RPG Evolution: A Look Back at 2023

2023 was rough. Here's my summary of the major events that happened (and what didn't).

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Wizards Loses Sight of the Creator Community​

In the ongoing struggle to launch a new Dungeons & Dragons brand, the Open Game License took a back seat to what can only be described as jostling for control between legal counsel and creatives. Wizards of the Coast's (WOTC) corporate parent Hasbro has always been somewhat uncomfortable with the freeform nature of the product; we technically don't need anything the company produces to play the game, since it's rooted in the imagination and just about every edition of the game has been reconstructed in the public domain under open licenses. So every time a new edition comes along, the struggle over who gets to determine the game's direction begins anew. This past year, WOTC discounted the importance of the creator community it fostered for over a decade in favor or protectionist rules and policies from future threats (notably, Disney).

I cited Patreon as a model framework of how this can happen and how corporate pressure (notably, Hasbro's board and D&D's surging popularity) can cause some decisions to be made without enough data. The end result was overall positive: WOTC decided to release the current license as creative commons instead. But unlike Patreon, who launched several policies and roles to engage with the community, WOTC create any safeguards to avoid this happening again. And oh yeah, their apology was terrible, permanently damaging WOTC's relationship with some publishers who will never forget how this all went down.

The Unified OGL Days Are Over​

WOTC created much of what Ryan Dancey envisioned: a mostly unified Open Game License (OGL) propagating largely compatible versions of D&D. The snake began to eat its own tail, with older versions of D&D being rebuilt under this structure to create a new open version, thereby helping older versions flourish. Given the Old School Renaissance, this was perhaps an inevitable conclusion. The OGL was well-entrenched by the time WOTC decided it was a threat to the future of D&D. Their broad statements and mishandling of customer feedback caused enough of a backlash that multiple competing licenses were launched.

Those competing OGLs were created because it was clear WOTC was no longer interested in shepherding the brand for small publishers. But when they put it in the public domain, they fundamentally gave up any rights to own it at all, which in some ways stopped the momentum of these other OGLs. Those other OGLs are still out there, and will likely be popular with fans of the companies who created them, but it now seems unlikely that any of them will truly replace the creative commons license. Conversely, now everyone is going their own way with their own license, further fracturing what little unified open license community there was in the first place.

The D&D Movie Was Just the Beginning​

Dungeons & Dragons has been trying to make a good movie for decades. They finally did it. While there are plenty of quibbles (that's a lot of wildshaping!), overall the movie was well received, with a 91% rating from critics and a 93% rating from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. The tabletop role-playing game has always been considered small change compared to how it performs in video games (hello, Baldur's Gate!); but now that we have a "good" D&D movie, Hasbro and Paramount took notice. There's talk of a sequel in the works as well as a spinoff television series.

Unfortunately, it also cost a lot to make ($150 million), which meant it underperformed financially, making "only" $208 million. There's also unspecified "marketing costs" that means advertising the movie cost enough that the film's performance is considered a bust. The sequel will likely have a smaller budget, but it's undeniable that the movie did well enough to prove that the brand can be monetized. As a result, D&D is starting to enter luxury spaces, like alcohol and elaborate props. Expect more D&D everything in 2024 ... and more scrutiny as the brand learns the hard lessons of Box Offices & Budgets.

The Holiday Layoffs Might be the End​

One key issue that caused the OGL controversy was that WOTC seemed surprised smaller publishers cared so much about it. And that came about because many of the key principals who helped establish and shepherd the community have long since left the company. This is not an uncommon problem for large, publicly-traded business, who rely on financial cycles of quarters instead of years. For the new executive, the most pertinent issue isn't honoring the past or projecting out five years, but dealing with immediate fiscal concerns.

And those concerns came into stark relief just before Christmas as Chris Cocks, former CEO of Wizards of the Coast and now CEO of Hasbro, announced a headcount reduction of over a thousand employees ... and then proceeded to lay off several from WOTC itself. Cocks' announcement cited challenging quarters where "the market is coming off pandemic-driven highs." That's finance speak for "we set an expectation that pandemic revenue would continue and the slowdown is disappointing investors."

So where does that leave the rest of us? As Shannon Appelcline points out, this may be dire news for the OGL. If the company doesn't have any employees with institutional knowledge to shepherd the OGL, what hope do small publishers have of a new license at all? Then again, if the latest iteration of Dungeons & Dragons isn't that different from the existing Fifth Edition, maybe we don't even need a new license.

AI is Here to Stay​

Artificial Intelligence (AI), which are really Large Language Models (LLMs), have gone from interesting curiosities to taking over nearly every aspect of digital life. Every major company has one, and many had voice assistants that weren't very smart -- Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri come to mind. But now that's all changing as companies throw massive dollars at AI. Amazon is releasing an updated version of Alexa, Apple's Siri will likely be a LLM on iPhone 16, Google is now using Bard (powered by Gemini), and Microsoft has incorporated Bing into Windows 11 as Copilot. It's not going to be a question of if you're using AI, just a matter of how.

That said, AI has serious flaws that raise legal and ethical concerns, and governments are only starting to catch up. As a space that is all about creativity, role-playing games are particularly vulnerable to AI -- and can potentially can benefit greatly from it: from a worldbuilder to a monster maker, from a GM's assistant to replacing GMs entirely.

2024 is the Year of the Dragon​

2023 felt exhausting, but it was largely a series of pitched battles to lay the framework for what's to come in 2024. The new D&D edition will say a lot about what WOTC has planned for the game's future.

2024 is the Year of the Wood Dragon. The Year of the Dragon in 2024 is a sign of change, growth, and progress, with the wood element inspiring imagination, leadership, and new ideas. Sounds perfect for a year to launch a new edition! But it's also a year known for challenge and conflicts. Being a wood dragon isn't easy: breathing fire and having fire vulnerability seems like a dangerous combination. Change is never easy, and if WOTC can't manage that balance it might just get burned.

However 2024 turns out, it's clear 2023 was just a rehearsal. Buckle up and Happy New Year!

Your Turn: There's way more that happened I didn't cover. Share your highlights!
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
2023 saw the end of my 5-year DnD5e campaign and me switching to WFRP4e for my 2024 campaign which will have its first session this month.

I didn't switch because of the OGL dispute. I mean, if I wanted to support open gaming licenses, Warhammer is certainly not the system to support. It was just time to do something new and its excellent VTT support maid the barrier of entry low. I'll check out the 2024 DnD rules revisions and the WotC VTT. If I like what I see, I may go back to D&D in late 2024 or early 2025.

I am hoping that 2024 will be the year of growth for non-DnD systems. If it is, I suspect that the OGL drama will have driven it in part, but I feel that it will be mostly because of all the people brought into or back to TTRPGs being ready to branch out. I'm also hoping that DnD's 2024 books will be highly successful, that more DnD entertainment will come out and be successful, and I really hope the WotC DnD VTT is a success, bringing more people into the hobby, many of whom I hope will go on to be customers of other systems as well.
 

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Yaarel

He Mage
Maybe you just meant to use the phrase rather than its literal meaning, but it definitely was NOT clear from Day 1 that it was anything other than a new edition. If it was clear, they wouldn’t have had to spend so much time clarifying that detail after the fact.

Major revisions always have to clarify whether they constitute a new edition, and One D&D was no exception. But WotC chose to do a big launch, a cool codename, and a playtest of the core content, all of which was last seen when WotC launched D&D Next (which became 5E as you recall). It’s perfectly reasonable that someone might interpret that as the launch a new edition, don’t you think?
Indeed.

My early impression was 2024 would be full-on 5.5. The designers seemed ready to follow the playtest feedback wherever it would lead.

But in the aftermath of the ap-OGL-ypse, in an attempt to mitigate the alienation of the customer base, the plans for 2024 remained decidely 5.0 with only minimal (and necessary) updates, such as species formating and rules clarification.
 

mamba

Legend
My early impression was 2024 would be full-on 5.5. The designers seemed ready to follow the playtest feedback wherever it would lead.
it is really not all that hard to promise compatibility and to take the option the playtesters determine is the best one. All you need to do is only offer options that are as compatible with 2014 as you want to be at a minimum, which is what they did

But in the aftermath of the ap-OGL-ypse, in an attempt to mitigate the alienation of the customer base, the plans for 2024 remained decidely 5.0 with only minimal (and necessary) updates, such as species formating and rules clarification.
agreed, they went ultra conservative, unfortunately
 


Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Good article, but I think it missed one of the big D&D points of 2023. That it will no longer be distributed by Penguin Random House. With DnDBeyond as a official-material digital sales platform, will we see print books reduced? Or is this just that the increase in print books to include the digital versions was getting too large of a cut of that to PRH? Will D&D, now that it's mainstream, find that it isn't getting mainstream visibility anymore in the seller that PRH brings?
 

talien

Community Supporter
Good article, but I think it missed one of the big D&D points of 2023. That it will no longer be distributed by Penguin Random House. With DnDBeyond as a official-material digital sales platform, will we see print books reduced? Or is this just that the increase in print books to include the digital versions was getting too large of a cut of that to PRH? Will D&D, now that it's mainstream, find that it isn't getting mainstream visibility anymore in the seller that PRH brings?
Good add, I completely forgot about this one!
 

aramis erak

Legend
For me 2023 just drove home how much more I appreciate Free League.
For me, as well. Began the year running T2K, have run T2K, Alien, TOR...
and Savage Worlds.

A bit of D&D, but that ended with disappointment of everything from Tasha's Cauldron onwards. They're taking the game in a bland direction...
... and not fixing the issues already present...
... and showing that the claims WotC was going to remain gamer friendly wouldn't be long term truth.

I want to run more Free League stuff, but not TOR 2e... Currently just started Dragonbane.
 



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