Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Dream of Dungeons & Dragons

Way back when I was a kid, I knew about Dungeons & Dragons long before I got to play it. This was the era where D&D toys were on the shelves and a D&D cartoon played on Saturday mornings. There were commercials on tv for D&D and ads in comic books promising untold fantasy adventure. I was captivated by it, so much so that I vividly remember having a dream about what it must be like to play D&D.

In my dream, D&D was more like a board game than an rpg because I didn't yet really understand what an rpg was. As I imagined it, the players gathered around a special table that had been set up with a three-dimensional dungeon map. They bought figures for their characters and the monsters they wanted to use--each sold separately, of course. The map had walls with secret doors embedded in them, pit traps that would drop your character's figure into peril, and portals from which monsters would emerge to challenge you. The table had built in special FX: you could trigger sounds of agony when a character was slain, the crack of a bolt of lightning being unleashed, the creak of an iron-bound door being opened...

It was probably possible to play D&D like that in the 80s if you had the time and money to put into it, but when I finally got my hands on a Basic D&D box set we instead made do with graph paper and our imaginations. We were young teenagers lucky to have weird-shaped dice; even lead miniatures (yes, they were made out of lead then) were often out of our economic reach.

Oddly, I think WotC's future plans for D&D are a lot like my dream of what it was like--save for the fact that they plan to dole out the special table, the interactable map, the characters, the monsters, the special FX, and everything else virtually. Linking D&D more closely to a virtual tabletop, parceling out fun bits of the game as loot boxes or as a subscription service is not that far from what I envisioned.

And therein lies the rub. I got into D&D because I thought it would be fun to have all that fantasy stuff at my disposal, but I kept playing D&D because it was fun to make my own fantasy stuff. 

I have no use for a virtual tabletop--I mostly play online and I've never felt the need for one. I haven't pushed a miniature around a series of one-inch squares in years. Special FX? That's what our words and our minds are for; our FX budget is higher than anything you could try to sell us.

I think the fight over the OGL 1.0 is largely a red herring. The OGL has never been as good a deal as people make it out to be. In fact, I tend to think of it as a byproduct of people internalizing the idea that they need corporate permission to be creative, and to me that is a horrifying, stultifying notion. But don't take my word for it: here's the Electronic Frontier Foundation's analysis of it.

The good news is that however the OGL shakes out, it doesn't matter that much for the hobby. Tired of Hasbro's shenanigans? Yes, there are other games you could try, and it looks like a whole bunch of new Not Quite D&Ds are headed our way from teams with the experience to pull it off. And you already probably own enough D&D books to keep playing until they throw handfuls of dirt on the lid of your casket.