Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast has promised that One D&D, the next iteration of the famous tabletop role-playing game, will be backwards compatible with its 5th edition. Trouble is, some folks just don’t believe it — especially after leaked documents showed that the iconic TTRPG could have gone in a very different direction. That’s why third-party publisher Kobold Press has a backup plan to keep the most popular version of D&D alive, and it’s bringing a sizeable group of freelance artists and writers along for the ride.
Project Black Flag is the codename for Kobold’s effort to “update, streamline, and publish a core fantasy RPG based on” the Systems Reference Document 5.1 — the version of D&D governed by the Open Gaming License (OGL). After fan outcry, Wizards recently transitioned that document to the Creative Commons, effectively placing it outside of its own control. While that change in licensing means the existing system should remain open to act as the basis for new works, there’s no guarantee that core 5th edition rulebooks like the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide will remain in print.
Eventually, Kobold Press co-founder Wolfgang Baur says, the existing 5th edition books will go away. Project Black Flag could replace them.
“Somebody who’s in high school, a junior in 2024 wants to pick up the game,” Baur said in a recent interview with Otto Mankitap. “Where do they go? Well, they could go to One D&D. And a lot of people will. But for everybody who’s been playing and loving 5th edition for coming on a decade here, why not keep [it] alive by putting the core books out in a beautiful new hardcover? That’s Black Flag in a nutshell.”
While that might sound like a wild idea, Kobold Press has the institutional knowledge to build a business around it. In 2008, Baur won the prestigious Diana Jones award for his patronage system known as Open Design. Before Kickstarter burst onto the scene, and before the launch of Patreon, Baur was using a similar system to fund his work writing supplements for D&D. From the Diana Jones website:
In trying to find an innovative way to fund the kind of game design Baur wanted to pursue, he went back hundreds of years to dig up the concept of patronage, add a few modern twists to it, and apply it to the problem. In Open Design — as he calls his system — Baur posts a number of ideas for potential projects and publicizes them along with a monetary threshold for each. As the sponsors chip in, they vote on which project Baur should pursue. When the funding for the chosen project reaches its threshold, he starts work in earnest.
“If I’d been really smart, I would have founded a Kickstarter,” Baur said. “But I’m not that smart. But we continued with that open publishing model, and we still use it to some degree. But the big shift in the company’s fortunes came with 5th edition D&D.”
Early on in 5th edition’s lifecycle, Baur and the team at Kobold Press were brought on to draft some of its first published campaign books, including Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat. Kobold would later perform similar work in the creation of the popular 5th edition anthology, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Baur’s company has parlayed that success into a series of other popular books, including the Tome of Beasts series. It’s that momentum — both in steady sales, and in a steady pipeline of artists and authors familiar with the world and its ruleset — that Baur says will help Project Black Flag get off the ground.
“We’re gonna keep that 5th edition ruleset alive,” Baur said. “And because there are great big holes in it, we said, Let’s take those holes in the SRD and fill them with something awesome and new. The monsters that aren’t in the SRD? Well, let’s find other awesome monsters. We happen to have three Tome of Beasts full of great monsters. I bet we could come up with something to fill in the blank where the beholder sits.”
Alongside these new core books that Kobold Press hopes to produce via a crowdfunding campaign later in the year, a new cohort of indie publishers is also rising to the challenge. First out of the gate with a work based on Project Black Flag is Friday Strout, whose Kickstarter campaign for The Vineyard RPG is currently seeking funding. At its core is a secretive society that can easily be plugged in to virtually any setting you can imagine.
“The Vineyard operates through a series of debt-collection services,” Strout told Otto Mankitap in a recent interview. “They loan out money, [since] they have a monopoly on all of the rare gems within our setting. What that allows them to do is leverage political power over different people. The Vineyard, it’s sort of a slang term [...] based on the fact that they were able to cultivate death into returns. If someone is to die while still owing a debt to the Vineyard, the Vineyard is still going to collect in one way or another.”
Inside The Vineyard RPG, players will find nine richly detailed villains, each with pages of backstory, motivation, and plot hooks — far more than the page or two found in many similar books. In addition to the requisite stat block, there are even samples of dialogue that can be used during social and combat encounters at the table. Everything, Strout said, is intended to make running these vibrant villains easy for harried Dungeon Masters. The project also includes an extraordinary cast of writers, talents like Gabe Hicks (Critical Role, The Session Zero System), Kienna Shaw (TTRPG Safety Toolkit, Candlekeep Mysteries), and product co-creator M. Ebel (Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden). They even brought in YouTuber LegalKimchi — a real-life lawyer — to gin up the Vineyard’s nefarious contracts in detail.
“Initially, we were developing this for 5th edition,” Strout said, “before the OGL debacle happened in January. [...] I had to make a decision about who we wanted to trust with our future, and who we wanted to partner with. Kobold Press believes in an open and fair system that allows them to partner with different creators throughout the community, and to allow them to thrive on their own, and to treat people with respect and pay them well. So, I thought it was a no-brainer for me to want to sort of shift our product over to Kobold Press’ Project Black Flag.”
The campaign for The Vineyard RPG runs through May 2. It offers physical copies at $65, with digital copies running $40.