Why Didn't Harry Potter Change the Game?
  • Why Didn't Harry Potter Change the Game?


    Fantasy is now much more mainstream, so it's easy to forget how influential the debut of the Harry Potter franchise was on the genre. And yet despite the blockbuster success of the franchise we never got an official Harry Potter tabletop role-playing game -- for Dungeons & Dragons or any other system.


    Yes, Harry Potter Was a Big Deal

    Author J.K. Rowling's tale of a young boy who would fulfill his destiny at a school for wizards sent shockwaves through the book publishing industry when it debuted. Kids started reading again, and adults read along with them. The numbers give a sense of scale to the enormous impact the Harry Potter series had on publishing, movies, and fantasy worlds in general.

    To date, the book series has sold over 160 million copies, grossing $7.7 billion. The movies actually performed worse than the books, grossing $7.2 billion so far. It made Rowling a billionaire and the actor who played Potter, Daniel Radcliffe, a millionaire. In addition to the books and movies, the franchise generated $7.3 billion in games and toys. All told, the franchise is estimated to be valued at roughly $25 billion.

    D&D and Harry Potter have quite a bit in common. They both systemize magical systems, categorize fantastical creatures, and gradually advance the characters' power throughout the series. And yet there was never a Harry Potter role-playing game. Why not?

    Harry Sneaks In

    There's are certainly benefits to being affiliated with the Harry Potter franchise. Universal Studios' Orlando theme park's attendance surged 30% when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010. A Harry Potter-branded tabletop RPG would like experience a similar sales bump from the name affiliation alone.

    There were tabletop gaming attempts to ride the Potter fandom. Redhurst: Academy of Magic, written by Matt Forbeck, applied D20 rules to a Harry Potter-esque school setting, complete with a traitorous spy scribbling in the margins:

    REDHURST ACADEMY OF MAGIC is a world of a traveling wizards' school. You are one of its students set to learn about the wonderful world of magic and explore the world under the tutelage of some of the finest arcane minds in the Known Realms. Redhurst is a magical wondrous place where the surreal and mundane share the same table, and the fantastic is in every step of the grounds, every brick of the walls, and every classroom.

    There is a widely-spread rumor that J.K. Rowling was not interested in a role-playing game, which is sourced to Ryan Dancey, then VP at Wizards of the Coast:

    I’m starting to see a lot of Harry Potter-related merchandise — a lot of it decidedly tacky — but one thing we’ll apparently never see is a Harry Potter role playing game. According to Wizards of the Coast’s Ryan Dancey, series author J.K. Rowling “has flatly stated that she’ll never approve a role playing game in any format.” That’s okay. People will just go on making their own Potter RPGs online.

    Wizards of the Coast was undeterred and launched their own line of hardcover books inspired by Rowling's stories, including A Practical Guide to Wizardry:

    How do you make a magic wand? Why does a wizard wear robes? What goes into a potion of invisibility? Arch Mage Lowadar invites you to join his school for talented young wizards and explore the magical world of wizardry. In this fully illustrated guide, readers will learn all about what it takes to become a great wizard--from the gear and magic items you need to the secrets of writing your own spells in the language of magic.

    The book is a fascinating take on what might have been. It tweaks some elements of D&D (magic items are required to navigate the school and quite common, wands are a core implement for every wizard) and details other elements of spellcasting that have never been officially codified, including detailed descriptions of how verbal (actual phrases along with a pronunciation guide), somatic (drawings of wand gestures), and material components work.

    David F. Chapman recently pitched a Harry Potter RPG to Warner Bros. It didn't get as far as he hoped:

    I originally wrote most of the above posts a couple of years ago, shortly after we'd started talking to Warner Bros. about the possibility of doing a game, and only getting so far (it wasn't something they were considering at the time). Since then, the thoughts of a Harry Potter RPG have always been lingering in my mind. However, recently (and hence the new post) there was the announcement on Pottermore that Warner Bros. Interactive had launched a new gaming division called Portkey Games. A new division whose only purpose is to develop mobile and console games in the Wizarding World.

    The promise of a RPG-like world will be realized this year.

    A Mobile "RPG"

    Potter fans will finally get a role-playing game in the form of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, a mobile RPG developed by Jam City in partnership with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment's Portkey Games:

    In “Hogwarts Mystery,” players progress through their years at Hogwarts, participating in the magical classes and activities Potterheads have come to love, including Defence Against the Dark Arts, Potions, and Duelling Club. The game is actually set in the 1980s — before Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and friends have matriculated at the wizarding academy — although according to WB and Jam City, Albus Dumbledore and most of the iconic Hogwarts professors will appear in the game.

    Given the enormous amount of enthusiasm and homebrewed role-playing games available on the Internet, it seems Rowling is finally coming around to the idea of approving a role-playing game in SOME formats. But even if there never is an official RPG, the franchise's influence is felt in the spread of Potter fandom, who are surely part of the renewed interested in D&D.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 80 Comments
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      Maybe it was for the best? I mean, how would that work in D&D? It's not as focused on combat and loot, which is the core of that particular game system. (Remember that discussion? Of course, it is still running!) Not to mention it is a well-documented fact (i.e disputed without end over countless threads by self-proclaimed experts and smarty-panted nerdists) that a party consisting solely of low-level wizards (are there really any other class options?) are incapable of surviving most encounters without a meat shield and a healer, and also very boring and dumb. (Not my words, you can google it.)

      And, EXPELIOMUS!! Hopefully that dispels this thread before it becomes a threat.
    1. VengerSatanis -
      Sounds like the reason they didn't OK a Harry Potter RPG is because there wasn't enough money in it. That's really sad our industry is so lacking. Hopefully, it's getting better.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      I've commented before that the absence of a Potterverse RPG was a huge absence in the industry and something that would have been a game changer. So many people love that world and would jump at the chance to play in it.

      Of course, the biggest hurdle is the lack of internal logic and the limited views of the larger world. We're only just getting a half glimpse of the wizarding world outside of the schools in the Fantastic Beasts movies. Any RPG would have to have a "world guide" that would be problematic and either involve Rowlings or just require so much invention it might as well be a fan project.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Numerous companies have approached Rowling to license Potter for an RPG. Rowling has put the kibosh on it every time. Something to do with creative control - she doesn't want other people writing Potter material.
    1. mikelaff's Avatar
      mikelaff -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      Numerous companies have approached Rowling to license Potter for an RPG. Rowling has put the kibosh on it every time. Something to do with creative control - she doesn't want other people writing Potter material.
      Compared to video games, board games and card games (areas where there have been licensed Potter products - some quite successful)the revenue from a licensed RPG would generate for her is (let's be honest) peanuts.

      Also - the audience she's selling to primarily the YA and family market. Licensed products for cards, video games and board games make sense for that sort of target demo.

      RPGs - eh, not so much.
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      Its worth noting that WotC did release a HP collectible card game (it was sort of magic-lite) and I am sure they tried to pitch something on the RPG side, hence Dancy's quote.

      I have heard a few places she really doesn't like the concept. She is wiling to allow some others to play in the potter-verse, hence pottermore, which is fan-fic friendly, or the movies for that matter. Maybe she just doesn't get D&D.
    1. Lord_Blacksteel's Avatar
      Lord_Blacksteel -
      Big-name licensing has been tricky in the RPG world for a long time and I suspect that's a factor here too - on top of the author's rejection, of course.

      - In the middle of Lord of the Rings movies we had the one short-lived Decipher RPG and then nothing for 7-8 years.

      - In the middle of the Marvel Cinematic explosion we had the one MWP Marvel RPG for not even a year and nothing new since

      - Reasonably and perpetually popular Star Trek had no active RPG after 2003 and even after the new movie series started up in 2009 there was no RPG until last year.

      This is despite all of these universes having long-lived, successful RPGs in the 80's and into the 90's for some. I think the IP holders have become far more strict about terms and costs have surely increased.

      I agree that Harry Potter is a huge missed opportunity, particularly regarding potential new players. I'm not sure there's any reason to be more optimistic about this changing right now. Maybe if there's a new book or movie series or some other main line re-ignition of the universe they will be more interested and open to an RPG.

      I also think that there was an attitude in many quarters that tabletop RPGs were too old a thing to bother with. I suspect that the success of D&D the last few years may have changed that in a lot of those places too. If there is a reason for optimism right now, I'd start there.
    1. Birmy's Avatar
      Birmy -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      Numerous companies have approached Rowling to license Potter for an RPG. Rowling has put the kibosh on it every time. Something to do with creative control - she doesn't want other people writing Potter material.
      This is also, supposedly, why Rowling has never approved any comic book licensing (outside of a one-page illustration for a charity book).
    1. Keyframe18's Avatar
      Keyframe18 -
      I guess I'm not surprised considering the death like grip Rowling has on her IP. People making their own stories in her sandbox? How dare they. It's her IP, so it's her right I guess, but damn, even the Tolkien estate isn't that bad.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      Numerous companies have approached Rowling to license Potter for an RPG. Rowling has put the kibosh on it every time. Something to do with creative control - she doesn't want other people writing Potter material.
      Sounds like if you couldn't directly play as Potter and his pals in rooms and areas that were already established, she got nervous.
    1. Kobold Boots -
      Lord of the Rings number of copies sold WW: 150 million (source Google)
      Hobbit number of copies sold WW: 100 million (Source Google)

      Number of JK Rowling Potter copies sold WW: 450 million (source Google)
      Game of Thrones copies sold WW: 70 million as of 2016 (source Google)

      Only threw the GoT stuff in there for modern relevance. I'd say JK is being difficult because she's got a lot to lose. Her sales dwarf the "competition" so to speak and she's got the liquid capital not to care about making a buck here and there.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      There’s also the oddly-named Pigsmoke RPG, where you essentially play the professors at Hogwarts-with-the-name-filed-off.

      I can think of a number of magic school-oriented RPGs, but few of them seem to have that much traction. I imagine an official license would have more of an impact. Just look at all the various official Star Wars RPGs.
    1. WayneLigon's Avatar
      WayneLigon -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lord_Blacksteel View Post
      Big-name licensing has been tricky in the RPG world for a long time and I suspect that's a factor here too - on top of the author's rejection, of course.

      - In the middle of Lord of the Rings movies we had the one short-lived Decipher RPG and then nothing for 7-8 years.

      - In the middle of the Marvel Cinematic explosion we had the one MWP Marvel RPG for not even a year and nothing new since

      - Reasonably and perpetually popular Star Trek had no active RPG after 2003 and even after the new movie series started up in 2009 there was no RPG until last year.

      This is despite all of these universes having long-lived, successful RPGs in the 80's and into the 90's for some. I think the IP holders have become far more strict about terms and costs have surely increased.

      I agree that Harry Potter is a huge missed opportunity, particularly regarding potential new players. I'm not sure there's any reason to be more optimistic about this changing right now. Maybe if there's a new book or movie series or some other main line re-ignition of the universe they will be more interested and open to an RPG.

      I also think that there was an attitude in many quarters that tabletop RPGs were too old a thing to bother with. I suspect that the success of D&D the last few years may have changed that in a lot of those places too. If there is a reason for optimism right now, I'd start there.
      Also possibly the 'fault' of the license-holder. The Tolkien estate is famously hard to deal with. In the past Marvel has wanted exorbitant amounts of cash for the license, and has never liked the idea of having character generation rules in the game, forcing you to play already-statted Marvel heroes. Except for the first game, chargen has been absent or bare-bones that it hardly existed.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      There’s an issue with large media companies not knowing how to value an RPG license, or not wanting to do the work involved in quality control. A lunchbox makes ten thousand times more money and doesn’t require anybody to read a book. Plus for a lunchbox they’ll ask for an advance on royalties big enough to bankrupt any non-large RPG company. The likelihood is that for most properties, enquiries are met with a standard procedure with far too many zeros on the end and nobody who really understands or cares what RPGs are.

      A lot of licenses come about because of personal contacts.
    1. TrippyHippy's Avatar
      TrippyHippy -
      JK Rowling is a bit prissy when it comes to fantasy as a genre. She was notably rebuked by Terry Pratchett** after she wrote some article complaining of her embarrassment of being associated with the genre, and it's not a stretch that the boy dominated fantasy roleplaying hobby isn't something she wanted to be associated with either. Roleplaying games don't really generate enough revenue for some execs to really care enough to persuade her otherwise, and the Harry Potter franchise racks up more revenue than a small country anyway.

      **Link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4732385.stm
    1. redrick's Avatar
      redrick -
      Quote Originally Posted by Keyframe18 View Post
      I guess I'm not surprised considering the death like grip Rowling has on her IP. People making their own stories in her sandbox? How dare they. It's her IP, so it's her right I guess, but damn, even the Tolkien estate isn't that bad.
      A big difference is that Tolkien is no longer writing material. Rowling, in keeping the setting to herself, is not only protecting the works she has already published, but also protecting the works she has yet to write or publish. It gives her free reign to develop the setting exactly as she sees fit when she sees fit.

      While I appreciate the appeal, from an RPG gamer or developer side, of wanting to have a Potterverse RPG, I also appreciate her desire to keep the setting to herself.

      And since it's not a shockingly novel setting in of itself, there's not a whole lot lost to gaming beyond the brand recognition.
    1. jgsugden's Avatar
      jgsugden -
      You'd be better off with a different system if you want to emulate the books/movies. Something with a spell failure chance, as well as a potentially unlimited spellcasting as a basic structural element.
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Not many realise that the World Health Organization banned Rowling from creating a Harry Potter roleplaying game on the grounds that millions of people who suffer from what is popularly known as "Linear Fighter, Quadratic Wizard" syndrome would die of apoplectic stroke. So it is for the best really.
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      Yeah, D&D isn't a good fit for Harry Potter - I'd far sooner use something along the lines of Fate Core or Dungeon World. However, I always felt that it was a shame WotC didn't do more to adopt the Potterverse style of magic wand, as a universal tool for enhancing spellcasting rather than a specialist spell storage device. 4e went some distance in that direction, but 5e mostly abandoned the concept, though I suppose its remnants are there in the Spell Focus concept.
    1. Rygar's Avatar
      Rygar -
      Things that are jumping out at me in this article...

      "
      Author J.K. Rowling's tale of a young boy who would fulfill his destiny at a school for wizards sent shockwaves through the book publishing industry when it debuted.
      " - Need some evidence of this statement. I suspect that when it debuted there were no lines in the stores or people waiting impatiently for the release. In fact, I suspect that when it debuted no one even knew about it.

      "
      Kids started reading again, and adults read along with them.
      " - Going to need evidence that children and adults no longer read books until Harry Potter debuted.

      "
      The movies actually performed worse than the books, grossing $7.2 billion so far" - False statement, ignores streaming.

      "
      They both systemize magical systems, categorize fantastical creatures, and gradually advance the characters' power throughout the series.
      " - They went to school. That's a little bit different than D&D, they didn't gain levels, they passed tests and then went and took more classes.

      "
      A Harry Potter-branded tabletop RPG would like experience a similar sales bump from the name affiliation alone.
      " - Zero evidence. Pure conjecture. Just because amusement parks jumped 30% doesn't mean book sales would. The Star Wars Experience isn't going to boost Star Wars RPG sales by 30% because Disney will see more attendees.

      "
      Given the enormous amount of enthusiasm and
      homebrewed role-playing games
      available on the Internet
      " - Need evidence of this. The statement "enormous" is made, and so requires quantification. Because let's be honest, it's probably a very small number of people. I'm sure if we google Twilight or any other popular property we'll get the same results.

      "
      But even if there never is an official RPG, the franchise's influence is felt in the spread of Potter fandom, who are surely part of the
      renewed interested in D&D
      .
      " - So all of these people wanted to play an RPG, but could not find the 3rd edition D&D books, 4th edition D&D books, or Pathfinder books, and just suddenly discovered D&D now? Years after the last Harry Potter book and movie were released? I think we can pretty definitively say that Harry Potter had nothing to do with D&D's sales increasing, because it's going to be incredibly hard to explain why at the peak of Harry Potter's popularity no one wanted to play RPG's but now that it's waning suddenly Harry Potter fans are all buying D&D.
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