Off the Grid

Off the Grid
Internet Killed the Tabletop Star

Allen Varney | 17 Mar 2009 08:07
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After 26 years as a professional game designer, I need an electrified wristband with voice recognition so that every time I'd say "Back in my day," it would shock me - zzzzzt! It's the only way to prevent Creeping Fogeyism as I view the moribund remains of my field: tabletop paper-and-dice roleplaying games.

Back in my d- zzzt OW! - in the two decades from the original 1974 publication of Dungeons & Dragons through the 1993 debut of the Magic: The Gathering trading card game, dozens of prominent adventure gaming companies produced hundreds of tabletop RPGs in print runs often exceeding 10,000, dispatched by a dozen major distributors to thousands of specialty retail stores worldwide. The D&D magazine Dragon had a circulation of 125,000. Data on the size of the market was always scarce, but I heard informal back-of-the-rulebook estimates around $100 million.

Today? Not even close:

  • Maybe 1,500 storefronts remain, many of them sickly.
  • Distributors? Aside from a few low-volume operations, North America has basically only ACD, Lion Rampant and, above all, Diamond, in whose immense catalog RPGs are a footnote (often handled through its affiliate, Alliance).
  • Among publishers, Wizards of the Coast still makes ends meet as a Hasbro subsidiary; White Wolf Game Studio persists at the pleasure of its owner, CCP (makers of EVE Online); half a dozen smaller stalwarts soldier on with annual grosses of perhaps $1-3 million each, doing runs of 1,000 to 5,000 copies. For the rest, none can outnumber the ant-hill swarm selling print-on-demand and .PDFs through OneBookShelf, Warehouse 23, Indie Press Revolution and the Indie RPGs Un-Store.
  • Dragon magazine died, succeeded (if not entirely replaced) by Wizards' portal D&D Insider. Dragon's spiritual successor, Kobold Quarterly, is a modest earner. Knights of the Dinner Table apparently remains strong. Small-press gaming magazines flit about like mayflies.

There are bright spots, but overall, this portends decrepitude. The entire tabletop hobby is shrinking and graying, and will eventually join model railroads and rocketry as an obscure, geriatric pursuit. The internet devoured my industry's collective lunch.

Of course, every tabletop fan correctly (if reflexively) says multiplayer online games can't capture the whole roleplaying experience. But these gamers overlook the wider ecosystem of online fiction, forum and wiki games, worldbuilding and mapmaking sites that, in aggregate, scratch the roleplaying itch.

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