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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I don't believe that 4e was quite as disliked as you're suggesting, but in general I think you have a point. 5e's success is not particular to anything 5e exclusively did.

It was confluence of things, the smartest thing they ever did was crowd source its development. This lead to a design that was more elegent and effient and by luck that paired well with streaming. Also a lot of 80s TTRGP nerds had gotten old enough to start inserting D&D into pop culture. There were additional factors I imagine. The Sundering reversed, but did not retcon a lot of the worst choices of the Spellplague.
 

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Staffan

Legend
Which bit? That 5e includes a bunch of 4e design concepts? Or that they are carefully disguised?
I'd say that 5e has a number of elements that are superficially similar to 4e but when you look closer you'll see that they really don't do the same thing. Some examples:
  • Proficiency bonus is kind of similar to scaling everything by level/2 like you did in 4e, except half as big.
    • Except that in 4e, everything scaled with level, and you got a fixed bonus to things you were supposed to be good at. This means that in 4e, the gap between untrained and proficient (even if it mostly doesn't use those terms) is fixed, while it increases in 5e.
  • Abilities that recharge on a short rest are kind of similar to encounter powers from 4e.
    • Except a short rest in 5e is an hour, whereas a 4e encounter power recharges on a 5-minute breather. A 5e short rest is expected every 2-3 encounters, and often requires circumstances to be kind of contrived (because taking a one-hour break in a dungeon is very different from taking a 5-minute break), whereas a 4e short rest is expected after every encounter.
  • Hit dice are similar to healing surges, in that both are daily resources that let you heal up when resting during the course of a day without using magic.
    • Except that healing surges account for far more potential hp, and recover fully between days instead of just half. Also, the number of healing surges you have mostly remains constant at higher levels, with them becoming individually stronger to remain proportionally relevant. This means that a healing surge as a cost remains a relevant thing at higher levels, whereas a hit die as a cost will become less relevant. You also have the issue that pretty much all healing in 4e uses healing surges, while magical healing in 5e goes above what you get to do with hit dice, plus the knock-on effects of the length of rests above.
  • 5e has rituals, just like 4e.
    • Except that in 4e, pretty much all non-combat magic was done as rituals, and rituals were open to everyone with the right feat (which some classes got for free) and skills. In 5e, rituals are just an alternate way to cast a small number of spells without expending resources, whereas in 4e they opened up non-combat magic to anyone.
I think those are the main mechanical 4e things that people say got into 5e, but I feel they are all missing the point. Some might also include Passive Perception, but I feel that that's just an extension of 3e's Take 10. There are also some lore things, like the Feywild and Shadowfell.
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.
PF2 is a bit different, and more a case of convergent evolution. 3e had some issues. The designers of both 4e and PF2 wanted to fix those issues, and it makes sense that in some cases they'd come up with similar solutions.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
PF2 is a bit different, and more a case of convergent evolution. 3e had some issues. The designers of both 4e and PF2 wanted to fix those issues, and it makes sense that in some cases they'd come up with similar solutions.
Not really. I mean 5E "fixes" those issues in entirely different ways. I think it was more of a deliberate choice to go in that design direction than any natural evolution.
 


Thomas Shey

Legend
Not really. I mean 5E "fixes" those issues in entirely different ways. I think it was more of a deliberate choice to go in that design direction than any natural evolution.

Partly, I think, because there are issues that 5e simply didn't seem to think needed fixing that PF2e did. That's going to have ripple effects on parts of the design. As an example, 5e seems to still want there to be some carry-over resource cost from encounter to encounter, where PF2e clearly decided that had too much knock-on effects to be worthwhile.

That inevitably means there's going to be differences there.
 

Staffan

Legend
Partly, I think, because there are issues that 5e simply didn't seem to think needed fixing that PF2e did. That's going to have ripple effects on parts of the design. As an example, 5e seems to still want there to be some carry-over resource cost from encounter to encounter, where PF2e clearly decided that had too much knock-on effects to be worthwhile.

That inevitably means there's going to be differences there.
PF2 definitely has resource costs over the course of the day, notably in the form of spell slots. At least in the pre-revised version, focus spells (the PF2 version of encounter powers) often aren't particularly combat viable, or at best serve a support function. And being able to fully heal in between encounters requires either a looong time or quite a bit of investment that puts it off to a few levels after start (level 3 for Expert in Medicine and then 4 for Continual Recovery – you could theoretically take it at level 2 by being a Rogue or Investigator, or taking the Medic archetype, but most of the time a Rogue will want other skills before Medicine).

I remember reading on the Paizo forums that one of the designers had said a caster is expected to use one or two of their top-two spell slots per serious encounter (moderate or severe threat), and to skate by on cantrips and focus spells for the rest of the time. That does seem like the type of thing that would have been good to include in the core book(s) and to tell your adventure designers about...
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
Partly, I think, because there are issues that 5e simply didn't seem to think needed fixing that PF2e did. That's going to have ripple effects on parts of the design. As an example, 5e seems to still want there to be some carry-over resource cost from encounter to encounter, where PF2e clearly decided that had too much knock-on effects to be worthwhile.

That inevitably means there's going to be differences there.
I think its more that 5E ate their lunch. The best way to differentiate PF from D&D was to go in a different direction.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I think its more that 5E ate their lunch. The best way to differentiate PF from D&D was to go in a different direction.

That might explain why they went in a different direction, but by itself it doesn't explain why they went the direction they did. I still think my explanation likely has a lot to do with that.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
PF2 definitely has resource costs over the course of the day, notably in the form of spell slots. At least in the pre-revised version, focus spells (the PF2 version of encounter powers) often aren't particularly combat viable, or at best serve a support function. And being able to fully heal in between encounters requires either a looong time or quite a bit of investment that puts it off to a few levels after start (level 3 for Expert in Medicine and then 4 for Continual Recovery – you could theoretically take it at level 2 by being a Rogue or Investigator, or taking the Medic archetype, but most of the time a Rogue will want other skills before Medicine).

I remember reading on the Paizo forums that one of the designers had said a caster is expected to use one or two of their top-two spell slots per serious encounter (moderate or severe threat), and to skate by on cantrips and focus spells for the rest of the time. That does seem like the type of thing that would have been good to include in the core book(s) and to tell your adventure designers about...
Thats interesting becasue I find serious (solos at least) encounters where dailies are the least effective. The focus and cantrips usually dont work optimally either, but give a rider that slows the enemy down a bit so the fighters can pick them apart...albeit slowly. So, the game is finding those right combos to death by thousand papercuts the enemy.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
PF2 definitely has resource costs over the course of the day, notably in the form of spell slots. At least in the pre-revised version, focus spells (the PF2 version of encounter powers) often aren't particularly combat viable, or at best serve a support function. And being able to fully heal in between encounters requires either a looong time or quite a bit of investment that puts it off to a few levels after start (level 3 for Expert in Medicine and then 4 for Continual Recovery – you could theoretically take it at level 2 by being a Rogue or Investigator, or taking the Medic archetype, but most of the time a Rogue will want other skills before Medicine).

We've had this argument before, and I'll simply repeat that my experiences across two APs does not suggest that the investment to get good noncombat healing early is that high. I suspect your standard of "long time" is far different than what we had.

(I also have to your comment about Focus spells has "often" doing some heavy lifting there.)

I remember reading on the Paizo forums that one of the designers had said a caster is expected to use one or two of their top-two spell slots per serious encounter (moderate or severe threat), and to skate by on cantrips and focus spells for the rest of the time. That does seem like the type of thing that would have been good to include in the core book(s) and to tell your adventure designers about...

Its not exactly hard to figure out even in fairly limited play, though. I also don't think it changes my opinion that PF2e cares far less about ongoing resource consumption; you're only likely to see it be serious if a GM or AP insists on hammering moderate to severe encounters as the majority of encounters you hit.
 

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