For the record I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons (from here on abbreviated as "DnD") since first edition and to tell the truth I'm sorely tempted to write about the video game history of it, but to be frank the story would be rather long and mostly depressing. So instead I want to focus on the future of the brand. Particularly with regards to how the paper and pencil game relates to the video screen and controller.
Soon the current fourth edition of this tabletop RPG will be abandoned in favor of a new version. The sad truth of the matter is though I don't think anticipation could be much lower. More often than not the reactions to 5th edition DnD are along the lines of "Do I have to buy new books again?" or "Version 'X' provides everything I need" or even simply "Why?" Sadly, I'm inclined to agree with all these sentiments. The simple reality of the situation is traditional tabletop gaming has become a very niche hobby (only slightly less so than model railroads). That's not necessary a bad thing, but it is my personal belief that there is a chance to remake the pastime by hybridization.
No different than breeds of animals. If a blood line becomes to weak you combine it with another to create something stronger. So what I'm I getting at here? Well...how about making a hybrid of what we think of as DnD and a tactical CRPG? Just in case you don't know that acronym it stands for Computer or Console Role-Playing Game. We've already seen this a bit with online session of DnD being played over chat programs like Skype in combination with character creators, dice rollers and battle map programs. The problem is a lot of different programs are being lumped together here to get the desired effect. So, it's a bit of a Frankenstein monster which doesn't alleviate a lot of the bookkeeping and preparation work typically associated with DnD. What I recommend is a program designed to encompass all aspects of the DnD system into a single piece of software. Dungeon construction could be greatly simplified with the aid of tile sets, random generation algorithms and other map making tools. Populating locations with monster and traps could be made very easy provided the software has templates similar to what we see in 4e monster manuals.
One of the biggest challenges with tabletop RPGs these days is getting a group together. Doing that online though could be considerably easier. Online functionality in particular would benefit immensely from the inclusion of matchmaking boards, private voice chat rooms and other networking features. Think about the possibilities for NPC interaction, character portraits, canned animations and dialogue could all be handed in real time by the DM. No need for computer controlled AI either. All players control their own characters while the DM handles NPCs and monsters. Bookkeeping could also be snap with some basic organization tools as well as some aids to keep track of status effects from spells, magic items, terrain and other modifiers. Even combat could be greatly streamlined with some pop-up windows that show the potential outcome of moves or attacks. I could go on but if you've ever played DnD at a table with friends then I think you get some idea of how useful a lot of this stuff could be. If not then think of the most interactive version of Final Fantasy: Tactics you've ever played and you got small taste of what this hybrid could produce.
Of course none of this is likely to happen. The brand owners, Wizards of the Coast, are notorious for poor online support. They seem to be stuck in a rut when it comes to internet functionality. If any of them happen to read this blog post, they'll probably think that this is going to destroy their book sales. And you know what? I bet it would, but in return they'd gain a much larger audience, one that could receive support and updates far faster and easier than the clumsy downloadable errata PDF and reprint system that they currently employ. Yes, there is financial risk. And yes some new territory will have to be charted from a programming perspective, but that will add to the game's appeal. As far as I'm concerned edition wars have already burned DnD down to ashes. All we need now is the Phoenix.