RPGs on Kickstarter in 2020: 5e Rises; Pathfinder Falls; the OSR Simmers

Despite the ravages of 2020, the RPG industry’s presence on Kickstarter remains strong. We take a look at the most-backed RPG projects on Kickstarter in 2020 and take a look at how the year shaped up on the crowdfunding platform: with the continued rise of the 5e Open Gaming License, the near-disappearance of Pathfinder, the surprise Indie hits of the year, and Old School Revival revival that looks ready to bloom.

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A Note on Scope

We have focused our attention on projects that saw the support of 2000 or more backers by the time the project completed. Of course, a huge number of projects funded in 2020 had fewer backers, and we’ve mentioned some when relevant. You can see our full list of projects with 2000+ backers here.

We choose backers rather than funds raised because, in our opinion, this is a better measure of success: funding can vary wildly depending on the type of project, with some offering simple books or PDFs, while others offer a range of supplements including miniatures, card decks, GM screens and more. Focusing on the number of backers lets us concentrate on how many people have been interested in a project to back it rather than how much they were willing to spend.

As with our weekly crowdfunding section, we have ignored projects for dice and miniatures. In this case, we have also not focused on projects that we sometimes cover such as maps, card decks and other accessories. The range of accessories is obviously enormous, swamping the games themselves — and the games are what we’re most interested in.

Top Projects on Kickstarter in 2020

Of the 49 projects which made our list, the 10 most-backed projects were:

ProjectCreatorRaisedBackers
1Grim Hollow: The Players GuideGhostfire Gaming$741,6859,138
2More Magic Items for 5eGriffin Macaulay$663,1318,495
3Thirsty Sword LesbiansEvil Hat Games$298,5688,152
4Twilight: 2000Fria Ligan$651,765*8,073
5Creatures: Complete Monster CompendiumJim Searcy$531,1727,587
6Menagerie of MagicAdam O’Brien$344,550*7,370
7Heckna!Hit Point Press$653,9706,661
8WanderhomeJay Dragon$306,5116,658
9Tome of Beasts 2Kobold Press$413,0216,524
10Stargate SG-1 Roleplaying GameWyvern Gaming$426,8066,415
* converted to USD

Dungeons & Dragons Increasingly Dominates

Product image for Griffon's Saddlebag's More Magic Items for 5e, showing books & card boxes
Griffon’s Saddlebag’s More Magic Items for 5e by Griffin Macauley was the second-most backed RPG project on Kickstarter

Not surprisingly, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (“5e”) has dominated Kickstarter tabletop RPG projects this year. As well as a 5e project coming number 1 (Grim Hollow: The Players Guide), 7 out of the top 10 are 5e, as were more than half of the projects with 2,000+ backers.

Four of these projects are standalone RPGs. This is noteworthy since, despite the ubiquity of 3rd Edition Open Game License (OGL) standalone RPGs in the early to mid-2000s, third-party publishers have been wary of using the 5e OGL to create their own RPGs until recently.

No doubt this is due to the 3e crash in the mid-2000s, which was followed by a much stricter OGL for 4e, which discouraged this kind of use. This made most companies revert to creating their own systems, or launching 3e OGL fantasy games to compete with 4e, such as Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine (“AGE”), Pelgrane Press’s 13th Age, Troll Lord’s Castles & Crusades and, of course, the king of 3e spin-offs, Paizo’s Pathfinder.

As a growing sign of confidence in 5e, two of these new RPGs are licensed properties: Stargate SG-1 and Hellboy.

Notably, all of these new standalone games are science fiction: developers who have focused on fantasy settings have instead produced supplements for Dungeons & Dragons itself.

Of the remaining 24 5e projects, twelve are campaigns or campaign settings, six are bestiaries, four are item compendiums and two are rules supplements. The bulk of these projects seem very generic, though usually well-produced, with a focus on high-quality artwork and professional layouts. There are more diverse projects that saw fewer backers, but the drive at the top seems to be focused on producing more of the same rather than innovating.

One especially interesting 5e project from 2020 was the Afro-fantasy Wagadu Chronicles (not listed as it is technically a video game project). This is actually an MMO, but launched with a freely downloadable campaign setting for 5e. That Kickstarter projects are starting to see 5e rules supplements as marketing tools rather than an end in themselves again reinforces the ubiquity of the system.

The question at the back of our minds is to what extent the rise of the 5e OGL will end up mirroring the 3rd edition boom and bust. The glut of 3e materials that were released by third-party publishers in the 2000s led to a massive collapse in the industry and shuttered many publishers, distributors and retailers.

The current boom is different in one crucial respect: the bulk of the risk is being passed onto the consumer, with relatively few companies in the middle of the chain who might end up left with unwanted stock. We are optimistic that it will cause fewer problems, beyond some people’s bookshelves collapsing.

The Decline of Pathfinder Compatibility

No Pathfinder project launched in 2020 had more than 2,000 backers, with one very notable exception. Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is a video game and a sequel to the previous Pathfinder video game Kingmaker. With 35,000 backers and raising over $2 million, it was far more successful than any tabletop RPG project to launch in 2020. Notably, it is based on the ruleset of Pathfinder first edition.

Cover art from Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, showing a party of demonic and celestial characters facing off against one another
Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, by Owlcat Games was the only Pathfinder project to hit more than 2,000 backers, with over 35,000 supporters for the video game sequel to Kingmaker

It wasn’t that long ago that a great many projects designed for 5e would also be compatible with Pathfinder. With the launch of Pathfinder Second Edition in 2019, this dropped off dramatically. Based on the performance of Pathfinder projects in 2020, we would not be at all surprised if the most successful Pathfinder-related Kickstarter project in 2021 is its adaptation to Savage Worlds, which has just launched.

Similarly, the only projects for Starfinder, Pathfinder’s space-fantasy sister, were almost all for miniatures and floorplans with Starfinder statistics, and none had more than 500 backers.

Paizo continues to actively support both Pathfinder and Starfinder via traditional distribution and their own subscription models, and they appear to sell well. But Pathfinder is no longer the challenger to D&D that it appeared to be in the early 2010s, and this is clear in its near-disappearance from Kickstarter.

Indie Games Stand Strong

Indie games by no means dominate this list, but there are a number of notable exceptions. This includes two of the top 10, showing that self-published projects using original systems and unconventional settings and themes can make a significant impact.

A line-up of queer women swordfighters from Thirsty Sword Lesbians
Evil Hat’s gloriously queer Thirsty Sword Lesbians was the most popular non-5e project in 2020

The third-biggest project of 2020 was Thirsty Sword Lesbians, an explicitly queer RPG about swashbuckling and romance. This ended up being publisher Evil Hat’s most successful project since launching Fate Core in 2012. Based on the influential Apocalypse World, it is actually one of two “Powered by the Apocalypse” projects on the 2000+ list, alongside Magpie Games’ Urban Shadows Second Edition.

Apocalypse World’s DNA can also be traced in the pastoral fantasy RPG Wanderhome, which was the 8th most successful game of 2020. Jay Dragon’s follow up to 2019’s Sleepaway, is based on “No Dice, No Masters” system developed by Avery Alder in the game Dream Askew — itself a hack of Apocalypse World.

“No Dice, No Masters” also formed the basis of Jack Harrison’s Orbital, which was Jack’s second successful campaign of the year, following on from Artefact — a contemplative solitaire game in which you play out the existence of a magical item over the millennia as it is passed from person to adventure.

Another popular system for indie RPGs has been the one developed by John Harper and Sean Nittner in Blades in the Dark. A total of 8 “Forged in the Dark” projects were launched in 2020, although only Erik Bernhardt’s Castlevania-inspired vampire hunting RPG, Brinkwood, had more than 2,000 backers.

Given the predilection of indie designers to hack existing games, it will be interesting to see how influential survival horror treasure hunter RPG Trophy, turns out to be in future years. Shortly after the project launched at the start of 2020, a total of five other “Rooted in Trophy” projects also launched. Since then, there has only been one other (unsuccessful) project using the Trophy system. It will be interesting to see if this system gains traction once the book hits retail and the game enjoys a wider audience.

OSR Bubbling Under

Only three explicitly Old School Revival (OSR) projects enjoyed more than 2,000 backers in 2020: Advanced Fantasy (an Old School Essentials supplement), Torchbearer Second Edition, and Worlds Without Number (the fantasy follow up to Kevin Crawford’s sci-fi Stars Without Number). This belies the level of activity brimming just below the surface; towards the end of 2020, our crowdfunding section was regularly dominated by increasingly weird and wonderful OSR projects. 

A particular one to watch is Mörk Borg, which won a slew of awards and accolades last year. This system was supported by 6 Kickstarter projects in 2020, 5 of which were for third party publications. The sixth was run by Mörk Borg’s publisher, The Stockholm Kartell, and their January 2021 campaign Heretic has nearly 3,000 backers at the time of writing. We expect to see many more Mörk Borg projects this year, and it’ll be interesting to see how many make our 2021 list.

Demonic figures silhouetted against a yellow moon
Putrescence Regnant by Exalted Funeral is a Mörk Borg adventure module and vinyl record, part of a wave of RPG+vinyl projects coming in recent years

One third-party Mörk Borg project that didn’t quite make our 2020 list, with 1,949 backers, was Putrescence Regnant, an adventure module and vinyl LP. The idea of combining a supplement for an RPG inspired by death metal with an actual death metal album is a fairly obvious one in retrospect, and this isn’t the only one: Ancient Undead Spider Wizard also came out in 2020, in this case, an LP accompanying a module for The Black Hack (also OSR). Other games like The Wretched Second Printing offered an EP as an add-on. We might see this trend of music/RPG combos continue into 2021.

World of Darkness Promising Much

Things were fairly quiet in 2020 with regard to the World of Darkness IP and roleplaying. Only two Kickstarter RPG projects launched: Cults of the Blood Gods for Vampire: the Masquerade and Technocracy Revisited for Mage 20. Both are by Onyx Path, which also ran a number of projects for its own Chronicles of Darkness, an offshoot of the brand, set in the similar but distinct “new” World of Darkness setting created in 2004.

It is notable however that this year saw three Vampire: the Masquerade board and card game adaptations launch on Kickstarter, all of which were extremely successful: Chapters, Vendetta and Rivals. The latter is to be published by Renegade Games Studios and it was the development of that game which apparently led to them winning the license to publish the whole World of Darkness RPG line going forward.

Art from "Vampire The Masquerade — Rivals" showing a blood-covered vampire gazing blindly up toward the sky
Vampire: the Masquerade — Rivals by Renegade Game Studios was one of three World of Darkness card and board games Kickstarted in 2020, joining a long list of adaptations

This means that a total of five board and card games with the Vampire: the Masquerade license has now been launched on Kickstarter in 2019 and 2020, none of which have actually been published so far.

2021 will be a real proving ground for the World of Darkness brand, with so many tabletop and video games slated to be released this year, not least of all the much-anticipated Vampire: the Masquerade Bloodlines 2. Whether the number of tabletop games continues to grow in the way it has in 2020 remains to be seen.

Publisher Trends

Thirsty Sword Lesbians is the most successful campaign to come from a well-established publisher, in this case Evil Hat, though it is clear that Ghostfire Gaming, the publishers of the number 1, Grim Hollow: the Players Guide are establishing a name for themselves.

Hit Point Press has consolidated the success of 2019’s Humblewood with two projects: their second Deck of Animated Spells project (which, with nearly 10,000 backers and raising $1.3m, was the most successful TTRPG project of 2020 — excluded from our list as it’s an accessory, rather than new RPG material), and Heckna, a campaign setting.

Both Kobold Press and Onyx Path chalked up 3 projects in 2020 with 2,000 or more backers, with only Kobold managing to break into the Top 10. These were Kobold’s only projects, while Onyx Path ran a total of 8 successful projects on Kickstarter in 2020, most of which were significantly less successful. Both these companies have built their business model largely around Kickstarter.

The only other publisher to have more than one project reach the 2000+ backers list is Hunters Entertainment. On the other hand, Free League (aka. Fria Ligan) had a big hit with Twilight 2000, also launched two successful non-RPG projects in the form of the Tales from the Loop board game and Simon Stålenhag’s latest art book, The Labyrinth (which may yet go on to be developed into an RPG, if Tales from the Loop and Things from the Flood are anything to go by). 

A spread of game components from "Twilight 2000" including books, cards, maps, dice, a character sheet, and the game box
Twilight: 2000 is a revival of the classic RPG, and one of several successful crowdfunding projects from Free League

Hunters and Free League, while much newer companies than Kobold and Onyx Path, don’t seem to be set to build their business around crowdfunding. Free League increasingly relies on the more traditional publishing model and Hunters similarly are expanding their Kids on Bikes range via this method.

This is similar to Monte Cook Games, another company which grew out of Kickstarter, who only had two Kickstarter campaigns this year. Notably, their most successful campaign this year, Ptolus, is another 5e project, while their only Cypher System project this year, Heroes of the Cypher System, had just under 1,700 backers.

One company which has shifted to focus more on Kickstarter in 2020 was EN Publishing. 7 of its 18 Kickstarter projects were launched in 2020, and it appears set to continue this trend in 2021. With the exception of Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters, however, these are much smaller projects akin, more like the material they have previously used Patreon to fund.

Conclusion

Although this is the first year we’ve looked at Kickstarter trends in quite this much detail, 2020 does seem to have been a boom year for RPG crowdfunding, despite the drop-off in the early days of the pandemic.

Grim Hollow: The Player’s Guide is by our reckoning the 7th biggest RPG Kickstarter project since the platform launched in 2009, and while three of those larger projects were launched in 2019, 2020 does appear to have had more highly successful projects overall.

This growth seems to have been largely based on the continued success of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, with a number of companies being set up to produce supplementary material for that system over the last couple of years. To an extent, this seems to have been at the expense of other systems, with Pathfinder-compatible projects all-but disappearing.

To what extent the global pandemic has affected RPGs on Kickstarter is hard to measure. When Europe and the US began tightening their quarantine policies, many projects were delayed, but this does not appear to have affected the industry much over the course of the year as a whole.

The play-by-text-message game Alice is Missing is one project which hit the lockdown zeitgeist, although it was in development long before its timeliness was clear. Despite the success of Thousand Year Old Vampire we’ve seen at the retail level, we did not see a surge of solitaire RPGs in the 2000+ list, with the exception of Artefact. In fact, Artefact launched in February before most countries were in lockdown. The effects of this period are more likely to be seen over a much longer term, in 2021 and beyond.

Looking forward, the most interesting trend we will be looking out for in 2021 is how the latest “Old School Revival revival” is likely to continue, with games such as Mörk Borg and Troika capturing people’s imagination. This will also be the third year that Kickstarter has run the ZineQuest promotion, and we will be interested to see what comes out of that initiative as it matures.

This update was made possible by Keenan Collett, and the rest of our Patreon supporters.

6 Comments on "RPGs on Kickstarter in 2020: 5e Rises; Pathfinder Falls; the OSR Simmers"


  1. The OSR as well as the decline of Pathfinder shows that people are looking for less and less crunch. Fewer rules means more freedom. Even Pathfinder tried to simplify slightly with their 3 action system in P2.
    Easy to learn systems also provide less of a barrier to people who are new to TTRPG’s. I start off all of my new players with Basic Fantasy. It’s a simple game and since everything is free new players don’t have to invest a penny before they know whether or not they’ll enjoy RPG’s

    Reply

    1. I think that’s part of it, definitely. But I also think that the current trend towards treating OSR books as pieces of art and leaning towards more weird subject matter than the rather generic fantasy offered by Pathfinder is also capturing the imagination of both OSR creators and consumers alike.

      Reply

  2. I will not call torchbearer an OSR game.

    OSR is not mentioned anywhere in the kickstarter and it does not use a d20 or D&D related system.

    It uses the spoke and wheels system from Burning Wheels which uses dice pool, a very non D&D mechanic.

    Reply

    1. I agree that Torchbearer being listed as an OSR is debatable, but I think it’s wrong to say that an OSR has to be a retroclone. Torchbearer in intent is an ode to an older style of roleplaying, so I listed it as such. Similarly, TROIKA! is frequently cited as an OSR despite it being based on Fighting Fantasy.

      But honestly, labels such as “indie” abs “OSR” are pretty arbitrary. Torchbearer certainly lies on the periphery of both. If we’d had much to say about the 2nd edition we might have listed it in its own category but it’s success in 2020 in and of itself isn’t indicative of anything in particular so there wasn’t much to say about it.

      Reply

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