D&D General What is Good for D&D ... is Good for the RPG Hobby- Thoughts?

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Just when I thought I was out, @Scribe dragged me back in.

A long time ago, there was a famous quote- What's good for General Motors is good for the country. Which is a mostly untrue quote in terms of historical accuracy (albeit it was likely said by Abraham Lincoln), but 150% true in capturing a certain vibe. Much like variations of the term, When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold and other similar variations (when X catches a cold, Y gets pneumonia), these are all sayings that are meant to get at the heart of understanding the nature of what it is to be the Big Hombre. El Jefe. The Blue Whale in the Kiddie's Pool.

Which brings me to the thread topic for discussion. Is the hegemony of D&D good for the TTRPG (hereafter, just RPG) hobby? I think that this is a complicated question, and it involves several different parts. I don't presume to know the answer, but I do think it is an interesting topic, and I hope to present some ideas that would allow for a fruitful discussion. And by fruitful, I do not mean, Throw tomatoes at each other. Tomatoes- the king of fruit!

A. What is this "D&D" that you speak of?
People were lucky to have lived in bygone eras, I thought, even though they're dead now.

I think the first, and most important, thing is to discuss what we mean by "D&D." In essence, when we speak of D&D, we are usually referring to various groupings ... from the smallest to the largest. In order, we can think of D&D in the following terms and with the following groupings, starting from the smallest and going to the largest, with each group up subsuming the prior group-
1. Base 5e D&D. Just the current WoTC rules, RAW. So this would be the equivalent of 5e Adventurer's League.
2. The 5e Expanded Universe. This would be 5e (the current edition) along with 3PP and homebrew- it's the current edition with any bells and whistles you choose to add or subtract.
3. The D&D Expanded Universe. This would be the current edition and all past editions of D&D- not just 5e, but everything from OD&D to B/X to 4e would be in this bucket.
4. The Zack Snyder D&D Universe. Same as four, but with the color drained out and a looottttttt offffff sloooooooooow moooooooottttttiiiiiioooooonnnnnnn.
5. The Greater D&D Universe. Same as three, but with the addition of all the various clones, retroclones, Pathfinder, and other games that are largely recreations of the fantasy/D&D experience with similar mechanics revolving around the use of a d20.
6. The Greater Licensed Universe. This would be inclusive of five, but would also include games that were built off of the OGL license that aren't based on the fantasy or D&D milieu but nevertheless use similar mechanics (such as Mutants & Masterminds).

The reason that it is important to understand what we mean by D&D is because the definition of D&D, and the one that is being used, can color the perceptions of how people answer this question. For example, in the recent kerfuffle, I have seen people exclaim, with little irony, that they did not like the outsized influence of Hasbro, so they were going to protest by playing PF1. Or B/X. Or OSE. Or Level Up (A5e). Or PF2. Or break out some of the ol' Gygaxian AD&D and a thesaurus.

All of which is fine in terms of protesting a specific corporate entity, but doesn't necessarily do much in terms of the overall RPG market and the dominance of "D&D" (for different definitions of D&D). So when looking at the question of the dominance of "D&D" in the market, I think it is helpful to look at what people are thinking of- which is to say that both 5e and D&D derivatives (fantasy-based games that have mechanics that involve a d20 that are similar to D&D or are derived directly from 5e or prior editions of D&D) have such a dominant position in the market. Yes, 5e is dominant- but when you combine 5e and PF1 and PF2 and the retroclones and the prior editions of D&D and all the various fantasy games that are largely re-creating the D&D experience, you have a truly dominant position in the market. For that reason, I think it's helpful to consider (5), The Greater D&D Universe, when discussing "D&D."

B. A Brief Bit of History.
I wish that I was born a thousand years ago, then there's be less history to learn.

Ha! You knew it was coming. Some people might question whether D&D has always been dominant. Well ... yeah. In the beginning, the Earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. And then the Gygax came and made D&D and moved to Hollywood to party.

Wait. That's not quite it. OD&D, famously, wasn't great as a system of play, but it was great as a toobox for people to play. In addition to establishing the market for RPGs, many of the early RPGs of the 1970s were simply the published "DMs notes" of OD&D campaigns that were heavily modified. After the whole Egbert controversy and subsequent explosion of sales, D&D maintained a dominant position in the RPG world throughout the 80s and into the 90s. While there was a brief blip where the World of Darkness games (and specifically Vampire: The Masquerade) challenged D&D in the 90s when the entire RPG market was getting hammered by the advent of card games (M:TG), D&D maintained its lead position, including into the 2000s. Again, while there was a brief period of time where PF challenged D&D 4e, this was more a case of D&D (the prior edition) challenging D&D (the current edition) for supremacy- not any real issue as to the hegemony of D&D. Obviously, with 5e, there hasn't been any real challenge to D&D.

All of which is to say that we are now nearing the 50th Anniversary of D&D and, for that matter, the 50th Anniversary of RPGs as we know them as a hobby, and D&D has been the market leader throughout the entire history - either in a completely dominant fashion (70s, 80s, 00s, 10s, 20s) or as a largely dominant force in a diminished hobby (90s).

C. The Case Against D&D.
If everyone jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, I would too. Otherwise I'd be very lonely.

This is where we get to the meat of the comments. Ever since D&D became a dominant force, people were concerned about this dominance. In effect, we see numerous arguments against the prominence of D&D, some of which I hope to cover here for purposes of discussion-

1. The "You're Learning It Wrong" Objection. While there are numerous iterations of this argument, I think that the version put forward by Don Miller in '81 does a good job of summarizing this objection- "{P}layers and GMs are influenced in their FRP playing orientation by the particular set of rules that they are exposed to ... {players} may be permanently prejudiced by their first indoctrination to FRP. ..."

I'm not going to say much about this, given that this argument was made later and in much more controversial and unpleasant way, but the basic idea is that if you become used to a certain way of playing, it is harder to understand other ways; if you've learned "D&D," then understanding diceless games, or games with no DM (or shared authority) become difficult.

2. If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like it's going to be solved by playing D&D. The ubiquity of D&D means that all sorts of games and genres end up getting subsumed into D&D. Why play a heist game like Blades in the Dark when you can play a heist in the D&D game that you know? Why learn Traveller when you can just use your optimized Paladin in Spelljammer? Why bother with a whole new game when you can just get a third party product that provides you what you want in D&D? D&D often will create disincentives to playing new games, when you can approximate the genre of the other game ... in D&D.

3. A great 3PP market for D&D may be crowding out the 3PP market for other games. The disadvantage to people that are making the smaller games is that it becomes very difficult to build a large ecosystem around those games through 3PP. It becomes a cart/horse problem- simply put, if you are a 3PP, do you want to invest resources in making products for a system that has a small market share?

4. Competition, for lack of a better word, is good. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, iron sharpens iron. Competition is a good thing- it leads to better products. Better games. Better mechanics. Better appeal to consumers. Generally, more competition will lead to more innovation.

D. The Case for D&D.
It took some time to realize that most people are not kind so much as foolish.

1. Having a standard in a small market is a boon to 3PPs. Hear me out- the total market for TTRPGs (the tabletop and dice) is less that what Avatar 2 made at the box office. The desired goal for Hasbro, for D&D to be a billion dollar brand, is still a fairly laughably goal in terms of the size of other brands. Even though we've seen growth of 20-30% for several years, this remains a small niche hobby in comparison to industries like videogames and film, with a lot of individuals (and independent contractors) making small products at slight margins.

In this type of hobby, being able to produce 3PPs that can be sold to the majority of the market (the "D&D" market) is generally a good thing. More consumers, more possibilities for sale. When you're looking at the vast majority of non-D&D games, the money is in the sale of the system- there just aren't a lot of consumers left for 3PPs to sell to. So having a large player is a boon for 3PPs that want to sell modules, APs, campaign settings, rule expansions, and so on.

2. Network effects. You knew this was coming, right? Having a single standard-bearer for the hobby means that you're more likely to find players, to find a DM, and to find a game.

3. The market leader has to be responsive. This is a somewhat more controversial point, but generally D&D will be "mainstream." There will always remain ample room for indie games and for games that specifically explore areas that D&D can't, as D&D has to appeal to most people, while other games can be built to appeal to various niches.

E. One More Thought- What if this is a Highlander Situation?
An art school is a place that, so long as you pay your tuition, will never let you know that you have no talent.

One other thought that I've considered is that perhaps this hobby, given the social effects and the network effects and the size of the hobby and various other constraints necessarily will fall into a "market leader" situation. In other words ... There can be only one!

Put another way, it doesn't have to be "D&D," (or a D&D fantasy equivalent like PF). But maybe this is the type of market that naturally sorts itself into having a dominant market leader, and others- so if it's not D&D, it will be {something else} with everything else being the alternative. Then again, maybe with the increased use of the internet, discord, and various platforms to find players and DMs, that isn't the case (if it ever was).

Just something to think about. Anyway, this was a requested thread starter, so have at it!

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Thanks @Snarf Zagyg !

I think you have captured the spirit of the idea thats been rolling around in my head for the last week or so, but was brought to the fore with the 'get back on the wagon' thread.

My logical path (logical to me) was.

1. The market in the grand scheme of things, is small.
2. The market is absolutely dominated by "D&D" as per definition 5. To me for example, Pathfinder 1, is more 'D&D', than current 5e but we all (or many/most) of us are still playing "D&D".
3. The path to success for 3PP has been to leverage 5e's current market dominance, more so than try and break off ala Paizo.
4. The current dominance, and direction, of 5e is leaving some of us cold.

So how do I as a considerate consumer feel about all this?

I actually think the market dominance of a 'rule set' is fine. Assuming of course that rule set is exposed (OGL/CC) to the degree people can take that common tongue, and put their own accent on it. If this is 3PP, if this is Black Flag (stated to be compatible I saw) or Level Up, its all still "D&D", more so than say, and I hate to say it, PF2 feels. Dont get me wrong, I like some things in PF2, but its not PF1, and I've come to feel that PF1, is probably my 'forever' edition of D&D.

Ideally, a strong central rule set, that is module enough to be added to (Level Up) and open enough to be repurposed into a flavour or "accent" of the same spoken language, allows everyone to be in the same tent, if not at the same table.

This allows the community to grow, cross pollinate, and hopefully, not edition war too hard.


B/X Known World
Is the hegemony of D&D good for the TTRPG (hereafter, just RPG) hobby?
I think that this is a complicated question, and it involves several different parts.
I think it more depends on how you define the hobby than how you define D&D. If by "hobby" you mean "WotC and 3PP of D&D-related content", then yes, clearly the dominance of D&D is good for the hobby. If, however, you define the hobby in any other way, then no, clearly the dominance of D&D is not good for the hobby.

And it mostly comes down to these two.
2. Network effects. You knew this was coming, right? Having a single standard-bearer for the hobby means that you're more likely to find players, to find a DM, and to find a game.
The downside of the network effect is that it's therefore harder to find players of other games, to find referees for other games, and to find other games. The network effect is great if, and only if, you really like what current D&D is. If not, you're screwed.
4. Competition, for lack of a better word, is good. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, iron sharpens iron. Competition is a good thing- it leads to better products. Better games. Better mechanics. Better appeal to consumers. Generally, more competition will lead to more innovation.
There is, essentially, zero competition for D&D. D&D is so dominant that older editions and variant editions of D&D still have more players, referees, and games than most non-D&D games. That is to say, you're more likely to find an AD&D game than you are a game of Blades in the Dark, Blade Runner, Fate, or Avatar. If you honestly think competition is the end all be all of innovation, then this is a huge problem.


A. I think there is a real possibility if Hasbro is successful in growing into a billion dollar brand of the "Applezation" of DND with Hasbro and WOTC telling everyone how wrong they are playing because they want to control the cash cow.

C. Competition is good but there won't be much competition if a Billion dollar brand controls the RPG industry. They'll be able to hire a team of lawyers to shut down anyone who has crossed any legal line whether or not they know it. That kind of competition won't be good and it's pretty predictable in Corporate America. If not this CEO then another.

D. The network effect is Killing DC. Problem with the network effect in the google world is the forces of standardization can become toxic and then we get the Crazies trying to teach everyone to play and them and Hasbro destroying the brand. Probably not the most likely scenario but it's played out for other brands.

Z: I think if Hasbro sticks to letting things stay as they are with the creative commons and original OGL, they can exert all the control they want over 6e and the ecosystem might end up healthier. <fingers crossed>


#1 Enworld Jerk™
The Sopranos Quote GIF


The downside of the network effect is that it's therefore harder to find players of other games, to find referees for other games, and to find other games. The network effect is great if, and only if, you really like what current D&D is. If not, you're screwed.

This is the trick to me.

1. I believe the barrier to entry on a RULE SET is the number 1 problem in terms of adopting a new game.
2. Having a standard baseline (5e) via a generalized language of the rules, can break that barrier down.

Its far easier to pivot to a system that uses a similar language.

Now, its not going to help for wildly different systems, but if I want (and I do) to be playing something that has a different tone, out of the box, I do that by taking a 5e base, and building on top of it, which is now more possible, than it was before.

In this way, I still think an Open 5e, is better than the alternative, of having a fractured base speaking different languages.

If that makes sense?


I want to add some of my own thoughts later, when I have more time.

However, to begin with, thank you Snarf for writing this. You are a fantastic writer - both entertaining and very effective at expressing complicated ideas in straightforward language. Entertaining as hell. Frankly, I would pay to read your writing, so I feel fortunate that you choose to share it here, for free. You are a gem on this forum.


I agree it's easier, but different rulesets provide different points of view and alternative ideas keeping the hobby healthier.

The problem with everyone using the same language is then you get Groupthink, then the rot sets in.


Considering how much of a niche product TTRPGs are, I think if it hadn't been D&D some other game would have come to dominate. I will also add that for all the detractors out there, there are those of us who just prefer D&D. I know, I know, I'm a neophyte when it comes to other games. Part of that is just because of lack of options, because if you all you have to fasten two pieces of wood together are nails you're going to look for a hammer instead of a screwdriver. But I also read up on other games now and then, I've played one shots here and there and I have in-person discussions about other games. I've never come across any other game that makes me go "Ooh, I gotta play that!"

Thing is, it's easy to find D&D players and the game simply works for me. To me the focus of my games aren't the mechanical bits (although that's important as well) it's the comradery at the table and the stories we tell. It's inhabiting a character that's doing the best they can with what their options are and as a DM trying to create a real breathing world. It seems to work for the people I play with as well.

Could there theoretically be a different system I'd enjoy? Probably. Would it be enough better to outweigh the costs? Nothing I've ever seen has. Which doesn't mean I think there shouldn't be alternatives, there absolutely should be. Competition is good for the game and different people have different preferences. But a main reason that D&D continues to dominate is that it works well enough for a whole lot of people. It may be the vanilla ice cream of flavors and I get people being frustrated that they can't find mocha butter brickle pickle flavored ice cream. D&D may be too vanilla for a lot of people, but targeting a niche of a niche isn't what most people seem to want either.

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