On New Year’s Day, 2010, the RPG hobby wasn’t feeling very lively. Dungeons and Dragons was plodding along with Fourth Edition, though a lot of players had abandoned it for Pathfinder, or, as your friends called it, “D&D 3.75e”. The New World of Darkness was out, but you were having trouble finding the new part. Shadowrun 20th Anniversary came out…but that was just Fourth Edition from 2005 with errata. Though things weren’t looking so hot, there was some interesting stuff going on. This new website Kickstarter had been causing a stir in tech news, and more and more of the games you’ve been looking for had been made available in PDF. Something’s going to change, you think.
In all reality, if you were an involved gamer on January 1st, 2010, you, like me, would not have been able to guess how dramatically the hobby would change in the next ten years. When it comes to what RPGs are getting designed and what RPGs are getting sold, the marketplace we have now looks nothing like it did in 2010. And from those dramatic changes in the marketplace come dramatic changes in the ecosystem, an interesting double story of an explosion of diversity coupled with a looming, ever-stronger monopoly.
The RPG Market
The 2010s was a decade that saw more changes in how tabletop games are bought, sold, and financed than ever before. While DriveThruRPG was founded in 2004, it was the 2010s that saw the site ascend to becoming the largest RPG-exclusive retailer. It was in 2010 that DriveThruRPG launched the service that completely set them apart from developer-driven storefronts, their Print-On-Demand service. This was arguably the first building block in the construction of an end-to-end process by which any designer could publish a game. The missing piece that DriveThruRPG could not provide was financing.
Kickstarter was founded in 2009, and by 2012 had really reached their stride. In that year it was clear that Kickstarter had changed the face of tabletop RPGs (to say nothing of board games) forever when a new game from design veteran Monte Cook, Numenera, crested over half a million dollars in its Kickstarter campaign. Numenera, a science fantasy game set in the far future and using a completely new ruleset, was exactly the sort of test case RPG crowdfunding needed to show what it could bring to market. Now this pair of resources allows anyone to run a Kickstarter and publish an RPG, and Kickstarter highlighted that with last year’s Zinequest, a showcase of small RPG projects the likes of which had not been able to succeed since the 1970s.
There’s one other thing that had a teensy impact on the RPG world. Twitch.tv was launched in 2011. Though not the first streaming service, it brought streaming into the mainstream, and with that came the somewhat off-center application of streaming RPG sessions. Critical Role premiered in 2015, and the rest, as we say, is history.
The premiere of Critical Role in the middle of the decade highlights the impact of this decade’s new edition of the hobby’s greatest monopoly, Dungeons and Dragons. D&D Fourth Edition was released in 2008, and the stark change in mechanics and play philosophy caused a schism within the player base. Compared to the schism with Third Edition that created the OSR this one was significantly larger, and allowed the success of Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder. With Fifth Edition, the dynamics changed significantly.
Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition is, mechanically, not interesting. What makes it successful is being easy enough and consistent enough to attract new players while being conservative enough to not immediately drive away old ones. By getting rid of the intensive grid focus of Fourth Edition and the focus on optimization to the exception of all else from Third Edition, Fifth Edition provided a version of the game that was both easier to learn but also easier to watch. Critical Role is not successful because it uses Fifth Edition, but it might be the first version of the game that the troupe would not have had to be successful in spite of. In part due to accessibility, in part due to marketing, and in part due to the new streaming subculture that was growing, Fifth Edition exploded, and if it isn’t already it will certainly be the best-selling edition of D&D when its print run ends. While Paizo will likely be a successful concern for years to come, based on both the trajectory of Fifth Edition and the current reception of the second edition of Pathfinder, their window to unseat the incumbent has closed for the time being.
With D&D in its various iterations being the 800-pound gorilla of the hobby, it’s easy to forget that there have been other success stories in the mainstream of the hobby this decade. Fantasy Flight Games, on the heels of what may have been the most widely panned RPG revision since Cyberpunk v3 in 2005, took their maligned Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition, cleaned it up, and turned it into what could be the most successful licensed RPG ever. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire was released in 2013, and through the decade was followed by Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny. FFG’s success with Star Wars was in spite of several (some self-inflicted) headwinds: Due to an old split of the licensing agreement LucasArts penned for Star Wars gaming materials, none of the FFG Star Wars products are available in PDF. Additionally, the line is expensive, both due to book size and the use of proprietary dice. Even so, these Star Wars games have been showing up in ICv2’s Top 5 since they came out, a sales success not seen outside of the D&D world since the advent of the World of Darkness in the early 1990s.
There were other new games in the traditional market, with various levels of mold-breaking. As mentioned above, Numenera was an early crowdfunding success, and its Cypher System was packed with innovations. Dragon Age came from Green Ronin at the beginning of the decade, and the AGE system did well for itself. Fria Ligan found great success with Mutant: Year Zero and some derivatives, and Modiphius kicked off their 2d20 system with the Third Edition of Mutant Chronicles, and went on to build out games with licenses ranging from Conan to Star Trek.
There were returns in the decade as well. Rifts and Torg, two loved (and maligned) kitchen sink games, were both rebooted with the help of Kickstarter. Exalted came back with a third edition after a ten-year absence, and the other White Wolf properties came back towards the end of the decade. Tons of older games were rebooted, including unique games like Over The Edge and Paranoia. And of course, some of the stalwarts kept on chugging, like Shadowrun and Runequest.
Thanks to D&D, the mainstream of the hobby is growing. We’re seeing more games in bookstores, we’re seeing more people who want to try RPGs. But what’s going on outside of three-tiered distribution and traditional publishing…that’s interesting. Really, really interesting.
The democratization of RPG sales created by DriveThruRPG and Kickstarter gave many creators the ability to distribute their games to audiences they would have never reached before. Breaking down barriers wasn’t the only reason the 2010s was pivotal for the indies, though. 2010 was the twilight of the Forge, and one of its most vocal contributors released a game that blew apart the indie RPG space completely.
The Forge was a website started by Ed Healy in 1999, and retooled into a forum in 2001 by Ron Edwards and Clinton R. Nixon. Regardless of what you may think about the theoretical frameworks that The Forge is most famous for, the forum helped shape some big names in indie RPG design including Emily Care Boss, John Harper, and Luke Crane. And Vincent Baker.
By 2010 The Forge was no longer the same sort of monolith it had been in indie game design discussion in the early 2000s, and indeed the site was shut down in 2012. But in 2010, Vincent Baker, arguably one of the most significant contributors to the site, released Apocalypse World. Apocalypse World was not Baker’s first game, nor even his first influential game (that’s arguably Dogs in the Vineyard). What it did though was create a new framework, a new scaffold for hanging rules off of. That scaffold is Powered by the Apocalypse. There are dozens of PbtA games, if not a couple hundred by now. Some hew closely to what Apocalypse World set forth, others are fairly radical alterations. At least a couple of games, Blades in the Dark and Dream Askew, created their own forks of PbtA with a new set of common properties. If there is one game that upended the indie RPG scene more than any other this decade, Apocalypse World is it by a mile.
That wasn’t the only thing going on. Fate came roaring back into the scene when The Dresden Files RPG was released in 2010, and is now a major ecosystem among more narratively driven games. Fiasco came out in 2009 but came to the fore during the decade, and Ben Robbins released Microscope in 2011. While these may have been some of the bigger pushes on the RPG form at the time, it really is impossible to count the number of wildly innovative games that came out throughout the decade. Self-published games ranged from the massive (the 700+ page, admittedly very traditional Zweihander) to the tiny (both Lasers and Feelings and Honey Heist are less than five years old), and I won’t claim to be able to track them all. That said, one only needs to go to the physical games section of itch.io to see how many ideas, conceits, and mechanics are being played with. The inventiveness in the indie RPG world is just now being put on display, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
On New Year’s Day, 2020, we are looking at a changed hobby. Indie publishing has spun up dramatically, as has streaming. Cyberpunk 2077 is coming in April, likely the largest tabletop RPG-to-digital crossover any of us have ever seen. More celebrities are talking about role-playing games; it’s not only Vin Diesel playing D&D any more, but Thomas Middleditch and George R.R. Martin playing GURPS. Fact is, whether you started playing in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or even the 2000s (like myself), the rate of change in the hobby has been accelerating since you began. Some turn away from this change, and we get the OSR. Others lean into it, and we get the modern indie movement. Most of us, though, are just watching as the games change around us. Whether you play D&D or Dogs in the Vineyard, whether you’d rather your character have THAC0 or Artha, it’s a pretty wondrous time to be gaming. As for me, I’m getting ready to cover what the 2020s will bring us…while taking plenty of breaks to roll some dice with friends.
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