D&D (2024) RPG Evolution: What is the Reach of an 800 lb. Gorilla?

WOTC's recent moves with the OGL demonstrated the company's influence on small publishers. What will they do now?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

We're All Creators Now​

Part of Dungeons & Dragons' popularity is how it propagates itself. D&D is a machine that makes more D&D, prompted by dungeon masters and shaped by players everywhere. A thriving fan community isn't just part of what makes D&D popular, it's required for play: D&D needs dungeon masters and players willing to join them. That need to find players drives DMs to share their work, on an amateur and professional level. In the early days, TSR had a love/hate relationship with this community, relying on its fandom to buy their products and attempting to quell rivals who published compatible content.

It wasn't until the debut of the Open Game License that D&D finally embraced the community in a way that was beneficial to both the D&D brand and the pro-am community. Ryan Dancey, VP at Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) leading Dungeons & Dragons at the time, called it the Skaff Effect:
All marketing and sales activity in a hobby gaming genre eventually contributes to the overall success of the market share leader in that genre.
With that in mind, the OGL drastically reduced the cost of entry for new creators to develop new gaming content compatible with D&D:
The logical conclusion says that reducing the "cost" to other people to publishing and supporting the core D&D game to zero should eventually drive support for all other game systems to the lowest level possible in the market, create customer resistance to the introduction of new systems, and the result of all that "support" redirected to the D&D game will be to steadily increase the number of people who play D&D, thus driving sales of the core books. This is a feedback cycle -- the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.
This ecosystem has thrived, encouraged in no small part thanks to virtual tabletops like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds and content distribution platforms like DriveThruRPG and DMs Guild. With a critical mass of customers in one place, WOTC has guided but not completely owned this movement.

The downside for WOTC is that they do not have much control over these creators. The company used their licensed worlds as a carrot to encourage participation in DMs Guild, but the other platforms are not bound by any other constraints beyond the OGL. For a company that increasingly defines its licenses as brands, this lack of control is an existential threat. While tabletop D&D is unlikely to bring anywhere near the level of income as a movie or other brand channels, it can potentially harm that brand.

Where Customers Roam​

Selling to customers is a lot like hunting: finding customers where they're at requires businesses to figure out what those customers have in common and where they congregate. In the tabletop gaming world, one of the major factors in determining a customer base is determined by their interest in a rules system. And one of the biggest is the latest iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.

Most of those customers congregate in a few key places: crowdfunding platforms (e.g., Kickstarter), distribution platforms (e.g., DMs Guild and DriveThruRPG), and virtual platforms (e.g., Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds). They also gather on social media and web sites like EN World, but that's one step removed from purchasing a product and less prone to WOTC's influence.

On Kickstarter alone, there were nearly 1,700 5E campaigns launched. On Roll20, the last ORR Group Industry Report in 2021 listed 55% of campaigns and 60% of accounts affiliated with 5E. Roll20's user base doubled from 5 million in 2020 to 10 million 2022, which means 6 million accounts are affiliated with 5E. At DriveThruRPG, there are over 8,500 5E OGL products for sale.

Collectively, this is an enormous footprint, and the ecosystem to feed it is filled with small and large OGL content producers. It takes a lot to disrupt a system this massive, but as WOTC has demonstrated, it can be done.

5' or 10' Reach?​

The first and most influential group is the current D&D brand owner, Wizards of the Coast. The recent OGL kerfuffle demonstrated how dependent the ecosystem is on the interconnectivity of the license and the distribution platforms which are not (currently) owned by WOTC. It's also a roadmap to what WOTC might try as it pushes D&D Beyond as the primary digital distribution and virtual tabletop platform.

If the company attempts to lock down their products on other platforms, their first targets will be the largest. Putting aside Kickstarter (which was mentioned in the leaked draft of the OGL), Roll20 could conceivably be ordered to remove their support and limit virtual play to D&D Beyond. This would create a devastating cascade, as players would no longer be able to play on their favorite virtual platform with licensed material. Similarly, DriveThruRPG could wipe out entire businesses simply by removing the ability to designate content as 5E-OGL compatible.

The next most influential group are the mid-size RPG publishers. Paizo is launching an Open RPG Creative License (ORC) for future products, and several other companies are launching their own game systems, including MCDM Productions, Kobold Press (Black Flag), and EN Publishing (WOIN and Advanced 5E SRD).

Below mid-tier publishers are the smaller publishers, who are being courted by the above group. With multiple game licenses competing for their allegiance, some small publishers may choose to move entirely away from the new OGL, or engage with some or all of those licenses. More likely, they'll stick with the games they know, a personal decision determined by the company owners and their peer groups.

But the most important group of all are players. D&D's brand share is enormous, almost synonymous with tabletop role-playing. And yet as the OSR and Pathfinder's success demonstrated, there's a significant market of players who like older systems. Convincing players to play something else will be difficult. As Scott Thorne put it on ICv2:
...I do not expect demand for ORC licensed products to account for single digit sales by the end of the year simply because players, for the most part, do not care who produces their game products. They want to play D&D and the first products they will buy are those with the D&D logo on them. Other OGL 1.0 products sell but not with the frequency of a D&D-branded product. While the publishers making materials either under the ORC or another open license do have a fan base, they do not necessarily command customer loyalty or demand at the same level that D&D does.
For the vast majority of D&D players, where the game is sold and who supports it may not be a concern. But for small publishers, where the herd ends up will determine who they support ... or if they continue publishing at all.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

aco175

Legend
For the vast majority of D&D players, where the game is sold and who supports it may not be a concern. But for small publishers, where the herd ends up will determine who they support . or if they continue publishing at all.
I can certainly see this to be true, especially since the DM is the one who tends to be more in touch with the game and other companies. Parents buying the game for kids likely will not know or casual players. How much of the buying pool is all that.
 

mamba

Legend
But the most important group of all are players. D&D's brand share is enormous, almost synonymous with tabletop role-playing. And yet as the OSR and Pathfinder's success demonstrated, there's a significant market of players who like older systems. Convincing players to play something else will be difficult. As Scott Thorne put it on ICv2:
I don’t know, his first prediction already failed and his fifth isn’t really a prediction at all, as WotC has announced their 2023 releases, so either he is not aware of that, or pretends to make a prediction when he full well knows it to be true. Neither is a great look.

Either way I am not too confident that this one is correct either. “I do not expect demand for ORC licensed products to account for single digit sales by the end of the year”, so you are expecting less than 1%? Well, I certainly expect more than that, also keep in mind that we are not talking about one single product here. Unless he wins this one on a technicality (the ORC is released so late that we only get few products using it in 2023, and those that do release so late that they do not manage to sell enough in that timeframe to get to that percentage), I very much doubt this one.
 

Mike, I’m an aficionado of your journalism, but I feel this piece misses the mark in several places:

1) The linked “existential threat” article, which I went and read, didn’t really seem to be on that topic.

2) The syntax and meaning of how the D&D “tabletop rpg” could harm the D&D brand wasn’t clear to me. I guess you’re saying something like: “missteps with the D&D TRPG could result in harm to the D&D Brand franchise as a whole.”

3) The quote by Scott Thorne is pretty one-sided. (Who is this guy? and why should readers of your article harken to his ‘expert opinion’?)

A complementary perspective would be to mention the fact that PF1E sales outstripped D&D4E—this is not ancient history.
 
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I haven’t kept up with MCDM post on creating his own rpg. If he crowd funds it’s, I’m guess mid 2024 before a book is out. Pdf might be earlier.

I don’t think the 4e to PF1 sales switch is comparable…4e wasn’t a seller and Pf1 was. 5e is a huge seller and probably 1dnd of its compatible.
 

Hasbro is not too interested into to sell more TTRPGs but all type of products based in their franchises.

D&D system enjoys the adventage of most of roleplayers are very used and feel confortable with this. My opinion is lots of roleplayers are too lazy to want learn more three systems. And this is a serious handicap for the other publishers.

My advice is WotC should work in a no-fantasy d20. It is a serious challenge for the game designers, but I am afraid it is necessary. And wouldn't it need a lot of playtesting and feeback? Of course, but here D&D-One could be an useful tool. If WotC doesn't it, then some videogame studio would do it before, and the digital market is mercyless.

3PPs need Hasbro/WotC because this has got the resources to promote the hobby among the no-geek market. And WotC needs the 3PPs because these are filling the hollow spaces WotC can't. Maybe some IPs created by someone of these could later in the future to be acquired by Hasbro. Or they should before they were by other, for example some streaming service or videogame studio.

It is not about to steal more piece of the cake, but how to cook a bigger cake.

In the digital market Hasbro shouldn't worry about the 3PPs but the true rivals are the videogame companies, and some ones could be necessary as partners for future licenced products. To keep the prestige of the brand the good manners are necessary and to avoid all unfair play.

Nobody knows if in the year 2025 Hasbro will be still an independient megacorporation or this will be acquired or merged.
 

I haven’t kept up with MCDM post on creating his own rpg. If he crowd funds it’s, I’m guess mid 2024 before a book is out. Pdf might be earlier.
Well, of the other competitors which are mentioned in the article, PF2 and A5E are out now; and Black Flag 5E has reportedly been in production since last summer.

I’d add C7d20 as also being relevant. It seems to be a 5E clone, and since Cubicle 7 may have more staff than MCDM (?), so C7d20 might be expected sooner than MCDM, in 2023(?)
I don’t think the 4e to PF1 sales switch is comparable…4e wasn’t a seller and Pf1 was.
5e is a huge seller and probably 1dnd of its compatible.
Your analogies don’t line up.

Timewise, the present-day analogy would be one year prior to the release of 4E; during the last year of 3.5E, just after 4E was announced.

3.5E was a pretty good seller. Not as massive as the 5E phenomenon, but 3.5E was successful. It was viewed positively by the community as a whole, and at that time, there was no cultural split (‘edition wars’). (3e variant competitors like Arcana Unearthed, Iron Heroes, and Trailblazer were influential and respected, but were not really large-scale ‘divisions’ in the community.)

It’s false to assume that 1D&D will necessarily be a big hit, regardless of how mechanically compatible it is with 5E or not.

If you’d asked me two months ago whether it was a sure thing that 1D&D would be successful, I’d have said yes.

But obviously a pretty significant ‘cultural split’ of a different sort has occurred in the past month, which has no precedent in the wind-down phase of 3.5E.

Like Ryan Dancey said in a recent interview: no company would wish for such a fiasco in the lead-up to a new edition.
 

Clint_L

Hero
Not to flex too much, but I think this article should distinguish more between the general player base and the really hardcore players base - basically, dungeon masters. Because we are the ones who are most in tune with what is happening, and we are also responsible for the vast majority of spending, so we have an outsized voice.

I agree with the argument that it is going to be very hard for 3PP to move outside of the D&D ecosystem. They need to go where the market is. However, I do think that DMs are more aware of other game systems and products than players are, and if DMs move, they bring the rest of the players with them.
 

Ghost2020

Adventurer
A complementary perspective would be to mention the fact that PF1E sales outstripped D&D4E—this is not ancient history.
.....it's also a complete myth.

PF1e was more popular, but 4e says were still far and away above what PF1e was doing. Owen KC Stephens had mentioned this some time ago. It's D&D, even at it's worst, its sales were still huge compared to next competitor.
 


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