clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

D&D’s OGL controversy turbocharges sales of virtually every other tabletop RPG

As fans flee D&D, independent publishers greet them with open arms

Cover art for Pathfinder 2e’s new Advanced Players Guide features a sea serpent. Image: Paizo
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dungeons & Dragons has long been synonymous with role-playing games. Brand awareness has traditionally helped it to the lion’s share of sales, leaving smaller publishers and independent creators to fight over crumbs. All that changed in January when publisher Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of game and toy giant Hasbro, attempted to alter its Open Gaming License (also known as the OGL). The effort backfired spectacularly, and its competitors are now reaping the rewards.

At least one tabletop games publisher, Kobold Press, tells Polygon that its sales quadrupled in January. Goodman Games, on the other hand, said it had its best month of sales since 2003. Nearly every other publisher that responded to our request for data reported at least double the expected sales, with some selling through nearly an entire years’ worth of stock in less than three weeks.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the joke several times over,” Magpie Games co-founder and CEO Mark Diaz Truman wrote Polygon in an email. “Us indie designers have spent the last 20 years trying to get D&D fans to try something different, and Wizards of the Coast gets it done in a month!”

The OGL has been in place for more than two decades. It provides a legal framework by which people have been able to build their own tabletop RPGs alongside D&D. But proposed changes to the OGL instantly created an adversarial relationship between Wizards and its community. Backlash from fans garnered international press, and an organized boycott eventually convinced the toy and games giant to back down.

In the weeks that Hasbro spent publicly flailing, customers spent an extraordinary amount of money investing in its competition. Paizo, publisher of the popular Pathfinder and Starfinder games, reported on Jan. 26 that it had sold through “an 8-month supply” of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. Chaosium, publishers of Call of Cthulhu, likewise said it has sold through months of stock and has multiple new shipments of books on the way from its manufacturing partners.

Digital formats, which D&D has long been reluctant to offer, have also surged in popularity.

“We’ve seen a big digital spike in all of our properties and are receiving a wild amount of interest in every single one of our game systems,” wrote Hunters Entertainment creative director Noxweiler Berf, with the award-winning Alice Is Missing and Ragnarok leading the charge.

Green Ronin (Blue Rose, The Expanse Roleplaying Game) and Free League Publishing (Mörk Borg, The One Ring, Blade Runner: The Roleplaying Game) both told Polygon that their sales more than doubled in January. Evil Hat Productions (Blades in the Dark, FATE) likewise said that sales “nearly doubled our best prior month.”

“Drilling down into January itself,” co-founder Fred Hicks said in an email, “you can see exactly the day [Wizards] faceplanted (my birthday, thanks guys!) and how it elevated every day since.”

Some independent developers are also using the sudden swing in momentum to launch creator-friendly licensing agreements and promotions, attempting to court not just new customers but new game designers suddenly disenfranchised by Hasbro’s attempted rug-pull.

“We did indeed have a big surge [in sales] across the board,” said Chris Birch, the co-founder of Modiphius (Fallout and Dune TTRPGs). “At the same time we launched our own World Builders community content programme supporting creators ‘to become our future competitors’ through a curated, supported, programme offering free marketing, seminars, free art packs and more via [DriveThruRPG]. This had a huge uptake with lots of creators who were previously working on 5e indie projects switching to us.”

The controversy over the OGL also represents the best possible scenario for Zine Quest and Zine Month, two creator-focused events helping to bring tiny, pamphlet-sized TTRPG experiences to life. Both events run through the month of February.