Through its nearly 50 years of existence, Dungeons & Dragons has changed the battlespace of the hobby several times. TSR pioneered supporting media as a cartoon, various comic book series, and extensive novel collections. In 2001, now under Wizards, they broke the taboo of controlling your game’s core mechanics and introduced the OGL, launching the d20 era and many careers. In 2016, they pioneered a new level of community content creation with the DMs Guild, creating a closed ecosystem for creators to have free rein on allowed IP. Then in 2017, Wizards did it again with D&D Beyond. Now, as we approach 2024, they’ve announced One D&D, a comprehensive single portal for all things D&D and the best deals on official D&D stuff. But what does any of this mean from the level of A list small publishers to Indie level creators in the hobby?
A Tradition of Poaching
Traditionally speaking, getting new customers and fans in the tabletop RPG industry has heavily depended on D&D, particularly in the post TSR era. Poaching has become SOP in the industry, and the ideas that games are “like D&D but…” or “…does XYZ way better than D&D…” are often a core part of how games are explained, presented, or reported on (for good or ill). This was viable for years because, while huge, D&D was still operating on the same plane as other games. But this is changing.
Modern 5e D&D fans are proving more resistant to poaching than they were in the past, and where the saying “A rising tide lifts all boats.” is running afoul of the reality that boats without long anchor lines are liable to be pulled under as the tide lifts. So what has D&D done to alter the battlespace to favour themselves?
A Warm Burrito of D&D
A common adage these days is that “D&D is a hobby on its own”, and this is not inaccurate. Ever since the days of TSR, D&D has positioned itself as an all-encompassing hobby. You can play D&D, watch D&D, listen to D&D, colour D&D, learn numbers and the alphabet with D&D, read D&D, wear D&D, collect D&D… the list goes on. But it goes past that. Wizards have been very busy fostering, engaging with, and using its online community for everything from product boosting to scouting for writing and art talent. D&D is fully multimedia now. D&D products are available virtually everywhere that sells books, and their online tools and resources are well designed and accessible. In short, D&D is a complete hobby within the larger tabletop RPG hobby, and has functionally become self-sustaining through its own fanbase’s aggressive recruitment for, indoctrination in, and defense of the game and its system. This is the warm burrito of D&D.
The challenge this presents is that it dramatically increases expectations on the part of the consumer base. And if it’s only 50% as effective as they hope it to be, the comfortable, warm hobby burrito of D&D will be less appealing to leave for its fans.
The Modern Tabletop RPG Battlespace
Today’s publishers and creatives are facing an increasingly integrated battlespace that will demand more to reach any level of success outside of the One D&D ecosystem. Many, from publishers to indie creators, are fighting yesterday’s battles. They see shelf space at a local game shops and bookstores as an indicator of success. And it is, but not to the degree it was prior to 2017, and will be less so as One D&D rolls out. But why?
The reason is tied up in the warm burrito concept I outlined above. D&D is so dominant in the hobby now that its actions set the paradigm and the expectations of new people coming into the hobby. And games that don’t offer at least a fraction of them past the baseline of having a product are looking at having an increasingly difficult time being noticed.
But what does the battlespace look like? What’s the full spectrum of operations looking like?
- Baseline Product (the core game or supplement, digital and/or physical)
- Functional Peripherals (character sheets, GM/DM screens, info tracking sheets etc…)
- Fun Peripherals (dice sets, cards sets, etc…)
- Product Expansions (sourcebooks, adventures, etc.)
- Multimedia Peripherals (novels, comics, endorsed/partnership shows)
- Online Services (character creation, encounter building, digital products, campaign tracking, etc.)
- Community Content Program (game materials made by fans in a semi-official venue)
- Community Engagement (reaches out professionally to fandom members/influencers)
- Events (in person or online; event presence, event sponsoring, running events)
- Physical presence in traditional spaces (bookstores, local game shops, etc.)
- Mainstream Penetration (mentioned/displayed in media outside the industry and its adjacent areas, commercial link in with licenced IP)
- Social Media (active presence, campaigns, advertising)
- Planned Release Schedule (year minimum in advance)
- Information Gathering (polls, surveys, test play material, etc.)
- Communications (blog posts, official releases, Q&A, etc.)
That’s a lot of things; and they only cover the consumer side visible spectrum of activities. Behind that there’s logistical, financial, and business planning. And this invisible work can’t be underestimated in its importance. Quality project design and management, graphic design work, and detailed fiscal planning can be the difference between a one-off product that no one remembers afterwards and a successful one that develops a following and the ability to have long-term viability.
How to compete?
The facts of the matter are that no one, not even Paizo, is truly “competing” with Wizards and D&D. Barring Wizards making a series of poor business decisions that destroy what they’ve built up, the likelihood of any company or game truly competing with them is infinitesimal. So what next?
Foremost, indie creators and small publishers need to come up with their own comprehensive plans around content, fostering community, and how to make their game look appealing to the D&D fanbase, because, like it or not, D&D is still the main driving force behind new people entering the hobby and poaching them is still going to be a reliable source of customers for the foreseeable future. This sucks, because no one enjoys comparing their game to D&D, but it’s the reality we need to live with right now.
The next is scarier and the path less taken. It’s reaching outside the hobby and looking for new customers from genre and theme related communities. This means advertising and hash-tagging outside the familiar zones. But we know from history that this works, because the greatest influx of new players into the hobby prior to 5e D&D was in the 1990s when White Wolf’s World of Darkness appealed to an underserved demographic.
I’m not being facetious or mean here. Outreach to communities that aren’t directly overlapping with or at least adjacent to the tabletop RPG hobby is some scary stuff. It’s uncertain, there’s a lot of starting from near zero, and there’s no guarantee that it will work. But hear me out here; it needs to be done.
Right now, even known IP with huge fanbases that aren’t in the hobby like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Expanse, Game of Thrones, and more are relying on the overlap area between people in the hobby already and the IP fanbase than on trying to tap the larger fanbase. How bad is it? Green Ronin made an A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, and the Game of Thrones cast played D&D; Green Ronin also has an excellent The Expanse RPG, but there’s no integration with the show that I’ve been able to see, or any attempt to reach out to the bigger fanbase. It’s a serious point of failure.
So what I think we need to see more of in indie and small publisher space, besides the multi-spectrum approach above, is reach outside the hobby. We need to look for overlap and exploit it. The worst that can happen is that no one bites, but even a moderate success means penetration into a new market. Best-case scenario? You might have an unqualified success on your hands.
So here’s the good news on outreach. The pump has been primed. How? Well, for one, the idea of RPGs is no longer new or foreign to people. From Millennials through Gen Z to the kids of Gen A, RPG exposure via videogames and popular media is increasingly a lowest common denominator. Likewise, science fiction and fantasy as genres for books, comics, manga, anime, movies and so on have lost almost all the stigma they once carried. So it’s not the uphill battle it used to be. We just need to adjust our thinking to the situation.
The battlespace has changed, and so have the conditions of victory. And like any conflict, failure to adapt to the new conditions is how you end up being increasingly irrelevant in the larger scene. Now, I don’t think for a second that a solo indie creator is going to have the time or finances to develop a full, multi-spectrum approach to get their game out there, and small publishers are in a similar situation. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to understand what we’re looking at and how we can best mitigate the realities of the situation. And this is especially important for people looking to transition from a hobby creator to a full side hustle or full-time creator life. This is a heavy post, so I think that the main takeaways are that to “compete” (read: your product makes more money than it cost to make, has a following), indie creators and small publishers are going to need to step up their game and diversify their outreach strategies to stay afloat. And to be clear, I’m in a boat watching the tide rise too; that’s what drove this post. So have a think, make a plan, and good luck!