A party of adventurers sneak their way through Cragmaw Cave to surprise a clutch of goblins and their pet wolves.
As the bloody battle wages on, bodies fall one by one. The Dwarven priest and the vicious leader Klarg are all that remain standing. The duel rages on and only one can emerge victorious. A player tosses his dice eagerly to see if he can roll that critical hit and win the day.
This could be a scene from 1970s or the 1990s or today, from the first version of Dungeons and Dragons, to the second edition or third or fourth. But this scene unfolds in the latest D&D release and it comes with one big, modern difference: the players themselves had a hand in shaping the rules. It is all part of D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast's embrace of the online world and digital lives of those who play this iconic paper-and-pen-based game.
"The rules provide the engine for great adventures and our focus shifts squarely to creating the best stories for players to share and enjoy in their preferred format," says Nathan Stewart, brand director for Dungeons and Dragons.
The latest version, simply titled Dungeons and Dragons, debuted last week with the release of the "Starter Set," a box that comes with a 32-page primer on the new rules, a 64-page adventure, five characters for players to use on said adventure, and a set of dice to actually play the game with. It is a preview of the new game, before the full rulebooks are released later this year: the Player's Handbook in August, the Monster Manual in September, and the Dungeon Master's Guide two months later. Getting to this point was, as any avid D&D player might guess, an epic undertaking.
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created the first version of the rules in 1974, while starting a company called Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR. It slowly grew in popularity, with updated reprints being made every year, going from booklets, to actual books and box sets. According to Wizards, D&D sold more than 20 million books by 1982. It had become a mainstay on college campuses and even created it's own cartoon in 1983. In 1989, TSR made Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition. Initially selling well, sales eventually tapered off. TSR continued to release many products, however, which strained the company financially.
In 1997, Wizards of the Coast, makers of the popular Magic: The Gathering card game, bought the company. The third Dungeons and Dragons edition was released in 2000 amid a role-playing resurgence. Wizards implemented an Open Gaming License (OGL)that would let other companies make products compatible with the new D&D edition's rules. In 2003, the company released a revised version, known as the 3.5 edition. By this point, according to the BBC, D&D had grown to more than 20 million players and over $1 billion in sales.
When sales of the 3.5 edition slowed, a fourth edition went into development, and was published in June of 2008. This new D&D seemed to be greatly influenced by the popularity of World of Warcraft and other online RPGs. Many fans objected to new rules and retreated to earlier editions. Meanwhile, a competitor named Paizo released Pathfinder, a game that used the OGL to release their own update of D&D 3.5 and woo disgruntled players.
"Role-playing games have had a tough 15 years because of competition from online games that are very similar," says Milton Griepp, president of hobby industry publication ICv2. "So they need to figure out what they need to do to make it more familiar for those online players."
Two years ago Wizards announced the company would create the fifth edition of the famed fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Codenamed "D&D Next," this new game would have a broader appeal by featuring concepts and rules from all the different versions of the game in hopes of bringing back D&D players that had strayed. But Wizards wouldn't be facing this challenge alone. Everyone would be their ally in the quest to forge a worthy game.
That May, the company released on their website a playtest packet with several PDFs covering different rules. In the months that followed new versions of the playtest documents were added, free for people to download and then dungeon delve with. Players could checkout the ideas that the designers were putting together and then discuss it online, helping shape how the new game was being made. The company would also send out questionnaires to get more itemized opinions about different aspects of the new rules.
The first few packs were little more than basic combat rules, but then Wizards of the Coast added files about different characters like fighters and rogus, then files on magic, and on monsters, and adventures to play with the rules. By the last version of the playtest rules, released last September, Wizards had brought a giant, enthusiastic response.
"We had over 175,000 Active Playtesters that signed up and downloaded at least one packet. In total we saw 636,010 downloads over 17 months," says Stewart. "After the initial packet release we saw over 25,000 participants respond to our questionnaire. Not to mention all the discussions happening on fan sites. The player feedback was so important to the process we are continuing to use the feedback loop for new products."
And now that the first new Dungeons and Dragons product has been released, Wizards has decided to utilize the online fellowship it created once more. Last week the company released a new PDF called "Basic Rules." This 110-page document features all of the rules needed to play the game, a selection of the character classes and races, as well as a portion of the magic spells that players can use. It doesn't have the art of the Player's Handbook, and not all of the options, but all the base rules are there for people to start questing and fighting.
Sure, there is a marketing aspect to this—let's give everyone a taste to entice them to buy the "Starter Set" or the later releases!—but it is also a move to use the expanse of the Internet to reach the many players that stopped playing at a certain edition, the ones who felt the game changed too much. Perhaps lapsed players are willing to try a free D&D? "You have a unique situation with Dungeons and Dragons because it's such a well-known brand. There's millions and millions of people who have played it at some time in their lives that aren't playing now. That's a huge potential market," says Griepp.
It is also a way to give everyone that helped make the rules through the playtest packet a final version to treasure and to wield. And that's far from the end of this journey. Just as in the way the playtest documents evolved over the months, so will the "Basic Rules." It is tagged as version 0.1, but it will change as new material is added with the release of each book this year. More of the game will be put online for free.
"There's this underlining dynamic of this migration of players to online," Griepp says. "There's some migration of online and video game players back to tabletop, and that's happening in several categories.
While digital books and online sharing helped create the new D&D, in the future, the digital world will help people play this game of books and dice. Wizards announced it is working with Trapdoor Technologies on a computer application codenamed "Morningstar."
The program will have features to help Dungeon Masters create adventures before gaming sessions start, features to help run a game while everyone is playing, and then features to help keep track of an overall campaign as the players travel across a world and defeat their enemies. "By putting some of the mechanics in the hands of an application the people can focus on the player interactions and storytelling happening at the table and not worry about how much damage your great axe deals," says Stewart.
Picture this: a player sits down at their computer and creates their role-playing persona—a quick rogue, a pious cleric, or maybe a brutal barbarian. That player could then print out the character to bring it to the gametable that night. Or sync "Cecil the Bold" with the mobile version of Morningstar on a tablet. And then bring that portable screen to the game, which connects with the game that the dungeon master at the table is running on a laptop. Players can act out their hero's reactions at the table, they can discuss strategies to stop a tribe of trolls face to face, but they can look at maps and other materials online.
And this too will be leveled up over time. As more rulebooks and adventures are released, material will be incorporated into Morningstar so it remains up to date and compatible with all of Wizards' products.
Looking at the broader landscape, you don't need magical sight to see that Wizards is hoping to bring back Dungeons and Dragons to its former glory by crafting a game made with fans, shared online with fans, and computer-enabled so those fans can use cyber-resources to control their fantasy world. All these high-tech endeavors then serve the game and the legends a group of friends are creating together.
"Questions like 'Digital and physical products,' 'PC and analog RPG,' 'polyhedral dice and digital tools'—these all become secondary questions after 'What is the story?' and 'What makes a world so fun and unique?' Stewart notes. "When we have great adventures fleshed out, we will look at the options for how our players want to engage with that story and drive the best experience possible."
[Image: Flickr user Scott Swigart]