If Wizards of the Coast backs down from their draconian changes to the OGL, it will be because of subscription revenue: “Cancelled D&D Beyond subscriptions forced Hasbro’s hand.”

Subscription revenue grows more rapidly and is more stable than one-off sales to a base of customers. So it’s no surprise that WotC and others in the RPG space want to convert traditional one-off sales to subscriptions, from Patreons for independents to direct subscriptions for larger firms.

One way for major players to generate subscription revenue has been with virtual tabletop (VTT) subscriptions, where gamemasters pay a monthly or yearly fee for a shared online playspace for regular sessions and where players pay to maintain electronic character sheets. I was a Roll 20 subscriber during the pandemic, thanks to its Dungeon World character sheets, and Roll 20 made more money off me than Burning Wheel did when I bought the Dungeon World book. (And, since the Dungeon World text is licensed under the Creative Commons, Roll 20 themselves didn’t even have to pay anything to Burning Wheel.)

Since then, Roll 20, which hosts sessions in over a hundred different RPGs, has even published their own RPG, Burn Bryte, a science-fiction game specially meant to showcase Roll 20 features. The capitalist tendency for any platform owner is to maximize revenue, so here they wanted to remove even the need to pay RPG owners’ royalties (for those where that was required). This is similar to the monopolist practice of Amazon reverse-engineering popular products they sell to OEM and sell under one of their subbrands.

For my campaigns for the “world’s most under-monetized RPG”, I had used D&D Beyond. At that time (2018-19), though, its business model was primarily about selling the 5e core books as easily searchable electronic references, which was great for doing lookups in the heat of the moment, given the sheer size of the 5e ruleset. Since then, D&D Beyond has been purchased by Wizards of the Coast and is focused on generating subscription revenue as well.

In fact, the focus of the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons appears to be on VTT play. Historically, the Player Handbook was “the #1 bestselling, and most profitable RPG product Wizards of the Coast makes year in and year out” (Ryan Dancey interview, 2002). Wizards of the Coast wants to replace its bestseller with sweet, sweet subscription revenue.

With the OGL debacle, is 6e doomed? Probably not. A smaller customer base that pays more per year will still leave Wizards of the Coast even more profitable than it is today. And while some commenters have posited that WotC breached the trust thermocline in the past week, their system is so synonymous with its category than when I do TTRPG surveys I have to say “games like Dungeons & Dragons.” I don’t think a significant share of players are going to switch to competing systems immediately.

5e benefits from the network effect of people who are playing and have played, and that will continue to make WotC RPGs attractive. Players don’t like learning rules. It’s one of the reasons why Monopoly, another property of Hasbro (WotC’s corporate parent), remains the bestselling boardgame: people know (or think they know) how to play it. The mammoth size of the 5e ruleset becomes a feature here—people think other RPGs are similarly complex (almost none are) and don’t want to have to learn another system. And WotC is trying to emphasize that 6e is a logical outgrowth of 5e with minimal rule changes. We’ll see if they can pull that off.

But they’re going to continue to go after subscription revenue, the rest of the industry be damned. Despite amassing a giant hoard for themselves, they will begrudge others even a single cup.

Some Patreons I currently subscribe to, and recommend you consider subscribing to:

  • Vincent Baker, author of Apocalypse World
  • Tony Dowler, illustrator—and creator of “Apocalypse D&D”, which became Dungeon World
  • Zompist, conlanger and world builder.