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I’m still amazed by the rise in popularity of pen & paper RPGs

June 20, 2020

Amazed and pleased. I should note that I was a huuuge D&D (as well as Stormbringer, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and a few more) fan in my youth. Discovering D&D was transformative to my life. As well as giving me a lifelong love of gaming (of all forms) it also put me on the path to becoming a games designer. But while back in the 80s, D&D became huge, it didn’t last as competition for the ‘mind-space’ of kids arrived via technologies such as video games, as well as business woes of some of the main players in RPGs such as TSR (the company founded to publish D&D) who went bankrupt and was sold to Wizards of the Coast (WotC), who in turn was sold to Hasbro. What is interesting is back then during the sale D&D was not at all what Hasbro was interested in:

In 1999, Hasbro bought WotC for Magic the Gathering and the Pokémon card game. The waning profits from D&D’s second edition certainly didn’t help the acquisition. Like many folks in 1999, Hasbro executives probably wondered if people had to dress up to play D&D. Would remnants of the satanic panic stain Hasbro?

The same fall in sales and waning interest also hit other then big RPGs such as White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade games. I’m in a way emblematic of that loss of players during that period, I was now playing video games more than RPGs. When I did play an RPG it was Call of Cthulhu. I remember in the early 00s in Bristol going along to an RPG gaming group, asking what all the other people played, it was almost totally Pathfinder (a D&D-like fantasy RPG that did while D&D struggled). I didn’t really get back into RPGs much then.

Back to our story; So while D&D bumped along as part of Hasbro, now a small fish in a big pond, watch what happens as the 2010s get underway;

So the question becomes – what happened in 2014 to see a rise in sales? 5th Edition is released and to cut a long story short, the developers got lots and lots of things right with it. Then in 2017? On July 15th 2016, Stranger Things debuted and with it’s nostalgic love of D&D put the hobby in front of many, many more people.

What is interesting about the re-rise of D&D and RPGs is that now technology, far from killing these games, is giving them a new life. People play games using video-chat systems like Roll20, the connectivity of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter (I mean this campaign for dogs in D&D grossed over £350K!) has allowed creators to make a whole bunch of new, re-born and odd RPGs that explore every possible niche of the hobby. Meanwhile D&D just gets bigger – one count being that there are more than 13.7M players worldwide. (This podcast episode does a good job of showing the range of RPGs around) We’ve seen a return to form of classic titles such as Call of Cthulhu, new editions of Runequest as well a new titles that explore very different worlds such as Tales from the Loop.

RPGs are back and are only going to get bigger.

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