Post-Modern Roleplaying: Rebooting D&D

By Alec Meer on January 9th, 2012 at 3:34 pm.

Dear Mr Of The Coast, can you fix it for me to actually be a dragon?

Not 100% relevant to PC gaming, but 1) D&D’s rules have been enormously influential on computer RPGs 2) whatever the new edition ends up doing will almost certainly filter down to a PC game or six at some point 3) your mum.

Wizards of the Coast are taking another pass at Dungeons & Dragons, after the recent fourth edition rules proved more than a little divisive. Divisive = MASSIVE RAGEFEST, of course. On top of that, WOTC reckon vidjagames are taking an increasingly deadly bite out of their side. So, they want to get D&D back on track – and they’re actively looking for the community’s input to do so. Is that you? Ooh, probably.

The New York Times, which is A Big And Important Newspaper, has the story such as it is. And the story, such as it is, is “oh god we’ve right royally screwed this up, what are we going to do? I know, let’s ask the people who are still willing to pay for this what we should do.” Which is possibly the right idea, with the exception that going primarily to the most in-the-know fans risks turning the game even more inwards, rather than increasing its appeal to those who, for one reason or another, avoid it. And, it seems, a lot of people are avoiding it:

“The company does not release sales figures, but analysts and gaming experts agree that sales of the game, and all tabletop role-playing ones, have been dwindling for years. Ryan Scott Dancey, chief executive of the game company Goblinworks and a former vice president at Wizards of the Coast, said the overall market peaked between 1999 and 2003 and has been in steady decline since 2005. “My instincts are it’s slower than ever,” he said.”

It’d be awfully sad to see D&D become little more than a license for videogames and other media, given its vital place in pop-culture heritage and its ongoing influence on game developers. Now does seem like the right time to shoot for a major reboot.

The obvious thing, for me, is to accelerate the long-planned digital version. P&P RPGs are absolutely at their best with a group of folk sat around a table with an assortment of savoury snacks and liver-stressing beverages, but that’s not always possible. I bubble with gentle envy when hearing reports of the Warhammer RPG sessions Kieron hosts for assorted chums-of-RPS in That London. Trains and time keeps me away, though I have am ambient pledge to set something up in Brighton one of these days. Perhaps a digital version of the game, in a loose form unbound from the restrictions of videogames so our imaginations could fire fully, could overcome issues of space and time. Additionally, having permanent online records of your characters and their adventures, instead of rotting, illegible notebooks, is an appealing thing, not to mention how useful more official online resources would be for DMs. And rulebooks surely have to move into the digital age, to Kindles and tablets and smartphones.

Perhaps men clustered around iPads and laptops rather than pens, paper and rulebooks is the future, retaining the traditional social element but bringing in the convenience of digital, or maybe it risks ripping out the game’s scrappy soul. WOTC is committed to keeping D&D a face-to-face game, which probably is necessary to retain its essence and tradition, but if videogames are truly its nemesis the scale of the rethink needs to be immense.

I look forward to seeing what they come up with, I hope they don’t take too long about it, I hope it’s done with half a mind on how it can translate to videogames, and I hope the net result is not just another set of horribly expensive, fat books that I’d feel too self-conscious of to get out in public.

So, feedback is being sought, playtests are being planned and big things are apparently in the offing. This is as good a mission statement as any:

“We want to create a flexible game, rich with options for players and DMs to embrace or reject as they see fit, a game that brings D&D fans together rather than serves as one more category to splinter us apart.”

More details on how to submit your thoughts for the fifth edition of D&D here.

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156 Comments »

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  1. MadTinkerer says:

    “Additionally, having permanent online records of your characters and their adventures, instead of rotting, illegible notebooks, is an appealing thing, not to mention how useful more official online resources would be for DMs. And rulebooks surely have to move into the digital age, to Kindles and tablets and smartphones.”

    Well this WOULD have happened already, and I MIGHT not have abandoned 4e altogether if SOMEONE HADN’T REMOVED ALL DIGITAL COPIES OF THEIR RULEBOOKS FROM RPGNOW AND OTHER DIGITAL DOCUMENT SELLERS. Seriously: they already did this at one point, and then changed their minds. You can still get the content (which you may or may not have PAID FOR ALREADY) via bitorrent and such, but heaven forbid that you buy it from them.

    If WotC want me back, they just have to follow one simple rule: don’t screw anyone over. Not me, not third party developers, and not your licensing partners. That’s all you have to do, WotC, that’s all.

    Otherwise, I’ll just stick to Savage Worlds like I have for the last decade, because it seems WotC is determined to do everything wrong and PEG is determined to do everything right.

  2. pegolius says:

    Since the days TSR released the next version of OD&D we’ve had edition wars. This is now what, almost 40 years ago and with each new edition the edition wars have broadened and opened up new fronts in the war. It seems those religious nuts back in the 80s were right and D&D is an invention of the devil, seeking to saw dissonance, rage and hatred in an ever increasing circle. So, you see, we had to get a new version coming out. There is a new battlefront to feed upon by good ol’ Lucifer.

  3. Timmytoby says:

    Well, D&D might die a slow and agonizing dead (good riddance), but P&P is far from dead.
    There are several Cons a year in my vicinity solely devoted to it, communities in almost every city and no lack of groups.
    Of course they don’t play D&D.

    Ever since AD&D ended it’s a bloated, slow and expensive abomination of a game. It’s almost the definition of feature creep. “Well hooray there sir, we could use us some feats and traits and skills and prestige classes in here. And if you’re at it add more classes and more useless silly overcomplicated systems with which to sell another bunch of overpriced books.” And yes: Choosing this pile of crap as basis for videogame systems was something I never understood.

    Also: At least in my circles most of the games are bought PDFs by now. There are several very good online shops exclusively for P&P. Real books are mostly bought if they look really nice (real leather for example).

    If you liked D&D in the past and are looking for a fast, uncomplicated and flexible system try Savage Worlds: http://www.peginc.com/games.html
    The rulebook costs about € 5,- and it’s basically playable with every kind of setting from Sci Fi to High Fantasy.

    The Indie Scene is thriving meanwhile. Not too long ago I stumbled upon Outbreak: Undead which is basically a Zombiecalypse Simulator with very detailed (and fun) rules http://outbreakundead.com/

    And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully D&D finally dies a slow and agonizing dead and stops infecting otherwise reallly great games like several of Bioware’s RPGs.

  4. der jester says:

    tl;dr They should be enhancing their game instead of changing it.

    Skipping the threads of Version X is better than version Y, they’re definitely approaching the problem wrong.
    Tools is all they need. Character Builder was a step in the right direction and the promise of further tools is what got me back in to D&D. Doing my taxes is currently easier that building a character. With the character builder, it still took a day to put a character together, but you could build one without having to thumb through stacks of books and magazines. Everything was right there in the builder. They need to build on that. Expand the builder so it can be applied to several rule sets. Like 3.5 or 3.0 over 4.0? Select it from a drop down and your character is converted/rebuilt what have you. They should have 2 game versions running. One for the hardcore that long for calculating THAC0 and one more streamlined for people that might just be getting into D&D. You’re a niche game, start acting like it instead of trying to appeal to everyone.
    This should be built upon so you can send your DM a file (or have an online managed campaign) so when game night comes you can open up the campaign and have everything they need at their finger tips. Add map generation, item generation, etc integrated so if, prior to the game night, you want your players to review a mysterious document that arrives, boom, it’s sent. Use facebook and google+ linkage and allow updates to post so people can share their exploits, notes, etc.
    Smartphone and Tablet apps that enhance instead of replace would be the next logical step. Allowing these devices to communicate ad-hoc or through an online application would be great. Instead of passing paper notes, dragging someone to another room to tell them about something going on with the character won’t be necessary.
    A lot of the tools should be free. They get people to play. If they play, they’re more likely to buy add ons or other Premium content, like a dungeon builder, prebuilt modules that work well with all the tools. Cloud “game saves.” Allow DMs to share campaigns with other DMs. Have a steam type store where DMs can generate content, get it rated, and then sell it (with a percentage going to WotC of course).

  5. Pajama says:

    Make a program which is downloadable that works online on both macs and PC’s for groups to play online and then get a Nintendo like IT PRINTS MONEY of Paper and Pens games.

    Honestly, just add more to the actual role play aspect and learn from your competitors then solving every inter party relationship with a knife to the back.