Page last updated at 10:46 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

How to put the 'e' in D&D

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

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Will gaming traditionalists accept Dungeons and Dragons leaving the table top for the desktop?

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is the mother of all role-playing games.

Before World of Warcraft, Everquest, Meridian 59, Zork and pretty much every other multi-user dungeon or text adventure was D&D.

Since its publication in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, D&D has been relentlessly old-school and most of those that play it do so with paper, pencil and polyhedral dice.

But this year Wizards of the Coast, D&D's current owner, is adding electronic elements to the game to prepare it for an age in which most fantasy gamers play via computer if they play at all.

"If we want to recruit the next generation of gamers we have to be online, that's clearly the platform where people have chosen to play," said Randy Buehler, vice-president of digital gaming at Wizards of the Coast.

Game on

While many computer games such as Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights have appeared before that use a D&D setting and revolve around its rules none, said Mr Buehler, have captured what is special about the game.

As in many fantasy-based computer games, D&D is all about picking a role for a character to play, be that warrior, wizard or thief, and then sending that character on an adventure.

The crucial difference is that in D&D you do not thrust that character into a dungeon overseen by a computer - instead the overseer is another person. In D&D parlance they are known as a Dungeon Master (DM).

Screengrab of D&D Insider, Wizards of the Coast
The electronic elements aim to help players master the game

The DM is the kind or cruel god who controls the monsters found in the dungeon, plays every character you meet on the way to the lost tombs and makes the whole experience a frustration and a delight.

"Without that human element you are limited to what's been programmed in by the designer," said Mr Buehler.

"What's missing is the imagination and improvisation. If we can capture that we win."

The electronic extras for D&D are collectively known as D&D Insider and give players a variety of digital tools to aid and abet that formerly paper-based play.

"The idea is that you can play it as 100% table-top experience, or 100% electronic or somewhere in between," said Mr Buehler.

The most ambitious part of D&D Insider is the game table - a virtual space where players can join and in which they can play out an adventure overseen by a human DM.

Other elements include online character generators that take novices and veterans through the bewildering array of choices that confront anyone creating a D&D character and taking it on several different adventures.

Also available is a character visualiser, access to all the D&D rulebooks ever printed and a few online tools to help get characters going.

Player power

But, said Charles Ryan, a veteran D&D player and spokesman for games firm Esdevium, there's no guarantee that E-D&D will catch on.

While putting lots of reference works in one place and producing tools to help people generate characters would undoubtedly be welcome, will that drive people to play D&D online?

Last Night of the Proms, PA
For some players playing online strips out the atmosphere

"It's an open question," said Mr Ryan. "With the older-style guys, it's going to vary."

Despite this, said Mr Ryan, there was real appeal in having a virtual space around which D&D players who would not otherwise meet could gather.

"The older you get, it gets harder to get that group together," he said. "You are looking at your diaries to see if you can play, if you can get babysitters and so on."

"I can go back and play D&D now and play just an hour a night," he said.

For some regular D&D players the chance to go online and play is not so tempting.

"It's like watching a concert on TV; you just do not get the atmosphere," said Alexander Simkin, organiser of the D&D group on the Meetup website.

"I've been to the Last Night of the Proms and seen it on telly and it's a completely different experience," he said.

"I think you can simulate some aspects by playing it online but I don't think you can capture all of it," he added.

His comments were echoed by Mark Brown, a player who only took up D&D in October 2007 and is keen convert to playing it face-to-face.

"I think it's much better to get together with a group of friends and use your imagination," Mr Brown said. "When you do it on a computer you don't have that."

But, he said, he could understand Wizards of the Coast's strategy of launching it to tempt youngsters who were more familiar with World of Warcraft.

Also, he added, it could prove useful for those who cannot find a D&D group nearby.

"If you cannot play it any other way, if there's an online version that could really help," he said.

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