D&D Envy: The Overcrowded Fantasy Tabletop RPG Market

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Whenever I go to Games and Stuff, a hobby game store in Glen Burnie that I’ve been going to for years for their incredible selection and friendly customer service, I have come to the sobering realization that there’s a problematic impulse amongst RPG writers and publishers that I call “D&D envy”.

Given the massive success of Dungeons & Dragons, especially 5th edition, a lot of publishers are looking to get a piece of the fantasy RPG pie. As a result, there’s a flood of fantasy RPGs on the market, too many for anyone to really fully invest in.

Gotta Do More Than Orcs and Wizards

Pathfinder is the most obvious example. Created in anticipation of the restrictive nature of 4th edition’s licensing, Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG has been extremely successful for players who enjoyed D&D 3.5. But of course, this was a very specific context that it was created in. After the release of 5th edition, Dungeons and Dragons has once again changed the gaming landscape.

But what if you want a different feel? You could try Pelgrane’s 13th Age. Or you could try Numenera, which is slightly differentiated by the fact that it’s science fantasy. You could also try Runequest or Fantasy Age. Burning Wheel? The One Ring?

I’m not going to comment on the quality of any of these games because I haven’t played them, but even if they’re great systems you still have to contend with the juggernaut that is D&D and the sheer brand power it possesses, not to mention player familiarity.

D&D’s influence can be seen throughout all sorts of media. But this cultural recursion means that creating systems around high fantasy tropes is easy to do because such a wealth of knowledge about to handle that kind of setting exists. Adapting the fantasy trappings is simple, as Fantasy Flight Games is going to prove with Realms of Terrinoth (as an aside, this cements the fact that Genesys is clearly meant as an FFG internal IP system first and foremost).

On the horror RPG side, there’s an absolute inability to make a game without Cthulhu. I got my hands on a Gumshoe system RPG called “Fear Itself” which I run Silent Hill campaigns, but nearly every RPG I see has Cthulhu slapped on the cover. There’s games like Final Girl, but if you stroll down any given horror RPG lineup, you’ll find that Cthulhu pops up everywhere. This is also due to the ease of building a system around the Cthulhu Mythos, thanks to Call of Cthulhu.

But it has occurred to me that there are so many settings that are underserved. Why publishers and writers are not taking advantage of huge gaps in the market is beyond me. Maybe that’s why games like Tales from the Loop and Fear Itself stick out to me.

Fitting a Square Peg Into a Round Hole

This also manifests outside of publishers and in homebrew. Everyone wants to convert any given setting into 5E rules, regardless of whether or not it even fits.

I say this because I tried running a Silent Hill campaign in d20 modern, which is a modified 3e, and I came to understand that 3.5’s systems break down when extracting it from the fantasy setting. Classes don’t make much sense in d20 modern, at least in their original form. d20 modern attempts to resolve this by making classes based on ability scores (strong, fast, tough, smart, etc) and then layering an occupation system on top of that. Then you pick from a big ol’ list of skills and feats that lack the refined feel of modern games and things like talent trees.

It was a clumsy mess and I thought of converting it myself. That task of course, as I quickly discovered, was a monumental one. I simply didn’t have the time to devote to updating d20 modern rules to 5e, nor the inclination. I found that through playing Silent Hill in d20 modern that I was throwing out so many rules that I questioned if I should run it on a different system.

That’s when I found Fate Core, ran two sessions of Silent Hill in it, getting over my learning curve of the system. The first time I ran it wasn’t well-received, but I seemed to grasp it the second time around. As of right now, there are some tips for running horror, plus some premade Fate Worlds for horror. But, the Fate Horror Toolkit isn’t due for a while yet. While I love Fate Core and would absolutely love to run Silent Hill in that system once again, I want to see more written about running a horror game before that point.

Then I found Fear Itself, which fit the setting perfectly and gave it the feeling of horror it needed. At the end of the day, different systems have different feels and are good at doing different things.

But, I think that there are a lot of people who only play Dungeons & Dragons due to that being the most popular RPG embedded in the public consciousness. This is understandable, D&D is known even by people who have never picked up a rulebook in their lives. Which is a shame, because there are so many great RPGs beyond Dungeons & Dragons, ones that challenged my conceptions of what roleplaying games were capable of.

Trying to make everything fit into the framework of D&D is a mistake. From both a publisher and homebrew perspective, the idea that everything must be placed within the rules of a system is well intended. After all, rules systems are gameplay’s language and it makes sense that someone coming from a background in D&D will try and use the language they understand.

But, just as the words we can use can limit how we think about concepts, so too does the language of a particular system limit how we approach any given idea in regards to roleplaying. If I had never played anything else, I would believe that RPGs could only work for the very specific experience D&D facilitates, and I would have missed out on quite a lot.