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A Look Back at 2014: Top Stories and Trends from the RPG Scene

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This will most likely be our last "news" post of 2014. We wish all of our readers - and every other gamer - the happiest of holiday seasons, and a glorious New Year. The team will see you back here in 2015.

Yes, it's time for another retrospective...after writing the news for all of 2014, what have we learned about this hobby of ours? What are the top stories in the industry? Where are we all heading? Here are my thoughts (with some additions from RPGG Newscaster Jonas) on what I've seen. In no particular order:

Games! Games! Games!

RPG: Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition)
The Release of D&D 5E and the 40th Anniversary of the Game
The past year was, in many ways, the year of Dungeons & Dragons. 2014 kicked off with quite a bit of discussion of the fortieth anniversary of the game - the initial publication happened sometime in 1974, with the most likely bet being January. Sam summed up many of the activities in this news post (one of our most thumbed ever, showing the broad interest in the game across the Geek). This summer (finally!) saw the release of Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition), to quite a bit of critical acclaim, not to mention what look like huge sales (at least based on its positioning on the Amazon charts). After several years of quiet - and even falling off the bestseller lists - D&D is back on the map. Where on the map it will end up is still unknown, but it's good for the hobby to have its flagship brand active again.

What We Played (or at least bought...probably)
The hobby doesn't have a good way to identify and track the most popular games, unfortunately. The best measure we have (probably) are the fairly opaque ICv2 rankings, which are based on...ummm...research (see the latest here). Still, they've clearly shown the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (1st Edition) on top all year, which also matches online data (see here). Behind it, we have D&D 5E coming on strong and then a myriad of other games, from the well-known Star Wars brand to relative upstarts like Fate Core and Numenera. Behind that is the small-press scene, which also appears to be thriving. All in all, the hobby seems to be in a very good place from a business standpoint.

A Slow Year?
That said, aside from D&D 2014 seemed to be a step back in creativity. After a stunningly good 2013 - from which Numenera and Fate Core dominated the awards, but also seeing impressive debuts from games like 13th Age, Shadowrun (5th Edition), and DramaSystem - 2014 felt like...not a lot, at least from the mainstream RPG world. That's probably more a reflection on the strong 2013 than real weakness, but still...let's hope for a greater diversity of high profile new releases next year!

From Creator to Consumer

RPG Item: Numenera
Kickstarter Peak
Perhaps surprisingly, Kickstarter already seems to have settled into a "new normal" for the hobby. While the number of RPG related projects has increased by over 20% (at least according to Steve Dubya's excellent list), there have been fewer big hits this year than the last (see the top 10 list here). Those few that did "blow up" were all established brands: Deluxe Mage, Paranoia, Paranoia, and the Numenera boxed setNumenera. It's really rather astonishing to see just how many of the top Kickstarters are resurrecting old properties!

Meanwhile, there seems to be increasing backlash against late projects, with highly visible clashes between creators and "investors" for projects like Far West Adventure Game and Alas Vegas. This year also saw the first lawsuit against a Kickstarter creator filed by the US government under a consumer protection argument, and Kickstarter tightened up its terms of use by requiring project creators to be more transparent and attempting to clarify their own lack of responsibility (see here). My guess is we'll continue to see Kickstarter as a marketing tool from established brands, primarily used to reinvigorate lapsed properties - but without the growth we've seen over the past couple of years. I suspect we'll see new creators have more and more difficult times taking advantage of it, though I do believe quality projects will still find it a useful platform.

Periodical: Worlds Without Master
Patreon
Founded in May 2013, Patreon has seen a lot of growth in the past one-and-a-half years. Patreon is a crowdfunding platform for creators who are not working on a single big project, but constantly release smaller chunks - podcasters, bloggers, webcomic writers, artists and, yes, game designers. Unlike with other crowdfunding platforms, patrons are only charged after the creators have actually released something. (Revolutionary concept, isn't it?) While there were already a few early adopters in the first months after the platform went live, the number of RPG related projects on Patreon has multiplied in 2014 and our community can now choose from many dozens of projects, ranging from character art, dungeon maps, scenarios, ambient background tracks, blogs and podcasts, to games and e-zines. This crowdfunding model has established itself as an interesting and viably opportunity for creators to fund their products.
It's impossible to do justice to the variety of creations on record, so we'll just give a small sample and hope that you'll also take a look at our geeklist: Patreon and Other Patronage Projects for RPGs. Check out these and many more cool projects:
- Lizzie Stark is doing a LARP blog, leaving Mundania (Patreon link),
- Quinn Murphy recently published Five Fires, an RPG about hiphop, graffiti and making art (Patreon link),
- Evil Hat is creating Adventures and Worlds for Fate Core (Patreon link),
- Epidiah Ravachol is editing Worlds Without Master, a sword & sorcery fanzine (Patreon link),
- Dyson Logos is creating dungeon maps to die for (Patreon link).
Thanks to RPGG Newscaster Jonas (jasri) for writing this section!

The Rise of Pay-What-You-Want
Spurred partly by the high-profile release of the Fate Core System as a pay-what-you-want product last year, and the introduction of a pay-what-you-want feature on DriveThruRPG/RPGNow, there's been a huge uptick in the number of RPG products released under this model. Whether that's a good choice or not depends on your goals (see this article by Fred Hicks), but it's becoming increasingly popular - Lamentations of the Flame Princess even uses it to sell print products at conventions and launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for No Salvation for Witches this year.

Technology

Transmedia!
There was a lot of talk about IP associated with RPGs making the jump to other media. There are two sets of plans for a D&D movie, and they are still fighting it out in court. Deadlands got tapped for a TV pilot by Xbox...though the production company got shuttered shortly after that announcement. Deadlands will nevertheless be getting its own fiction line next year. Even relative newcomer Achtung! Cthulhu is getting its own movie (see here). It wasn't all forward progress, though: earlier in the year, CCP gave up on putting the World of Darkness online (see here) - fortunately, several other RPG-related games are still in development, including Pathfinder Online and Torment: Tides of Numenera, and others were released this year. To me, the strength of this IP says that although the RPG industry may be niche, it's still hugely influential.

RPG Item: Roll20
The Move Online
Of course, 2014 also saw more and more RPGs move online. We here at RPG Geek have seen a thriving play-by-forum scene for several years (as have many other sites, of course), but Storium, a game system designed especially for asynchronous play online (and a sophisticated website to support it, currently in beta) Kickstarted this year as well. More important is likely the continued rise of videoconferencing services that allow you to more closely simulate a tabletop session online. Roll20 continued its expansion, though Fantasy Grounds: Virtual Tabletop for Pen & Paper Role-Playing Games and others remain popular as well. You can get a sense for how much people are using these platforms from this post, but keep in mind that many RPGs that don't require maps can also be done without these sorts of services.

On the other hand...the integration of digital tools and tabletop games (as played on the tabletop) has been The Next Big Thing for about a decade now, and 2014 saw little if any progress toward making that happen. Two high-profile attempts failed to crack the Kickstarter conundrum by huge margins (Storyscape, which had Robin D. Laws designing for it, and Codename: Morningstar, although that campaign is still ongoing). Meanwhile, the D&D brand canned their digital toolset that was supposed to accompany 5E (that's now Codename: Morningstar). It looks to me like the actual appetite for integration is much smaller than the hopes. Either somebody will find a way to finance an app that changes all our lives and expectations, or we'll be continuing with the same approach for quite a while.

Looking Inward

System: Powered by the Apocalypse
The Indie Movement Begins (?) Convergence
Over the past 15 years, the general state of the industry has been to see consolidation amongst the mainstream games (thanks in part to the OGL) while the indie community proudly focused on honing their mechanics to match a very precise goal, which led to a proliferation of new systems. This past year has seen that trend within the indie community reverse, with a large fraction of the new games building off of two established systems, the Powered by the Apocalypse and Fate Core. While these are, to be sure, highly tunable systems, its nonetheless interesting to see some convergence onto a couple of "accepted" game engines. Is this a fad driven by marketing or a sustainable consolidation? I'll be watching closely in 2015....

The Design Culture
We've certainly seen the "democratization" of RPG design continue. This trend has been building for at least 15 years - with key steps toward opening publishing to the masses including the creation of the Forge website for indie publishers, the release of the OGL letting people play with the big games, the popularization of pdf as a delivery mechanism (vastly decreasing startup costs), and of course the appearance of Kickstarter. Having tracked pdf releases for the past couple of years, this one seemed to have a lot of new names - sometimes focusing on "micro" products like books of lists, sometimes on brand new games, even without crowdfunding. Meanwhile, a culture has grown up around game design - not just in the blog-o-sphere, but also through gaming conventions (especially Metatopia but also including playtesting rooms at many of the big conventions) and efforts like Codename: Morningstar to monetize the distribution of user-created content. It'll be interesting to see how far this process goes and how the industry strikes a balance between big and small.

Series: Designers & Dragons
History
Perhaps it is the 40th anniversary of the hobby, or perhaps it is the graying of all of us players and the inevitable nostalgia that brings, or perhaps it is the re-issue of so many older games via Kickstarter, or perhaps it is just A Thing. But there seemed to be a lot of awareness of the history of the hobby this year. Wizards of the Coast published several articles on their website looking at the history of D&D, Jon Peterson (author of Playing at the World from a couple of years ago) became something of a D&D authority, and most recently the revision of the Designers & Dragons books had a very successful Kickstarter. Personally, I'm hoping that this historical interest grows into more critical awareness of the hobby and the development of the games we play, something that the creation of the academic Analog Game Studies journal (and Peterson's sophisticated analysis) may herald.

Board Game Designer: Aaron Allston
Sad Goodbyes
Forty years as a hobby is a great run, but unfortunately it also means that many of the luminaries of the early days of the RPG scene are passing on to their net adventure. This year we lost (amongst others, I'm sure):
R. A. Montgomery (creator of the Choose Your Own Adventure books - and while you may not think that they are RPGs, they certainly helped popularize the approach; see our post here),
Artist David A. Trampier (see here), a key figure for the first decade of D&D who had mysteriously disappeared from the RPG scene.
Aaron Allston, one of the most influential RPG writers of the 1980s - both within the industry and on me! See here for some more thoughts.
We send those who have lent us their imaginations and given us all so much to enjoy the best.

So...that's our impression of the year behind, and some thoughts on the year ahead. What got you jazzed (or mad) this past year? And what are you looking forward to most in 2015?

Thanks to RPGG Newscaster Jonas (jasri) for contributions to this article!

Have a news tip for us? Please send it along to rpgg-news@googlegroups.com!
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