Players roll dice on D&D revamp

  • Article by: ETHAN GILSDORF , New York Times
  • Updated: January 12, 2012 - 8:32 AM

The classic fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons is being reworked for the Digital Age. Its maker is giving fans a say in how it's done.

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A Dungeons & Dragons miniatures layout at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art, which is showcasing D&D imagery. Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary that owns Dungeons & Dragons, announced that a new edition is under development, and players will weigh in on how to reboot the franchise.

Photo: Joshua Bright, New York Times

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True believers have lost faith. Factions squabble. The enemies are not only massed at the gates of the kingdom, but they have also broken through.

This might sound like the back story for an epic trilogy. Instead, it is the situation faced by the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, the venerable fantasy role-playing game many consider to be the grandfather of the video game industry. Gamers bicker over Dungeons & Dragons rules. Some have left childhood pursuits behind. Others have spurned an old-fashioned, tabletop fantasy role-playing game for shiny electronic competitors such as "World of Warcraft" and "Elder Scrolls."

But there might yet be hope for Dungeons & Dragons, known as D&D. On Monday, Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary that owns the game, announced that a new edition is under development, the first overhaul of the rules since the contentious fourth edition was released in 2008. The game's designers also are planning to undertake an exceedingly rare effort for the gaming industry over the next few months: asking hundreds of thousands of fans to tell them how exactly they should reboot the franchise.

The game "is a unique entertainment experience because it's crafted by the players at the table, and every gaming session is different," said Liz Schuh, who directs publishing and licensing for Dungeons & Dragons. "We want to take that idea of the players crafting that experience to the next level and say: 'Help us craft the rules. Help us craft how this game is played.'"

Dungeons & Dragons, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, was the first commercially published role-playing game when it came out in 1974. In the game, imagination is the playscape, assisted by graph-paper maps, miniature figurines of orcs and hobbits and a referee called a "dungeon master," who moderates an improvised story with a pretend fellowship of wizards, warriors and rogues. Players toss polyhedral dice and consult tomes of rules to determine outcomes.

But Dungeons & Dragons has slumped, buffeted by forces external and internal. The company doesn't 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.

Electronic games have done the most damage, as entries such as "World of Warcraft" and the currently hot-selling "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" let players (represented by tricked-out avatars) conquer acres of fantastically rendered digital landscapes without the need for hours of time spent writing the story line and sketching Middle-earth-like maps.

Edition wars also have wounded the game. Various rules systems have been released over Dungeons & Dragons' 38-year history. Devotion to particular rules can be fanatical. Hostilities about how to play the game best -- for example, how a sorcerer casts spells -- flare up among the core fan base.

With the new edition and the call for feedback, in a "hearts and minds" campaign, Wizards of the Coast is attempting to rally players to the cause. The strategy centers on asking them what they'd like to see in a new version and giving everyday gaming groups the chance to test new rules. Greg Tito, games editor for the Escapist, an online games culture magazine, will be one of them.

"The long open testing period for the next edition, if handled correctly, could be exactly what's needed to make players feel invested in D&D again," he said.

The rule changes are part of several efforts to keep the brand relevant. Wizards of the Coast already publishes a steady stream of products set in the D&D universe: fantasy novels (by authors such as R.A. Salvatore), comic books and board games. To combat the perception that the game requires hours of planning, the company organizes weekly drop-in sessions called D&D Encounters, run in game shops nationwide; they're billed as an easy way "to fit your game in after school or work."

Wizards of the Coast also has made previous forays into the digital realm. "Dungeons & Dragons Online" was released in 2006. Since becoming free to play, the game has gained more than 1 million new players, an impressive figure for D&D but relatively insignificant compared with the 10-million-plus paid subscribers for "World of Warcraft." A Facebook game called "Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of Neverwinter" made its debut last fall.

Still, a new edition could backfire, if the changes requested by hard-core fans can't be reconciled or if players believe the company is merely paying lip service to their concerns. Nonetheless, the company remains "absolutely committed" to the core tabletop game play, Schuh said. "People want that face-to-face experience."

Certainly, committed players will remind you that tabletop role-playing games still outperform computer games in one key arena: improvisation. Video games have limits. Some dungeon doors can't be opened because a programmer didn't code them to open. Dungeons & Dragons remains a game where anything can happen.

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