The Current State of Role Playing Games

On April 17, 2013, in JT Evans, RP Nerd, by JT Evans

I’ve talked a bit about the foundational history of role playing games. I think it’s time to talk a bit about how things stand these days.


Release of the OGL

The watershed moment for modern role playing came in 2000 with the release of Dungeon and Dragons, 3rd edition. The game itself wasn’t the most important part of modern history. The licensing under which it was released really changed the role playing publishing industry. The license was called the Open Game License (OGL) and was modeled after various FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) licenses. Wizards of the Coast, of course, retained copyright of all things core D&D, but opened up the floodgates for third-party publishers to create content, rules, worlds and more.

With the gatekeeper to creating third-party supplements released into the wild, many companies poured through the portal. Some of them were great. Some of them were mediocre. Some of them were outright horrible. With any free market economy, the great ones flourished while the publishers of lower-quality works languished into oblivion.

Top OGL Publishers

Some of the powerhouses of game publishing that did very well were Paizo (more about them later), Mongoose, Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), Evil Hat, and Green Ronin. For every major player in the open market, there were probably another 20-30 publishers that just didn’t make it very far for various reasons.

All of the companies listed above continue to do quite well with their D&D offerings as well as other games. Evil Hat released the blockbuster The Dresden Files RPG in 2010 to much critic and player praise. Mongoose and AEG have been running strong with a variety of gaming properties that sell quite well. Green Ronin did quite well during the D&D 3.0/3.5 craze, but has scaled back to just a few games. Even though Green Ronin is not publishing on a large scale, they are still producing high quality works like Mutants and Masterminds.

Paizo’s Rise

Paizo opened its doors shortly after the release of the OGL as the publishers of Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Magazine on behalf of Wizards of the Coast. When the license lapsed and was not renewed in 2007, Paizo had a rough choice to make. They could either shrink their operations to support only the Pathfinder Adventure Paths, or stride boldly forward and make their own role playing game. I’m personally very happy they chose to do the latter. Paizo took the latest D&D rule set and made many drastic improvements to the system while maintaining the core of the game. Shifting gears from D&D to Pathfinder is negligible, and every gamer I’ve converted from D&D to Pathfinder has been pleasantly surprised at the smoothness of how the game runs. (Grapple rules anyone?)

Since the release of the Pathfinder RPG, Paizo has grown into the 800 pound gorilla of the role playing industry. How dare I say that D&D is no longer king of the mountain? If the number of games for each system at GenCon 2012 was any indication, D&D 4e has failed and Pathfinder has blazed to the top. You can check out this sweet bar chart over at Digital Orc. This chart shows over 300 Pathfinder events as compared to barely over 100 games for D&D/Dungeons & Dragons.

The Fall of D&D

So what happened at Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and D&D 4th edition? I’m not part of the internal team over there, but from my outsider’s perspective, here’s my theory. WotC is owned by Hasbro. I think the fine folks over at Hasbro saw the immense success of games like World of Warcraft, and decided to cash in on the “everything is perfectly balanced” while at the same time “power trees are popular and easy to understand” ideas were gaining popularity. Hasbro most likely imposed upon WotC to create a “perfectly balanced” game with “power trees.” The concept was that players of all ages, skill levels and interest would be drawn to the game like flies. Sure, D&D 4e is easy to pick up and learn, but it hardly resembles anything like the previous iterations of the game. This drove away the die-hard fans of the game. Without them playing (and buying) the game, there was very little reason for the veteran role players to encourage the newbies to pick up the game. Because there was no one herding new players toward D&D 4e, the game failed in the market place.

Old School Gains Ground

Instead of garnering thousands of new players into the system, WotC unintentionally pushed many of them away. This was the burgeoning of the Old School Renaissance (OSR). Many “retro-clones” and OSR-styled games have dropped into the market to further take spending dollars away from WotC. Games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, and Adventurer Conqueror King have sprung up to recapture that old timer feel of the original D&D box set from the late seventies. Games that have been around for a while have even seen a resurgence in popularity. These include D&D B/X (and various clones), Tunnels and Trolls, AD&D 1st edition, and more.

What’s “Next” for D&D?

In response to the OSR and Pathfinder, WotC has more or less abandoned D&D 4e and have started up a public play test of the next iteration of D&D. They’re calling it “D&D Next” (what a horrible name) and have invited role players from around the world to join up for the play test. I did join the play test, and read through the rules, pre-generated characters, initial adventure and other materials. I think I made it through the second or third round of play test materials before I realized they were not going to create a game better than what I already had on my shelves. My personal prediction is that “D&D Next” might very well be “D&D Last.”

Even if WotC fails with D&D, role playings not going to fade into history. There’s too many players flocking toward the multitude of options out there. We’re going to stand strong and grow into the future!

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