Level One Wonk Holiday Special: 2022

Welcome to the Holiday Special for 2022! 2022…what a year. For Cannibal Halfling Gaming, 2022 was the year of pandemic bifurcation. Having started at around this time of the year in 2016, We now have three non-pandemic and three pandemic years in our history. Needless to say, it’s been a strange time in our lives, both for gaming and for everything else. At this time, though, the year is ending and we get to take a chance to stop, collect our thoughts, and look back at what the year brought us.

2021 was a big year for site metrics, and 2022 did not quite reach those heights, though at around 235,000 views for the year we didn’t do badly. Fact is, it was a big year and we’re tired for a lot of non-gaming reasons. We didn’t quite publish as much this year as last year, though not by a huge margin; there were 130 articles in 2021 and will be roughly 125 in 2022 (we have a few in the tank in the last five days, of course). It is clear that there weren’t as many runaway articles this year as last year, though I also didn’t try to hack Google’s SEO with some variant of the phrase ‘play D&D’ this year (I regret nothing, but third time is not the charm for that sort of trick). There were still triumphs; we saw nearly 40,000 downloads of Cannibal Halfling Radio, compared to around 11,000 last year.

My feeling is that, though we were definitely tired this year, there also seemed to be a little less going on this year in terms of releases and broader hype. A lot of what could have been news about new games and new designers was overshadowed by some of the flailing by Kickstarter and a whole lot more flailing by Twitter. These are both important services for a lot of the TTRPG community, but the fact that their respective declines made for bigger stories than any new games is not a net positive.

I also acknowledge I was more negative this year than I have been in the past, and it didn’t exactly do wonders for my attitude. I stand by what I said; Root is a game with incongruous mechanics, poor editing, and wordy rules that only a GURPS fan could love, while Power Rangers is a cynical copy-paste job and Avatar Legends a marketing triumph (but little else). My question to myself is why I felt the need to read and review games that, in at least ⅔ of those cases, I knew were bad before I read them. I don’t know, but I think it’s something I should think about more going forward. Then again, my first review on the 2023 docket is the new edition of Rolemaster, so we’ll have to see if I’ve learned anything.

I did have some fun with the theory this year; I really enjoyed writing about drama mechanics and the five mechanic game, among others. I don’t know how many people read posts like that, but I like writing them, so there will be more. I might need to come up with some ‘hot takes’ to stir the pot, but to be honest that’s not really in my nature. When you have a lot going on it becomes that much more difficult to keep your finger on the pulse of an increasingly fragmented hobby.

And that ends up being a recurring theme when I look back on 2022; I had a lot going on this year. In June of this year I started a new job, but more than that it was a job as a researcher and writer. Now that I’m writing for my day job, it further reduces my reserves for writing for fun (and this is still, primarily, for fun). That said, the new job is a huge opportunity for me and one that has already begun to pay off. Adding to that, around the beginning of the new job I went with my partner on a 330 mile bikepacking trip from Washington DC to Pittsburgh, something we plan on doing a lot more of. For those who don’t know, cycling is a huge hobby for me, not only riding and touring but also building bicycles. I probably spent more time on a bike saddle this year than I did playing RPGs.

I also kept writing; this was the first year I’ve finished NaNoWriMo and I’m very happy about that. I’m working on finishing a novel I’ve been writing since before the pandemic, and I will likely be done with the draft by the end of January. January is also when I shift my RPG hobby a bit; I’m leaving the GM’s chair for my group for the first time in five years. Our typical mode is to run two campaigns at once, alternating each week, so I have been playing, but this will be the first break I’ve taken from GMing in a while. It also means I’ve been GMing for the vast majority of Cannibal Halfling Gaming’s existence, so we’ll see what this does for my mental energy. I’m certainly going to return to GMing, but not before taking some time to figure out what form that’s going to take.

Enough about me, what was 2022 like for the hobby? Well, the negativity that I saw in myself was a mirror to the negativity in the hobby. Kickstarter received harsh criticism both for announcing work on blockchain technology as well as moving ZineQuest from February to August, a move they reversed before ZineQuest even started. NFTs and AI art took up large amounts of mindshare in the first and latter halves of the year, respectively, once again things to rail against (not that railing against them was incorrect, mind you). And, in the last month or so, Wizards of the Coast’s trickle of OneD&D playtest material was endcapped with the announcement of OGL 1.1, a document which, though not materially changing the OGL, is definitely a sign that Wizards is going to be chaperoning the third party content a little more closely as they pivot to digital. Is any of this good? Well, no, but I’ve only been telling people that Wizards aims to make money and that’s it since about 2019. But I digress.

There were some great new games this year. Apocalypse Keys genuinely surprised me in the good way, and I hope to run it soon. The Cannibal Halfling crew got a chance to play the DIE RPG and it blew us all away; you’ll be able to hear more on Cannibal Halfling Radio early in the new year. Blade Runner the RPG was named the ‘most anticipated RPG of 2022’ by EN World and it was both the best licensed game I read this year and, on its own merits, a solid if narrow detective game. We also saw some great indies this year, including Good Strong Hands and Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast.

I do feel that this year was a year of contraction, not just on the site. We’re seeing some sunsetting of the RPG boom driven by the pandemic and consequently fewer games being produced. Given the unique environment, the Kickstarter record set by the Avatar Legends RPG may stand for some time, at least until the next RPG boom. At the same time D&D Fifth Edition has at least begun to plateau, as evidenced by the OneD&D playtests starting. Unfortunately, those playtests are currently doing little other than inflaming an already fractious fanbase (not to mention what people think about OGL 1.1). As much as I may not like it, the RPG hobby is driven by the lowest common denominator, just like movies, books, and video games. When D&D stumbles, so too does the rest of the hobby. What’s worse, the firm dedication to keeping OneD&D backward-compatible says that we’re unlikely to see any innovation from what was the safest and least interesting edition of D&D since TSR released the second edition of AD&D during what was essentially managerial rigor mortis.

There is some hope out there, though. Pathfinder Second Edition finally finding its legs was heartening to see and showed that many games will be able to succeed in the shadow of WotC if they provide a compelling proposition to players. R. Talsorian also saw well-deserved success with Cyberpunk Red, capitalizing on the momentum from both Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Cyberpunk 2077’s ‘No Man’s Sky’ moment starting with Patch 1.5 earlier in the year. It seems like game designers are relearning the lost art of the fanbase; along with the big players the continued Kickstarter successes of both Mothership and Stockholm Kartell’s Borg brothers (Mork Borg and Cy_Borg) stand as stories worth retelling in the indie space.

So what does this all mean for next year? Well, it’s hard to tell. I think 2023 will likely be a year of normalization more than anything else. OneD&D is going to continue, and that’s going to have a variety of impacts on the 5e side of the hobby. We’re likely to see more third party publishers aim to diversify and otherwise protect themselves from rent-seeking by Wizards, which could give companies like Kobold Press, Hit Point Press, and Darrington Press an unusual degree of power to pick winners in the market, much like Evil Hat already did in the PbtA space by publishing Blades in the Dark and Monster of the Week. I think this is more up in the air than many think, and could result in some new ascendants next to Free League, Modiphius, and Magpie.

As far as indie, it’s kind of hard to figure out what’s going to happen next. PbtA, which sustained upstart creators for nearly a decade, is approaching well and truly played out; it’s ironic but not surprising that there are few innovators left but the Bakers are still among them. We have seen some little fits and starts of rules innovations, but for the most part none of these have coincided with a designer or publisher either willing or able to build the games into a sustainable product. Figuring out which game is going to do more than fund a Kickstarter and disappear is difficult work, and it goes deeper than the game’s quality. It’s also not merely a function of the marketing budget either; while I truly think Apocalypse Keys could be around a while with Evil Hat’s help, Magpie has had essentially all their games land with a thud this year (the jury is still out with Pasion de las Pasiones which only just got to backers, but it doesn’t appear to be on a substantially better trajectory than Root or Avatar despite being a better game). On the other hand, neither Mork Borg nor Mothership are mechanically innovative at all; both trade on their well-executed visual design, but the underlying rules are there simply to get a job done and are based heavily on existing d20 and d100 games, respectively. Is that bad? No, but one can acknowledge the value of existing rulesets while at the same time know that there are newer, better things out there just waiting to be written.

So what’s my prediction for 2023? 2023 is going to be a year of upheaval. Yes, changes in D&D leading up to the 50th anniversary will be part and parcel of that, but the stagnation seen this year affected everyone across the hobby. We’ll still have indie games, but something is going to pop as the next sensation. We’re still going to have all the midtier publishers, but someone’s going to write another hit; the closest we got to a game really popping off this year was The One Ring but that was a second edition and a licensed game too. Someone somewhere needs to break out of “Kickstarter -> Thud”, but the midtier designers are too conservative and the indies, largely, seem clueless about fanbases. Someone will figure it out, that’s my prediction. Who is anyone’s guess.

All in all, I think there’s going to be a lot to look forward to in the new year. Everything will continue to change, but never in the way you’d expect. Many things will stay the same, usually the things you most want to change. But at the end of it all, we’re going to read some games, play some games, and roll some dice. Here’s hoping for a happy and healthy 2023, from me and the whole crew at Cannibal Halfling Gaming, to you and your friends and family.

Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with (which is exactly what happened with Blade Runner)! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!

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