The tabletop roleplaying game industry is dying.
Or so I've heard....
I started hearing this in the summer of 2003 when Wizards of the Coast released D&D edition 3.5. Immediately the sales of all of the companies publishing under the OGL dropped down to unforeseen low levels. In truth, I had been in the industry for a full three years at that time and though I was insulated from the bloodshed because I worked for Wizards of the Coast at the time, I could see the bloodbath as it was occurring. Prior to 2003, the companies that were doing rather well publishing under the OGL included Bastion Press, Mystic Eye Games, Atlas Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and Alderac Entertainment Group, among others. What do all of those companies have in common? They all either no longer exist or they are no longer publishing material that is compatible with D&D.
Coincidentally, at the same time 3.5 was launching, there was another little game that was also in its infancy: World of Warcraft. Maybe you've heard of it. I know, you're thinking that I'm going to blame the decline of D&D on MMOs, as is the typical interpretation of things these days. I mean WoW is making gazillions of dollars, so surely they're stealing all the D&D customers away, right?
Not so fast. By the time WoW was released, the MMO had existed for the better part of a decade. There was Ultima Online, and Everquest, and Asheron's Call, among others. Everquest had even been particularly successful. Yes, World of Warcraft is certainly an unprecedented success, but when I put my head down in the trenches to actually talk to people at the conventions and the local game stores, and the messageboards, what I heard wasn't that online gaming was stealing them away from tabletop gaming. Instead, what I heard was that 3.5 came out way too soon on the heels of 3.0. Many people were still playing 3.0 and refused to give WotC the money for the upgrade. Now personally, I'm in the camp that really likes 3.5 and did consider it a better value than 3.0, but as long as people were able to kill make believe monsters and take their make believe treasure, they didn't particularly need an upgraded set of the very same rules.
So the last five years have been pretty lean. We've seen a bunch of companies go out of business, we've seen fewer products released, we've seen fewer gaming companies start to replace the ones that go down, and we've seen a new edition of D&D released, and from the reports I've heard, fail to impress a good percentage of the audience. The D&D brand is certainly weaker now than it has been since probably the late '90s, but I'm not actually interested in talking about the past; I'm more interested in speculating about the future.
I used to bemoan the fact that when you went up to people and talked about an RPG other than D&D, people would either give you a blank stare and ask what the hell you were talking about, or people would make the same face they make after taking something foul into their mouth, like sour milk, and automatically associate it with a lack of quality. And the truth is that when the D20 products first started hitting the helves, there was a bit of hit and miss. Some products were absolutely stellar, while others were marred by bad editing, bad layout, and bad game mechanics. There is one adventure module on my shelf that I keep as a monument to bird turds because they managed to do everything wrong on the list. But again, I'm allowing myself to be dragged into the past when the point is that what I feel we're really seeing is a widening of the RPG base. In other words, there have been enough excellent third party products over the last several years that people have finally gained confidence in it.
Now the fact of the matter is that most products bearing the d20 logo did die a death. However, when publishers stopped making d20 compatible material, they started making new games that were based on the d20 system and published under the Open Gaming License. The Babylon 5 RPG, Arcana Evolved, Iron Heroes, Castles and Crusades... Oh crap, I'm talking about the past again. Well screw it, you can't get to the future without first covering where you've been. So when WotC decided that it was time to release a new version of the game, there were a lot of players who were still playing a version of 3rd edition and weren't ready for it to go yet. Then there were those who were sick of this "evolved" version of D&D and just wanted to play the game like it was originally published, and then there were those who wanted some uniquely customized version of the game to fit their idea of a cool setting, or a specific feel. For instance, some people wanted a game that was dark and gritty instead of high fantasy, others wanted magic to be handled differently. The beauty of the OGL was that they could get what they wanted, it would still be D&D because it was based on the same original mechanics.
What's more is that a lot of these games have extremely high production values. Some, like Green Ronin, mainly produce black and white books, but those black and white books are done extremely well. Then you have others that are publishing their games in full color, again, with production values that rival or surpass WotCs'. An example of that is Paizo Publishing, which was originally created to continue producing Dragon and Dungeon magazines after WotC decided to give them the axe, but has since positioned themselves as the AMD to WotCs Intel. Their Pathfinder products are full color, their production values, writing, art, and cartography are as good or better than WotCs' in every area, and they're continuing forward with the Pathfinder RPG, which is the next evolution of the D&D 3.5 system. And there are other games that are also taking the D20 system and running with it, such as Modern20 and True20. Spycraft 2.o is another full color book that is essentially based on Modern, but makes signifficant changes to the game. Then there are the retro-clones, which are picking up steam, and new or revived systems that are gaining gaining ground, such as Savage Worlds, Cortex, Traveler, Runequest. Heck, even Star Frontiers is seeing an online revival and currently has "digitally remastered" versions of the original core books posted online as well as a new online periodical called the Frontiersman.
The wonderful thing is that people all over the place are actually playing these games!
In my mind, this isn't a rejection of D&D 4th edition as much as it is the fact that people have finally realized that they have options! Lots of them!
On top of that, the expansion of the PDF market and the rise of printing on demand through companies like Lulu.com means that there are a lot more companies in the business, a lot more games being made, and getting your stuff out to your customers isn't nearly as hard as it once was. In other words, the new configuration of the print industry is adding to the choices people have.
Personally, I've always been comfortable with the basic D&D and Advanced D&D schism. While WotC is offering 4th edition, which tries unsuccessfully to be all things to all people, I'm finding that Castles and Crusades functions well as the new "Basic" and Pathfinder functions as the new "Advanced." I can play Pathfinder with my 35 year-old gaming buddies who have come to like this level of complexity in their RPGs while I can bust out the C&C and play with my wife and daughter.
So what I'm getting at is that while D&D maintains a player base that many companies would die for (even while it is undoubtedly disappointing the bean counters at Hasbro), the rest of the players are going to the other publishers who have long struggled in the shadow of D&D. Many people say that the golden age of gaming was back in the '80s, others say that it was just after the advent of the OGL, when suddenly everyone could make a game compatible with the best known roleplaying game in the world. I say the golden age of gaming is right here, right now.
I say this because your choices as a gamer are nearly unlimited. People like me, who used to dream of being a published game designer, can make that dream comne true, assuming that you happen to be competent at writing and game design and have some good ideas. You can do it by either hitching your cart to an existing publisher or, if you have the technical know-how and the connections to get the art done - do it yourself.
The future of tabletop gaming is no longer in the hands of those who have had it in the past, but rather, it's now in the hands of the community that supports it, both through choice and through small time publishers. This is an industry where the little guy is getting noticed and after a while, isn't so little anymore.
This is the golden age of roleplaying. Game on!