Dungeons & Dragons has been a household brand name since the game’s meteoric rise to popularity in the early 1980s with the iconic Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. TSR, Inc., the custodian of the property at that time, published a great product that was relatively easy to get into and understand but complex enough to draw players in and keep them playing (and buying supporting products) for years.
With each iterative release of the classic tabletop role playing game, TSR and now current publisher Wizards of the Coast have been trying to recapture the magic that made Dungeons & Dragons the pop culture icon it is today. On July 3, Wizards of the Coast began launching the latest incarnation of the tabletop phenomenon.
The previous, fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was widely seen as having been designed to fight the flight of local tabletop gamers to massive online role playing games such as World of Warcraft. The intervening years, however, have seen a huge boom of all kinds of tabletop games.
European board games like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan appeal to a wider audience, while smaller role playing game publishers have been able to step in and satisfy gamers’ desires to play a game that adheres more closely to older versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Products such as Pathfinder and Labyrinth Lord appeal to niches of gamers who prefer the D&D rules of previous versions and are resistant to the changes that have been introduced more recently.
Wizards of the Coast is releasing a product into a very competitive climate, but the products they’ve announced are strong and are poised to make a splash on the gaming scene that Dungeons & Dragons had a large hand in creating. The initial wave of releases appeals simultaneously to nostalgia and frugality.
The Starter Set is a boxed set designed for potential dungeon masters which provides dice, an adventure to run, and pre-filled out character sheets so people trying to evangelize the game can hand someone a character and start playing without much set up. This boxed set is very reminiscent of the red Basic D&D boxes that gamers creeping up into their late 30s and early 40s will remember, and appears to be easy enough to run that those gamers might feel comfortable involving their kids in the hobby.
Wizards of the Coast also released a free, downloadable PDF that they are calling, cleverly enough, the Basic Rules for D&D. The PDF provides all of the core rules and will allow players who are not ready to invest in the more expensive products to create characters and play them all the way up to higher levels. It looks like the Starter Set is necessary to actually play the game, but the Basic D&D PDF gives players a little more flexibility.
These inexpensive and free products just lay the groundwork for the classic trinity of rulebooks that accompany the release of every new version of Dungeons & Dragons: the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The layout, design and artwork for each takes considerable effort so Wizards of the Coast has decided to stagger the releases, each book coming out in August, September and November, respectively.
The options and expansions of the basic rules offered in these books will have to be considerable, since the MSRP for each of these books is relatively steep at $49.95 a piece. Completionist gamers are looking at a $150 investment before the end of the year, but hopefully the free basic rules will offer enough of a taste to take some of the sting out of that price.
Wizards of the Coast has made some very shrewd marketing decisions with this release of Dungeons & Dragons. The rules for this version of the game have undergone rigorous public play-testing for several years, so fans of the property feel like they have had a strong hand in influencing the shape and direction of the rules. The company has also plucked another nostalgic heartstring by creating several public events and publishing a series of adventures involving Tiamat, one of the fiercest original monsters in the early versions of the game and a villain that figured largely in the mid-80s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show.
To create the adventures, role playing game fan favorite design house Kobold Design has been brought in. Kobold Design is owned and operated by Wolfgang Baur, a respected adventure designer and a veteran contributor to several versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Those adventures, titled Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, are scheduled to be released in August and October.
These moves in combination with making the core rules free to download seem calculated, but in a way that acknowledges issues that fans of the property have had with how the products have been developed and released in the past. Wizards of the Coast seems to be focused on releasing a high quality, fun product that people will be happy to pay for once they’ve had a chance to try it out for themselves.