The Next Big D&D Experience Looks Like A Video Game, And That's A Problem

The Next Big D&D Experience Looks Like A Video Game, And That’s A Problem

Gif: Wizards Of The Coast / Kotaku

Last week, Wizards of the Coast announced its plans for what the world’s most popular roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons, will look like in the next few years. Alongside a refresh of the rules (which Wizards promises will be fully compatible with every fifth edition book that’s been published previously), some long-neglected, fan-favorite settings are finally making a return. What’s more, a new digital toolset that uses Unreal Engine 5 to render maps and miniatures will do all of the imagining, and maybe the math, for you. New rules will get debated and can always be cast aside in favor of house rules, so that doesn’t concern me. A push for a more complex set of 3D tools, however, I think runs the risk of altering not just the game, but potentially the hobby itself.

The last major update to the core rules of Dungeons & Dragons arrived in 2014 after the “D&D Next” playtest eased the transition out of the divisive fourth edition set of rules. Fifth edition, which could be described as a kind of “greatest hits” of various rules from previous editions, has been something of a neo-Golden Age for the game. But instead of moving on to a new edition, Wizards states that upcoming changes to the game will simply fall under the umbrella of its new “One D&D” initiative. That initiative will see a backwards-compatible refresh of the current rules (undergoing public playtesting right now) along with a variety of official digital tools, facilitated by Wizards parent company Hasbro’s recent acquisition of D&D Beyond, a platform with a suite of digital resources such as purchasable rules expansions and virtual character sheets.

Wizards Of The Coast

The presentation—a “direct to fan virtual event” called Wizards Presents 2022—revealed that the company wants to move away from the concept of “editions” entirely. Wizards will instead update the rules to represent “where the game is presently” for the upcoming books in 2024. What lies beyond that isn’t entirely clear, but the new “One D&D” concept seems to be a departure from the standard, giant rules reformatting that we’ve seen in the past, with numbered editions representing what are essentially wildly different games under the same name.

If you were along for the ride during the days of D&D Next, or have taken part in other playtests, such as TTRPG publisher Paizo’s playtests for the second edition of the fantasy RPG Pathfinder, then this process is familiar to you. Similar to what we see with public beta tests for video games, the playtest materials aim to assess how functional and popular the upcoming changes are. During this process, it should be safe to assume that nothing is permanent until the three updated core books start shipping in 2024. And even then, hey, it’s a TTRPG; we can house-rule it anyway we want.

Kotaku has reached out to Wizards of the Coast for some clarity on rules changes and, in some cases, on things that are staying the same. One example of this is the term “race,” which was used during the presentation and exists in the current playtest PDF. Other TTRPG companies have moved away from this word in recent years while addressing issues of representation, identity, and the history of gaming’s treatment of characters of different “races” in both the mechanics and the stories that are told in their respective game. Simply changing the word “race” to “species” or “ancestry” is not the magic solution to what has been a problem of representation since the inception of these kinds of fantasy games; rather, it’s more of where the work begins in making a game more inclusive and aware. That’s not to say Wizards of the Coast isn’t doing that work, though keeping a term that the industry and community is moving away from is an interesting choice.

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But perhaps the most dramatic potential change coming to the game isn’t so much in the rules or in the terms the game uses or doesn’t use for its varied concepts, which will be debated and shaped and formed over the years to come, but rather in the reveal of a virtualized playspace for the game running on Unreal Engine 5.

Shown off during the “Wizards Presents 2022” livestream, D&D’s digital resources don’t start and end at virtual character sheets and digital books. The company is producing a fully 3D-rendered playspace using Epic Games’ popular video game engine and the result is something that looks, well, like a video game. While the presentation highlighted the use of a “tilt-shift” camera effect to make everything look like miniatures on a table, these are otherwise clearly 3D-rendered models, with hud elements to indicate movement position and current hit points, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that a variety of pretty special effects will be used for casting spells and scoring critical hits. Though Wizards has made no indication that things are headed this way, it’s also easy to imagine such effects or other cosmetic touches possibly even being sold as we often see in many video game “cosmetic” shops. The company already sells different colors and designs of digital dice as microtransactions within D&D Beyond, so it’s not too far-fetched perhaps to suspect that similar arrangements may exist in this new digital offering.

An orc stands at the ready for battle.

Screenshot: Wizards Of The Coast / Kotaku

Since the pandemic, playing a TTRPG virtually has become a very common part of the hobby, and there are a wide variety of options available for gathering folks together. For many groups, simply hopping on a Zoom call or Discord server is enough to sit around and roleplay together, just allowing the theater of the mind to paint the scene. For others, services like Roll20 or apps like Foundry VTT provide the means to auto-calculate rules, as well as portray tokens on a two-dimensional map, often with visual effects to obscure vision and change line of sight. I would argue, however, that what Wizards is doing with this new playspace (and they’re not alone with this) is a step in a different direction, one that I think could potentially divide the hobby depending on how it’s implemented.

For one, as 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?

I’ve played in games of D&D online with people running the bare minimum of laptop specs and have had great experiences that way. The thought that I might need to send people a list of “spec” requirements for a game of remote D&D, however, isn’t something I can get excited about. Kotaku has reached out to Wizards of the Coast to shine some more light on the potential twists and turns of an official, fully-realized 3D playspace. Streaming technologies like Google Stadia could make a difference here. For now, I remain very skeptical of this inclusion. Part of what makes D&D so wonderful is that its rules and imaginative presentation aren’t limited by a digital set of “if this then that” instructions and purchasable pixels, and I worry about what we’ll lose by straying from that.

During Wizards Presents 2022, the virtualized playspace was described as an “immersive” tool that would “ take care of the lazy DM.” Few words describe anything more poorly than “immersive.” Why is it immersive? Because 3D? How do we define “immersive?” That’s maybe a deeper philosophical conversation. The term “lazy DM” is an odd one, though, because I’m not entirely sure what it means in this context. Running a roleplaying game can certainly be a daunting task, so the use of tools to help you sort through or remind you of certain rules is of course welcome, and using them is nothing to be ashamed of, any more than bookmarking a section of a book for quick reference would be. While the video suggests that ready-made dungeons will be available for the 3D playspace, it also shows environment adjustment similar to altering models in something like Blender 3D or Unreal Engine itself. I wonder how “simple” it will be to work with this environment, what its quirks are, and how that’s going to aid a “lazy DM.”

A player uses a tablet during a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Screenshot: Wizards Of The Coast / Kotaku

Anyone who’s played on a virtual tabletop platform has undoubtedly experienced the hiccups and challenges of managing the “software,” which is a distinctly separate process from learning the rules and running the game. Sometimes the lighting or “fog of war” settings don’t work correctly. Backdrops don’t always scale appropriately. Map markers to indicate area of attack effects or drawing line of sight can be buggy or can appear in spaces you didn’t want them to. “How do I do X?” is a question I’ve encountered frequently on VTTs, and it’s more often a question about how to manage some quirk of the software than it is about how to roll a saving throw. It’s often the case that you’ll spend more time setting up a virtual tabletop than you will just designing an encounter and playing.

The video stylishly shows players sitting around a table where a laptop connects to this digital playspace. It’s not clear if this 3D space will be something Wizards hopes will play a role during in-person games, or strictly online, but setting all of this stuff up, potentially needing a computer with enough graphics power to run Unreal Engine 5, and managing a more complex digital playspace than what we have in a 2D offering like Roll20 doesn’t fully vibe with “lazy” to me.

Also, how open is Wizards going to be about changing the functions of this playspace to match the desires of the community? Will there be a “beta” of this similar to a playtest? How easily can a DM fudge the numbers of a stat block? Or come up with DCs on the fly?

One of the reasons I (and I suspect some may feel similarly) was drawn into the world of tabletop roleplaying games in the first place isn’t so much about the potential of the games themselves, but rather the potential of the human brain, something no computer can match in terms of freedom and processing power. Roleplaying games exist in the mind first. Maps and 2D VTTs often provide a bit of help for spatial awareness and clarity for map-based combat rules. 3D graphics can help a video game feel more “immersive,” but that’s because video games exist in silicon and come to us. Roleplaying games exist in our brains and extend outwards. This 3D playspace of Wizards, I find, reverses the very premise of the game itself.

Admittedly, D&D has its roots in wargaming, a hobby where miniatures are essential. Many people invest countless amounts of money and hours into collecting, building, and painting miniatures. I don’t think anyone would suggest that Wizards’ new 3D playspace is going to replace that at all. What I fear it will do, however, is move beyond the “blueprint” nature of maps and 2D VTTs and start to feel like a set of strict, digital limitations and expectations of what our games will look and play like, with all of the available options determined by what Wizards feels is important for us. Much of the presentation that announced this talked about the need for D&D to allow you to be whoever you want to be. Once we start building 3D spaces, however, “whoever” becomes narrowed down to the choices of which set of pixels the company is interested in selling.

3D modeled Kobolds stare menacingly at the camera.

Screenshot: Wizards Of The Coast / Kotaku

I’m not above paying for digital assets. I happily paid $50 for a license for Foundry VTT and often buy PDF maps from DriveThruRPG. But there’s also so much great stuff we’re currently empowered to do without spending money. In current VTTs, I regularly ask players to find cool character portraits on Pinterest, then toss those images into something like TokenTool to stamp out neat-looking tokens for us to have on Foundry. And we can select the color of our digital dice in that app without paying anyone. Will this 3D playspace from Wizards offer the same digital freedom I get with current VTTs? And are fancy 3D graphics via the Unreal Engine worth that trade-off?

As I was watching the presentation, I was reminded of a game I ran at Gen Con last year. Set in Monte Cook Games’ Ptolus, the players had to go deep beneath the city for the usual reasons a group of adventurers travel into dangerous spaces. Before descending beneath the city, they got some advice about what to expect from a lonely ratfolk named Elbow hanging out in the city dump. Elbow had no stats. I came up with him on the fly more or less. I had a vague idea of who he was before the game, but I was a lazy DM and figured I’d just fudge the numbers or flip to a random NPC’s stats if it came to a matter of rolling dice. He was simply a narrative concept, someone who didn’t need defined attributes to necessarily exist, but was there for the story.

Elbow lost his brother, another ratfolk who had a love of gunpowder but ended up falling into the clutches of a cult. Elbow suspected his brother might still be alive under the city, and begged the player characters to find him. The PCs ventured down into the labyrinth below and got into an epic brawl with a wasp queen. While they did indeed find Elbow’s brother, time was running short and I wanted to make the brothers’ reunion impactful. So, I randomly thought it would be hilarious, epic, and thrilling to have Elbow use improvised explosives from his brother’s gunpowder stash to blow a hole from the surface down to the chamber where the PCs were fighting.

Because I was using a writeable map with a dry erase marker, and simple tokens, all of the impact and thrill of this could just be done on the fly, with the theater of the mind doing the bulk of the “processing power” for the game. How easy will it be in this new 3D playspace Wizards will offer for me to toss in sudden changes and not have them feel like a wild departure? How quickly can I come up with secret rooms I didn’t plan for, because I might’ve been lazy in my prep, but in the moment thought of something that seemed interesting? How much do I need to know about 3D modeling to shape that? How can I describe a ratfolk blowing his way through the ceiling and potentially setting tons of shit on fire in an epic climax to a fight and have the 3D playspace keep up with the breakneck speed of improv?

Right now, I’m not convinced of what this new 3D playspace will add to existing games, at least not for me. Predefined environments with pixels that require software knowledge is harder to manage than a space I’ve imagined and am conveying to a table of players. And while I enjoy some of the benefits of digital TTRPG experiences, if Wizards wants to sell me colors of fake dice on D&D Beyond, I wonder what they’re gonna try to sell me on this new platform.

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