2023 Should Have Been D&D’s Best Year, Until It Wasn’t

Although it feels like it can be said every year recently, it’s hard to imagine a better year in terms of its influence than 2023 has been for Dungeons & Dragons. A movie, TV channels, a video game that has dominated the world, and of course a not-insignificant glimpse toward the game’s own future. But for all those highs, they are contrasted in lows that have nearly sundered all of that goodwill in the process.

Even since a combination of the rise of Actual Play and pandemic lockdowns bolstering a humongous surge in Dungeons & Dragons’ popularity, on the surface it’s hard to deny that 2023 has seen the TTRPG’s star ascend somehow even further. Still cresting the wave of Stranger Things’ fourth season making a nearly 50 year old lich one of the most infamous villains on TV (and Hellfire Club t-shirts a regular sight wherever you went), 2023 started strong with the release of Honor Among Thieves, the first big-budget D&D adaptation in 23 years. And while not barnstormer in terms of either critical or box office success, not only was it good enough—a remarkable success in and of itself, considering the cinematic legacy it was seeking to shake off—it’s seemingly only grown in cultural appraisal since its release. Jarnathan memes still go viral every other week, meaning, in spite of it all, somehow the Aarakocra have contemporary cultural cache.

That alone might be a pleasant highlight of D&D’s continued social influence, or perhaps even Wizards of the Coast’s own attempts to bring the game to screens through its dedicated FAST channel last month. But three words above all define D&D’s cultural chokehold this year, and none of them are “Dungeons and Dragons.” They’re Baldur’s Gate 3.

Screenshot: James Whitbrook/Gizmodo, Larian Studios

It is hard to really encapsulate just how unexpected Baldur’s Gate 3‘s dominance this year has been. Sure, we’ve had a couple years of early access testing to know that Larian Studios was onto something blending its choice-driven, tactical RPG expertise with the world of the Forgotten Realms, but when BG3 released this summer it became an immediate hit—not just among typical CRPG fans, not even just among D&D fans at large, but with a mainstream success arguably unlike anything since Stranger Things. It’s met critical and cultural success unlike any other game this year—a lofty sentiment in most years, but in a year as dominated by smash-hit titles as 2023, it speaks volumes that Baldur’s Gate 3 has kept its grip on the minds of millions, like the little mindflayer tadpoles pestering its protagonists. The voice actors behind the game’s main party members have become superstars in their own rights, doing D&D Actual Plays, streaming as their characters, and more. You cannot scroll through social media for too long without hearing that BG3 has been nominated for, or won outright, another Game of the Year award, as it did at the Game Awards last week, or seeing a screenshot of Astarion, or fan art of god’s favorite princess and the most interesting girl in the world, Shadowheart. Baldur’s Gate 3 is everywhere, and it is it that has dragged Dungeons & Dragons along with it to greater highs, not the other way around.

A game as beloved and as exceptional as Baldur’s Gate 3 should’ve made Dungeons & Dragons one of the most influential pop culture forces on the planet in 2023. And in many ways, it did. But try as it might for the TTRPG that inspired it—Hasbro credited, among other things, Baldur’s Gate 3‘s blockbuster success for a 40% increase in Wizards of the Coast’s earnings over 2022 this past financial quarter—not even something as meteoric as Baldur’s Gate 3 could save Dungeons & Dragons from the greed of its owners. That chokehold, almost as pervasive as D&D’s cultural grip, began earlier this year, when io9’s Linda Codega reported extensively in January 2023 on Wizards’ plans to fundamentally overhaul the Open Game License, or OGL: the 23-year-old licensing arrangement that allows creators to use elements of the rulesets and world without direct oversight or contracts with Wizards of the Coast.

Image for article titled 2023 Should Have Been D&D's Best Year, Until It Wasn't

Illustration: Vicky Leta

The backlash was immediate, not just in TTRPG circles but making national news, as details over plans to irrevocably replace the OGL with a far more restrictive document, one that would’ve given Wizards more control over the license’s use, and funnel money directly to the publisher in royalties should a project make over a certain amount, came to light. It was clear that the new license, in the form revealed through months of Codega’s reporting at Gizmodo, would renege on the open, accessible, and royalty-free ideals that had defined the original OGL, in the name of granting Hasbro and Wizards more power over competition and creators.

And in a rare moment, especially in the era of D&D’s current dominance, Wizards of the Coast stumbled. Initial attempts to weather a storm of criticism—coalesced in an online campaign encouraging people to unsubscribe from Wizards’ own digital D&D experience, Beyond—saw the publisher scramble, pulling planned announcements intended to ease concerns about the new license’s ramifications. After an initial apology only led to stronger demands for clear feedback, a week later Wizards offered a compromise: it would consult D&D players directly in a “transparent” feedback process in creating the new license, including a move to bring D&D’s core rules to Creative Commons. Little over another week after that, that remained not enough for players, creators, and other publishers, and Wizards finally admitted defeat in a battle it had started for little reason: the new OGL 2.0 was no more, the original would remain in perpetuity, and more elements of D&D’s base rules would be moved to open licenses.

It was a stunning rout—a self-inflicted wound that burned up a considerable amount of the goodwill Wizards and Hasbro had established over 5th edition’s dominance in the TTRPG space. Such a misfire would define even the most otherwise successful year D&D could have, but instead, the OGL controversy would only really act as a contrasting point in a series of self-inflicted errors for D&D this year. Controversy quickly emerged in the summer over the sourcebook Glory of the Giants’ use of AI-generated artwork, allegedly catching Wizards of the Coast unawares leading to a hasty ban on AI-assisted art and a re-release of the book to remove AI-generated assets. A few months later, the publisher made the unprecedented move to delay the physical release of its Deck of Many Things supplement due to a litany of manufacturing issues, such as warped and damaged cards, pushing back against criticism of the defective releases as indicative of parent company Hasbro’s cost-cutting initiatives.

Image for article titled 2023 Should Have Been D&D's Best Year, Until It Wasn't

Image: Wizards of the Coast

And yet, those initiatives would also be what capped off D&D’s tale of two years. On December 12, weeks before Christmas, Wall Street Journal reported that Hasbro announced layoffs of 1,100 staff across its divisions—roughly a fifth of the company’s workforce. CEO Chris Cocks, who made $9.4 million last year in compensation having joined Hasbro in February 2022, claimed that the move was a “last resort,” and a “lever we must pull to keep Hasbro healthy.” Although Hasbro did not publicly share where cuts were made, citing sympathy for the workers it was laying off weeks before the holidays, in the past few days since the news swaths of D&D Wizards employees across disciplines and levels of seniority confirmed on social media they were included in the layoffs—a division that Hasbro was praising little more than a month-and-a-half ago as a bright spot for the struggling toymaker.

If the OGL controversy in January represented Wizards and Hasbro executives’ hubris in being able to strongarm its titanic grip on the TTRPG industry through the sheer force of D&D’s cultural dominance, then these layoffs are a mirror to how little that financial dominance means when it comes to safeguarding the workers that helped establish that success in the first place. Two tales of corporate greed bookended what should’ve been one of the greatest years for Dungeons & Dragons the game has ever seen—more popular than ever, more accessible than ever, more culturally relevant than ever—and in doing so transformed it into a golden era sullied with dark marks, overshadowed by grim caveats, a reflection that those with the most power in these spaces never really take the lessons they espoused to learn from their mistakes.

The year 2024 will see the dawn of a new era for Dungeons & Dragons, as eyes turn to the next edition of the game and the 50th anniversary of one of the most venerable games in existence. But instead of entering that year on a high—riding on successes unlike anything it’s seen in years—D&D finds itself at a confused crossroads.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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