2009 was a maturing year for RPGs. Traditional pen-and-paper roleplaying games are a tough sell for the consumer’s entertainment dollar. Still, it’s clear that tabletop RPGs live on, as companies continue to publish and fans continue to buy and play. Is D&D 4th Edition as big as 3.5 was? Does it matter? WOTC seems to make the most of the brand, while other old favorites also show signs of renewed life (Traveller, Warhammer Fantasy, World of Darkness, even Metamorphosis Alpha) and licensed games work to attract new players (Dr. Who, The Looking Glass Wars, Dragon Age, A Song of Ice and Fire). Meanwhile, roleplaying has clearly earned a special place in our cultural heritage when even children’s television teaches LARPing.

Whether supporting these trends, or standing out from them, here is our pick of the top 10 stories for RPGs in 2009:

10. Rebellion Acquisitions

The Rebellion company demonstrated the enduring interest in pen-and-paper games, even among computer game publishers, with its purchases of both Mongoose Publishing and Cubicle 7 Entertainment. Not simply a matter of consolidation, Rebellion’s support has enabled these two companies to pursue new business opportunities and bring new products to market. Mongoose is planning another two setting lines for the Traveller game, a revised Runquest II with three series of setting books, and living Traveller and Glorantha campaigns. Cubicle 7 finally released Dr. Who: Adventures in Time and Space. The company also worked to become a publication hub and distribution conduit for RPG developers in the small press market, announcing partnerships with Boxninja, Postmortem Studios, Adamant Entertainment, Triple Ace Games, and John Wick.

9. Professional Advice for Gamers

Many gamers have dreamed of turning their hobby in to a career, or at least a profitable side business. Early in 2009, Matthew Sprange claimed that it’s possible to “find glory and riches while working with roleplaying games.” Apparently, the secrets were all revealed in his book, I Am Mongoose, And So Can You!—a $30 best seller at DriveThruRPG. Later in the year, Gamer Lifestyle launched a 5 month coaching program designed to help subscribers “create a steady, reliable income” from professional work in the RPG industry—certainly a more reasonable claim, but at a cost of $447. Another option, professional author and game designer Jess Hartley’s book of practical advice, Conventions for the Aspiring Game Professional, $1.99.


While FATE has actually existed as a generic roleplaying system since at least 2003, the influence of its innovative mechanics blossomed this past year. Two new FATE-based science fiction games launched in 2009, Starblazer Adventures for pulp-oriented play, and Diaspora for hard sci-fi. Aspects, a powerful and flexible FATE tool for describing characters, inspired a wide range of other games, including both professionally published books and homebrew designs. Chronica Feudalis borrows from FATE for a game set in medieval Europe and Houses of the Blooded incorporates Aspects for a high-fantasy game of romance and revenge.

7. Roleplaying’s Cultural Influence

Once upon a time, roleplaying games in general, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, were viewed with a certain disdain—or worse yet, fear—by much of society. Now, their influence is celebrated. During 2009, we reported on a number of roleplaying references in music, literature, and film. There was a D&D opera. We read about the benefits of playing D&D for one’s career. 2009 also brought to our attention The Play Generated Map and Document Archive (PlaGMaDA), whose mission is to archive home-made maps, notes, sketches, player hand-outs, character sheets, illustrations, and other materials from roleplaying games, and preserve them for study by future academics. The passing of Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson was recognized with sadness. And a statue of the late Gary Gygax is being planned for his hometown.

6. Dungeons & Dragons Branded Products

Hasbro has become as much a branding and licensing machine as a toy and game company, and that trend has not escaped Dungeons & Dragons. The best of these deals was probably the D&D soda. But there were also D&D sneakers and a D&D slot machine. Within the company, Wizards of the Coast announced Dungeons & Dragons Heroscape. No new D&D movie, yet.

5. GeekDo

BoardGameGeek expanded in to RPGs and renamed itself GeekDo. Yes, there are a number of other established places online for roleplayers to meet and discuss their games, but GeekDo’s database structure is an unmatched platform for recording games played, publishing reviews, sharing fan-created material, documenting collections, and many other uses that gamers are still figuring out. There’s a lot of potential, too, in the reach of GeekDo. In 2009 the site received over 11 million unique visitors.

4. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition

New versions of established games always stir up a bit of controversy, and the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was no exception. Of course, there was the usual debate among the game’s fans about whether a revision was necessary. In this case, however, Fantasy Flight Games’ unique approach—incorporating a range of custom components such as special dice, character sheets, stance tokens, condition cards, and career cards—prompted a lot of discussion even among those who have never played the game. In fact, while many appreciated the attempt by FFG to update the roleplaying experience, others questioned whether the new game should be considered an RPG at all.

3. Electronic Battle Maps

Generally, pen-and-paper RPG fans prefer the social experience of traditional games, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily against using technology. Many were excited in 2009 by the demonstration of a proof-of-concept interactive Dungeons & Dragons battle map using the Microsoft Surface computer. So much so, in fact, that one gamer decided to build his own portable version. As this technology develops, expect to see it back on the list.

2. WOTC Withdraws PDFs

In April, Wizards of the Coast filed suit against eight individuals for illegally distributing electronic copies of the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. At the same time, WOTC also withdrew all of its PDF products from legal online sources, isolating a consumer base increasingly accustomed to purchasing their games in digital form. Customer backlash online was quite strident. With the vast majority of sales coming from printed books, and supplementary revenue online available from D&D Insider, this may have been a perfectly reasonable business decision. But the move did significant damage to the company’s good will and may have been a factor in the next item…

1. D&D Variants

The top story of 2008 was the release of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and the game certainly has continued to do well since then. However, 2009 proved that many gamers were not satisfied with the change. Instead of adopting the latest from WOTC, they hold out for earlier versions of the world’s most popular roleplaying game. Publishers oblige.

The Pathfinder RPG, which uses the Open Game License (OGL) to build on Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, exploded on to the marketplace. Sure, there was a fair bit of hype, but the $50 core book did sell out to distributors even before release. On the first day of Gen Con, Paizo limited sales to six per person when the line began wrapping around the booth. Third party publishers also came out in support of Pathfinder, including Highmoon Games, Open Design, Louis Porter, Rite Publishing, Reaper Miniatures, and Adamant Entertainment.

Not that Pathfinder was the only venue for d20 games. A number of companies continued to publish d20-compatible or D&D-derived material using the OGL. Crafty Games has already seen a lot of success with Fantasy Craft, which received its own third-party support from Fat Dragon Games and Sonic Legends. Goodman Games republished its earlier Dungeons & Dragons products using the “3rd Age” label. Comstar issued a d20 Soap Opera Sourcebook. Highmoon Games produced an Oriental Adventures book.

Old school games, retro-clones of earlier versions of D&D such as Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and Swords & Wizardry, also did well in 2009.