fans angry about AI but still willing to buy their favorite products when they use the technology? 2023 suggested the answer was yes.
Fortunately, some companies are being more ethical, possibly to their detriment. Nightfall Games found that one of their “artists” had lied to them and fraudulently submitted 16 pieces of AI generated art, which they excised from their book. Ironically, that book was Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which is of course about world-destroying AIs going online.
More on Streaming. It’s no secret that the streaming of Actual Plays has been a big success for years. That’s why Matt Colville doing so well with MCDM isn’t a big surprise. But it may not have even been the biggest streaming RPG success of 2023. At least as amazing is the fact that Critical Role sold out 12,500 seats at Wembley Arena in London for a live show. The pictures of all those people gathered to watch a roleplaying game demonstrate just how far the hobby has come.
The Mass Market Expansion. In fact, if there was a story for 2023 other than Wizards of the Coast repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot, it was Wizards of the Coast repeatedly seeing Dungeons & Dragons raised up to new levels of mass-market recognition.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves was (finally) the movie that fans had dreamed of, earning a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, even if its box office fell short when compared to the high cost of production. The Baldur’s Gate 3 computer game was an even bigger success story: it earned a metascore of 96 on metacritic with reviews saying things like “the most successful and authentic take on D&D in the tabletop franchise’s 50-year history”. If you want proof that diversity sells, this is it, so much so that homophobic bigots tried to undo the inclusivity intrinsic to the game. Baldur’s Gate 3 did so well that it got flagged as one of the bright spots at Hasbro overall. Rumors even suggest that Netflix is looking to produce a Baldur’s Gate 3 movie or TV show! But, the capstone for D&D’s mass-media success in 2023 was surely the announcement that the US Postal Service would be releasing Dungeons & Dragons postage stamps in 2024 for the 50th anniversary. Could there be any bigger sign that roleplaying has reached the mass market? It makes the late-2022 claims that D&D was undermonetized, which seemed to be an element in Wizard’s attack on the OGL, look very, very foolish.
But D&D wasn’t the only game to enjoy mass-market success in 2023. It wasn’t even the only game to get stamps. Warhammer got its own postage stamps over in the UK for its 40th anniversary. Meanwhile, Rebellion has acquired Tunnels & Trolls, which could make it the next mass-market success. (Fingers crossed!) Finally, Evil Genius had a chance at mass-market attention because while it was working on an RPG for the Rebel Moon movie, it also created a missing world bible for the setting (shades of West End Games and Star Wars decades ago). But then Netflix terminated the deal and things have descended into lawsuits. (In any case, the first Rebel Moon movie has been very poorly received, so there might not have been much there there for Evil Genius in any case.)
It Takes a Thieves. Sometimes roleplaying growth isn’t to our benefit, as evidenced by Evil Genius’ failed deal with Netflix. But that’s also the case when criminals target these games of ours, as happened at this year’s Gen Con. Two game designers trying to walk off with a quarter of a million dollars of Magic: The Gathering cards at Gen Con was a shock to everyone. They’ve since been caught and charged with felony theft.
(Dudes: Honor among Thieves was not a cookbook!)
Big Successes. With all that said, the roleplaying industry itself continues to do well. There have been any number of notable products over the course of the year. Matt Forbeck’s Marvel Multiverse Roleplaying Game (2023) has gotten a lot of attention as a great new take on a classic license. It’s the second time Marvel produced their own RPG, the first being the diceless Marvel Universe (2003), but Forbeck’s version seems to be much better received.
That RPG seemed to come out of nowhere, but others have been highly anticipated including Dragonbane (2023) and The Walking Dead Universe (2023) from Fria Ligan. Similarly, Monte Cook Game’s Old Gods of Appalachia (2023) got some attention for its nicely atmospheric and spooky play. Other big licensed products for 2023 included Cubicle 7’s Imperium Maledictum (2023) for Warhammer 40k and Lord of the Rings releases from Modiphius such as Tales from Eriador (2023) and Ruins of Eriador (2023).
Not everything is licensed! The Paranoia Perfect Edition (2023) from Mongoose proved that classic RPGs continue to be in the spotlight. Then there was the amazing Cults of RuneQuest line from Chaosium, which is already four books into depicting the densest mythology to be found in gaming. That wasn’t their only classic highlight, as the Pendragon Starter Set (2023) also appeared, truly returning Greg Stafford’s other masterpiece to its original home after two decades away.
But 2024 is likely to surpass 2023 with the 50th anniversary of D&D. The preview of D&D’s Player’s Handbook rather astoundingly contains 48 subclasses. The revised Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual similarly promise to be really, really big. If Wizards wants to “monetize” D&D, this seems to be the way to go, with hefty books that players will be drooling over. And ones that won’t alienate anyone: Wizards is still pushing hard on claims of compatibility, speaking against a “5.5” label for the new books, let alone a “6e”.
OSR Successes. The OSR continues to be a vibrant part of the roleplaying industry, with work on projects like Labyrinth Lord 2e and Dolmenwood being just part of it. Another theme of 2023 was OSR projects returning to their original designers after a stay in corporate-land. Thus Daniel Fox got the rights to Zweihänder (2017, 2019) back after AMU rather abruptly closed their RPG department down at the end of 2022, and Matt Finch, who had previously retrieved Swords & Wizardry (2008+) from Troll Lord Games, ran a $150,000 Kickstarter for a new edition of the game.
But the biggest OSR-related news of 2023 was doubtless that Gygax was Back! After Gary Gygax’s death, his widow inexplicably cancelled everyone’s licenses to his material, then sat on it for 15 years. Castle Zagyg, Gord the Rogue, Legendary Adventures. It’s all been unavailable, despite the fact that companies were eager to continue their work on the lines. Well this year, a court-assigned estate manager took over and granted Troll Lord Games, in conjunction with Luke Gygax, the rights to republish several of the books they’d previously produced with Gary Gygax. The first part of Castle Zagyg is already out, while Gygax’s The Hermit adventure raised $100,000 on Kickstarter and is planned for release next year. If Luke and the Troll Lords can prove their ability to sell these works, there should be more in the future. (Finally.)
Kickstarter at Last. One of the coolest pieces of Kickstarter news in 2023 was that Gareth-Michael Skarka’s Far West (2023) Western/Wuxia RPG has finally delivered. This was #1 on my list of RPG Kickstarter Fails because it dated back to 2011(!). Congrats to Gareth on the perseverance and insistence that the game be finished.
Meanwhile, this year saw another nine RPG Kickstarters top a million dollars, similar to the last few years.
|The Crooked Moon: Foolk Horror (5e)
|Legends of Avantris
|Ryoko’s Guide to the Yokai Realms (5e)
|Obojima: Tales from the Tall Grass (5e)
|The Arcane Library
|Mora: Through the Doors of Durin (TOR)
|TMNT & Other Strangeness
|Tales of the Valiant
|World of Deuslair: Dungeons & Lasers (5e)
5e, 5e variants, and OSR continue to dominate, demonstrating that traditional FRPGs are what most people are looking for. The amazing success of a new edition of Palladium’s 80s-era Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was probably the biggest surprise.
But not all the Kickstarter news was good. Though this is more an issue over on the board game side of things, shipping costs continue to be a problem, with companies increasingly demanding notable additional payments from backers to actually get their games. Kickstarter has entirely punted on the issue, saying it’s not their problem, and so a practice that some have likened to extortion is continuing. (Other backers offer the reminder: Kickstarter is not a store.)
The Kickstarter Alternatives. A few years ago, Kickstarter announced that they would be using blockchain technology, which raised a huge ruckus. That plan died out, which is good because it never made any sense, but it caused a bit of an exodus from Kickstarter at the time. Gamefound was one of the biggest sites that people were trying out, and that’s been looking great for board games, but less so for RPGs. Just two RPGs topped $100,000 on Gamefound in 2023 (or ever): Talislanta Final Edition which brought in $158,273 and Secrets of the Greenwold for 5E, which brought in $151,184. Each has also continued to raise money post the initial crowdfunding, which is an advantage Gamefound has over KS, but that alone no longer seems to be enough to draw people over to the newer crowdfunding platform. In fact, some RPG companies that tested out Gamefound seem to be now be back to Kickstarter.
However, another site may be a bigger threat: Backerkit. Kickstarter has long resisted adding post-Kickstarter functionality to its site, and so some publishers are asking, “Why not just do it all with Backerkit?”. The Gloomhaven Grand Festival was the first to show the potential for doing so, raising $5,000,000 (admittedly only some of that for the upcoming Gloomhaven RPG). But them MDCM went to Backerkit with their RPG and already has raised $3,000,000, with the pledge period lasting into the new year. Monte Cook also had a backerkit-funding of note, raising $2,000,000 for the Magnus Archives.
Will BackerKit change the face of crowdfunding in 2024? Will the 50th D&D Anniversary be amazing? Will there be more shocking decisions from companies of note?