D&D Vs The Modern Age

A comment in a recent post at Grognardia by cibet talks about World of Warcraft and its tendency to sap new potential D&D players away from the hobby. In particular, cibet suggests that if WoW existed in 1985 he and his friends would have abandoned D&D and never looked back. That may be true, I honestly couldn’t say, but I personally think that D&D has to compete with WoW in the same way that WoW has to compete with Final Fantasy or Dragon Age: Origins: they compete for time, but do not fill the same niches. I didn’t start in this hobby from an early age like a lot of the commenters at Grognardia, and while WoW wasn’t around when I was growing up, video games were. In addition, while in high school, I had my share of trying a rules-none form of RPGs in online chat rooms. Oddly enough, despite this, I never really got into WoW, so my perspective here may be a bit skewed. Over there I talked about this briefly, but I’d like to flesh out a bit more what lessons I think that the D&D hobby as a whole needs to and can learn from WoW.

To start, I’ve noticed two very common events that have a tendency to kill, or prevent D&D groups from playing:

  1. DM Burnout
  2. Inability to Coordinate Schedules

From what I’ve read, the famous and long running campaigns (for example, Gary Gygax’s or the Ryth campaign) were as long running as they were in part because they tried to work around these two issues. Most of them had multiple DMs, and while they often had a regular play time and core group, they also had a constant and ever rotating set of players. In particular, it appears that games were played regardless of whether everyone showed up, and people dropped in or out as they could play.

Today, when I play in or read about modern campaigns, I see a fixed (and small) number of players, and one DM with the world on his shoulders. Inevitably if the DM find himself growing tired with running the game or the story, or if the schedule of 1 or 2 players changes or  they stop playing, the campaign will likely come to a grinding halt. This is actually why I haven’t had news on the game fronts recently, because of schedule changes both campaigns have ground to a (hopefully temporary) halt.

WoW (and other CRPGs) doesn’t scratch the same itches that D&D does (at least to me) but they do solve both of these problems almost completely. Aside from the scheduled guild meet, a player can jump into WoW any time they want, and drop right out again. The DM will never get tired of the game, and will never need to reschedule. And when players can get a group together, it doesn’t matter who is able to show up.

So how can D&D compete with this? Obviously, there could be more massive local games in the spirit of the old Gygax games, but people that are willing to open their homes like that are few and far between. Instead (or rather, in addition) D&D needs to take advantage of the ability of the internet to bring large groups of people together. They key components I think are:

  1. Large, semi-permanent settings with room for multiple groups and multiple DMs
  2. An easy way to migrate characters between games
  3. Quality, but simple Virtual Table Top software
  4. A virtual lobby to meet players and groups 24/7
  5. Quick chat, preferably voice
  6. Live play, not Play By Post or Play By Email

So where are we along this path? Well, as far as #6 goes, D&D online these days appears to be mostly PPB/PPE, but the tools aren’t quite there yet. Which kind of segues into #3. There is a lot of VTT software out there, but the problem with a lot of them is that they are fairly complex. That isn’t to say that players and DMs couldn’t learn the software (obviously they do as the popularity of rptools shows), but to make this work the software needs to be as simple as a real world table top, with markers and paper as possible. My vote so far has been the Gametable project which seems to be one of the simplest ones I’ve come across. Unfortunately, no VTT project I’ve found comes with an integrated voice chat server, leaving players to Skype, Google Voice or Ventrillo to solve issue #5. And as far as I know, there’s no good central 24/7 lobby of gamers, failing issue #4.

Massive settings aren’t quite as common these days as I think they used to be, owing to more DMs wanting to create and run their own world. That said, there are some, including a new (old) one coming from Frog God Games. On the #2 front, Jeff and Zack have really moved things along with their FLAILSNAILS Conventions.

Obviously we have a lot of the disparate pieces, but nothing in a cohesive whole. What I would love to see is a software package like Gametable, with an integrated voice server and a server tracker component. Users of the VTT software would start up and connect to the tracker, which would list all the other users and their statuses like LFG, LFP etc. The trackers wouldn’t actually host the games, it would simply be a way to allow players and DMs to find who is online right now. Combined with some big settings and FLAILSNAILS, I think a single integrated package like this would have real potential at helping D&D flourish in an online connected world.

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