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by Mike on 3 July 2023
In January 2023 we saw the biggest up-ending we've seen for the RPG hobby. After 23 years, Wizards of the Coast attempted to de-authorize the Open Gaming License, shaking third party publishers of D&D and others who used the Open Gaming License for their own end. The backlash was the biggest I've seen in this hobby.
Such an event brings up many questions about D&D and RPGs in general. We really don't know what the future holds for the companies who publish our favorite RPGs and the directions they want to take them. Even those currently working at the company can't predict what decisions others may make in the future. Unlike an online video game, however, how RPG companies change doesn't affect the RPG products we have right now. Mostly.
Today we're going to look at what GMs can do to ensure our own handle on the tabletop RPG hobby stays resilient to changes in TTRPG companies and the industry overall.
Physical books are incredibly resilient compared to digital products. Even if you have all of your RPG material in PDFs, formats change, systems break down, drives go bad, shit happens, and those files can get lost. Books, however, can survive a whole lot. Their medium and their media are the same. There's no software. It's just the book. The oldest D&D books still survive today and, with care, there's no reason your favorite RPG books can't survive the rest of your life.
Also, thousands to millions of these books have been produced over the years. Unless your favorite RPG is very niche, you can likely buy a second-hand copy if yours gets destroyed in a flood.
The first step to keeping your RPGs resilient? Trust physical books.
I know we love our online tools. It's been extremely hard to get even my own players to try pencil and paper again after the ease of D&D Beyond, but we can't trust D&D Beyond like we can trust pencils and paper. It was years before D&D Beyond existed and we still managed to play D&D 5e. You can do it. Your players can do it.
Even if you still want to use online tools to help with character creation, encounter building, and what-not — be ready with a backup plan. What happens if you decide you don't want to use D&D Beyond anymore? Can you still play? Are your players ready to play? Export and print those character sheets.
We don't have to avoid digital tools. We need to be ready to switch when these tools change or disappear.
Books and pencils have been around for 5,000 years. The d20 has been around for 2,000 years. That's resilience.
Any money you spend on an online service isn't buying anything, it's renting. We've seen high profile online services terminate their services, leaving those who spent money on them with nothing. Every book you buy on D&D Beyond or Roll 20 isn't ownership, it's a rental. You're leasing that book as long as that service decides to keep it up. This is the part of the license agreements we tend to skip over but it's a big one. If you can't hold it in your hand (or download it to a thumb drive), you don't really own it.
It's fine to use services like these. Just don't pretend you own anything when whoever runs the company changes their mind.
As digital products go, PDFs are pretty resilient. If you can get your RPG products in PDF, you own it. Don't trust a server-side library to hold it forever and don't trust your computer not to explode.
Back up your stuff.
I know, it's like flossing three times a day, but seriously, back up your stuff. Set up a schedule. Follow the 3-2-1 backup strategy: have three backups, two local copies (maybe one in the cloud and one on your local machine), and one off-site copy. Update and rotate your off-line USB disk every 6 months and keep it somewhere safe and away from your other computing equipment. Set up a calendar event and follow through when the time comes.
Back up your digital products to your local computer, your cloud service, and an offline USB disk every six months.
For online play, we GMs often rely on a digital stack of software. Maybe it's D&D Beyond and Foundry. Maybe it's Roll 20. Maybe it's Notion and Discord and Owlbear Rodeo.
Whatever online stack you use, be ready to find replacements. Sit for a moment and think about each piece of software you use in your online stack and ask what you'd use instead. If it's hard to find one, you're stack is fragile. If you have a solid replacement for every component in your software stack, you're pretty good.
Even if you've spent a lot of money on one platform, you may need to move anyway. Be ready and remember, you're just renting.
There may come a time when, for any number of reasons, it's time to move to another RPG. Which one would you choose? Which ones would you try out? Why not give them a quick try between campaigns? The more you're not bound to any one RPG, the stronger your relationship with the hobby overall. Maybe you'll have a handful of RPGs you're happy to fall back on when the timing is right.
Think up list of alternative RPGs and run one-shot games. Strengthen your connection with the whole RPG hobby.
Our always-online digital world makes it easier than ever to play RPGs but comes with fragility. The more bound you are to any one online service, one owned by a big company, the more you're at the whim of that company and the chaos of digital loss. Books are resilient. Pencils, paper, and dice are resilient. The files you can hold on your own local systems are resilient. Online tools are fantastic, but they can't be trusted to serve you forever.
Be ready. Be resilient.
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