Dungeons & Dragons goes virtual

Tabletop game trades in pen and paper for keyboard and mouse with Turbine Entertainment's new massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

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When Turbine Games releases Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach early next year, executives there are hoping the new creation can reach the untold millions who played and loved the original, paper-based role-playing game.

Turbine's game developers say D&D Online is designed to stay as true as possible to the paper-based version and offers a reasonable online alternative to the more than 4.6 million people still playing D&D just in the United States. The game--in which players create imaginary characters and adventure through fantasy forests, castles, and other environs--has been around for more than three decades.

The company has built the online version specifically around the teams of fantasy adventurers that made the original D&D so popular. John Foster, Turbine's director of public relations, said D&D Online requires players to quickly find others with whom to join forces and set out to complete quests.

That's a sharp contrast from many online games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and others. They are built with sophisticated socialization features, but they also make it possible for players to spend large amounts of time on their own.

"I think it's a tremendous interpretation of the conventional D&D [role-playing game] experience into an electronic form," said Charles Ryan, the D&D brand manager for the publisher of the paper-based game, a company called Wizards of the Coast. He added, "Mechanically, it's pretty darned true."

There are no guarantees, of course, that old D&D fans will glom on to the virtual version. For many 20- and 30-somethings, D&D brings up memories of years of regular long evenings spent with friends rolling 20-sided dice, eating bad takeout food, and trying to slay the oddest of fantasy beasts.

D&D first came onto the scene in 1974. Originally published by Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR, and called "The Fantasy Game," it sold out its entire hand-built print run of 1,000 games, according to Wizards of the Coast.

In a typical D&D game, a group of players would create imaginary characters such as paladins and thieves in a pretend world managed by a so-called dungeon master. Games would often take place a few hours at a time over months or even years. It didn't take long before the fantasy role-playing game genre had grown big enough to warrant its own magazine, and in 1976, Dragon, the first such title, hit newsstands. The first D&D tournament took place the same year.

To players, especially those who grew up with the game, D&D is a trip down memory lane.

"I remember, when the Oakland hills caught on fire (in 1991), driving down to play [D&D], and it was already kind of a weird day," said Larry Edelstein, a San Francisco software engineer. "It was good to go down to the boys and do the same thing we would do every Sunday. It was comforting."

In Edelstein's case, weekly games would last from around 4 in the afternoon until at least 11 p.m. They were run, he said, by a 'meticulous' dungeon master, who felt it was important to maintain a storyline the players followed week after week.

Nearly 15 years later, Edelstein said he gets regular reminders of those weekly games, held long before widespread use of the Internet and virtual realities.

"He put notes from the campaigns online," Edelstein said, "and I still find them every time I do a vanity search."

These days, fantasy role-playing is dominated by online games like World of Warcraft--which has more than 4 million regular players paying $15 a month for the privilege of regular access to fantasy environments like those D&D popularized. Yet, as D&D's own 4.6 million users demonstrate, the paper-based game is far from dead.

"A lot of people look at D&D and say [it] must eventually go the way of the dodo because of electronic equivalents," said Anthony Valterra, formerly the brand and business manager for D&D at Wizards of the Coast. "I don't think that's true. It does provide a pretty unique experience that's going to be very, very difficult for computers" to replicate.

For example, Valterra lauded the element of the original D&D that allowed for almost entirely open-ended play limited only by dungeon masters' and players' imaginations. But in an online version, Valterra worried, there will be strict limits governed by what Turbine's programmers had the time to address. Edelstein shares that worry.

"It doesn't sound that compelling," Edelstein said. "Everything's canned, right? There's no way for me to say, 'Hey, I want to team up with this guy and pull this kind of ruse that the game mechanics haven't thought of.'"

Still, Edelstein acknowledged that for a game like D&D Online to get to the point where it has more of the open-endedness of the paper game, the publisher has to start somewhere.

"They have to get in there and try it out," he said. "They have to get there somehow and get their hat in the ring."

Indeed, Tom Nichols, Turbine's vice president of marketing, said that while it won't happen in the earliest versions of the game, which is now in beta testing, the hope is that in the not-too-distant future, D&D Online will feature user-created content. That could include such things as custom dungeons and the ability for dungeon masters to manage campaigns rather than groups of players going on quests directed by the game itself.

For the time being, though, Turbine and Wizards of the Coast are gambling that players will flock to D&D Online instead of other online fantasy games because of the lure of the D&D name and because it is largely about completing quests with friends uninterrupted by hordes of other players.

"There are literally millions who have played the conventional tabletop [role-playing game], and they don't anymore because of constraints," Ryan said. "And now they're hoping to see this as a way to tap back into the experience without having to invest in the hobby (or to have to) bring in a group of friends to game for five hours."

Still, to such longtime fans of the original D&D as David White, an Oakland IT operations director, the easy, always-accessible modern, digital era of fantasy games is missing something intangible.

"Now that I have kids, I am sad that with the video games of today," White said, "they will probably never know the delight in rolling a 20-sided die and hoping against hope that your sword finds a weak spot in between the scales and you manage to kill the evil dragon."

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