May 14, 2021

Why the Sword Conquers the Stars

In late 2000, the Dungeons and Dragons movie was released to critical scorn and financial failure. It didn’t even manage to make back it’s relatively meager budget of $33.8 million. A year later, The Phantom Menace released to mixed reviews but was a box office smash, grossing over a billion dollars. Fast forward to today, I was scanning the Q4 game data published by Roll20. Unsurprisingly, D&D 5E reigns supreme there, and it’s not particularly close. 53% of all campaigns on roll20 are D&D. Juxtaposing our movie comparison, Stars Wars (any version) accounts for a paltry 0.72%. Why is it that one of the largest media juggernauts of all time is so thoroughly outclassed in roleplaying popularity?

Granted this data is solely from Roll20, so there’s an outside chance there’s some quirk of that platform that makes fantasy roleplaying games way overrepresented. Maybe space games are much more popular on Fantasy Grounds, Astral Tabletop, or in brick and mortar stores. I don’t personally think this is likely, but I’ll concede it’s possible.

It’s not just Star Wars either. Space games broadly underperform fantasy. D&D’s main fantasy rival Pathfinder has eight times as many campaigns as Starfind, its space themed sister game. There are roughly double the number of campaigns for D&D’s much maligned 4th edition than there are Star Trek Adventures.

Is it because fantasy is having a resurgence? According to a study published on statista.com, In 2018, US sales of adult fantasy and science fiction were 2.96 million copies and 2.68 respectively. Fantasy has a slight edge there, but it’s not 50 times more popular like it is on Roll20. If you look at cinema, four of the five highest grossing films of all time are planet-hopping adventures with heavy space elements. Since the release of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films in the early 2000s fantasy movies have gotten a huge boost, but not so much that fantasy’s popularity has completely overtaken movies like Star Wars.

While D&D hasn’t become the same cultural force as Star Wars and Star Trek, it absolutely dominates tabletop roleplaying. While the marketing machine behind major science fiction franchises keeps them on everyone’s screens, nobody comes close to the marketing resources D&D spends. Wizards of the Coast made $816 million in 2020, and Hasbro, their parent company, has pledged to double their business within the next few years. Star Wars as a property may have the world-conquering might of Disney behind it, but the current Star Wars TTRPGs are made by the decidedly more humble Fantasy Flight Games. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the higher end estimates of their annual revenue is around $30 million. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but companies typically spend between 5-12% on marketing. With some back of the envelope math, even if WOTC is on the lower end of the spectrum, it’s likely their marketing/advertising team has a larger budget than Fantasy Flight’s total revenue.

What advantages does this give D&D? WoTC can recruit brand ambassadors to boost their popularity, partner with well-known streamers to advance the brand, and create a massive feedback loop to keep interest in the product. This imparts Dungeons and Dragons with a certain level of inertia, so when you think of tabletop roleplaying, you think of them. If you’re new to the hobby, it makes D&D seem like the obvious place to start. This has a rising tide effect as it establishes fantasy as the default rpg genre. It’s only natural that people who might like roleplaying but didn’t care for D&D’s rules might logically see if Pathfinder or Warhammer RPG might suit them better. Likewise, people who like D&D and want to get deeper into TTRPGs might seek out new games set in familiar territory.

Another reason fantasy games are so popular is the genre itself is far more ubiquitous than even sci-fi set in space. When you consider the common elements of fantasy (magic, elves, sword fighting), a game like D&D or Pathfinder will likely check most of the boxes. Consider the stylistic and tonal differences between Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, Star Trek, or even something like The Martian or Interstellar. If you proposed starting a new campaign in a space setting with four friends, and odds are no two of them will have the same thing in mind. You could pretty easily adapt D&D or Pathfinder to anything from The Hobbit, to Harry Potter, to Name of the Wind etc.

Perhaps my most subjective theory as to the imbalance is that maybe nobody has gotten space games right yet. Of course, it’s much harder to put your finger on, but for most people D&D feels ‘right.’ The D20 system is so iconic that the image of the twenty sided die has become shorthand for roleplaying itself. Now, I don’t necessarily agree, and I absolutely don’t think D&D does everything right, but I also don’t think four million of Roll20’s eight million users would be playing a game with shoddy mechanics. Sticking with Star Wars, I’ve played the influential West End Games D6 version and Fantasy Flight’s more recent entry, and neither made me feel like I was playing the definitive Star Wars rpg. Ironically, WoTC’s two attempts at a Star Wars game from the 2000s felt the most off to me. Again, I think this is attributable in large part to people having different tastes on what’s important to a space game. If you want to be a daring pilot Star Trek probably won’t work for you, and reciprocally, if you want to seek out strange new cultures expanding your knowledge of the galaxy, Star Wars would fall short. Or maybe you’re more into the logistics of interstellar life so the number crunching of Traveller is more your speed. At least from my perspective, there’s no system that captures most aspects of what people would want to do in space. It’s also very possible you just can’t make a game that fits everyone’s preferences. Galactic swashbuckling and utopian futurism may just be closer to chocolate and ketchup than chocolate and peanut butter.

It’s no secret D&D is having a bit of a moment. Between its prominent role in Stranger Things, the runaway success of Critical Role, and WoTC’s branding/advertising resources, the game is far and away as popular as it’s ever been. There’s a lot of positives to this. The most obvious is that it’s funneling new people into the hobby and deepening the connection veteran players have to TTRPGs, but D&D occupying so much real estate is concerning as well. Although 5E seems to enjoy near universal acceptance, what happens if the eventual sixth edition is widely panned like we saw with fourth? If Roll20s proportions are similar across all panels, people who love TTRPGs have about half of their eggs in one basket. Although WoTC is certainly making D&D a priority, it’s still not a sure bet that their streak of success will continue. This is why it’s critical that while D&D is enjoying this boom period, we as TTRPG fans make sure to expand our horizons and branch out to the universe of different games out there. Even if it’s not space themed games that see the next explosion in popularity, I think it’s important we spread our attention and dollars in such a way that nurtures the industry as a whole to continue to make it worthwhile for smaller companies to keep creating and supporting awesome new systems.

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