You know a product pitch has gone off the rails when the money line is, "It turns the Internet into your kitchen table." Those grand geniuses at Wizards of the Coast have in their infinite wisdom decided that even though they already hosed everyone who bought Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 by releasing D&D 3.5 (and requiring you to buy all new sets of your $30 apiece books, kinda like a forced Windows Update), they were going to forge ahead and continue to battle the forces of World of Warcraft and Everquest with D&D 4.0, which takes the classic tabletop roleplaying game online...sorta.
This video is from the GenCon pitch of the new online D&D tools, which are designed to replace two of the more labor-intensive aspects of the game: Drawing dungeons and painting miniatures. You can then play these online interactive maps and virtual miniatures in a sort of instant-messenger-style game session, with online character sheets and virtual dice to boot. All of which is designed to return the game of D&D to its glorious 1970s-level popularity, which has since been eroded by video games in general and Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games in particular. This, of course, completely misses the point of why MMORPGs are kicking the crap out of tabletop pen-and-paper roleplaying games.
There are two basic kinds of D&D players: The hack-n-slashers, and the roleplayers. Hack-n-slashers are about the wargaming aspect of D&D, the tactical component of trawling a landscape (usually a dungeon) vanquishing opponents, gathering treasure, and earning the Experience Points that will let you level up to an even more munchkined player-character. Roleplayers, by contrast, are all about story and generally view the "crunchy bits" of the D&D rule system as a necessary evil to give their collective narrative a basic framework for interaction and adjudication. Both groups enjoy the social aspect of the game—getting together with likeminded friends to revel in a common interest—they just have different priorities. All gamers fall somewhere between the all-combat or all-story extremes of the RPG gamer spectrum, though history suggests the game-o-sphere is heavily tilted towards hack-n-slashers.
These days, hack-n-slashers already have nirvana in the form of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. WoW is all about combat, alone or in groups, for 15 minutes or 15 hours, ready at the click of a mouse. No setup time, no gathering friends around the table, no rules-lawyering or a Dungeon Master that wants to do a "talky bits" session this week. WoW is stripped down, pure, accelerated, uber-convenient hank-n-slash on demand.
So, naturally, D&D 4.0 is designed for hack-n-slashers. Wizards of the Coast acts like the only thing drawing tabletop roleplayers away to online games is the fact that MMORPGs don't make you gather around a physical table at one place and time. So, they build you a virtual table with virtual miniatures and a virtual map. They'll force upon you virtual dice, even though dice are the most superstitiously guarded and personal item any tabletopper owns. Sure, D&D 4.0 still requires that a DM build out the map, and that players roll up a character beforehand and that everyone be available at the same time. But, hey, at least everyone doesn't have to be at the same house or game shop, and for that convenience all Wizards of the Coast asks is that all the players buy into their software and service and upload their characters into the system. I mean, yeah, this does require an investment in 4.0 rulebooks, and you still have the time scheduling issue and the learning-the-rules issue. Oh, and you have to give up your lucky dice and abandon all your house rules and custom character sheets. And you don't get the tangential social benefit of actually seeing your friends and passing around the snack bowl.
D&D 4.0: We won't make you leave the house anymore.
And this is going to fell the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft?
If Wizards of the Coast had any sense, they would have gone in the opposite direction with D&D 4.0, celebrating everything about the game that can't be codified and automated. In a tabletop game, you can abandon the script at any moment. A good Dungeon Master can wing it, adapt, improvise, and keep up with a group of real, live human players who aren't just in it for a analog version of Diablo II. Strip down the rules, beef up the character development. If you want online tools, design them to make character creation—not graphics creation—easier. Stop treating D&D like a vehicle to sell miniatures and prefab module adventures when there's no way static maps and immobile figures can compete with 3D landscapes and animated, interactive avatars. Stop trying to beat MMORPGs on their terms, and beat them on yours.
Oh, and accept the fact that the 1970s are over, and D&D is never going to be the dominant geek hobby again. The future is now. Let's roll.
(Found via BoingBoing.)
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.