It's been a few years since I've been an avid Pen & Paper Tabletop roleplayer. Like - say- about sixteen or so. However, I've dabbled sporadically ever since and have tried to keep an occasional eye on the hobby, if only for old time's sake. So I was aware that Wizards of the Coast had announced they were releasing a fourth edition of the D&D rules next year.
It wasn't until someone who'd been following it a little closer talked to me about it last week that I realised it actually was something genuinely radical. Buried between the announcements of Swords Versus Scarabs +3 now being +4 and kobolds being pink rather than whatever colour kobolds are, Wizards have done something interesting and relevant to RPS.
They've turned it into a PC game.
Well, kind of.
As well as a general re-jig of the rules, they've got something the D&D Insider. It's a whole mass of online content that runs alongside of the real world books - digital copies of your books, the venerable Dungeon and Dragon moving from print to Online and so on. Most relevantly, a load of integrated tools to make D&D running easier. Character generators and similar. But, most rrelevantly, a virtual tabletop which you can push your figures around, run your dungeons (Or sophisticated castle diplomacy-rooms if you're one of those people who actually role-play), SimPolyhedral Die, fully integrated voice-chat and generally everything you need to play the bloody game.
It's demonstrated in this, the third part of their Gencon presentation, and there's some more chat about it over at this interview at Warcry.
Yes, it's hardly Crysis, but that's not the point. What it is, is a way for people who've been defeated by the most persistent, unrelenting nemesis in the D&D Monster Manual to start playing again. Amidst a lot of people missing the point, Baylor over at the Gleemax forums has a critical hit: "I think the real target of this are people who can't play D&D anymore. Like myself. I have two kids and I don't have time to get together with friends anymore. I only have a few hours after they go to bed. I will finally be able to shelve MMOs and play the game I love again." What defeats most heroes, simply, is time and its little henchman lack-of-access. If I were to get on the GM hat again, the most likely group of people I'd like to do it for are Jim (Upstairs), Hobbes (5 minutes walk away), my brother (London) and Kid-with-Knife (Vancouver). Pushing D&D in this way is both an admission of the problems of modern (adult) living while using modernity to circumvent it.
Of course, you could do this already if you were to bring together a variety of tools. Use Fantasy Grounds for the virtual board and lob in any one of your usual voice-chats and you're away. But it's not integrated and hasn't the marketing push of the biggest player in the game to make people aware of it. And, just as important, it all ties in with their hilariously-named Gleemax, which is basically trying to be a Facebook for gamers. Gaming Swingers with their six-siders, on the look out for cheap experience points, can find a group, hook up online and get nasty in a hard, hot and sweaty dungeon before disappearing. It's even arguably good for the rest of the constantly beleaguered industry.
In fact, abstractly, you can use the map tool for any game with it - it's just a representation of the action, with none of the mechanics tied in. Lob away the fantasy figures and run it with the included representative tokens and the automated dice and you could be doing everything from Vampire to GURPS, from Feng Shui to Unknown Armies. Hell, if you play Amber, you don't even need to use the dice. That Gleemax is aimed to be a pan-gaming - rather than just for the Wizard of the Coast games - group increases the possibility.
The biggest problem is that there's a lack of details in some areas of exactly how they're going to finance it. To get all the D&D Insider stuff you need to pay a MMO-equivalent monthly fee of $9.95. However, it's also been said on the forum that not all the group may need to pay this - i.e. Players may play free, or at least cheaper. I'd hope that's true. I'm aware that pretty much every group I've ever ran, none of the players owned any of the books, and trying to talk Kid-with-knife to give some Americans ten dollars a month ("That's more than a drink!") just so I can excitedly narrate about the molted brown skin of an orc in voice-chat is, I suspect, the sort of impossible quest that's more traditionally reserved for inside the game. So we'll see. Turning victory into defeat is, after all, a RPG-industry standard.
The Player's Manual is out next May, with the other manuals following shortly afterwards. I'd make a joke about polishing your D20s in preparation, but - y'know - you don't need too.