by Gene Turnbow
Fantasy roleplaying gamers have been waiting for Wizards of the Coast to fix Dungeons & Dragons for a long time. The game, also called D&D, was originally by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for TSR Hobbies in 1972. Then, as now, it was played using nothing more than hand drawn maps laid out on quadrille paper by dedicated Dungeon Masters (“DM’s”) and a small collection of dice having varying numbers of faces. A D&D game then, as now, was a social event, a fun way for friends to spend time together and play often to the wee hours of the morning fighting dragons and orcs, and adventuring in the fantasy world profoundly influenced by J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Imagination was king, and the game is often credited with being the genesis of all modern RP gaming and fundamentally responsible for much of the current computer game industry.
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 in an interview with the New York Times.
D&D has also been the center of controversy in the gaming community due to the various radical revisions of the rule system over its 38 year history. Basic, Advanced, Advanced 2nd edition, 3.0, 3.5, and most recently 4.0 which made its appearance in 2008. This last version, though, shifted the playing paradigm to combat rather than the roots of imagination that had been the essence of the game’s popularity to that point, and the fans rebelled. The new rule system appeared more closely modeled on World of Warcraft than anything else, and was seen as a move in a distinctly wrong direction. For the first time, a new version of D&D was not backwards compatible with the older rule sets. The magic system, used from the beginning, had been discarded. The open community participation previously fostered by Wizards of the Coast had snapped tighter than Tupperware, and they had stopped listening to the fans in any major regard and tried a bean-counter-driven mimicry of WoW. The fan’s response was a substantial exodus to other rule sets that bore more substantial similarity to D&D 3.5, such as Pathfinder.
Fortunately for all concerned, Wizards of the Coast has finally recognized that they screwed all this up in 2008, and they want to fix it. In a January 9 post on their web site they announced that they’re going to have open playtests of the new planned ruleset for D&D 5.0.
From the Wizards site:
[W]e are excited to share with you that starting in Spring 2012, we will be taking this process one step further and conducting ongoing open playtests with the gaming community to gather feedback on the new iteration of the game as we develop it. With your feedback and involvement, we can make D&D better than ever. We seek to build a foundation for the long-term health and growth of D&D, one rooted in the vital traits that make D&D unique and special.
We want a game that rises above differences of play styles, campaign settings, and editions, one that takes the fundamental essence of D&D and brings it to the forefront of the game. In short, we want a game that is as simple or complex as you please, its action focused on combat, intrigue, and exploration as you desire. We want a game that is unmistakably D&D, but one that can easily become your D&D, the game that you want to run and play.
So Wizards of the Coast is looking for fan participation. They have already started a small playtest for Friends & Family, which basically amounts to internal employees and friends. The next step is a special playtest at the D&D Experience convention later this month. The final step is the open playtesting that will involve the release of rules and other materials through the website.