Ben Riggs: 'The Golden Age of TTRPGs is Dead'

Author of 'Slaying the Dragon' predicts an end to the current boom.

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Ben Riggs, D&D historian and author of Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons has posted an essay widely on social media entitled 'The Golden Age of TTRPGs is Dead'.

Note that Riggs uses the term '6th Edition' in this essay to refer to the 2024 core D&D rulebooks but says that "I am by no means married to the 6E nomenclature. It's just shorter than saying "the new books coming out this year" again and again and again."

We are watching a bright and special time in the TTRPG industry pass away before our eyes.

Around the start of the 2010s, we saw the dawn of a new golden age of tabletop roleplaying games. Since then, huge numbers of new players have found the hobby thanks to Stranger Things and actual plays like Critical Role. These new fans discovered a vibrant and thrumming TTRPG industry. There was the D20 fantasy family of games, dominated by D&D 5E, but rich with other games published under the OGL and the fertile depths of the Old School Renaissance. There were other mainstream publishers with storied brands, such as Call of Cthulhu, Deadlands, and Shadowrun. Lastly, there was a flourishing indie TTRPG scene that revolutionized what a TTRPG was, such as Apocalypse World.

This influx of gamers created a rising tide that lifted all boats. Novice gamers started out playing D&D 5E, yes, but went on to discover other great games. Because of the OGL, countless companies and designers could make money creating for D&D 5E. Because of the increasing number of gamers, even strange, freaky, or weird TTRPG ideas could find an audience. Have you heard of Apollo 47 Technical Manual the RPG?

But recent developments make clear that this radiant golden age is ending, as surely as the steam engine ended the age of sail, or hobbits bearing a ring ended the Third Age of Middle-earth.

The Doom of Our Time Approaches

In the wake of the Open Gaming License scandal of this past winter, a number of companies have successfully launched new TTRPGs intended to move them past the possibility of Wizards of the Coast ever threatening their businesses ever again. Some of the games grossed millions in crowdfunding campaigns. All have been positively reviewed.

Some cite the success of these games, which are intended to replace 5E/OGL content for the companies involved, as signs of the continued health and growth of the TTRPG industry.

They are not.

Rather, they are signs that the industry has peaked, and may be about to enter a decline.

Why?

After the Open Gaming License crisis of 2023, I became pessimistic about the damage the attempt to kill the OGL had done to our hobby. Others told me that the result of the crisis would be the blooming of a thousand flowers. Discouraged from using 5E by Wizards of the Coast’s attempt to kill the OGL, we would all get amazing new TTRPGs.

Maybe every single one of those new TTRPGs is going to be amazing. Maybe every one will be so fun and so captivating that lawns will go unmowed, pets unfed, and diapers unchanged because we are all so busy playing one of those games.

The problem is the TTRPG business is devilishly difficult. Only very rarely does the creation of a phenomenal game actually lead to financial success.

And the death of the OGL and the creation of these games has fundamentally changed the industry in such a way that it will be harder for those companies to make money in the future. A difficult business is about to become more difficult.

Consider the state of the industry a mere eighteen months ago; countless publishers, from MCDM and Kobold Press to Wizards of the Coast, were all making 5E material; it was easy to purchase products from multiple publishers because if you were running 5E, you could use the work of all these companies at your table; this made it easier for companies to share customers.

The new TTRPGs birthed by the OGL crisis are about to make that sort of customer sharing much, much harder. MCDM is publishing a TTRPG where you roll 2D6 to hit. Pathfinder’s 2nd edition remaster has no alignment and changed ability scores. Critical Role has dropped 5E like a dead cockroach and is playtesting its own new fantasy game, Daggerheart, which uses 2D12s, and a horror game named Candela Obscura.

And of course, there is the rising Godzilla that is 6th edition D&D, which scientists say will attack our shores in the spring of 2024. So far, there is no hint of an OGL for whatever that game will be.

The problem is, 5E was not just a game. It was a massive community of players. Countless companies could thrive making products for that community.

These new games are a shattering of that community. Instead of countless companies working to make your 5E game better, they are now asking you to become MCDM, or Darrington Press, or Paizo, or D&D 6E players. We are entering an era of division, faction, and balkanization.

The companies are now asking fans to choose sides. It also means that it is going to become more difficult for them to share customers. How interested will a Pathfinder fan be in an MCDM product? Or 6th edition? History suggests these sorts of barriers depress sales.

All This Has Happened Before

In the 1990s, TSR, the first company to publish Dungeons & Dragons, embarked on publishing setting after setting after setting for the game. By 1997, over a dozen settings were sold by the company. Fans stopped being fans of D&D, and instead became fans of a particular setting, and would only buy products for that setting. In 1997, TSR was near death as setting releases had plummeted from the hundreds of thousands of copies in the 1980s, to a mere 7,152 copies sold for the Birthright campaign setting in its first year of release. D&D was only saved from a terrible fate by Wizards of the Coast and their fat stacks of cash. They purchased TSR in the summer of 1997.

Some might say it is unfair to compare the different settings of the 90s to the different systems of today. Settings and systems are different, after all. And I do agree with the point. Switching systems is a BIGGER ASK than switching settings, therefore this change should have a LARGER IMPACT ON SALES.

And it is all happening again. The TTRPG audience is fracturing at the seams, and it will hurt sales and growth.

To focus only on MCDM, this current BackerKit is likely the most successful campaign the company will ever see. Every campaign after this will struggle to get the same sort of sales numbers as people slowly bleed away to the competition. Paizo will say check out our competing fantasy game. WotC will batter us all with a punishing wave of marketing trying to convince all of us of the newness and hotness of D&D 6th edition. (May it be both new and hot! But I have my doubts…) And fans will bleed away.

Furthermore, what will happen to the YouTube channel that is the foundation of MCDM’s success? Matt Colville is a master communicator and was a major evangelist for D&D in his channel’s heyday. He is passionate, intelligent, and inspiring. If Dungeon Masters could go into the locker room and get a pep talk from their coach in the middle of a game of D&D, that coach would be Matt Colville.

How much time is Colville going to devote to D&D now that it is essentially his competition?

In the past year, he has put out less than 20 videos on his channel. Those videos now range widely in topic, from TV reviews and interviews with language scholars to some D&D content, and a discussion of the creation of his new RPG. Go back five years, and Colville was putting out video after video after video of fantastic advice about running D&D, usually with 5E as the default. He dispensed some of the best advice on TTRPGs I have ever seen.

But it appears his content is fundamentally shifting, and he is asking that his audience go with him somewhere new.

Let’s look at MCDM’s recent efforts from the point of view of Wizards of the Coast. It is all ruin, disaster, and calamity. Master communicator and D&D fanatic Matt Colville has gone from convincing people to try D&D, and explaining how best to play D&D, to instead asking his 439,000 subscribers to stop playing D&D and play his game instead.

Not to mention that Critical Role—a huge reason for the recent surge in popularity of D&D—is likewise stopping their support of D&D, and asking their 2.1 million YouTube subscribers to start playing one of their two new games instead. I will not mention that, lest it further trouble the sleep of the D&D people at Wizards of the Coast… (What if 2.1 million people simply don’t buy 6th edition?)

In summary, all these events are interfering with the developments that created the golden age of TTRPGs. The removal of D&D from Critical Role likely hurts everyone involved. For years, Critical Role’s pitch was “Watch voice actors play D&D!” (A concept even my 80-year-old Aunt Sonja understands.) Now, the pitch is “Watch voice actors play Candela Obscura!”

But what is Candela Obscura? (If asked, Aunt Sonja might guess Candela Obscura was a potpourri scent.) The brand recognition that drove people to Critical Role is gone.

Simultaneously, the splintering of the D&D 5E community will make it harder for new designers to break into the industry, and harder for established companies to attract new customers. Growth in the TTRPG field will slow.

What the Future Might Look Like

And if I’m right, and this is how the golden age of TTRPGs dies, certain things follow naturally from these events. Here are my predictions—Prophecies?—that I may be held accountable for my rashness in writing all this down. I may be wrong, but if I’m right, the following things seem likely to pass:
  • Sixth edition will not do as well as 5th edition. Even more firings will follow. Wizards, which struggled to know what to do with D&D when it was a success (No Honor Among Thieves Starter Set? Really?) will be flummoxed by what to do with it when it is perceived as a failure.
  • No MCDM RPG crowdfunding campaign will ever do better than this initial campaign to fund its TTRPG.
  • Kobold Press’s post-OGL game, Tales of the Valiant, has been criticized for being too similar to 5E. For Kobold Press, I see two futures. Perhaps they will slowly bleed fans in the same way that MCDM will. But if D&D 6th edition is too different, and people really don’t want to move on from 5E, Kobold has positioned themselves to be the next Paizo, and Tales of the Valiant, the next Pathfinder.
  • The frequency of million-dollar TTRPG Kickstarters will decrease.
  • Attendance at major gaming conventions will plateau.
  • TTRPGs will become less interesting. Less exciting. Less creative. And despite all the new systems, it will also grow less diverse as it becomes even harder to make money in a TTRPG community broken into factions.
And so a golden age ends sputters out.

Unless something truly dramatic and game-changing hits the industry.

What could change this grim future? I suppose a group of publishers coalescing around a single system might change matters.

Or something truly inconceivable, something like giving 6th edition D&D an OGL, or putting the rules in the Creative Commons.

And after last month’s blood sacrifices upon the altar of profitability, who is even left at Wizards with the power and experience to advocate for such a thing?

It has been a grand era to be a gamer, one which we have been fortunate to live through.


There are a few inaccuracies in the essay--Critical Role does still play D&D, for example.

Numerous industry professionals have also posted thoughts in response, some agreeing and others disagreeing--you can see their comments on the original Facebook post, which is publicly viewable.

Mike Mearls, who was laid off from WotC a few weeks ago responded "WRONG! The age of fixating on one company and its decisions is dead. Now the audience is in the driver's seat. Let us hope they hit the gas."

Shannon Appelcline, of Designers & Dragons fame, said that he thought "the reports of the OGL's death are greatly exaggerated." He went on to say that fandom has kept WotC "from destroying the Golden Age".

Keith Strohm, D&D brand manager in the early 2000s, and later COO of Paizo, commented that it was "an exceptionally astute analysis" and that it was like "watching history repeat itself". He talked about the intent of the OGL and ended by saying "I don't want to be a prophet of doom, so I'm rooting for all of these companies, many of whom are either founded by or employ my friends and colleagues. However, I wouldn't launch a new system in this current environment."

Marvel Multiverse RPG designer Matt Forbeck said that "It might herald the end of a golden age of D&D, but other games may yet thrive".

Industry veteran Owen KC Stephens remarked "This is a well-considered, well-reasoned analysis. I disagree with almost all of it."

James Lowder, who directed various lines for TSR in the 80s and 90s, feels that "It's a Second Golden Age for game design and variety." He commented on WotC's possible plans for a digital-first edition of D&D--"If Hasbro/WotC tries to make the new edition a subscription-based, highly monetized walled garden, with radically increased direct-to-consumer sales, they will likely blight the market and the hobby--this is likely to happen whether they succeed or fail. This kind of move will roll back the overall audience for everyone and could well remove RPGs from many stores that rely on D&D sales in order to justify devoting the shelf space to RPGs."
 

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TiQuinn

Registered User
Anyway, as for Ben Riggs- I like that he puts the work in, and I appreciate that he share his research (usually on twitter/X or facebook). I do think that his writing tends to try and make the history "interesting" by creating antagonists and protagonists, and for that reason I prefer the more fact-based histories of Jon Peterson, but I certainly won't look a gift horse in the mouth.
There’s Ben Riggs the researcher/writer and there’s Ben Riggs the podcaster, and as of late TTRPG industry prognosticator. One of these is good at what he does, and the other isn’t.

Also the guy co-hosting needs to just…stop talking.
 

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Thomas Shey

Legend
It is interesting how varied the opinions on 4E are. I mean, some folks think 5E is, "4E, just presented differently". There are, of course, 4E fans that would disagree mightily with that take. It carries over to PF2 as well.

As in, they don't see the 4e-like elements? Well, even more than D&D5e folks, PF was originally colonized by people who were, as a group, actively hostile to 4e so they're going to tend not to see it (of course there's enough of a split between PF1e fans (which is to say 3e fans with a new coat of paint) and PF2e fans in a lot of cases that its' hard to tell how much of a factor that is.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
As in, they don't see the 4e-like elements? Well, even more than D&D5e folks, PF was originally colonized by people who were, as a group, actively hostile to 4e so they're going to tend not to see it (of course there's enough of a split between PF1e fans (which is to say 3e fans with a new coat of paint) and PF2e fans in a lot of cases that its' hard to tell how much of a factor that is.
I wasnt talking about non 4E fans at all. There is one big 4E fan around who believes the entire problem was presentation. That 5E is essentially 4E presented better. I know many 4E fans dont agree with that opinion. They also dont agree that 13th Age or PF2 are similar to 4E either. Though, my suspicion is a culture war is at play where the only acceptable answer is 4E return to the RPG landscape with D&D on the label. Thats largely becasue outside of tactical combat, I dont seem to ever really get an answer of what 4E does that no other RPG can?
 


Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
I don't see how this last decade or so is Golden Age of ttrpgs.

If anything, i would peg golden age in late 80s and 90s.

Yes, these days it's easier to self publish, raise funds via crowdfunding, market via social media.

But, on the other hand, we have more choices for entertainment than ever. And ttrpgs are competing with all of them for same resources - our time and money.
There are more RPG players and more RPGs than ever in the hobby's history. Objectively, there has been no better time for the hobby or the industry.

Now, individual players may no longer be in middle school in a pre-internet era, where they could spend up to 48 hours playing AD&D all weekend, but that's nothing to do with the industry as a whole.
 

bmfrosty

Explorer
He was one of the contributors to Lore & Legends which definitely wasn't nuanced and didn't even acknowledge that anything involved with 5E wasn't omg, just the best thing ever.

I sure hope the Art & Arcana Riggs is the one who wrote this book, rather than the Lore & Legends one. I'll wait for reviews on this one. (ENWorld posters were very clear about Lore & Legends.)
Full disclosure, I listened to a bunch of his podcasts while he was writing "Slaying the Dragon", found them absolutely fascinating, bought the book, and haven't gotten around to cracking it. I like him, Peterson, and Appelcline. I do however suspect that if Wizards is paying for them to write and has editorial control, that the tone, inclusions, and exclusions will match the editorial desire.

EDIT: On the topic of 4e, it was definitely a big misstep for WotC, and while it may or may not have been a popular game by some metric, it probably wasn't a very profitable game compared to 3e.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I wasnt talking about non 4E fans at all. There is one big 4E fan around who believes the entire problem was presentation. That 5E is essentially 4E presented better. I know many 4E fans dont agree with that opinion. They also dont agree that 13th Age or PF2 are similar to 4E either. Though, my suspicion is a culture war is at play where the only acceptable answer is 4E return to the RPG landscape with D&D on the label. Thats largely becasue outside of tactical combat, I dont seem to ever really get an answer of what 4E does that no other RPG can?
Well, my feeling on it was "not much" but then, even by its own standards D&D and other F20 games normally don't have non-combat elements as a strong suit. 4e's skill challenge system might have been a bit more coherently put together than the million one-off rules for skills in a lot of F20 games, but that sometimes came across as more of a way to avoid taking the time out to get into non-combat elements than a way to really engage with them when I played it. But there's a certain eye-of-the-beholder element to that, inevitably.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Full disclosure, I listened to a bunch of his podcasts while he was writing "Slaying the Dragon", found them absolutely fascinating, bought the book, and haven't gotten around to cracking it. I like him, Peterson, and Appelcline. I do however suspect that if Wizards is paying for them to write and has editorial control, that the tone, inclusions, and exclusions will match the editorial desire.
I've done work for hire my entire adult life. I would not take a job that would call into question my credibility and, if I discovered that was what was required under the terms of my contract, I would get out of that contract.

Aside from the truly obsequious tone of Lore & Legends -- blatant ad copy is more even-keeled than L&L -- it also contains multiple factual errors, which it seems hard to say is due to WotC's editorial mandates.

It's a badly written book and it makes everyone involved in writing it look bad.
 

Hussar

Legend
I wasnt talking about non 4E fans at all. There is one big 4E fan around who believes the entire problem was presentation. That 5E is essentially 4E presented better. I know many 4E fans dont agree with that opinion. They also dont agree that 13th Age or PF2 are similar to 4E either. Though, my suspicion is a culture war is at play where the only acceptable answer is 4E return to the RPG landscape with D&D on the label. Thats largely becasue outside of tactical combat, I dont seem to ever really get an answer of what 4E does that no other RPG can?

My ears are burning.

I would say that this is the position that people have invented as a counter to the argument that 5e is in any way inspired by 4e.

Or to put it another way, I completely agree with @Echohawk.
 

GrimCo

Adventurer
There are more RPG players and more RPGs than ever in the hobby's history. Objectively, there has been no better time for the hobby or the industry.
As I said, yes, there are more rpg's than ever, cause the barrier to entry has been lowered enough. It's easier than ever to self publish and self market because of internet. What i'm arguing is that today, D&D dwarfs all others by huge margin, while back in the late 80's, 90's and even early 00', gap in popularity between D&D and competitors was way smaller, with WW even eclipsing D&D at the moments, and CoC running close behind them. Today, we have D&D, D&D with different flavour ( PF2 is just crunchy variant that very much feels like updated 4e, PF1 was just 3.75, LV UP and ToV are just D&D 5e with some work done). I fully admit, i'm probably not well informed about numbers and i would like to see some good hard statistics on player distribution across systems, total sales number for systems etc, but i doubt that those number are available online.

I'm going by imperfect method of observation. I know both owners of LFGS in my town, owner of game caffe, organizers of biggest national convention and people in couple of non profit associations that promote ttrpgs, mini wargames and boardgames. They all say same thing. D&D 5e is king when it comes to ttrpgs. Most of the new people aren't rpg players. They are D&D players. 25 years ago, at con (this con is held annually since 1983), we had at least 4-5 different systems going. Now, 5e and PF1/2, cause that's what people want to play.
Now, individual players may no longer be in middle school in a pre-internet era, where they could spend up to 48 hours playing AD&D all weekend, but that's nothing to do with the industry as a whole.
As far is industry concerned, i have no idea. Honestly, i just don't care enough to go over financial reports of companies, if they are available (publicly traded companies), to see how good or bad they do. I'm going more from hobby side, as in, how easy is to find people to play in person games other than D&D.

Usual caveat, this is just personal opinion based on observation and trends in local (one country) area.
 

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