Monday, October 21, 2019

A Short History of Actual Change the Tabletop RPG Industry

1970s: Dungeons and Dragons is released, leading to...

-The hobby as a commercial business beginning and eclipsing wargaming
-Zillions of fanzine-level imitators

1980s: Increasing Professionalization and Popularity of D&D, leading to...

-Lots of new players
-Younger and broader audience
-Games that aren't D&D become commercially viable and professional
-Nearly every genre extant as of the '80s has a game. Every subgenre too (in sci-fi for instance we have Traveller, Cyberpunk, Robotech, Shadowrun, etc)

1990s: Video Games Or Maybe Just Industry Decadence?

-Are video games why RPGs become less popular? Or maybe it was just the fad passing

1990s: Vampire: The Masquerade

-Wayyyy more women show up

2000s: The Internet and Cheap Color Printing

-Lots of little indie games
-Acceleration of communication and production in fan-products
-Easier path from fan to designer

2010s: Crowdfunding and Communities

-Easier path from fan to publisher

Mid 2010s: 5e, Stranger Things, Critical Role, '80s Teens Having Teenage Kids

-D&D becomes incredibly popular again


There are also factors I don't know anything about (how distributors have handled games, for example). You can argue about other significant game-changers around the edges but I'm more interested in the takeaways from the information we have as a whole.

Mine so far are:

-The only things that've moved the needle so far are: big external factors like new technology and big products with new content/presentation

-Did D&D's '80s competitors--Games Workshop, FASA, Palladium, Chaosium--do something right that so far has evaded today's non-WOTC publishers? Or were they just taking advantage of the fact that there just wasn't a game for x yet?


Adamantyr said...

In the 1990s collectible card games came in, which I'd argue definitely had an an impact (both good and bad) on the RPG industry.

Zak Sabbath said...

Either way, that falls cleanly into "big external factors like new technology and big products with new content/presentation" and so doesn't change the takeaways, which--as I said--are the more interesting things to me.

Adamantyr said...

Okay. I have a takeaway of this:

Early D&D competitors had the advantage that there was a huge demand for content. Judges Guild being a great example of one who profited from the need.

But by the 2000's the ability for 3rd parties to produce product with far less issues lead to TOO much content. Much of it OGL but that was enough to glut the market.

This leads directly to the current era of "I want something different and interesting". Both in content and mechanics.

Zak Sabbath said...



(Granted, we're now -only- talking about D&D supplements and their ilk not new whole games but...)

There's tons of D&D supplements, yes, but LotFP, for example, often sells -more copies of individual D&D-style supplement titles each year-. Meaning that the supplements that rise above the heap with a reputation for not being disposable have a shot of gaining steam.

That is: a glut of terrible indistinguishable content creates a desire for new content in a ways analogous to how zero content creates a desire for more content.

Maybe it's just a lil harder to reach that bar now, since it not only has to be new but "new and well-received"--and also, "new an well-received" in an internet environment where basically nobody influential in the conversation is able to articulate why the public receives things well because they're addicted to still riding around on whatever their turn-of-the-cenutry usenet hobby-horses were.

Like games that win awards and shift units seem to be largely unrelated to what indie hipsters say audiences want.

Adamantyr said...

I think the bar HAS been raised, just due to the maturation of the industry. During the explosion of d20 products back in the early 2000's I thought to myself once "It's like everyone now can publish their home campaign they always wanted to... and then they found out it wasn't really that good."

Marketing has always been very conservative in nature... it's particularly virulent in the video game industry. (We won't go there.) I think though the reason more mainstream work that isn't "hipster approved" sells is because like any industry, new players come in and they want the more straight-forward vanilla stuff. It's only after you've been gaming awhile you want some variety and difference.

A point to speculate about: Consider a world of 2019 where, for whatever reason, computer and printing technology hasn't advanced beyond where it was in the early 80's. So no internet, no digital printing, paper checks, etc. Would the RPG industry be the same as it is today, or different? Would we still have Red and Pleasant Land?

Zak Sabbath said...

when I say the stuff selling copies and winning awards isn’t what hipsters talk about I do not mean that conservative mainstream product is — it’s not or at least no more than you’d expect .

when I’m saying is that when Important Voices describe what they want in a game piece by piece it always sounds like they want, like, some Narrativist game about touching leaves or some shit. or they want really main stream stuff that doesn’t break any rules .

but in fact the stuff that does well in the Indie scene is creative OSR stuff— which doesn’t fit any of the boxes on their wish list .

as for rpl? No there would be no RPL without the Internet

Adamantyr said...

Ah my apologies, I misunderstood.

Could it be that the games you describe, the creative OSR stuff, the reason they work is because they were a labor of passion and interest? Something that they sat down, created, and said "This is fun. I'd play this. I'd pay money for this." You can always tell when something was crafted by someone who KNEW what was fun. Not because some mainstream guideline said to do it this way for maximum profitability. Or some hipster said "Combat is so awful, we shouldn't have that in the game. They should be happy doing this or that."

Polish I think is the hallmark of a quality product in ANY field, especially tabletop RPG's. When you could tell someone seriously play-tested something and made changes when they saw something wasn't working.

So no internet, no RPL? What factor did the Internet bring in particular to make that product happen? Input from the RPG community? The ability to more easily communicate with other people? Googling?

Zak Sabbath said...


All of those sound like plausible reasons those games make money, sure, of course.

What I'm saying is something different:

The Endlessly ReTweeted Wise Designers don't talk about how that's what you need to bring to the table. Those aren't the values they promote. They talk about other stuff--as if it will save them.

Adamantyr said...

Honestly, the NSWD's you describe (Not So Wise Designers) sound a lot like the types my art teacher in college described, who were so desperate to create something original they were mixing their own shit with their paint to create works of art with. (And that was in 1994 when I took that course. I wonder what they're up to now.)

I think a takeaway is that the tabletop RPG industry is more lucrative now than it has been in decades past... there were times where it seemed it could collapse completely. You often heard the jokes of "D&D? Do people still play that?" even in the mid 2000's.

Now that there's money to be made, and lots of audience, that's when the NSWD's come out and start telling everyone what they should like, and that only they know how to make it. And are unfazed when it doesn't sell, they just figure the audience hasn't gotten to their level yet.

That's one reason I wondered if technology is a bigger influence than first thought... without the Internet, they'd never have a platform.

Zak Sabbath said...

@erased Anon

Not gonna promote the work of a known harasser in the blog and haven't read that specific thing but even before they turned out to be a psycho I found that writer's stuff pretty prosaic.

Anonymous said...

uh, not the anon you're replying to, what do you mean "turned out to be a psycho"?

Zak Sabbath said...


The author they asked about took part in the harassment campaign in a variety of ways.

Anonymous said...

In what ways?

Zak Sabbath said...


Posting misinformation on various platforms and encouraging other people to take part in the harassment campaign.

Zak Sabbath said...

@erased Anon

You're not allowed to lie in the comments

Anonymous said...


by basically all of your own metrics, you commit harassment nonstop

Zak Sabbath said...


No, I have never spread misinformation in order to hurt someone, used ethnic slurs against them, sent death them threats or encouraged other people to do those things or to censure people based on misinformation.

You must be very stupid.

Zak Sabbath said...


Erased since you are lying again.

She harassed me in her Friday February 15th blog entry and I linked to it.

Zak Sabbath said...


Erased your false statement. It's very easy to have a conversation without posting misinformation.

If you think I've falsely identified a true statement as a lie, identify it and then prove what you say.

Anonymous said...

Seriously just tell me how it felt to get wrecked by a guy who you promoted?

Zak Sabbath said...

dunno never been wrecked, just sniped at —like everybody else

Zak Sabbath said...

@erased anon

no harassment allowed. first-strike personal attacks get deleted

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Timothy Paul Schaefer said...

If you're asking what the next BIG change will be, I think we'll see it with virtual reality augmentation. A hybrid of video game production and storytelling that allow the DM to produce a virtual world. The software would be similar to video editing or special effects programs and people will produce packages of image and sound assets ready made to be used, similar to how paper miniature sets or 3D printing blueprints are being produced today. I think it will be developed for video game kits first, but it will catch on later for RPGs when it gets cheaper and more prevalent.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Tim P Schaefer

It seems unlikely, people have been predicting things like that for years and technology up-front has consistently not gotten much involved in the history of RPGs, despite parallel development. Though tech has played a role behind the scenes.

Timothy Paul Schaefer said...

I'm not saying it will be any time soon. But once someone sees money can be made, it will happen. I mean, if I can think of it now, someday someone smarter than me will know how to exploit a virtual movie production or video game creation set up to create this accessory, or whatever you want to call it, to be used for table top role play. I think VR is developing again and making a come back. They laugh now, but mark my words...