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Unlocking Role-Play For The Masses

Player tools will unlock TTRPG mass appeal, easing entry, and enhancing the player experience

The Recent Success of D&D

In recent years, the Tabletop Role-Playing Game (TTRPG) industry has experienced a significant surge in player engagement, particularly in the case of the market frontrunner, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). It was reported that, by 2020, D&D had amassed over 50 million players (Forbes). This remarkable growth can be ascribed to various factors, including the advantage of being an early entrant in the market, the impact of network effects, and prevailing social trends. However, it is essential to underscore the emphasis D&D places on player tools, a strategic focus that has been instrumental in its success.

A TTRPG is a genre of game in which participants adopt the roles of characters within an imaginary universe. These players are generally directed by a Game Master (GM), who is responsible for narrating the storyline and setting of the game. The consequences of the players’ decisions and actions are governed by a set of rules and guidelines, often incorporating the rolling of dice to inject a probabilistic element into the game.

TTRPGs were once a niche hobby associated with anti-social behavior and even witchcraft, but have evolved into a popular avenue for self expression. While D&D has opened the door for fantasy fans to participate, new games and IP are emerging that have the potential to appeal to fans of all genres.

Dungeons & Dragons was derived from a medieval wargaming rulebook and is considered one of the first modern TTRPGs. It was created in 1974 and went on to inspire a multitude of other TTRPGs (The Gamer). Over the last five decades, D&D has not only sustained social relevance but has undergone explosive growth in recent years, transforming a once-niche hobbyist game into a cultural phenomenon. Though industry-wide stats are not available, D&D commands over 50% of the total TTRPG market on Roll20, a popular online virtual tabletop platform (Roll20).

Similar to any social game, the success of D&D has been amplified by the positive impacts of network effects. As the player community expands, the likelihood of finding a group to play with increases, and the easier it becomes to find resources and tools to elevate player adoption. A larger audience also encourages more 3rd party content creators to build on top of their world with things like custom made monsters or stories, and encourages 3rd party tooling to allow for easy integration.

Beyond network effects, the brand has also reaped benefits from broader social trends. These include a heightened desire for social connection, a phenomenon intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a surge in the popularity of the fantasy genre, evidenced by the success of television series such as "Game of Thrones" and "The Witcher". These factors and franchises helped D&D grow ~33% in 2020 (Forbes). D&D capitalized on this trend further by entering into mainstream media through podcasts like Critical Role, television shows like Stranger Things, and films such as Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. These representations of the IP have helped to eliminate stigma associated with role-playing games. D&D is among the medium to high end of complexity in TTRPGs and effective tooling has made this game accessible to large quantities of people.

Timeline of Key Events for Recent Growth:

  • Roll20 Released (September 2012): Virtual Table Tops (VTTs) enabling online play
  • Critical Role (March 2015): Popular podcast playing D&D
  • D&D Beyond (August 2017): Enabled digital character sheets/tools
  • COVID (January 2020): Amplified the desire for connection
  • D&D Film (March 2023): 93% audience score positively portraying the IP
  • Baldur's Gate 3 (August 2023): Video game familiarizing new players with mechanics

We believe that one of the key areas allowing for D&D’s explosive growth is the tools they provided to their players to eliminate friction in the onboarding process.

Barriers to Entry for TTRPGs

For a new player, the process of beginning to play a TTRPG can be daunting, and once you have chosen a game, you have a short but overwhelming checklist to work through:

  • Find a group: Typically, you need at least 3 people to play a game
  • Find a Game Master (GM): Someone in your group willing to act as the referee
  • Learn the rules: The rules for most games come in textbooks or large PDFs

While this list is non-exhaustive, these are the largest points of friction and can prohibit players from getting started. D&D has done a great job in removing these barriers for new players:

  • Find a group: D&D provides a store locator for in-person games and a Discord / Facebook Group to help people connect online. Multiple integrations with some of the most popular VTTs also help to easily find a place to play online. Hasbro, owner of the D&D IP, is also in the process of developing their own VTT to further alleviate frustration caused by some of the leading VTTs and provide a better user experience.
  • Find a Game Master: This is the most difficult part of the process given that each GM is required to have a deep understanding of the rules and is responsible for the initial world building for the group. Even after this time spent upfront, GMs are also required to invest time each week to craft the framework for the parts of the story the players will play next. While no tool can alleviate all of this, providing resources for new GMs can help to break this into more manageable pieces. For example, YouTube videos, new player guides and starter kits are all helpful resources for new GMs. After the initial learning phase, D&D provides tools to manage maps and help build encounters, making managing large campaigns easier.
  • Learn the rules: Players also require a moderate understanding of the rules, which can be difficult to grasp as a new player. Once a player chooses a character, they must build and maintain a character sheet throughout the game which requires an understanding of how character traits (race, lineage, background, class, etc) work together. D&D Beyond introduced a digital character sheet which automates this character management. This drastically reduces the amount of effort required from the players, and the amount of handholding for the GMs.

The Increasing Relevance of Tools

It is important to note that tools are not going to be the key driver of success for any TTRPG. The core rules, genre, and community will always play a larger role in driving its initial success. However, tools eliminate friction, improve the player experience and are crucial to drive adoption to a broader audience. While these tools may be less relevant for seasoned TTRPG players, they can still help ease the burden of exploring new games.

These tools are progressively gaining popularity and becoming integral aspects of TTRPG players' lives. This trend holds crucial significance for future games to consider, particularly as the digitally native generation grows to constitute a larger segment of the player base. While tools may not be mandatory, switching to games without well-crafted tools will become increasingly frustrating. Looking at the Google search chart below shows the evolution of interest in D&D 5E (the most current version of D&D), D&D Beyond (Character sheet and tool management), and Roll20 (VTT) over time. The divergence between D&D Beyond and Roll20 suggests that these tools are becoming increasingly used by players even when playing in person.

The Future of TTRPGs and Tools

D&D has established itself as the frontrunner in the TTRPG space through a combination of first mover advantage, capitalizing on social trends, network effects, and player tools but we believe that there is still plenty of room in the market for other major players and IP, especially outside of the classic high-fantasy setting. As the market becomes increasingly crowded and players continue to become accustomed to tools, we believe that they will increasingly act as a differentiator for new and existing players.

The next massive TTRPG will likely be created from existing IP, provide players with proper tooling, and drive users to their platform to generate network effects. The most likely candidate for this in the near-term is Marvel’s TTRPG. This is a massively popular IP with a large following capable of disrupting the market. A focus on tools for Marvel will be increasingly important as D&D has set a high bar for user experience, and eliminating friction will help drive players who are fans of Marvel but new to TTRPGs.

Takeaway: TTRPG tools are not currently the key to making decisions around what game to play, but they do reduce friction in the ecosystem. Reduced friction helps new players enter the market and helps existing players switch between games more seamlessly. We believe there is the potential for a passionate role-player in every world building lore-filled story franchise (Marvel, Game of Thrones, video game IPs, etc) and we want them to have the tools they need to explore this emerging style of play. While there are promising companies in the space, we believe that most TTRPG communities are being underserved, crippling their ability to grow. We are excited to meet and talk to the companies that are looking to solve this problem.

Unlocking Role-Play For The Masses

Player tools will unlock TTRPG mass appeal, easing entry, and enhancing the player experience

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