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  • Writer's pictureShannon Rampe

Ben Riggs and the Death of the Golden Age of TTRPGs (Part 1)

Ben Riggs is a tabletop RPG historian and author of the excellent and well-researched book, Slaying the Dragon: a Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons published by Macmillan in 2022. On January 3rd, Riggs shared a lengthy post on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit that was later shared on ENWorld in which he claimed that the Golden Age of tabletop role-playing games was at an end.


The post went viral and spawned a bevy of responses from community members and content creators. Riggs himself talked further about the post in the latest episode of his podcast, Plot Points.


On January 23rd, I had the opportunity to speak with Ben about his book, and about his predictions about the future of the TTRPG hobby. It was an enlightening and wide-ranging discussion, and I am pleased to be able to share the interview with you!




Note: the interview has been edited for clarity. Due to the length of the interview, the blog will be separated into two parts, with the second installment to be published next week


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Shannon Rampe: Ben, thank you so much for hopping on here with me today to talk about your book and to talk about the explosion that happened on the Internet after you posted a Facebook post on January 3rd in which you claimed that the Golden Age of tabletop role-playing games is dead.


Ben Riggs: Was it an explosion?
Shannon Rampe: It may have been a bit of an explosion.

BR: It's very odd to me because I posted it on Reddit, Facebook and Twitter and within minutes on Reddit…I had my Reddit account set up so I got an email every time someone commented. And it's just like BRRRRRRRR! I'm like, OK, something is going on here, but is it just because I have those email notifications coming in? Is this really that unusual?


But then it got to 600,000 views on Twitter and EN World reposted it and it was like, “here's what everyone else important in the industry has to say about what this guy said.”




And it's like, OK, I guess this is this has become a thing. And then I hid under a bushel in my attic for about 2 weeks. I actually looked at very little of what other people have had to say about it because it got rough fast.


SR: Yeah, people got really passionate.


BR: I should say very quickly, I have no problem with anyone disagreeing with me. The world would be a grey and boring place if everyone was like “Riggs is right about everything all the time!”


But there were some rough things said by some people.


SR: I'm sure. And that's unfortunate.


I read a lot of the stuff in some of those threads and it was surprising because it was clear that some people just really didn't know anything about you or about your work. If they had bothered to take 5 minutes to look, maybe they would have commented differently. But, whatever, that's what you're going to get on the Internet.


BR: It's the Internet. I will say, one interesting statistic is 600,000 people saw the first post on Twitter. I think 15,000 saw the last. Which still may make it the most-read thing I ever wrote. But clearly a lot of people got halfway through and were like “bing, off we go.”


SR: The thrust of your argument seems to be that in early 2023, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast attempted to kill the OGL, and major content creators—MCDM, Kobold Press, Critical Role—all decided, “We can't take this risk. We're going to go create our own games.” And that decision, along with WOTC’s decision to publish an updated version of the ruleset for 2024, is going to result in a fracturing of the audience and that the industry will shrink as a result.


Have I summed that up correctly?


BR: I would also throw in that the media that was bringing people back to D&D may be moving away from focusing on D&D.


SR: Right, Critical Role and other producers. As well as Stranger Things.


BR: Well, it's not what you don't know. It's what you think you know that ain't so that's always gonna get you.


And somewhere along the way I picked up that Critical Role is making Candela Obscura and Daggerheart and they're going to move away from D&D. And, of course, I was totally wrong about the leaving D&D aspect of things, at least so far.


Even with that aside, even with Critical Role continuing to play D&D… I'm not a big Critical Role person. But Matt Colville, him I'm a huge fan of. Him I watch a lot of.


SR: Yeah, love his channel. I think Running the Game is some of the best DMing content out there.


BR: Without a doubt. But his channel has changed a lot in the past year or two. It used to be video after video after video driving people to D&D. Now it’s…


You still get some D&D content out there, but there's a lot of stuff about his new role-playing game. Gosh, did he interview a linguist this year for an episode?


So, there was previously this really beneficial cycle where you had media driving people to Dungeons & Dragons. When they got to Dungeons & Dragons, they found arguably the best version of the game since 1980 to play.


And as they played more and more D&D, they might branch out into third-party publishers making content for 5th Edition and from there they might still further go on to the OSR community, to indie tabletop role-playing games.


And that cycle has fundamentally altered in the past 12 months where… Just the fact that media is not so solely focused on D&D will slow down bringing people into the game.


Even if the revised D&D that they put out in 2024, even if that is just as good as 5th Edition or better, I still think it's going to cause a fracture in the community because some people will inevitably stick with what they have now.


And all the third-party publishers moving away from 5th [Edition]? I think that is a fracture in the community.


Previously, they could all share the same community of players. That will no longer be able to… It'll be impossible. You can't do it anymore. And people don't fundamentally enjoy learning new systems. It is one of the reasons that it's hard for people to move beyond D&D, and it's hard for people to move into other games or indie games because they just don't like doing it.


So, I think that while individually, all these companies made very logical decisions. They're like, “I can't let Hasbro control my company. I need to go create my own game.” They go create their own game.

Because I know MCDM the best, I use them the most. Colville has, I think, 450,000 subscribers on YouTube. He was able to convert that to about 30,000 buyers of the MCDM RPG.


And man, it's just hard to imagine future MCDM RPG Kickstarters majorly topping that. To put it in perspective, I went and looked at Colville’s Kickstarter profits, and essentially the trend line was up for years, peaking with this one.


But I think that's your peak.


I don't think you're going to be as successful converting people to MCDM RPG players as you were by saying, “this is something to help you play D&D 5E, which you are already playing, and you love my D&D 5E advice, so buy my book.”


But now this is to his old audience, “You liked my D&D 5E advice, try something new.” And to people that don't know him, it's, “Hey, I have a game that's not D&D to sell you and I need to explain it to you, and you always hit.” It's just harder. But am I rambling on now?


SR: No, it's interesting stuff. But I want to throw out a counterpoint there. What about the extraordinary success of Baldur's Gate 3 as a media property and potential entry point into D&D and role-playing games?


BR: It would be great, but I just don't know a ton of people who go from video games to role-playing games. I know a lot of role-players who play video games, but there just doesn't seem to be as firm of a path. Now I have no data to back that up.


SR: I think the thing that we can observe is that it's another missed opportunity for Wizards of the Coast. Aside from some social media posts and some downloadable character sheets, they didn't really do a lot in parallel with the release of Baldur's Gate 3. They could have released a campaign set or a book or something to capitalize on that game coming out. And they just didn't.


BR: I'm sorely tempted to plunge into the depths of the amazing product we have not seen in the past two years that should exist. Okay, I’m briefly going to do it.


No D&D Honor Among Thieves Starter Set? They have not announced a Starter Set for the upcoming Revised Edition. They've announced that there'll be a Player's Handbook in 2024. I want to say they've gone back and forth on whether the Monster Manual or DMG will be available in 2024?

But no Starter Set for the new thing? With 5th Edition, the Starter Set came out first as I recall. Great idea!


Oh yeah, Baldur's Gate 3. I would love it if D&D made Wizards more money by giving us more amazing stuff. I am very happy with the royalties that Wizards is bringing in through Baldur's Gate 3 because it makes them think, “Hey, D&D is a brand worth investing in.”


But I just don't know that the video games are the thing that's going to make people want to go and buy a D&D TTRPG book. I just don't know.


To give a quick historical example, the 4th Edition team was specifically told, “go and make a game influenced by World of Warcraft. Make a game that would be really easy for World of Warcraft players to go and pick up.” And they did. And it is the worst-selling edition of DND.


It's the only edition I have no numbers for. But every creator told me that that it sold worse than 3.5. And 3.5 sold worse than 3.0. And 3.0 sold worse than Second [Edition]. Second [Edition] sold worse than First [Edition] and there we are. The only edition to sell better than the one that came before it is 5th Edition.


You got me going, so, okay, I said the things I wanted to say. I'm trying to be disciplined here.


SR: So, assuming that you're right, assuming that we're talking about the end of an era, do you think it's an actual decline in the number of players that we're looking at over the next 5 to 10 years? Or is it just some leveling off of the massive and explosive growth that we've seen?


BR: The words I used were stagnation and decline because I think that the growth of D&D was fueled by the entry of new players. New players have to go and buy the stuff for the first time, but once they have the stuff, they don't really need it again for a long time, if ever.


And if the things that were bringing people to D&D are no longer bringing new people into D&D, sales will stagnate and decline.


SR: Right. Because most of the audience, being players, don't go out and buy every new book that comes out. DM's will. But players, they're going to buy a Player's Handbook and maybe one or two accessory books here and there. And that's largely it.


BR: Yeah. It's harder for me to talk about the statistics of people playing. I would imagine you'd have to look at D&D Beyond or Roll20 for stuff like that.


I really dwell on sales figures. They're more measurable and they tell you about the people making money.

A thing I heard a lot of was, “Whatever happens with D&D doesn't matter to me, indie game designer, indie game player.” I am like, “No, it does. It really, really does.”

You will notice that indie Kickstarters, they've been doing better in the past ten years. Avatar, the Last Airbender made all this money. The reason that even indie games are making more money is because you don't need to explain to D&D players what a tabletop roleplaying game is. They're there already. They're ready to be your audience.


Furthermore, according to the 1999 Wizards of the Coast Marketing Survey of D&D Players which they released a portion of publicly, the average person who currently plays D&D, owns 2.2 role-playing games. If there are millions and millions of new D&D players, and every one of them buys D&D and just one other role-playing game, that is enough to fuel huge growth in the rest of the industry.


SR: That actually leads into a follow up question that I had. Your argument that if the audience shrinks, obviously there's less money for creators publishing games, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there are less-creative games are going to be made. They might just be lower quality or not distributed as widely.


The Forge from the early 2000s, which spawned the story games movement, which ultimately led to things like Apocalypse World and some of the stuff that's happening now on Itch.io and the proliferation of tiny experimental indie games… Don't you think that kind of stuff will still happen? That we'll still get continue to get creative games that could then blossom into larger movements like Apocalypse World or Forged in the Dark or things like that?


BR: Let's just stick with the Apocalypse World for a second here. Let's imagine a world where the last 10 years of explosive growth didn't happen. There's got to be hundreds of Apocalypse World games—PBTA games—now, right? I want to say Vincent Baker has a list, right? And the Forged in the Dark games, I want to say John Harper said he considers them a grouping of PBTA games.


If you did not have these hordes of people start playing D&D, what would the audience have been for Apocalypse World?


Now, it's a brilliant game and it's genius. One of the most depressing facts about TTRPG history is the quality of the product is not nearly as important as other factors in determining how much money it's going to make and how much it's going to sell.


The huge influx of people into D&D was a massive boon to the Apocalypse World indie movement. If we remove that, maybe it's just Apocalypse World and then it's a bunch of people like goofing around with it and making their own games. And maybe it's zines getting passed around, but money buys people's time. If you don't have the prospect of like making some money on Urban Shadows or Cartel or something like that, maybe you just don't do it. Maybe it's a thing you do for you and your friends. That is where I see the problem here.


To put it in another way, what's the best poem that you read that was published this year?


SR: Uhh… haha…


BR: Yeah, I know, right? I couldn't name one either. There may be amazing poetry being written, but because there is no audience for it, kind of nobody cares.


In 2008, that's what I thought the future of the role-playing game industry was. I was like, “Okay, I've purchased all the White Wolf books and all the Cthulhu books I will ever want. Since the role-playing game industry is over now, I will happily just be playing these games with my friends until I die and that's fine. I don't care.”


I did not see, of course, what the next 16 years would bring us.


When Van Gogh was younger, he wrote his brother being like, “I just want to paint stuff that's going to sell. I just want to make some money painting.” It would be interesting to see what would have happened if Van Gogh made more money during his life.


Somebody on Reddit… it was one of the first posts where I was like things have gone south, somebody was like, “How can this guy possibly say that less money in an industry will decrease its creativity?”

And I'm like “Oh my gosh, sweet summer child. Are you under 25? Have you ever had a job?”


Obviously in indie RPGs, they're not necessarily bringing in millions of dollars all the time, but if you can put out a game and make ten grand… I've talked to indie game companies where they're like, “Yeah, we net $100,000 a year.”


And if you can net $100,000 a year selling your indie game, that's incredible.


But again, that audience is coming from D&D, and that's coming from the Golden Age of role-playing. And if D&D has a problem, if there's a kink in the pipeline, it's going to eventually trickle down to those indie RPGs.


Was that too long of an answer?


SR: That's a great answer. I think it's an interesting response.


So I have a sort of crackpot hypothesis, which is Hasbro bought Wizards of the Coast because of Magic: the Gathering, not because of D&D. D&D is never going to make the kind of money that Hasbro wants and their attempts to monetize it using things like the Honor Among Thieves movie, or the proliferation of video games that they've licensed off, with the exception of a few things like Baldur's Gate 3, has not really succeeded for them in turning D&D into a $500 million a year brand.


Do you think that there's a possible future where either Hasbro sells D&D off because it's just not worth it to them, or where maybe D&D becomes such an insignificant brand in terms of the revenue that they bring in that the D&D creative team gets basically ignored and can kind of do whatever they want?


BR: My understanding is that latter scenario is how we got 5th Edition. My understanding is that Third [Edition] does better than D&D was doing in the late 90s but it doesn't sell like Second [Edition]. 3.5 doesn't sell like Third [Edition].


And Fourth [Edition] was the “We’re going to bring new people” edition, and it did worse than 3.5. So, Fourth [Fifth – sic] was just going be this “keeping the lights on caretaker edition.” You can really see it in the beginning of the publication history when the three core books came out and then it was a campaign every 6 to 8 months for a couple of years. You got one setting book, I think it was the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide, and that was kind of it until things really started to light on fire.


To be more specific, I don't think Hasbro would ever sell D&D, because it doesn't seem like that's what Hasbro does. From everything I can tell, they are a vampire that once you are in their crypt, they will not release you. You are trapped there forever and D&D is in Hasbro’s crypt being drained of blood.

D&D is in Hasbro’s crypt being drained of blood.

But if things get really bad, I could see them being like, “We're going to mothball that for a while.” There's certainly brands that it's like, “Well, we're not going to bother supporting it right now. Maybe we'll come around again.”


And thank god for the OGL in that regard, and thank god they put 5th Edition into the Creative Commons because the game itself is free now, even if they were to do that.


I would tell you the following things. I am increasingly convinced that the following things are required for D&D to grow:


D&D needs to be bringing in new players.


D&D needs to be making it easier to be a Dungeon Master.


And you're better off thinking of Dungeons & Dragons as a sport than anything else.

They seem to want to think it's a video game. TSR’s model really was, “We sell books. We're a publisher. That's what we sell.”


In fact, what Wizards of the Coast sells when they sell D&D is they sell you sitting around a table having an amazing time with your friends. That is in fact their actual product.


Another thing I was wrong about with Critical Role was, for years, I thought that Critical Role’s primary advantage to D&D was that it was didactic, that it was teaching people how to play the game, so they're like, “Okay, now I can go play the game.”


I was totally wrong and misapprehending the appeal of Critical Role. Critical Role is showing you what you get when you buy D&D. You are getting an amazing time with your friends. And what has Hasbro, Wizards needs to do is create a WWE for D&D. Or an NBA for D&D, but I think the WWE is actually a better model.


You create some entertainment product that is so new, so hot, so engaging, that you get eyeballs. Those eyeballs bring you new players, and they find a version of D&D that is so easy to run that vast numbers of them become Dungeon Masters. They then go and find you even more players.

Critical Role is showing you what you get when you buy D&D. You are getting an amazing time with your friends. And what...Wizards needs to do is create a WWE for D&D.

That is my theory of the case. Hasbro took steps in that direction. They paid a billion dollars for an entertainment company called E1, and then they sold it this year for a $500 million loss.


SR: Ouch. I heard you talking about that on your Plot Points episode on this recently. They did put out a couple of shows recently and I haven't watched them, so I don't know too much about them as actual plays.


BR: Let me briefly tell you about one.


Encounter Party is kind of like Critical Role, but I would say they try and keep the table talk in-character, more than Critical Role does. They have 22 episodes. They are essentially available for free online, and Hasbro has done literally no marketing of them.


I spoke on this past Thursday to the D&D brand manager and head of licensing and marketing, who was “early retired” in December. Her name is Liz Schuh. One of the things she told me was around 4th Edition, their marketing budget got so small that they could no longer market individual products, they could only market the brand.


So, you wouldn't really see ads for individual releases, they would just do what they could to support the D&D brand. That started with 4th Edition and has not substantially changed through 5th Edition despite the success of 5th Edition, therefore, when they spend god knows how many millions of dollars producing their version of Critical Role, where they're flying people out to Los Angeles to record in sound stages, they spend no money marketing it and no money advertising it, and no one knows it's there.


I know for a fact that they have spent no money essentially promoting that product and the people involved in that product certainly noticed that no money was spent marketing their product.


And that, I think, is a pillar of the future of D&D. Something like that. Maybe this thing doesn't quite take off. But if you like at Critical Role—I pulled up Critical Role’s viewing stats in anticipation for this conversation—if you look at Critical Role, it took Critical Role years to really take off! They started recording in 2012 and it wasn't really till 2018 that I that I think it took off.


And what do you mean by took off… you can argue about all day long, but they did it for years before it really became what we think of today as Critical Role.


The idea that they invested all this money in producing a show that is hopefully going to attract people to their product by saying, “Look, this is what it is! It's having this amazing time with your friends!” And then they don't promote it.


I will also just say... you know, they fired all those people. This is so terrible. Poor, poor, all of them, the people they let go, I can’t believe it. But a voice in the back of my head was like, “you're going to get to talk to these people finally.”

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This concludes the first half of the interview. Be sure to check back next week to read the second half. Portions of the interview will also be available on YouTube.


What do you think? Is the Golden Age of TTRPGs at an end? Share your thoughts in the comments below. (Criticism and disagreement are welcome, personal attacks are not.)

 

If you enjoyed this blog, please like and share it on social media. If you want more content on game mastering, follow me at www.shannonrampe.com/signup and the GM Cellar YouTube channel.








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