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


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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
From the beginning, we were getting two different messages--"Ze game will remain ze same!" and "You're better off creating new characters and campaigns than trying to convert old ones," which I remember also coming out of GenCon 2007.
Sounds like WotC at that time had some internal discussions going on about what to do with D&D, which they bought, and had poor external communication discipline. But this is a much further look back than 2023. Sorry for the tangent.
 

aramis erak

Legend
I was out of the hobby during that time, but did they explicitly claim that it would be backward compatible?
Early on, yes, later, yet before release, no.
They stopped claiming backward compatibility not long before H1 was released. Once H1 was out, there was ZERO doubt it was convertible, but not compatible. The totally different action and power frameworks made conversions of monsters dubious at best. Modules with stock monsters? Convert by matching names...

That said, 4E was a familiar look to players of Star Wars Saga Edition.

D&D 4E was a good game, but it was just a bit too far out from what had been running, and because of the GSL instead of OGL...

Well, WotC should have warned HasBro, "Dinking with the OGL costs us Market Share"... because the GSL cost about 1/3 of D&D's then extant player base. The OGL kerfluffle of mid 2023 was ENTIRELY predictable.
 
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For me personally in 2023. Lot of bad press but Bg3 will offset some of it
Observations on my end
-paizo didn’t take advantage of this
- not seeing any YouTube streaming of an alternative system.
-plenty of effort to say its failing from say comic book news and then pushing new systems however these systems are not creating their own streams
-wotc seems to have a good relationship with wizkids. I don’t see say mcdm getting a foothold in that relationship. In fact at 1 point paizo seemed to be losing that foothold
-wotc helping dungeon dudes in my opinion was a solid move. I enjoy their content and I think it’s a direction I didn’t see
-got a feeling that 5.5 clears the decks once it comes out. I’d be somewhat scared if I were a new publishing company that I will be able to compete
 


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