Last week, Wizards of the Coast announced the ‘last’ edition of D&D.
I have thoughts…
One of the central pillars of the Metaverse Texts I’ve been noodling over all summer is that Dungeons & Dragons and ‘computing’ are two ideas bound tightly up with one another. Like a helix of DNA intertwined influencing and shaping each other and the world. One of the benefits of making an essay podcast weekly is that I can go back and pinpoint the exact seed of this idea.
Given that my book is about the Metaverse, computing and D&D – the One D&D announcement couldn’t have come at a better time.
I started writing up my thoughts about the news and details we have so far – through the lens of a World Runner and it got a bit long. My day job is about worlds, worlding and the metaverse. I hope my public ‘notes to self’ here are some benefit to the wider TTRPG community, and also virtual world designers etc.
I can promise you there are more insights and original thinking in the post below, than I could find in several hours of watching what passes for ‘commentary’ on this topic on Youtube.
World Running commentary is marked in Grey.
Asides and meta commentary are marked in Green
Before we dive in lets dispel any illusions readers who aren’t total nerds may have.
D&D is absolutely fucking massive.
Forbes reported back 2020, that Dungeons and Dragons had passed 50 million players.
The company claims that over 50 million people have played Dungeons & Dragons to date and that 2020 was the seventh year of consecutive growth for the game.
Fortnite in comparison (the media darling of the metaverse) only has 45million players.
Also worth noting are the demographics: The overwhelming age bracket of Fortnite players is 18-24 age range – 2/3 of players, or 62.7%. Fortnite also skews 72.4% male. D&D therefore is played by way more (and different types of people).
In their 2020 annual investor report (P4), Hasbro announced that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) had its best year ever. Generating $816 million in revenue. (This figure includes D&D and other IPs managed by WoTC. Including that other nerd-tastic juggernaut Magic: The Gathering.)
As I’ll discuss in more detail shortly, it’s also important to remember that D&D is nearly 50 years old. When you sit down to play a game of D&D you are participating in a social technology that is very mature.
Anyways, here’s the trailer for the next iteration of D&D:
Let’s start with the title. World reveal! this stands out to me immediately.
The world in question isn’t so much the setting or lore of D&D – but the wider system – the ‘world of D&D’ as meta object.
That meta object consists of D&D includes (off the top of my head): WotC as the IP owners, the game rules, the players, the source books, the wider D&D compatible publishing ecosystem, but also the huge fan media ecosystem: podcasts, youtubers, and livestreamers, etc. Managing a franchise like D&D must be a hugely complicated task from a world running point of view.
For nearly a decade, millions of players around the world have enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition. You’ve shared your adventures at the gaming table with us, as well as your feelings about what you love most about the game—and what you think can be improved. And we’ve heard you.
One D&D is the codename for the future of D&D and includes:
It’s also good to know that ‘One D&D’ is the working project title/code name. I’m wondering what the eventual term will be? I hope they avoid words like ‘platform’ (and even world tbh). A lot of audience testing is going to be needed for the final name.
D&D Fifth Edition
The explicit call out of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (5e) is useful to orient around if you only know of D&D in the abstract. Growing up in the late 90’s I played a homebrew melange of AD&D 2nd edition, and experienced 3e and 3.5 editions. I’ve never played 4e and but have about 30/40 hours of experience with 5e. But I am a promiscuous RPG fan, I’ve never felt wedded to one game or ruleset.
5e was a significant moment in the history of D&D. Launched in 2014 to coincide with the games 40th anniversary. Rules were streamlined and tightened up across the board. A big focus was placed on making the games rules more accessible for new players. As they say in the trailer the big focus in the 2020’s is making the game more accessible for DM’s.
75,000 play tested 5e before launch in 2014. The total numbers play testing the new D&D beyond/one before its release in 2024 will be an orders of magnitude higher.
New D&D Rules
D&D Rules: We’re updating and expanding the rules of the game, and we’re looking for your feedback to help shape them.
5e rules, sensibilities, and general level of accessibility has been the rock solid foundation underpinning D&D’s dramatic growth in the last decade.
The video states that 5e was the ‘last edition’ of D&D. The updated rules, features and expansions will be a tweaked but not dramatically different. In fact all material released for 5e will also remain compatible with D&D moving forward.
New supplements, rule tweaks etc will all be online. WotC will still be producing books and collectible ‘objects’ but the primary focus of the games reality/rule set will be the digital version.
D&D is now being handled as a dynamic meta-object or world by WotC. No longer bound and book ended by the concept of ‘Editions’. I wonder if Games Workshop will ever take the plunge and announce a *final* version of Warhammer 40k
A World Runner must be cognisant of the nature of time in a world – both Cronos and Kairos. How is time managed?
In a wargame, card game, board game etc we usually find the concept of Turns (Cronos). In realtime graphical virtual worlds, we currently find the concept of narrative eras or Seasons (Kairos) I.E games take place in the narrative context of xyz.
Editions however are diffrent. An edition of D&D, a board game etc are Total Containers. Editions contain ‘everything’ that is true about the world they defines its nature, its Reality.
The ‘world’ of D&D for the last 50 years has been one of editions. Players have ratcheted though one edition to the game to another. Reality is updated and changed. For example: A new edition may bring a new set of rules, that change to the way things get resolved under certain conditions.
A new edition of a game is a bit like updating gravity or physics. It’s still the same world, the same game. Only now it’s different.
Moving away or beyond the concept of editions changes the fundamental nature of D&D’s physics. Reality can still be changed, tweaked. But no longer can it be updated wholesale.
This new approach suggests that WotC have learnt a lot from the Magic the Gathering franchise. Most cards from 30 years ago are still valid – tho some cards have been removed from competition play for balance and mechanical issues (Like breaking the game in certain combinations).
Worlds managed by World Runners without the ‘tick tick’ of editions to change whats true about reality must approach the world with diffrent set of skills. The world must be gardened. The world is no longer a complete object that can be known, designed and controlled. Instead, it must be managed like a bonsai. The world runner must be watchful, hopeful, and make considered inventions with an eye always towards the long term flourishing of the world.
Too many small tweaks made consistently on an ongoing basis however also make for an unpredictable and unstable system. I wonder if new content will be released frequently, but rule tweaks and updates to character tables will only happen every 6 months or something.
A world with no temporal edge or boundary are the opposite of what I call wind-up worlds : Worlds that produces narratives via the unfolding of predetermined ‘mechanical’ characteristics inherent in their system over time.
I don’t have a snappy name for this. Suggestions in the comments please!
D&D Beyond: The digital toolset joined the Wizards of the Coast family in 2022, and we want to make it even better.
D&D Beyond was/is an official digital rule/toolset for 5e Dungeons & Dragons. Originally incubated by Fandom.com, the app and ecosystem was acquired by Hasbro earlier this year (2022) for $146.3 million.
Since 2017, D&D Beyond has helped to power DUNGEONS & DRAGONS tabletop play and deliver the brand’s eighth consecutive year of growth in 2021. Over the last three years, the royalty paid to Hasbro by D&D Beyond has represented a significant contribution to the fastest growing source of revenue for DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. The strategic acquisition of D&D Beyond will deliver a direct relationship with fans, providing valuable, data-driven insights to unlock opportunities for growth in new product development, live services and tools, and regional expansions.
The first thing that came to mind about the acquisition though a the lens of World Running earlier this year was that WotC have essentially acquired an analytics platform. For the first time (beyond play testing and feedback) the makers of D&D now have insight in to who, what and how people are playing D&D. This is a pretty big change to the nature of ‘the world’ from the designers point of view. The worlds edge, ie the boundary or limits to what is known about the meta-object-as-world of D&D has been expanded beyond anecdote.
As the IRL world has changed, so has the way the D&D is played. Whilst I’m a sucker for a piece of paper/character sheet, everyone now has a computer with them at all times. We have tablets and other digital tools that we can bring with us to the table, and the world, when we play.
D&D Beyond’s acquisition is a key piece of infrastructure for managing the ‘meta’ of the world of D&D. With the management of D&D moving towards a sensibility more akin to ‘gardening’, the ability to keep players rulesets tweaked and updated in real time is a great boon to managing the dynamics of a system with 50million players.
It’s very clear that WotC are going after both Roll 20 and Tailspire with this move to digital first rulebooks and game management.
Easily create characters, organize games, purchase content, find players, and customize your story for your group – all in your browser.
TaleSpire is an online, digital, graphical way of playing classic P&P Role-playing games with your friends. As a DM, build your campaign in-game and invite your players for sessions.
Both my posts about how individuals navigate code-spaces and the way platforms capture value are relevant to WotC going after Roll 20 and Tailspire. They basically came out and said this in the press release:
more than 80% of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS fans having already played the game virtually in 2021, aided by online digital platforms such as D&D Beyond, this acquisition accelerates the game’s ability to penetrate new markets, gather valuable consumer insights and provide players with the best DUNGEONS & DRAGONS experience on all platforms.
TLDR: If so many people are playing our game in this way, then we would like them to play it on our platform. There is a lot of value out there to capture.
I’ve written perviously about how D&D and table top games are Permissive IPs. WotC have a very good relationship with fan content and licensing their brand out. The full integration of D&D Beyond in to the reality of playing D&D suggests that there could be a real oppertunity for WotC to embrace Power Fandoms and really foreground players ‘doing their thing’ in the world of D&D.
Digital D&D Play Experience: Announced during Wizards Presents, D&D Digital is an immersive tabletop space that is in early development.
WotC announced they are using EPIC games’ Unreal Engine to build a fully graphical table top simulation of D&D.
The 2020 Hasbro investor report says that WotC has been making a huge investments in digital capability. This is obviously the output of some of that investment:
Oh boy people have kicked off.
This Kotaku article does a great job summarising most of the objections in one paragraph.
services like the upcoming “D&D Digital” are starting to look more and more like video games, at what point are we just playing an MMO or something like Diablo? Will the service calculate all the math? What room does it leave for house rules? Will this new digital toolset require a cutting-edge GPU to run? What monetization efforts will Wizards implement, and how will those impact the experience of playing the game? How much technical skill is required to set these virtual environments up? Can we just automate the role of a Dungeon Master and have an AI system handle all the challenges? You know, like in a video game?
Before we come back to Digital D&D and why its important for the metaverse I want to briefly talk about:
D&D Is a Social Technology
Dungeons & Dragons is a social technology.
D&D arrived during the 1970’s. A decade of absolutely wild aesthetic, cultural, and political and social innovation. It’s crazy to me that Soul Train, Punk Rock, Computing, Pinball, D&D/Roleplay, and Studio 54/Disco are all concurrent. The 1970’s were an accelerated flowering of creativity that was squashed and flattened by the forces of neoliberalism.
For nearly 50 years D&D has been container (or blueprint) for managing how people (working towards a shared goal or ambition) should interact and behave with one another together around a table.
D&D represents an innovation in the fast construction of a shared set of social norms and grammars understood by its participants.
I think that 100% of all meetings at the office would benefit from D&D like social grammars. A meeting’s chair is a DM. Managing who gets to speak, when, and for how long is fundamental to human conviviality.
BOOK PEOPLE: Check out The Postmodern Joy of Role-Playing Games: Agency, Ritual and Meaning in the Medium – Studies in Gaming by Schallegger 2018
BOOK PEOPLE: Check out Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventure from Chess to Role-Playing Games. It’s one of the BEST books I’ve ever read. If you want to understand what ‘the fuck is going on‘ with the post post-modern world. Check it out.
One of my favourite books about RPG history is also by Peterson:
In Elusive Shift, Jon divides players who encountered the first edition of D&D rule set in mid 1970’s in to two kinds camps: Story People and Games people.
This dichotometic distinction between player types still exists throughout the hobby all the way into the present. Essentially, the two types of play styles are defined by the context in which the players encountered the social technology known as D&D:
War Gamers vs Science Fiction Fandom / ‘Drama Nerds’.
D&D of course emerged from wargames: The simulation of reality with tokens moved spatially on a map or board with dice animating the resolution of events within the simulation via chance.
The other part D&D’s lineage emerges from the 19th Century Prussian wargaming practice of Kriegsspiel. Characterised by high realism, an emphasis on the experience of decision-making rather than on competition, and the use of an umpire to keep the rules flexible. Kriegsspiel is a kind of LARP, or military play acting that would be easier understood today by who practice Improv.
See my World Running discussion with Dr Alex Fradera on the nature of worlds, trust and improv.
D&D play style comes down to one question. Are you playing with the world (Story people) or against it (Games People).
D&D and the Metaverse
The D&D team are at great pains to explain that the are not building a video game. They are building a virtual tabletop experience they repeatedly refer to as a ‘Play Space‘.
I believe that the Metaverse is a Medium.
The World Wide Web has (unfortunately) been a 30 year long distraction from the business of worlding. Throughout the 1980’s pioneers went online via screeching modems to spend time collaborating, coordinating and exploring worlds together. The context and social technology they used to do so was D&D and TTRPGS
This ‘Play Space’ has more in common with the history and lineage of MUD’s than video games.
WotC have chosen to use a ‘tilt-shift‘ style camera technique because it make things look ‘small’. They want players to feel like they are interacting with miniatures on a virtual table top. I think you’ll agree it’s highly effective.
D&D digital is a play space, a code space a virtual place.
I don’t see any difference between D&D digitals virtual table top and Zoom. There’s no difference between D&D’s play space and a discord channel or group chat.
D&D’s play space is a fantastic evolution on the ‘Code Space’. In 2020 I took a tour though diffrent ‘spatialised’ group chat programs: like gather.town or Brach when I took a close look at the Roblox IPO.
The key innovation, the thing that is most interesting from a world running perspective is just as we use the Room as UX metaphor we can now use a Table Top as UX metaphor too.
D&D digital’s play space will transform the way that people interact online. Instead of sitting on/in a zoom call playing D&D. Players now have a relative location with one another, in a code space. In a world.
One of the key things about building this kind of spatialised code-space for online facilitation and interaction is that whatever WotC build. It will have have a huge downstream influence on the rest of TTRPGs, gaming and quite possibly the whole world.
The new virtual play space, the simulation, will become just as part of the game as the written rules are. I hope WotC release a white paper explaining their thinking around the various moderation tools, design decisions etc. What controls/levers the DM’s, players and NPC’s will all have to shape and change the world?
In fact I think WotC should join/form a metaverse standards body, maybe with Yurgalabs, Epic games etc.
D&D’s digital play space design documention should probably be open sourced.
At the very least there should also be a fully modable white labelled version of the play space engine that players and gamers could make their worlds in. Just as D&D birthed a million indie RPGs, so could their new play space tool.
If D&D truly is an evolving social technology with 50 years of heritage, then it would behoove WotC to work on UX and UI tools to prevent problems like the inevitable cacophony of players yelling over on another through your headphones on a zoom call.
Throughout the two years of the pandemic, our zoom fatigue etc I was surprised that better ways of having and managing conversations didn’t emerge faster – if at all. D&D has a real oppertunity with D&D digital to change the grammars, manners and mores of our society.
What I’ve been describing above: D&D’s play space is a world. A simulation where reality has rules similar or radically different from our own. Unlike the rules system of D&D, the play space will need to have physics etc. D&D digital is a reconnection to D&Ds roots in wargaming.
This approach of course is perfect for ‘Games People‘.
‘Story people’ however are pissed. From their point of view the thing that makes D&D special is the story telling potential that the world of D&D facilitates. The thing that ‘Story People’ love the most about RPGs is Theatre of the Mind gaming.
Story gamers worried that this new digital play space will hinder imaginative play.
Check out the biased language that shows up in D&D fandom when ‘Story People’ get talking about the way the game:
Other DMs—who some might consider to be “purists”—elect to throw out battle mats and miniatures in favor of an imagination-only approach to D&D.
This is called the theater of the mind because everything takes place in the minds of the DM and players. There are no physical representations of what’s happening in the story.
How exactly is D&D played in the theater of the mind? What are the pros and cons of theater of the mind? Let’s take a look.
Theater of the Mind, Explained
Playing D&D with the theater of the mind means you’re playing without any visual representations of what’s occurring in the game. Instead, everything is in the imagination of the players and the dungeon master.
LOL people who play without tokens or miniatures are purists. As someone with aphantasia but also has very very vivid memories of playing TTRPGs, it blows my mind that people play D&D without miniatures!
Without a spacialized play space, D&D is just be people sitting around a table having a chat….. Pretending … Imagining things.
The biggest challenge D&D has always had has been satisfying both Story and Games people. A virtual simulated play space does favour the games people of course. However, it is up to the story people to make this new way of playing D&D work.
It’s up to the people who tell stories from within the D&D ruleset to develop the social manners, grammars and mores for interacting with one another in the metaverse. Just as story people developed successful protocols for sitting around a table together to play the game in the late 1970’s they need to do so again for next level zoom calls.
The defining medium of the 20th Century was our ability to look at the world (and experience it) though the lens.
I really hope that D&D digital’s UX/UI suite comes with a comprehensive set of camera controls.
The language of the lens: its focus, aperture etc allow the operator to communicate intangible emotional cues to the viewer.
Whilst the tilt shift camera is amazing for creating the sense of depth and table top vibes, players should have control over how they are presented to others visually in the adventure/play space.
Just a Zoom or Google meet automatically embiggens the person speaking, I assume the D&D Digital play space will have a camera that moves or cuts between players.
Players should be given control over the location of their model/characters camera. Players should be able to move the camera around their character, pull focus, select focus, set depth of field etc .
They should be able to place their character’s camera to make them look heroic, or move it over the shoulder to see the wizard cast a spell down a long hall way etc.
It’s 2022. Every person alive has some understanding and cinematography and the moving image as visual medium. Players in the D&D play space should be given the ability to express themselves though the eye of a lens.
I do hope I’m making sense here. I really do think a robust set of camera controls in D&D digital would allow Story People to visually tell stories in an integrated cinematic way. The lens is a story telling medium just as words are.
There are lot of people worried that D&D may become a subscription based model.
With further micro transactions for new rules, new campaigns, or new digital character models. I hear them. And I get it, I understand. I hope they will take their cues from MtG online rather than Fortnie/Roblox/Minecrafts microtransaction model.
Consider just how huge D&D already is as a Permissive IP.
D&D as an IP requires players to do their own thing within the toy box the rules provide. The more people are playing D&D (in whatever variant) the better it is for D&D’s IP in general.
Just as we have officially licensed partners selling campaigns and rules presently on DriveThruRPG – I can totally imagine a virtual object and campaign marketplace connected to D&D digital. With both official and user generated content.
Last year I wrote about how HUGE the 3D printing and virtual object file ecosystem is for wargames and tabletop roleplaying games. All the virtual miniatures created in the last few years for 3D printing could be imported in to a D&D digital platform no problem.
Just as the rulebooks are physical, as well as the ongoing worlding of the digital versions – i hope we will be able to own/print/use the same heroic character model both on and offline.
A large chuck of one early chapter in Elusive Shift is dedicated to XP (Experience Points) and the arguments about it that played out in the pages of gaming groups’ fanzines across the country. How should XP be distributed? Is it by fiat? DM’s discretion? Can one player from a D&D group in Indiana bring their level XX character with X0000’s of experience points to the table when they play with people in California?
What is the point of XP? Are you playing pinball trying to get a high score? or is just a ledger system representing time and effort spent *in world*?
The segment of Elusive Shift that covers these early arguments is both highly entertaining and very interesting. Well worth reading.
With D&D’s perviously decentralised player base converging around centralised D&D Beyond and D&D Digital services. I wonder if XP will become more and more harmonised across the player base?
If so, then XP becomes and interesting sub medium within the meta-object of D&D. XP becomes a currency separate from other in world tokens like Gold or gems or whatever.
Roleplaying Games in the Digital Age
Lastly if you’ve read this far, first of all thanks, secondly I’d like to recommend another book:
BOOK PEOPLE: Check out Roleplaying Games in the Digital Age: Essays on Transmedia Storytelling, Tabletop RPGs and Fandom – Ed’s Hedge, Grouling, and Kapell 2021
I must admit, I’m still reading it. But its REALLY REALLY good. I’d live to leave you with this short pull quote from the chapter “Gameplay Experiences Meet Digital Affordances”.