Reading this gaming industry retrospective I ran into a few phrases which confused me.

The d20 bust caused by 3.5e (2003) and the over-saturation of d20 products ran right into the Great Recession.

What's "the d20 bust"? I came into RPGs shortly after 3.5's release, so I can't compare before and after. It seems to me like the d20 System was dominating the conversation for most of that decade, and that doesn't sound very bust-like.

[...] a lot of different publishers seem to be succeeding with a lot of different sorts of games. Pathfinder and Mutants & Masterminds show that post-d20 games can still do well [...]

If you show me the phrase "post-d20 games" on its own, I'd think it was describing games which learned from the d20 System's decade of development and designed new non-d20 games building on that insight. But since Pathfinder and Mutants & Masterminds are both self-evidently games in the d20 System family, I'd clearly be wrong about that. What does it mean to describe these systems as "post-d20 games"?


4 Answers 4


Like every boom/bust cycle, the "d20 bust" was what happened when the "d20 boom" ended.

What's the d20 Boom?

I don't know if that's an official term, but it's one I use because it works, and it fits the idea of a bust pretty well. If you look back to when 3.0 came out, it did an interesting thing that no game with it's reach had done before: it made it easy to use it in third party material.

This was due primarily to the OGL. 3.0 got very popular in the market, and now there was a way to write stuff for it. Lots of third party publishers jumped on that. Some (like Paizo) did official Wizards licensed and even D&D branded material. Others were able to use the d20 system trademark, which was pretty liberal to use. The most notable exception is probably the Book of Erotic Fantasy, which Wizards blocked from using the d20 logo, so it used the OGL instead.

Here's a list, which may or may not be complete (I honestly don't know). It's really big.

As you can see there, a lot of publishers jumped on board with the d20 system. Far more than we'd seen for any one system in the past. Everybody thought that with so many people playing a d20 based game in 3.0, that there would be a market for all kinds of books. Quite a few of them did well, but...

At The End of Every Boom...

So what's the bust? Take 3.5 changing enough rules that 3.0 books were nontrivial to bring in to a 3.5 game (thus hurting the value of the third party 3.0 content), combined with the sheer number of competitors. While most of the books would sell somewhat, there was simply too many people making too many books for the amount of buyers. At the time, digital distribution for RPG material wasn't a significant thing, and so you had to have the money to do a print run and get a book into stores to sell them (both things require significant upfront investment and can lose you a lot of money if it sells below expectations).

Stack that on top with the sheer number of books that Wizards put out, and the money dried up. What happened is that we saw fewer people making fewer books. That's the "bust" at the end of the boom. It's worth noting that some people still did alright in this market, but the era of people jumping in to make d20 branded books in large numbers was over.


This sounds like a bit of a silly term, since Pathfinder is d20 based (but not actually a d20 system as 'd20' is a trademark owned by Wizards). Pathfinder maintains a state closer to the idea of the d20 system era by having its own OGL and being friendly to third parties (see this related question for info) than D&D itself did, as 4e moved away from that.

In general though, the only way I've heard post-d20 be used is simply for systems that had their genesis in the d20 system, but continued with it after d20 itself stopped being supported. In that sense Pathfinder definitely qualifies: it came into existence in large part because Wizards stopped supporting d20 and the OGL with 4e and left Paizo in the cold with no game to write content for. They had to do something, so they took the 3.5 SRD, made it their own, and here we are. Mutants & Mastermands is also heavily influenced by d20 but isn't a d20 system per-se, hence 'post-d20'.

Another thing that changed after the d20 is digital distribution went more mainstream. Games like Fate can be successful today without needing the financial backing to do a print run and distribution to stores. While they likely won't sell as many copies, the margins per copy sold for a digital product are much higher. That's opened the market up to new and smaller games to thrive, where they likely would have been strangled in the cradle at the height of the d20 boom.

While a game like Fate had a much better chance of success in the market in the conditions created by the end of d20, it's not really a 'post-d20 system' as it's not really a derivative of d20 in any way.

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ Another part of the bust was that since it was so easy (and inexpensive) to create "D20" material, there was a lot of bad material being created to cash in. (To say "poorly tested" is to give them far too much credit). The bust also included all those companies (incl. the good ones) having trouble when players stopped buying 3rd party material. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 15:39

Time Periods...

  • Pre-OGL: Before 1999
  • OGL/d20 Era: 1999-2007
    • Boom: late 2000 to mid 2002
    • Bust: 2005 to 2007
  • Post d20

To Understand the Bust, you must understand the Boom

When the Open Gaming License (OGL) was used on D&D 3.0 in 1999, along with the D20 System Trademark License (d20 STL), it ushered in a new era of 3rd party licensed supplements.This is called the d20 era, because of being linked to the d20 STL. Many were acceptable, a number were excellent... and a lot were utter drekh.

The Boom was the roughly late 2000 to mid 2002 high point of anything with a d20 System Logo selling. It allowed many existing publishers to now support D&D, which had been the major game in the industry. It allowed many small publishers to launch with materials for the number one game in the world. It made licensed games easily published.

The d20 STL and OGL in combination resulted in almost no barriers to small press publishing. Moreover, many companies with strong but 3rd tier sales were able to put out d20 versions of their setting materials in a hurry. But anyone with $1500 and a decent computer could produce a short run, and get product into the pipeline. There was little review, be it professional or fan based, and purchasing agents for stores had a hard time sorting the good from the bad.

This was neither sustainable nor terribly good for the core engine. By 2005, the market was collapsing from too many low quality supplements.

The d20 Bust

The wide variety of low quality supplements resulted in many stores having surpluses of lousy supplements; for many, this was a major hit to their profits, and often, had the effect of damaging all but special orders for 3rd party supplements.

By 2005, the d20 Logo was a liability for new publishers, rather than an asset. It was also turning into an albatross around D&D's neck. Certain major lines of 3rd party product were selling well, most of which were written such that, while adhering to the letter of the d20 STL, you could easily use them without the D&D 3E or 3.5E Player's Handbooks. Further, most of these lines produced a corebook, and then, in a non-d20 branded "web product" included the material the d20 STL required being left out.

Many of the hundreds of publishers from the Boom period dried up and disappeared. Many of the pre-OGL companies also got hurt in the process. And, because many third party publishers had developed followings, they were able to launch d20 derived materials... materials like True20, Mutants and Masterminds, Prime Directive Modern, Spycraft, and T20 Traveller's Handbook. [Mongoose's] Conan, Materials from companies with known quality, and using the bulk of the d20 rules, but different enough to be unique games. People had to relearn less, and so these games diluted the market for D&D.

Also, in the same time frame, the Old School Renaissance OSR arose. While not actually part of the d20 boom nor the d20 bust, it was part of why there was...

D&D 4E and the End of the d20 STL

When the 4th edition of D&D was released, HasBro/Wizards decided to no longer release the core rules as open content... They discontinued the d20 System Trademark License. They couldn't discontinue the OGL, but they didn't have to use it themselves.

This is the start of the Post-d20 Era.

Paizo, who had been publishing Dragon and Dungeon under license, took the d20 System Reference Document, made a few tweaks, and announced their new engine: Pathfinder. In all ways that matter to gamers, it's still a d20 system game. Legally, however, it isn't - it has no compatibility indicator with D&D 3E/3.5E, and doesn't use the restricted trademarks made available under the d20 STL.

Many other d20 games came out with new editions that lacked the d20 logo, and included the "missing" text. Others simply stickered over the d20 logo and license.

The OSR games flourished, especially since D&D 4E was seen as a major rupture with what little continuity d20 had given to prior editions. They couldn't use the name D&D, but many are very close variations on older editions, including variations on Original D&D, AD&D, Moldvay/Cook BX, Mentzer BECMI, and even AD&D 2E.

The OGL in the post-d20 era also enables a number of second string companies to get initial bursts of new material. Mongoose, especially, has made use of this for their licensed non-d20 Traveller and RuneQuest games. (RQ has since expired, but they keep the rules in print under a new, non-licensed trademark.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Once again, I trip over yet another high quality aramis answer. Thank you. If you ever read "The Prize" by Daniel Yergin about the oil industry the parallels are of some interest. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 19:09

The initial D20 boom was driven by two licenses:

  • The Open Game License allowed third-party creators to reference and reuse a significant portion of the D&D 3rd Edition ruleset. This is, of course, useful for writing D&D3-compatible game content.

  • The D20 System Trademark License allowed creators to actually label their products with the D20 System logo and mention D&D3 on the cover by name — in other words, they could actually market their products as D&D3-compatible.

During the D&D3.0 era, the OGL and STL drove an absolutely crazy volume of D&D-derived works. For a time, it may have sincerely seemed like D&D/D20 would be "one system to rule them all" — even major existing gamelines were adapted to D20 (including the D20 Call of Cthulhu game and L5R's setting showing up in D&D3's Oriental Adventures book, both published "first-party" by Wizards of the Coast). Countless small publishers arose out of nowhere and flooded RPG Now and Drivethru with PDFs of all sorts, trading very heavily on D&D's name and the "You can find a book about anything!" atmosphere of the early boom.

When D&D3.5 rolled out in 2003, the third-party D20 market significantly downsized. Several reasons why:

  • WotC tightened up the (revocable) D20STL to prohibit people putting giant D&D logos on their products, and to ban "indecent" works. It became a little harder for D20 publishers to tap the D&D brand.

  • D&D3.5 was different enough from D&D3.0 to break compatibility on a lot of supplements; this image was further cemented by WotC restarting its supplement line from scratch, e.g. replacing D&D3.0 Sword and Fist with D&D3.5 Complete Warrior. This left many consumers feeling like their D&D3.0-compatible third-party products were obsolete.

  • I'm just speculating here, but I think people's buying habits changed after the initial excitement died down and they tried to, you know, actually use some of the stuff they picked up in play. The average consumer became a lot more discerning about shovelware.

So, that was the first D20 bust. Around the time D&D3.5 came out, the wild-west atmosphere of the D&D3.0 era was gone and third-party D20 publishing became defined more by a handful of consistent companies (such as Mongoose and Green Ronin).

At the same time, D&D was still popular and successful and kept generating consistent revenue for WotC and the main third-party publishers for several years.

When the D&D3.5 line ended, there was a second D20 bust for similar reasons.

Based on context, Shannon is using "post-d20" to refer to D20-System-based games that survived the sunset of D&D3.x. While some are nearly identical to D&D3.x in terms of overall design and others are basically entirely different games that just use the same core mechanic, you can call them all "post-D20" because they are D20-System-derived games operating in a market where D20 isn't a prominent brand anymore.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Well and concisely presented. +1 and thank you. You have put into words some of the "YGBSM" sentiments the 3.0 / 3.5 era presented to me, and why I took my 3.5 books to the second hand store for beer money and, when presented with a chance to play D&D 4.0 with my brother and nephew simply said "no thanks, D&D is no longer D&D." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 19:25

Per request:

I have to disagree with the bust being "caused" by 3.5. The vast majority of official content was released during 3.5s reign. Even at the end there was a rather large amount of momentum for the new edition (4e) to ride on.

@aramis 's description is pretty good. The d20 "bust" was in large part due to the overwhelming influx of low quality content, as well as Wizard's shift away from OGL support. And it primarily hurt 3rd party publishers, because DnD was able to ride 3.X's momentum for a while. DnD's crash in 4e is a whole 'nother story. :)

As I said, aramis does a good job of pointing out what I mean with his timeline. The 3.0 -> 3.5 shift ticked off a bunch of people (they had to buy new books), but it definitely did not cause 'The Crash'.

(I can expand more in the morning if you want, but sleep is due first.)


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