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Is Free-to-Play the saviour of Dungeons & Dragons?

Dungeons and Dragons 5eor, Don’t play World of Warcraft at its own game

Everybody’s favourite roleplaying game… No, wait. The biggest roleplaying game in the… No. That’s not quite right... Dungeons and Dragons - you’ve heard of it, you might have played it, you know it has, from time to time, been a big deal - is back back BACK! And this time it means business...

The latest, fifth edition of the game has begun its summer-long release schedule: the Starter Set (basic rules plus an introductory adventure) is out now, and the Player’s Handbook (the first of the three ‘core’ rulebooks) is released next month. More books and adventures in this opening salvo are due over the next few months. But I’m not here to talk about this new edition and whether it’s any good (it kind of is, though), I’m here to talk about a significant new initiative Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s publisher, hereafter ‘Wizards’) is taking to get people playing the game.

First, a spot of history. As I said, this is the fifth edition of D&D. The first and second edition happened; that’s all you need to know about them for now. Then along came third edition, which was built on a set of rules, called the d20 System, that Wizards released as a kind of roleplaying ‘open source’ experiment. Their reasoning was simple: other companies could build games and expansions with the d20 System rules and they’d be compatible with D&D. This would increase the take-up of D&D-style gaming in general, bringing more players to D&D - and more money to Wizards. It seemed to work and all was going well - until Wizards decided it was time to usher in D&D’s fourth edition. But before we get there, we have some facts to establish:

The third edition of D&D was released in 2000. The massively multiplayer online (MMO) roleplaying game World of Warcraft was released in 2004. The fourth edition of D&D was released in 2008.

Some other release dates, for other online roleplaying games: Dungeons and Dragons Online, 2006. The Lord of the Rings Online, 2007. Rift, 2011. Star Wars: The Old Republic, 2011.

World of WarcraftIn 2008, the worldwide player population of World of Warcraft was approximately 11 million; it peaked two years later at just over 12 million. It’s been steadily declining since then, but it still sits healthily in the region of 7 million players, making it comfortably the most successful ever game in the MMO genre.

From its very beginning, D&D created an idea of an adventuring party consisting of a ‘holy trinity’ of character types. A warrior would stand on the front lines, soaking up damage and protecting the rest of the party. A divine magic user (usually a cleric, perhaps a druid) would stand at the back, casting healing spells on the warrior and her other allies. The third part of the trinity would be made up of stabby rogues, fireball-flinging wizards, raging barbarians and sharp-shooting rangers: these would cause enough damage to kill the bad guys that the warrior was keeping busy. These other classes - especially the wizards, with spells that could slow, freeze or disable - were also partly responsible for controlling the battlefield by hampering enemies as much as possible. This added a fourth aspect to the trinity.

Online roleplaying games - of the kind that reached their zenith of popularity with World of Warcraft - adopted this trinity: tank, healer and damage-dealers. They made it necessary. If you embark on the toughest group content in most MMOs without a tank and healer, you are going to fail. Many different character classes could fill these roles. I’ll use World of Warcraft for the following examples, because that’s kind of the point of what has happened over the last six years:

Tanks came in all shapes and sizes: heavily armoured warriors and paladins, druids shapeshifted into barkskinned bears, agile monks, frost-rimed death knights. Healers: Light-worshipping priests, shamans who heal with elemental water, druids using the power of primal nature, paladins shining with divine Light, and mistweaving monks. (Yep, you’re seeing the same classes doing different things - another important theme.) Finally, every class you’ve seen so far has damage-dealing capabilities, as well as the ‘pure’ damage-dealing classes of mage, warlock and hunter. The fourth side of the trinity was represented, too. Many of these classes had various ‘CC’ (crowd control) abilities, which were used to freeze, slow, polymorph, stun or otherwise temporarily incapacitate monsters. And many of them had ‘AOE’ (area of effect) abilties - such as a rain of fire or an ice storm - which could damage many enemies at once. ‘Crowd control’ and ‘area of effect’ are very common terms used by almost all World of Warcraft players and I use them with a very arched eyebrow, and you’re about to see why.

Most other online roleplaying games included this multi-role system for its classes; of the above list, Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic were most notable for doing this, albeit in wildly differing (and highly irrelevant) ways. The motive for this seems to be twofold: it gives players a wider choice of classes with which they can fill their desired role in the party; and it ensures there are plenty of classes who can tank or heal, which are by far the least popular roles in MMO games.

World of WarcraftWhen D&D fourth edition came along, World of Warcraft was reaching the height of its popularity. The wind had been blowing in that direction for some time and it’s clear from the finished fourth edition that the MMO - despite the fact that it had clearly borrowed so much of its ethos, as expressed in its ‘holy trinity’, from the D&D of the 1970s and 80s - had a massive impact on the development of the rules. At no point before this time had the D&D rules explicitly said that the party needed a tank and a healer, as well as a bunch of damage-dealers. But now, D&D’s classes were split into ‘roles’ - four of them, as if to obfuscate what was going on - and their necessity was made clear. I quote, using horrific American spellings as in the original fourth edition rulebook:

Each character class specializes in one of four basic functions in combat: control and area offense; defense; healing and support; and focused offense. The roles embodied by these functions are controller, defender, leader and striker… Character roles identify which classes can stand in for each other. For example, if you don’t have a cleric in your party, a warlord serves just as well in the leader role. Roles also serve as handy tools for building adventuring parties. It’s a good idea to cover each role with at least one character.

Defenders were tanks. Leaders were healers. Strikers were damage-dealers, and controllers wielded CC and AOE abilities. What had started as accepted, but unwritten, tactics in the original D&D had become enshrined in the fourth edition rules as written - expressed through the language and mechanics of World of Warcraft (and similar, earlier games - but come on), where that original four-sided trinity has gained a significant level of familiarity.

Dungeons and Dragons 4eThere is perhaps no other part of the fourth edition rules that makes it clearer: D&D was chasing World of Warcraft’s players. While there were a lot of current roleplaying gamers who were happily playing D&D third edition and ready to test out the new version of the game, it was becoming clear to Wizards (and to anyone who looked) that a lot of youngsters - the kind of early teens who, once upon a time, would try out D&D because Jeff in the year above said it was cool or because their big brother played it last summer - had gravitated towards World of Warcraft and were happily stuck there. Wizards new edition said to them, “Hey, you can play a game just like that round a table, with your friends, and it’s all in your imagination and it’s really good fun!”

What fourth edition was saying was right. Tabletop roleplaying is fun. The only problem is, Wizards’ gambit didn’t work. And it spectacularly didn’t work.

Fourth edition was not a very popular iteration of the D&D rules. A lot of people identified its ‘computer game-iness’ as a problem. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but it had other issues too. In pursuit of fun, it was built to remove a lot of the wrinkles of earlier editions’ rules, but in doing so it ironed out a lot of flavour. The lack of distinction between the classes - especially since they were all designed to plug into one of the trinity’s four roles - was roundly criticised. Despite the proliferation of supplemental rulebooks, each packed with options to add new frills to your character, one striker felt much like another striker, one defender like another. But again, we’re not really here to talk about the quality of fourth edition (fifth edition is better), we’re here to talk about what happened - and what happened was that it wasn’t popular with existing players. More than that, there was a virus in the wild and it was about to mutate…

Paizo, a company that had made a hundred and one d20 System supplements back in the days of third edition, saw which way things were heading (south) and they took the open-source and still-beloved d20 rules and turned them a new, complete roleplaying game of their own. (There’s a pretty ugly extra aspect to this story, but man, has this gone on long enough already!) This game - the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game - was announced in early 2008, went through an ‘open beta test’ where anyone who wanted could download the rules and playtest them, and was finally released in 2009. Ever since, it has steadily grown in popularity among tabletop roleplayers. No one talks about how many people are playing their tabletop games - it’s a number that’s a lot harder to establish than the number of people logging into an online game’s servers - but there has been a sense over recent years that Pathfinder has won.

In 2010, as D&D’s popularity faltered and no significant surge of teens switched off their PCs and sat down with the Player’s Handbook, Wizards shoved out a new, bastardised version of fourth edition - called, due to an apparent total branding breakdown, Dungeons and Dragons Essentials - but it failed to make any kind of splash. If anything, this strange move - the last significant development in D&D before this year - smacked of a failure in confidence: in its wake, Pathfinder’s popularity was consolidated and there is now a sense that it has a claim to both ‘the biggest roleplaying game in the world’ and ‘everybody’s favourite’, too. For all its faults, the third edition of D&D was a solid game and liked by all but the most die-hard gaming grognards. Fourth edition was just full of faults. It’s no surprise that gamers stuck with the game that, while it may have been new, most closely resembled the one that worked for them.

In the years since D&D Essentials, Wizards’ lack of confidence seemed to rule its approach to D&D. Lavish - and shockingly expensive - versions of the pre-third edition versions of the rules have been released from time to time. PDFs of many early books have been on sale on the website. These have all been very lovely nostalgia trips but Wizards was not serving gamers with a modern, current, robust and constantly supported roleplaying game. They’d apparently ceded that ground to Paizo. Behind the scenes, though, work was beginning on fifth edition. Perhaps knowing that the years since 2008 had not been kind to them or their game, Wizards’ designers kept their heads down and quietly designed, aware that they had to get the next iteration of D&D just right. Whether they did or they didn’t... Well, that’s now up to us to judge, because it’s here and - in another innovation Wizards have stolen from the world of MMO games - it’s free-to-play.

Right now, you can go here and download a basic, but complete, version of D&D’s fifth edition rules for free. If you’re remotely interested in the game, I suggest you do. They’re kind of cool. And more than that, they’re free.

(Although it may look like it, the d20 System was not the first ‘free’ D&D. The d20 System omitted certain vital information, most significantly the parts that told you how to put the bits of rules together to build a playable character. The d20 licensing agreement forbade any other company from publishing these instructions, forcing gamers to buy a D&D rulebook for the complete experience.)

What do Dungeons and Dragons Online, The Lord of the Rings Online, Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic have in common? Like D&D fourth edition, they wanted a slice of what World of Warcraft had: players and popularity, and the money that comes with it. They each launched with a monthly subscription plan. Players had to pay, and pay monthly, to play the game.. But like fourth edition, they each faltered - to one degree or another, and after varying periods of time - and blinked and lost their nerve. While World of Warcraft still charges its $15-per-month subscription, those other games are now free-to-play.

Dungeons and Dragons Online was the first to make this move, in 2009, three years after its launch. In doing so, it reportedly gained 1 million players and achieved a 500% boost in revenue. As the years passed, and other games failed to make a significant dent in World of Warcraft’s enviable - and profitable - subscriber numbers, they all glanced at the change in the fortunes of Dungeons and Dragons Online and drew the obvious conclusion.

Free-to-play may worked for these games, but why? Where does all this extra revenue come from? While the games are free enough to hook you in, they still charge money for extra bells and whistles. Most successful free-to-play games will let you play the whole game, exactly the same game its subscribers play (because they all generally still offers subs too), without shelling out a single penny. Some restrict you to a smaller selection of character classes, or they limit your ability to use the most powerful equipment in the game - but pay a small fee and these restrictions are lifted. Or maybe they run an in-game shop, in which players can spend real money to buy costumes, pets, mounts, or all sorts of other ‘fluff’. And people do pay for this stuff: Dungeons and Dragons Online’s numbers speak for themselves, and the reputedly mega-budget Star Wars: The Old Republic was probably saved from cancellation by the move to free-to-play. It’s smart. Show people what you’ve got and they’ll hang around and throw you a few dollars (or, in the case of the so-called ‘whales’ who help make up for all those players who don’t spend a penny, thousands of dollars).

Free-to-play works. The biggest game in the world right now - League of Legends, a MOBA (whole other thing - let’s not go there) with 27 million players logging in each day and 67 million each month  - is free-to-play, with its cash shop full of characters to play and costumes to kit them out with. Free-to-play removes a significant barrier and gets people interested, gets people playing, and gets people paying.

Dungeons and Dragons 5eDungeons and Dragons is now free. If you want to read how it works, make a character, and join a group to play through an adventure, you can - for nothing - using the rules you can download from the website. Next month, for $50, you can pick up the new Player’s Handbook, which features a range of new rules that you won’t find in the free basic rules. New classes, new options, new equipment, new spells. You can also grab, for $30, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, a new adventure designed for fifth edition rules. Over the next few months, you can grab - for another $100 total - the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, giving you more new options, and new ways to build endless adventures for the characters you already spent fifty bucks to trick out. Oh, and a sequel to Hoard of the Dragon Queen - that’ll be another $30, thank you.

Gamers will buy this stuff. If the basic rules are any indication of the thought that’s been put into this new edition, then I’ll be one of them. But for the teen with no cash who might want to try it out, the free basic rules are a godsend - and for Wizards, who hope to turn these free players into Handbook-buyers or whales like me, they could be a godsend too.

When Dungeons and Dragons tried to be more like World of Warcraft, it shot itself in the foot. When Star Wars: The Old Republic or Rift tried to take on World of Warcraft, they failed too. These failures were for different reasons - but whatever problems they suffered, it was all because everyone was trying to fish customers out of the same pool of people. D&D has stopped trying to be World of Warcraft, but it still has to confront the same hurdle that faced the competing MMOs: how do you get noticed long enough to convince anyone you’re worth playing? Wizards seem to have taken notice of what has worked for the other MMOs: make it as easy - and cheap - as possible for people to see what you’re offering.

Time will tell whether this free-to-play entry to D&D will pay off. But if you look at the computer games that have inspired this move - the computer games who have successfully used this tactic to fight the great shared enemy of World of Warcraft - it looks like Wizards might be on to something. Now the gates to D&D are more open than they’ve ever been before, all Wizards needs to do to get some money flowing in is to make a good roleplaying game that is liked by lots of gamers. And that should be the easy bit, right?


David Bryher is a writer of books and games and articles and features and sarcastic tweets. The lattermost are available for free at @davidbryher.

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