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  • Writer's pictureShannon Rampe

Ben Riggs and the Death of the Golden Age of TTRPGs (Part 2)

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 for the future of the TTRPG hobby. Part 1 of this interview appeared on the blog on January 29th. You can find it here. The second half of the wide-ranging interview is included below. Be sure to check out the first half if you haven’t read it yet!


Ben Riggs and Shannon Rampe on screen

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Ben Riggs: My current understanding is about 18 months ago, Cynthia Williams, who we should think of as an Amazon person more than anything else, began hiring Amazon people to start working at Wizards of the Coast and these Amazon people are Amazonifying Wizards of the Coast and the changes that they are making seem to be deleterious, ill-conceived, and arrogant.


These people seem to believe that the reason that D&D was a failure in the past was because book-addled idiots made it. And now that they, the Amazon people, are going to make it, it will be successful because their magic dust will simply be sprinkled over D&D and it will instantly become a billion dollar property. And their magic dust is so amazing and so special, they don't actually need to learn anything about D&D. It is simply their fairy dust that will make the change.


And in my experience, when people who think that it is simply their fairy dust that is necessary get control of D&D and those same people think that they don't need to learn anything about D&D and those same people are also obsessed with extracting as much money from D&D as they can, things get messy.


I have no objection to them making as much money as possible. I want my Edgin the Bard socks. The problem is they just seem to be going about it in a really weird way.


They posted a job for I think this is a VP of Marketing and it said the VP of Marketing had to have subscription drive management experience and you're like, “What do they need someone who knows about subscriptions for at D&D?” And we all know, right?


Shannon Rampe: Right, D&D Beyond.


BR: They want it to be a digital walled garden where we're all subscribers. Which, if they made an amazing product that we all want to buy, I'm excited about that. But I'm deeply skeptical.


Should I tell you about when they tried to do this before?


SR: They did this. They attempted to do a virtual tabletop in 4E, and it was a disastrous failure. It never materialized and that was the entire pitch for 4E, “You’re going be able to play D&D online with your friends.”


BR: I'm trying to remember the amount of money I was told they spent. I forget if it was $70 million or hundreds of millions of dollars, but they spent an insane amount of money and essentially got nothing out of it because Wizards of the Coast at the time was primarily a company that published books and printed cards on paper, and there were three parts to what they wanted to create.


They wanted to create a social network. And they were doing this at a time just after Facebook but before Twitter, I want to say. They wanted to create essentially Steam where you could buy video games through Wizards of the Coast. And they also wanted to create a virtual tabletop and this company again doesn't make software. They had to go out and hire people and they got nothing out of it because it was just way too ambitious.


But I am concerned they are making the same mistake again. I don't play a lot online, but it would certainly seem like instead of creating a competitor, you maybe just buy something, a virtual tabletop that already exists.


When I talk to other players—thank god I'm a 7th and 8th grade teacher and I work with a bunch of people under 30 who play D&D. It's just so great to be able to go and talk to them and be like “How do you do it? What are you guys doing?”


And for most of them, they're like “We play online and we like it just fine, but we'd much rather play in person,” and it certainly seems to be that a lot of people just prefer playing in person.


So, as cool as it is, I just don't know. I would love to know if they did market research on this before they spent hundreds of millions of dollars.


SR: I think the pandemic made suddenly an explosion of people playing together online because that was the only thing that they could do.


Having done both, having played online and in person, there's no question. Anybody that has played online and in person will tell you that the in-person experience is hands down better because of the energy that you get of being in the same room with people, the ability of people to talk over each other and all talk at once, which you can't do on a virtual call. Even the ability to look people in the eye when they're talking, which you can't do on a virtual call.


You lose all those things, but you gain the ability to play with people all over the country and, in the event of a pandemic, obviously you gain the ability to play with people.


You know, recently Wizards put it out a “maps” tool, which is kind of like a shortcut version of a virtual tabletop. It's very similar to a product called Owlbear Rodeo, which is a free-to-use virtual tabletop. It's very bare bones. You've got maps, you’ve got tokens, and that is basically it. But I actually like Owlbear Rodeo for online play.


I was kind of surprised to see them take the effort to put out a product like that when I know that they're leaning so hard into this 3D VTT software creation that they seemed to be pushing so hard last year. But maybe they just did that because the VTT is not coming along quite as well as they would like, or it's software development and it takes a long time.


I want to talk about Slaying the Dragon, but before we switch over to that, is there any anything else you want to add about this, your predictions of the downfall of civilization, or at least the downfall of D&D and the subsequent decline of the some of the growth that we've seen?


BR: My short answer is no. My longer answer would be that this process, posting this, seeing the response, has me more concerned that I'm right. Which I take very little pleasure in. And seeing how this went crazy, I've given it some thought, and it'd be very easy to take every piece of news and filter it through this lens and be like “See, this proves me wrong” or “This proves me right.” You know, I'm just this irritating peg on the Internet constantly telling you if things are good or bad.


And I thought about it and every January, now, I'll write one of these.


SR: The state of the industry.


BR: I'll take a look at the year before and be like, “So how does this fit with what I said?” And if I'm if I'm wrong, no one will be happier than me. I would love it if the special time that we've lived through continued.


But I'm going to tell you. Since I posted it, number one, I didn't see a ton of really convincing counters. Two, I just keep seeing stuff that really seems to fit this idea.


It's hard to get sales members, right?


The only sales numbers I really have are a ton of D&D ones and a ton of Traveller sales numbers because the creator of Traveller, at some point he just seems to decide that you're worthy of getting sales numbers and mails them to you if you're a historian. I got them in the mail and I felt really special!


And then I talked to Shannon Appelcline about it and he was like, “Oh, he sent those to me years ago. Here they are in digital form.”


I'm like “Oh, thanks Shannon.”


So, I charted the decline of Traveller sales in the early 1980s and then I paired it to the decline of D&D sales in the early 1980s and shock of shocks, they matched up really really well.

In between 1980 and 1986, it's not like they're perfect mirrors, but they both had their peaks in 1981, and by 1986 they had both radically declined.


And I look at that and it's what I would have guessed based on everything we said. Where just it logically makes sense to me that if D&D is doing poorly, other games are going to do poorly too. But I was like, “Hey, here's some actual data backing up that idea.”


I guess that the last thing I would say is I'll write something about this every January, but I've regrettably hardened in my position, I think.


Did you know that Critical Role viewership is down?




SR: I did not know that. I don't really follow Critical Role.


BR: Me neither.


SR: It wasn't something that I was super paying attention to.


BR: I would agree, it's not something I super pay attention to either, but viewership is down for this third season, and I have no idea how that fits into my idea because it's not like it links up or something. It's not like the OGL crisis happened and people stopped watching Critical Role.


Some fans have been like “This season is just too jokey. There's no straight men,” are some of the reviews I've seen. But the TTRPG industry seems to be one where the rising tide carries all boats and things are best in some ways if everyone is doing good at once. It's not like you either have to buy a Coke or a Pepsi.

You can buy both.


So, when I got the thing about Critical Role moving past D&D wrong, I started doing a little research and I'm like, “Wait, Critical Role’s numbers are actually down?” Their best day in the past six months was January 19th, a couple days ago and I assume it was because of the weather. I would assume that there was terrible weather so people were like, “Well, I might as well go watch Critical Role.”


SR: Well, it’s another pandemic factor, right? Critical Role peaked—again, purely anecdotally, I don’t have the data on this. But it seems to me that Critical Role reached its height of popularity during the pandemic when people didn’t have anything else to do besides sit and watch 4-hour long live streams of

other people playing D&D.


BR: You would be totally correct. Let me tell you right now, because I have the numbers right in front of me. They shot up in March of 2020, surprise, surprise, and had incredible growth from then until they peaked at October-November 2021 and since then it's been down, down, down, down, down, down, down.


You can't expect the pandemic numbers to persist forever, but they've been going down for two years now. And a two-year trend of down, that's not great.


So, my point here is simply—and I’m not fitting this into some larger theory—but I don't like that! I'm not even a Critical Role fan or viewer, but I'd much rather have them continuing to grow. And what is changing that? Because I would have said that Critical Role’s whole thing was “We’re good at sucking people in and getting people excited.”


What has happened in the past two years to stop that growth? I have no idea, but it's not a good thing.

All right. I'm done preaching.


SR: It's good stuff.



SR: Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons. I completely devoured this book. I got it on from the library as an audio book last year, and I couldn't stop listening to it. I was like listening to it in the car. I'm listening to it in the shower. I'm listening to it while I'm walking around the house. I'm just sitting around in my house listening to a book which is a little weird, but I just couldn't stop. I listened to the whole thing in two days and I just thought it was really terrific.


I started playing in the red box, Frank Metzner-era of D&D and played every edition up to now. I started in the late 80s, so I didn't live through the early stuff. I was alive, but I wasn't aware of what was going on.


So, it was fascinating to me to read the details behind a lot of stories that I've heard anecdotally or observed myself. I've read some of Shannon Appelcline’s articles and other things here and there, but nothing quite so comprehensive. Certainly nothing with the behind-the-scenes interviews with all the creators, the financial numbers that you had.


So, it was just a terrific book. I've been recommending it to people left and right. Basically, anybody that's interested in D&D or role-playing games, I’m like “You gotta read this book!” So, bravo on writing a really great book.


BR: I can't tell you how much I appreciate your kind words and keep telling people about it because, I look at novelists and I'm like, “You guys can pump out a novel in the year, maybe two years if you really go and take your time” and I'm like “It was five years.” And people are like, “So give us a sequel now,” and I’m like, “Give me another five years!”


SR: Yeah. Well, we'll get to that.


I know you interviewed lots and lots of people for this book, but you had a fairly focused mission, which was about the rise and fall of D&D as a brand, and ultimately the sale of the company to Wizards of the Coast in 1997.


Are there some stories from the book that you loved that didn't make the final edit because you were trying to keep on focus? Any like real gems where you're like, “Gosh, I really wanted to put this in, but it

just didn't fit”?


BR: The short answer is no. I basically put all the good stuff in there.


I guess I wrote 30,000 words on 3.0 or something like that. And that just went beyond the purview of the book. It was cut because it really didn't fit. I guess that is kind of what you're asking.


It was cut because it didn't fit the narrow mission of TSR, but I'm sure that’ll see the print sometime somewhere. And if you're really interested, if you Google “3rd Edition…” I did a seminar at Gen Con on 3rd Edition. I put it on my podcast. I think it's also on YouTube in some form, so if you poke around you can find me at least talking about that for an hour.


SR: I'll take a look for that and hopefully that will appear in a book form. I think you've told the history of 1st and 2nd Edition in a very complete form, but the acquisition by WOTC, the creation of the OGL in the first place, the explosion of D20-based products in that era and then ultimately the decision by WOTC to publish 4th Edition and that whole saga and then the spinoff creation of Pathfinder, kind of as a result of that, there's a book in that too.


When are you going to give us the next installment? I hope that's in the cards.


BR: I'm just going to keep writing. I couldn't tell you when it's going to be done. I'm just going to tell you I keep talking to people, I’m still interview people, still writing and it'll be done when it's done.

It's a little bit harder because there's no natural end point and I do feel a little lost at sea because I had the clarifying question of why did TSR fail? last time, and this time it feels more like, well, “I'm just going to keep going.” And that can be satisfying and I can still get good stuff out of it, but it feels a little less like I have a knife to clarify things.


SR: Yeah, I can see that. I mean, there's WOTC being sold to Hasbro, but the then there's so much that happens since that acquisition that it's hard to see a clear dividing line. Well, regardless of what it is, I hope to see it.


What kind of response have you had from people from the TSR-era? Either people that you interviewed or people that you didn't, and have you ever heard, or did you ever get to speak with Lorraine Williams?


BR: Joe Manganiello did.


So, one day I'm just eating dinner with my two-year-old and my wife. My phone rings. I'm like, “California number? OK, I'm just going to do it. I don't know why, but I'm going to answer the phone.”

And the voice says to me, “Hey, Mr. Riggs. How was school today?”


I'm like, “Who is this?”


“This is Joe Manganiello calling.”


Good Lord, Joe Manganiello is calling me during dinner? This is weird, but very, very flattering.

And he was calling because he was like, “Hey, I'm interviewing Lorraine Williams on Friday. If you could ask her one question, what would it be?”


And I was like, “How about I send you 3 pages worth of stuff?”


I'm never going to interview her. If I did, I don't know what I would do with it. He's working on his D&D documentary which I'm assuming is coming out this year. So, there's no point in me holding anything back and being proprietary or anything like that. I just sent them everything I had, and I have no idea what she answered, what she didn't, really what she said. To find out you will have to go and see Joe Manganiello's D&D documentary, so everybody go see Joe!


SR: I'm sure I will when it comes out!


BR: But the response from the TSR staff has been pretty universally positive. It was a point of extreme dread for me because here I am writing about this thing as an expert. I was 12 when this was going on, you know? I didn't go to Lake Geneva in the 1990s. I didn't work there.


Apparently, Lorraine Williams is really tall, which I had no idea about. And it was Lisa Stevens of Paizo, who one day is talking. And she's like, “Oh, Lorraine Williams is really tall.”


“She’s really tall?”


“Yeah, she's really tall and I'm really tall.”


I’m like, “You're really tall?” I had no idea.


And so, you know, it's little things like that that I always worried about. But either they're all very nice, or it seems like I did a good job capturing what they wanted to be told about their time working there.

SR: Yeah, that's great. That's got to be what you want to hear. I'm sure that telling a story of that type, about people who are still alive and still out there making games, many of them. You want to get it right. To get that feedback's probably very validating.


BR: Oh yeah.


SR: Are there any other projects that you're working on besides maybe this hypothetical future second round of history-of-D&D book? Any other projects or books that you're working on that you want to talk about?


BR: I'm working on a young adult horror novel, but nothing to say there right now, so I will just say if you have not purchased Slaying the Dragon, please go purchase it or take it out from the library or borrow it from a friend.


Just don't illegally download it online.


Because, as Shannon said it is an amazing piece of work after five years.


SR: Yeah, yeah.


BR: So, if you thought this was interesting, go read the book!


SR: Where can folks find your work? Obviously, they can find your book at any bookstore, but your other work?


BR: I highly recommend right now friending me on Facebook. I'm Ben Riggs on Facebook.


There's a gay choir master in Colorado who's Ben Riggs and I’m not him. There’s an Australian wine maker, Ben Riggs, and I'm not him.


Find the role-playing-game Ben Riggs on Facebook and I highly recommend friending me because gosh, the people and things that pop into the comments on my posts… I'm not bragging about my posts, but just the people who comment and the things they say boggle my mind to this day. In an Internet full of darkness and dirty alleys it really stands out.


I say sometimes it's the best thing on the Internet, and I don't even know if I'm joking.


SR: Yeah. Most people that are into tabletop role-playing games generally are most of the time pretty good people, pretty interesting people that are pretty passionate about the hobby.


Sometimes you get some bad apples and people with crazy hot takes that should just go back to the holes that they came out of, but for the most part most people in the in the community are pretty positive and pretty welcoming so that doesn't surprise me too much.


Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It has been a real pleasure to get to chat with you.


BR: Thank you. I'm sure you have better weather than I do, so enjoy it!

 

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This concludes the interview with Ben Riggs. Stay tuned to the GM Cellar YouTube channel for clips from the interview and our reactions.


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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