4 Hours w/ RSD - Escapist Bonus Column

As many of you know, the Escapist has recently run a 3-part series on the past, current and future of Dungeons & Dragons. The ENWorld coverage begins here.

I contributed some insights to that column and wanted to take this opportunity to expand and clarify some of my thoughts on this topic.


Who Is This Guy Anyway?

I [Ryan Dancey] have been involved on the business side of hobby game publishing since 1993, when I operated one of the first on-line/mail order hobby game stores, RPG International. It was through my work at RPG International that I met the team at Alderac Entertainment Group with whom I co-created the Legend of the Five Rings intellectual property, eventually spinning it out into a stand-alone company called Five Rings Publishing Group which was acquired by Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as a part of the process whereby Wizards also acquired TSR. I was at Wizards, working as a brand manager on trading card games and eventually leading the brand and business unit for Dungeons & Dragons until early in 2001 when I left to found a startup providing organized play services to 3rd party game companies, wound that down in 2003 and worked as a consultant until 2007 when I became the Chief Marketing Officer of CCP. Currently I’m the CEO of Goblinworks, a startup company developing a next-generation fantasy MMO.

I give that background (again for those of you who read the first column in this series; sorry for the repetition) just to establish the fact that I’ve been watching this industry closely for a very long time and feel I’ve got some insights worth sharing.

The Tabletop Roleplaying Game Hobby Is Contracting

Let me begin with a few simple statistics.

In 1995, when I was writing the business plan for the Legend of the Five Rings CCG, I assumed, based on the conventional wisdom at the time, that there were approximately 5,000 full line hobby gaming stores in the North American market. After arriving at Wizards of the Coast in 1997, I was surprised to discover that Wizards had been able to identify (after extensive work) only about 2,500 stores. In addition, there were about 2,500-3,000 mass-market book stores that sold some hobby gaming products; mostly TRPGs, and mostly just D&D.

Today, the best data I have been able to assemble leads me to believe that there are less than 1,000 full line hobby gaming stores left, and there may be as few as 500.

Of those mass-market bookstores, B. Dalton is gone. Waldenbooks is gone. Borders is going. Barnes & Nobel is not healthy. Today, there are only about 1,000 mass-market bookstores left (717 are Barnes & Nobel stores). That is meaningful because historically 50% of the D&D business was sold via mass-market bookstores and the loss of those stores has directly impacted D&D (and other TRPGs) significantly.

In 1994, when I attended my first GenCon, the list of exhibitors at the show included many companies that earned most (or all) of their income from selling tabletop RPGs, and who employed one or more full time TRPG designer/developers: Atlas Games, Chaosium, Dream Pod Nine, FASA, Game Designers Workshop, Heartbreaker, Hero Games, Iron Crown Enterprises, Mayfair, Palladium, R. Talsorian, Steve Jackson Games, TSR, West End Games, White Wolf, and I’m sure there’s others I’ve regretfully omitted.

In addition to those companies there was another constellation of small publishers consisting of one or two people trying to make a start in the business, working part time as TRPG designer/publishers, and buzzing around all these companies were dozens (maybe as many as a hundred) freelancers who made all or a significant part of their incomes from TRPG design work.

It’s notable that many in the industry saw the period from 1994-1999 as being fairly bad for TRPGs. The twin rise of collectible card games and the Games Workshop hobby appeared to be draining the TRPG segment of designers and of revenue. The most obvious sign of this problem was the failure of TSR’s business, leading to its acquisition by Wizards of the Coast in 1997.

I would argue that the segment actually brought on most of its woes by simply producing too much product. The proliferation of games, game worlds, and “house systems” so fragmented the market that despite indications that overall revenue remained fairly constant for TRPGs as a segment, the income earned per product and per company became so sub-divided that many (both products & companies) became unprofitable.

A second major factor at work was the consolidation of the distribution tier. When I was selling Legend of the Five Rings in 1996, we had an initial list of North American distributors of about 50. By the end of the decade, that list had shrunk to about a dozen. In fact, virtually every distributor in the market was either sold or closed between 1990 and 1999 – the people who had created the distribution network for TRPGs cashed out to the people who rebuilt it for the CCG business.

This consolidation had an unexpected effect on the TRPG publishers. Every distributor prior to the late 1990s had engaged in a practice whereby they ordered product from TRPG publishers in bulk, and held the inventory in their warehouses to fulfill retailer orders as needed. The standard industry terms were for the distributors to pay the publishers 30 days after receipt of the products. This created cashflow that sustained the publishers – they did not have to wait for every book they printed to sell, they could get the money immediately and transfer the risk of slow sales to the distribution tier. And in addition, every distributor tended to order about 10% more than they could realistically sell, as a hedge against as surprise hit. When the distribution tier consolidated, the publishers suddenly lost tremendous volume in terms of sales and cash. That 10%, multiplied by 50 distributors, was a lot of books. And the distributors that were left were run with much tighter financial policies, leading many to cease pre-paying for inventory and instead asking to hold it “on consignment” – that is, they wanted to pay for the product as they sold it, transferring the risk back to the publishers.

When I took control of the brand & business unit for TRPGs at Wizards of the Coast at the end of 1997, I asked Lisa Stevens to do a market research project to figure out what had really happened in the history of the industry and how we had (collectively) gotten ourselves into the deep hole we found ourselves in.

There were two basic answers revealed by her research.

The first was that the products the industry was producing had become too costly. The boxed set, in particular, was a huge problem. The cost of a boxed set vs. a hardcover book was often a multiple, rather than a percentage. The cost of a hardcover vs. a softcover book was also substantial. In fact, we found several high profile D&D products that were costing the company more to make than the suggested retail price of those products! This issue was endemic throughout the industry, since many publishers assumed they had to “keep up” with TSR in order to be competitive. But TSR wasn’t acting rationally, and had set its suggested retail prices based on its opinion of what the market would pay, not based on what they needed to charge in order to make a profit on the things they were publishing.

In this field, we often use a shorthand pricing system called the “Rule of 5”. Under this rule, you determine the suggested price of a product by multiplying the cost of the product by 5. Factoring in the 3-tier distribution system the industry uses, the result is that the final suggested retail price produces the following divisions:

• 20%: Cost of Goods (the cost of the production of the product, plus the wages paid to people who worked on it and any licenses or royalties)
• 20%: Gross Profit (that is, profit before subtracting all operational costs like salaries, marketing, rent, etc.) to the Publisher
• 20%: Distributor Margin (the gross profit the Distributor earns)
• 40%: Retailer Margin (the gross profit the Retailer earns)

This means that every $1 of cost increases the suggested retail price by $5. Some of the things TSR was doing were adding $10 to the cost of its products – which should have added $50 to the suggested retail prices – easily pushing many of those products into the $100 range. Instead, TSR was just losing money every time it sold one of these products. And the people who made those products never knew, because TSR’s dysfunctional management system hid that information from them. It was not until they got to Wizards of the Coast and had a chance to see the “real numbers” that they realized what had been happening.

The second issue that Lisa’s data revealed led us to our conceptual breakthrough about the business of TRPGs that shaped every decision we made when bringing the 3rd Edition of D&D to the market.

We realized that TRPGs fall into a special class of products & services that generate network effects. In our case, the effect that had the most impact was the concept of the network externality. For TRPGs, the “true value” of the product is not in the book/box that you buy. It is in the network of social connections that you share which enable you to play the game. Without that social network, the game’s value is massively reduced (it becomes literature, and there’s a small market for people who like to just read and never play TRPG content).

We began to view the market not as a series of product pyramids (a core book at the top, and an ever-broadening base of support materials produced over time), but instead as a series of human webs that overlapped and interconnected. Where those webs were strong, the products flourished. Where they were weak, the products failed. The limiting factor to the growth and strength of the TRPG market was not retail stores or shelf space, it was human brains within which these games could interconnect.

The more segmented those brains became, the weaker the overall social network was. Every new game system, and every new variant to those systems, subdivided that network further, making it weaker. Between 1993 and 1999, the social network of the TRPG players had become seriously frayed. Even if you just looked at the network of Dungeons & Dragons players you could see this effect: People self-segmented into groups playing Basic D&D, 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, and within 2nd Edition into various Campaign Settings that had become their own game variants. The effect on the market was that it became increasingly hard to make and sell something that had enough players in common that it would earn back its costs of development and production.

We looked around the industry and saw the same problem at virtually every company that had become successful: White Wolf had 5 World of Darkness games which were all slightly different, surrounded by a more diffuse constellation of games somewhat related to the Storyteller system but designed to be mutually incompatible. FASA had 4 games, none of which shared anything in common. Palladium & Steve Jackson Games both had “house systems” that they tried to use across their entire product lines, but they had ended up with the “Campaign Setting” issue that was bedeviling TSR; the variant rules at the edges of their games were creating independent game networks despite the shared DNA of the core. And we knew that inside every one of those companies they were seeing the same financial information we were seeing: Each new release was selling fewer and fewer copies, and in response, the companies were increasing the pace of releases trying to sustain planned revenues by volume of titles, not by volume of units. And it was killing everyone.

Our analysis lead us to the conclusion that in order to escape this trap, D&D at least had to try and unify its player community around one set of universally acceptable rules. And we had to cut back drastically on the number of different books we were publishing to focus spending on individual titles to drive up profitability. It was literally better to sell 7 copies of one book vs. 5 copies of two different books due to the economies of scale involved.

We hooked that train up to the engine of the Open Gaming License to help spur consolidation of game systems towards a common core, and to enable publishers who wanted to just make a great world or a cool sourcebook to do so without having to first make their own homebrew RPG (and thus fragment the market), and watched the resulting highly entertaining explosion in creativity and revenues in the market starting in 2000.

If you take that list of companies that were active at GenCon in 1994, you have to add all sorts of new names by the time you get to the GenCons of 2001/2: Alderac Entertainment Group, Decipher, Eden Studios, Fantasy Flight Games, Goodman Games, Green Ronin, Guardians of Order, Holistic Design, Kenzer & Co, Malhavoc Press, Mongoose, Necromancer, Pagan Publishing, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, and a host of others that I’m certainly omitting unintentionally. Of course many of these companies were active prior to the OGL/D20 era and many never published D20 products but they all benefited from the resurgence of D&D.

Add to that a number of “indie” RPG companies that were supporting one or two full time designer/publishers like Ron Edwards, Luke Crane, and Vince Baker. The indy RPG segment was getting good advice and learning how to be financially viable via the exchanges on the Forge and other sites dedicated to small press publishing – work that continues to today and has helped create a large number of independently published small TRPGs exploring niches that larger mass-market TRPGs would never have attempted.

Feeding all that activity was an even larger cadre of freelancers than had been in place in the 1990s – the D20 System enabled folks who would never otherwise have tried their hand at commercial design to get paid for their ideas, who joined the pre-existing ranks of freelance creative people working with the major publishers.

Let’s set the high-water mark of the TRPG industry as GenCon 2003, where Wizards released the 3.5 edition of D&D. Shortly thereafter the dominoes started to fall: Incompatibilities between 3.0 and 3.5 meant that a lot of inventory on store shelves became “obsolete” in the minds of customers, resulting in a huge drop in sales and an effort by the retailers to clear that inventory at deep discounts. With the drop in sales came a drop in orders for new products – retailers got skittish about investing more money into a market that was causing them massive headaches.

It’s possible that things could have found a natural bottom at this juncture, and that the market could have rebuilt itself on the 3.5 platform.

Unfortunately, it was never going to get that chance.

At the end of 2004, Blizzard released World of Warcraft. The MMO market which had been considered an interesting curiosity by the tabletop RPG market suddenly exploded. Whereas the previously most successful game (EverQuest) had attracted about 400,000 concurrent paying accounts at the height of its success, World of Warcraft exceeded a million players within 12 months. By the end of 2007, it had more than 5 million players in the US and Europe. An entire new market grew up around World of Warcraft as other companies rushed into the space, quickly creating offerings outside of the basic fantasy of Warcraft, including superheroes, science fiction, cyberpunk, and military history: the very foundations of the TRPG market.

Worse (for the TRPG business) the MMOs also went after young children and engaged them in ways that TRPGs weren’t. Club Penguin, in particular, was so good at getting young kids into its game that Disney bought it for $700 million, and it was reported to have more than 30 million kids playing it.

Almost overnight the TRPG industry suffered two quick body-blows. A large number of people within its network externality left their TRPG groups to focus on MMOs. And instead of receiving the benefits of an acquisition engine generating new players every year, young kids got diverted into MMOs at an age earlier than any suitable TRPG offering, likely establishing a play pattern they’ll keep through to adulthood.

The effects on the TRPG market are now quite visible. At GenCon 2011, the number of companies that were paying full time salaries for TRPG game designer/developers was reduced to a short list: Alderac Entertainment, Kenzer & Co., Fantasy Flight Games, Margaret Weiss Productions, Mongoose, Palladium, Paizo, Steve Jackson Games, White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, and one or two smaller “indy” publishers. Missing from that list are many of the successful companies that were thriving in 1994 and 2001/2 – lost to the industry as well are the freelancer jobs that those companies used to sustain.

Some of those companies continue to publish as secondary sources of income for their owners: Green Ronin and Pinnacle Entertainment Group are great examples of this phenomenon. But that seems to me to be a very precarious place to operate - the margin for error (or accident) is razor thin.

And the contraction is continuing. Wizards of the Coast has laid off a number of designers, as has White Wolf. Hero Games announced that it is ceasing to operate with a full-time staff. Problems at Catalyst indicate that it may be a while before they’re able to sustain the TRPG businesses they inherited from FASA.

So we see the causes: Rise of MMOs, collapse of retailing, and consolidation of distribution. And we see the effects – loss of jobs, shuttering of companies, and virtually no new startup publishers in the space with a mass audience.

Where Does This End?

My opinion is that the hobby gaming industry is going to transform into a very small niche business. It will cater primarily to an aging group of players who have made TRPGs their lifetime hobbies. As those players age, they’ll need less and less support in the form of commercially produced products. They will instead seek out community support tools to help them remain in touch with their hobby even as the social network they’re directly connected to becomes ever more frayed.

In the Escapist articles I am quoted as saying that this process will be like the evolution of the model train hobby. What I could have been more clear about was that my belief in this transformation is driven not by escalating costs (as in the case with model trains) but instead by the lack of an effective acquisition engine to drive new players into the TRPG hobby, and by the continued subtraction from the TRPG social network caused by MMOs.

As neither of these problems is structural to the TRPG industry, and are both driven by external factors, there’s very little that can be done to counter them directly.

Future Paths


The first thing that a lot of folks ask for when engaged about the future of the hobby is a virtual table top. It seems kind of obvious – if MMOs are breaking the social network of TRPGs then the way to fight back is to take the TRPG to the MMO’s territory and enable distributed on-line play.

The problem is that VTTs exist, and they’re not successful. If you give people the choice between a VTT and an MMO, they pick the MMO. The VTT doesn’t solve the real problem that is that the MMO experience is simply better for a significant portion of the former TRPG social network. My opinion is that a successful and widely used VTT will remain an elusive mirage despite how much effort is poured into developing them.

That is not to say that there’s no role for digital in the future of the TRPG. Transforming the delivery mechanism of TRPGs into digital products is, I think, the likely evolutionary path. And I’m not talking about just PDFs of printed books – I’m talking about the idea of making a digital product that takes advantage of all that implies to deliver an improved tabletop experience using iPad-type technology.

Conversion to Family Games

I define a Hobby Game as one where (at least one person) spends more time preparing to play the game than actually playing it. For TRPGs that is usually the GM, but often it is players as well. This “out of game time” may be the biggest obstacle to overcome to keeping the TRPG platform competitive.

I think that commercially successful TRPGs of the future will be constructed more like a family game – something that can be unpacked, learned quickly, and played with little prep work. These games will give people a lot of the same joy of “roleplaying” and narrative control that they get from today’s Hobby Game TRPGs but with a fraction of the time investment. Wizards is already experimenting with this format, as is Fantasy Flight Games. It seems like a good bet that there is a substantially profitable business down this line of evolution.


I will end this essay by talking a bit about Pathfinder and it’s role in the market.

One of the goals of the OGL and the D20 project was to ensure that no single company would ever have the ability to kill Dungeons & Dragons. TSR almost did so; near the end of its existence it had pledged the copyrights and trademarks of the D&D franchise as security against loans it could not afford to repay. Had TSR gone into bankruptcy it is likely that for at least some time, and possibly an extremely lengthy period, nobody would have had the right to publish using that IP while the bankers fought over the carcass of TSR.

The OGL/D20 project also ensured that a version of D&D would exist as of the 3rd Edition version no matter what future incarnation of D&D might be developed. Future versions of D&D would be benchmarked against that milestone, and if the market decided they did not want to switch to the new version, unlike in previous iterations where all commercial support for the previous version would be terminated, the market would be able to keep supporting the version that they preferred. This raises a high bar to future versions of D&D – you have to be so much better than the 3e game that people will voluntarily switch platforms.

Pathfinder has (obviously) become the game that represents that 3rd Edition milestone in the minds of the majority of the players, and is benefiting from the fact that it seems the number of voluntary switches to 4e was less than Wizards had hoped.

Any time a market contracts, a phenomenon is observed which is called a “flight to quality”. This means that the people who remain in a contracting market tend to concentrate their business around the most successful parts of the market, hoping that they’ll be able to ride out the collapse and make it to a future expansionary period. This is what is happening right now with Pathfinder. The social network that was coalesced by the D20 System has been inherited by Pathfinder. Even as the rest of the market is getting smaller, Pathfinder is getting bigger because its attracting all the people who remain interested in the TRPG format.

Paizo, for its part, is still trying to re-start the acquisition engine. The Beginner Box it released this year is the best intro product that the TRPG market has seen in well over a decade (maybe 2 decades). I’m certain that there are kids who got it for Christmas and are right now getting their first taste of the TRPG experience. Hopefully those kids will decide to spend at least a part of their gaming time around the tabletop rather than the MMO virtual worlds. Only time will tell.

My instinct is that Pathfinder will be the lifeboat that the long-term hobbyists will use to keep the social network from fraying past the point of no return. There’s enough people playing it and interacting both locally and virtually that I think it has the momentum it needs to sustain itself even if a total worst case scenario would unfold (Barnes & Noble also fails, and the full line hobby game store ceases to exist). Paizo is doing the right things in making its community and its market one unified whole, which is a great insurance policy against forces beyond its control.

Where Goes D&D?

I’d like to expound on this topic in more detail. Unfortunately, I’m privy to confidential information that makes that impossible at this time. I see the same things you all see – Monte Cook going back to Wizards of the Coast and a general recognition in the market that 4th Edition was not commercially successful. I think that in 2012 I’ll have a lot more to say about D&D, but that will have to wait for a future column. For now I’ll just end by saying that I hope with all my heart that the folks at Wizards of the Coast figure out how to get that franchise righted and back on track, because it would be good for the hobby in general for D&D to become a strong brand again.

--RSD / Atlanta, December 2011
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Ryan S. Dancey

Ryan S. Dancey

OGL Architect


Nice article.

I've kind of had the opinion that D&D will continue to see more board games for their IP. I wish there was a cheaper alternative though as I would collect such board games if they fell in the $20-$30 range for the actual game store, not Amazon.com. A 32 page rulebook, some tiles, some cheap minis and dice and I would be ready to rock-n-roll. Expansions could add more rules, tiles, and such.


First Post
As a gamer who lives outside the US/Canada, I see a lack of a more involved international licensing/distribution, which would help the market by increasing the overall size of the pie.

And what you said about TRPG as family games reminded me of the D&D series of boxes. Maybe if you pack the entire game (rules, characters, monsters) for a certain level range (say, 1-5/6-10/11-15/16-20/20-30), you could have customers pay for "upgrades" or stay with the range they like best.


I would counter that I am of an opposite opinion of the article in some ways, though on the front it would appear to be in parallell.

First, I think the OGL was genius.

That stated, I think TRPG is a misnomer, and it should all be grouped into one single thought of RPG.

With that I think RPGs are going through a renaissance and are more popular then ever before. It's the FORM of which they are changing. I think the audience for RPGs is actually expanding, not contracting, but it's how they are playing as opposed to what they are playing.

I think Neverwinter Nights was actually the first big example of this. You had people given the creativity to make their own RPG game, and in many cases be a DM over massive worlds.

In World of Warcraft you have those who are part of "RPG" guilds and groups which are specifically more into the role portion than simple hack and slash.

I think that RPGs are getting more into the integration of electronica and the RPG itself. Those arenas which can successfully integrate those two are doing better then those that cannot.

In that light, I think Paizo actually has done a better job of the integration of the two thus far than many others.

It also spells a difference between a TTTRPG (so more than just Traditional, that would be Traditional Table Top Roleplaying Game) and current Roleplaying games.

The bigger question is what businesses can make that leap into the integration of the market. That may not necessarily mean a Virtual Table top, it could mean a game like World of Warcraft, but with the entire DM toolset at a Player's fingertips.

I think the RPGs that are electronic or combine electronica into it's way of playing will gain more and more marketshare and that RPGs will expand.

In fact I think Mr. Dancey himself is part of this entire idea that RPGs are expanding in this way and even has hedged his bets in business upon it in some ways.

Just my two copper.


"effective acquisition engine" pretty much hits the nail on the head imo. The core problem of the difficulty in seeing and bridging the skills gap between expert and novice is well-known across education and learning. RPGs are no different from any other kind of learning in this respect - if we don't model and scaffold new player's participation (in-game and out) it's not just likely, but inevitable, that most potential players will walk away :.-(


First Post
First, thanks for posting. Whatever information was witheld, there is a lot of substantive analysis there.

Second, with regards to the collapse of retailers, it seems to me that this affects a lot more than the D&D brand, and compensatory mechanisms will evolve that affect far more than the D&D brand.

Third, I tend to agree with the point on VTT. D&D's distinguishing factor is that it is played in person, with people. That's not likely to change, even when technology does.

Fourth, I'm not sure about MMOs. It seems to me there is or ought to be some synergy there, as well as competition between them and tabletop RPGs.

At the end of the day, I conclude (as many others have) that the OGL is a very, very good thing.
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First Post
IN terms of collapse of retailers (hell, I thought Borders was finished), where does Amazon fall? How many retail stores is one Amazon worth?

How does that handle things like the DDI with a constant stream of revenue that allows instant data mining on an unprecedented scale for WoTC or the subscription model that Paizo is using with the free PDF for those who subscribe?

Argyle King

I agree with some others have said; I feel that interest in the idea of rpgs is growing; not dying. Heck, even Lego has a rpg game out now. It's a very simple one due to their target audience, but it's still an rpg.

As for Waldens and Barnes & Noble? To be quite blunt, I'm a former Waldens employee; part of their problem was just making poor business decisions. As an occasional customer of Barnes & Noble, I think their problem is expecting someone to pay the prices they charge.

...anyway... I'll cut myself short and try to sum things up by saying that I completely disagree with Ryan. Yep, he has numbers; numbers which I cannot refute with numbers of my own. However, what his numbers prove to me is not that tabletop gaming is dying, but instead that the 'establishment' (for a lack of better words) is dying. I think that's a great thing because I believe that a lot of the bigger companies are out of touch with what the gaming community wants.

I believe that because while some of the big names the OP throws out there are indeed having trouble. However, at the same time, there are plenty of people and companies out there who are listening and delivering; evolving with the fanbase. It's time for a changing of the guard; that may look like death to some of the people who live at the top, but it's not. It's evolution. I believe it's time for someone else to have a shot at the top of the mountain.

I'll start to wind down my post by saying I've recently had a conversation with the owner of one of local gaming stores. It's an independently owned store. The store is now completely free of debt (some of it from loans and such when the store was first opened.) It's making a profit. When I go there, I see more and more new faces all the time. I even had a joking conversation with the owner a few months back in which I asked him what he was doing to lure so many girls into his store (seems to be a big surge of females interested in gaming here as well.)

Maybe that one store is a fluke; just maybe. However, there is a Barnes & Noble here in town, and -as the OP suggests- they are not doing well. I know they are not doing well because I've asked; I've also observed the large mound of D&D books which seems to virtually never move. The driving time between the local gaming store and where Barnes & Noble is at is probably 10 minutes at the most - my point being going to one is just as easy as getting to the other. So why is it that people choose the small local gaming store over the large powerhouse chain retailer? More importantly, do you feel this indicates a problem with the hobby as a whole or does it indicate failure on the part of the 'big names' in the industry?

I'm not sure if anyone else is familiar with professional wrestling or the business behind it, but my view is that WoTC and some of the large retailers are slowly turning into the WCW of the community. Loads of talent, but no idea what to do with it... still, since they have money, they're going to continue to ride high for a while. Plenty of people at Turner Broadcasting who know what makes a good business model, but who are completely out of touch with what makes a good pro-wrestling business.


My only comment is that MapTool at least is a virtual table that seems to have found success. Not commercial success, of course - it's a free program! But success in letting friends play RPGs online? Yep. My game is a year and a half in and going strong, and I have a secondary game I play online with family.

I might just be an outlier, though, in liking the pen and paper RPG experience enough online to prefer it over the MMO option, which has never interested me.


My only comment is that MapTool at least is a virtual table that seems to have found success. Not commercial success, of course - it's a free program! But success in letting friends play RPGs online? Yep. My game is a year and a half in and going strong, and I have a secondary game I play online with family.

I tend to agree with you. VTTs are still finding their place I think, but they certainly offer a viable way to play for those without a local group. I know if I didn't have a local group I would be playing in a regular VTT game.

Argyle King

"I define a Hobby Game as one where (at least one person) spends more time preparing to play the game than actually playing it. For TRPGs that is usually the GM, but often it is players as well. This “out of game time” may be the biggest obstacle to overcome to keeping the TRPG platform competitive."

While I see the logic behind this statement, and in some ways might agree with it, I find myself disagreeing overall. Look at what some of the most successful Facebook games are. Things such as Farmville, YoVille, and others have been successful; extremely so. A lot of people enjoy a game where they can spend hours upon hours customizing every fiddly little detail about a farm or their virtual restaurant or make believe house.

What do they do after that? They invite friends to visit their creations and share in the experience. I believe evidence shows that there is a market for a more robust rpg experience. While I completely understand having less time when you're 30 and have a job, kids, and bills versus being 15 and simply needing to get your homework done and finish up football practice, I still believe there are people who crave that creative outlet. I believe there is a want to put a mark on the world; even if that world is a make believe one.

Look at how robust video games such as WWE 12 are with options to create a wrestler. In the newest game, you can now even create your own wrestling arena. The designers saw that people wanted more detail; more control; more ability to put their own mark on a product. Isn't that exactly what one of the strongest selling points of a tabletop experience is? The ability to break free of restrictions set by a WoW server's programing; the ability to build your own character rather than being stuck with a wheelbarrow, thimble, or dog; the ability to create your own world and live your own fantasy. That's what brought me to rpgs.

When I look at how the world around me and non-gaming community is evolving, I see people who are more open to that kind of experience than ever. Yes, by all means, if you can, make the job of being a DM easier. Create products which will help out the guy who is busy with a full time job and kids. However, you need not chop the game down and turn it into something else. When I teach people to play, I don't see eyes light up when a person moves 3 squares and plays a card to do 5 damage in the same way that I see when someone realizes that they can tell their story, and that their character is their canvas to paint in whichever way they want (quite literally if you enjoy painting minis.)

Am I completely off base? If I am, fine, I can live with that. It sure wouldn't be the first time I've been in the minority (I don't enjoy WoW at all) when it comes to my gamer friends and/or the gaming community. I simply feel as though I must be living in a completely different world when I read articles of this nature. Apparently, I must also be wanting to play a completely different game. Once again, I do not have the numbers nor the inside information of the OP, so I can only defer to his experience, but I will argue that I feel those numbers can be attributed to the failure of the people producing some of the struggling games more so than to society as a whole having less interest in the concept of rpgs.



First Post
Interesting post.

My two cents, actually three.

First, the OGL succeeded in legally creating an everlasting version of the game, which is 3rd edition. That this version of the game would be everlasting seems to have been the goal, which was achieved.
I am not sure, though, that this was such a wise business decision for WotC back then, because I think it is bad for a company that wants to keep selling stuff in the future to create a product that can go on forever. There is a reason why you cannot still buy new models of the Mercedes-Benz 300S Coupe from 1951. Great car, though. Also, legally, WotC would have been able to allow 3rd party publishers to use the 3rd edition rules for non-WotC-products without letting them use the rules forever. A free liscense to use the rules, not just core, that has to be renewed every 4-5 years, for example.
In addition, an RPG is dissimilar to software, which eventually becomes "better" as technology progresses. Plus, roleplayers seem to be a conservative bunch and seem to stick with what they know and play. So the thought that "if we produce a new version of the game that is sooo much better and people will buy it voluntarily" is therefore not so easy to follow. Because, what is "better" in a roleplaying game? This forum is proof of the fact that when 2 roleplayers are talking about the quality of the game and what makes it "better" than the other game, you have at least 3 different opinions. And why should I buy new books if I have a shelf full already?
So the decision to create the OGL back then is one of the reasons why WotC is less strong than it could have been. All the positive effects could have been achieved with a legally different version of the OGL. 3e would not have been everlasting, though.

Second, the OGL does not only make it legally easy for the main competitor of WotC, which is Paizo, but for all other companies as well. And that is what I consider to be the main reason why there is more support by the market for the 3rd edition version of d20. This is the real legal monster that Mr. Dancey and others created as WotC representatives 12+ years ago. Which serves some of those others, that have left WotC long ago, very well today. Which is, so that I am being understood the right way, fine with me, because if a company lets its managers basically (not legally, I know) give away their IP, it is only normal that the competition will blossom. You cannot blame the competition of today for that. And neither do I.

Third, I think Mr. Dancey is right about what RPGs will move to be to attract new players - family games instead games you have to prepare for intensly. When talking about PF though, one has to remember in my opinion that this version of the game encourages rule mastery to a very high degree. The better you know the rules and every aspect of the game, the better your character will be. If you do not, your character will mostly suck. I speak of experience because I used to optimize the hell out of my 3e characters and played with people who did not. Together with the issue of game and class balance, this does not suit the character of a family game. Therefore, 5e will look nothing like 3e. And I am not sure if Paizo can deliver a family game.

Very interesting post, though.


First Post
I think I agree with that article's statement that VTT's are an option where TRPG's can compete and recapture some of the market of MMO's.

Unlike the author though, I believe they can succeed, and not be a white whale for the industry.

I think there is a general fear amongst traditional TRPG players that a VTT is no better then just staring into the computer like a zombie, akin to what you do while playing an MMO, but I can say from experience it's not, if anything it's much more enjoyable than traditional pen and paper games.

I currently play via VTT, but we play with it in-house meaning we're all around the table using laptops and a projector for mapping.

It has made our games far more interactive and interesting then they have ever been.

As the DM it's marvellous, so much freedom to use your imagination again as you're not strapped to just trying to keep track of everything, durations, conditions, effects.

Out of combat is virtually unchanged. People still get into character as easy as before but as the DM sharing maps, pictures, notes, is so easy.

For combat there's no more fiddly book-keeping, stat tracking, effect tracking, durations... the computer does all that, all you have to do is think up fun stuff.

It gets you more involved in everyone's action, you get to see the results right there in an split second click of the mouse.

I am so excited to think of what kind of a VTT a large company with tons of cash could come up with.
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I hope, that the information you withheld are what I believe them to be...

i just believe, RPGs are not going to die. Maybe they are having a hard time now. Maybe D&D 4e is less profitable than it should be (I doubt, that it is producing losses).
Ironically it was baldur´s gate, a compter game, that brought a lot of people to the hobby... maybe we see a new game that does so. The most interesting thing in the escapist article was the fact, that D&D computer game license is now in wizards hands... lets see, how they are using it!

I also see the same issue with 4e as Klaus:
localisation failed totally. Where I got 3rd edition stuff here in germany everywhere, I find none for 4e. And the game is written in a way, that it hardly translates.

I honestly don´t believe, that pathfinder is the future. Right now I see it as a possibility for people to play their old favourite. Ready to be dropped, when 5e hits the shelves. Maybe this won´t happen, because 5e is crappy. Maybe it will happen, because it is a lot better than 3e and 4e put together.


First Post
I honestly don´t believe, that pathfinder is the future. Right now I see it as a possibility for people to play their old favourite. Ready to be dropped, when 5e hits the shelves. Maybe this won´t happen, because 5e is crappy. Maybe it will happen, because it is a lot better than 3e and 4e put together.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that PF is 'the future' either.

But some version of 3e D&D is.

As the OP pointed out, the OGL changed the business world. Now, to make a (financially) successful rpg, you have to convince people that your costly product is better than what they could get for free. 3e, while not perfect, has wide appeal and the core rules are easily available for free. 4e reached plenty of people, but it in many ways isn't a direct competitor to 3e because it isn't free (and because it's substantively very different as well). No matter how well-designed or well-marketed 4e was, it would never have displaced all the 3e fans because of that. 3e (or PF, or something else) is likely to maintain a significant presence through some company or fan support until someone releases a game that is both clearly better for most people and free.

What are the odds of that happening?


I just want to point out that I have clocked more hours gaming on VTTs and online mediums then I have in person. In fact, I'd say I've spent four times as many hours.

I don't think VTT will fail, and being online doesn't cut down on the 'it's with people' aspect.


May I ask how this info was gathered, please?
A related question also: Does your analysis take into account online merchants such as RPGnow? I submit that the changes are not necessarily indicative of the declining health of the industry segment, but rather, could possibly be harbingers of the emergence of a new business model.

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