After a series of diversions, I’d like to return to form with this column. WIHILA is kind of my way to deliver a hypothesis about a game before I’ve played or finished playing it. This hypothesis is generally prompted by the questions ‘What do I hope I’m going to like about this specific game?’ or ‘What is this game in a position to do, from which I might learn?’ This week, that game is Dungeons & Dragons, and more specifically D&D Next (the next iteration of D&D, currently in open playtesting).
First, some background for those who might not know much about D&D or D&D Next. D&D is a tabletop role-playing game (to many it is the tabletop RPG), which means you traditionally sit at a table with a handful of friends and each of you plays a character in a swords and sorcery style adventure. There are rules to determine how your actions play out and how you can interact with the fantasy world (almost always involving the rolling of dice to determine degrees of success or failure). One person at the table is the Dungeon Master (DM, or equivalently Game Master, GM), who acts as story narrator and rules judge. Go read up about it if you want to know more – there is no way to do it full justice here.
D&D Next is the current effort of Wizards of the Coast to update D&D (the fifth major edition update), and in the process possibly shake off lingering artifacts of outdated game design and unify many generations of disparate D&Ders under one system. This is, to put it mildly, a tall order. It is a contentious effort to many who are invested in the game, and garners skepticism or indifference from anybody not already invested in the game.
The playtest for D&D Next is open to anybody and has no set deadline. They’ve made it clear that if this is going to work, they will be taking their time to get it right.
Making Accessibility Accessible
Based on my own experiences learning D&D rules, teaching new players, trying various ‘entry level’ products, and reading up on the goals of D&D Next, I think accessibility is the single biggest thing I hope to see handled well or at least greatly improved in D&D Next.
Accessibility is quite a blanket term here, but it covers many related details which ultimately combine to make a game easier to pick up and play. Every game can benefit from being more accessible, as long as it’s not at significant expense to other aspects of the game. A more accessible game can reach a wider audience and helps players spend less time getting adjusted to a game and more time enjoying playing it.
Why do I hope to see this in D&D Next? The high barrier to entry, the great number of D&D players enfranchised in a single favourite edition, and the historical mainstream taboo around playing tabletop RPGs are all major issues for D&D as a franchise, and they are all linked to accessibility.
Moreover, Wizards of the Coast has one of the best resumes out there when it comes to making complex tabletop games more accessible. I don’t know how much interaction or communication there is between different product teams within the company, but it can’t hurt to be in the same organisation as the people who popularised and continue to develop the world’s first trading card game (Magic: The Gathering, which is still going strong with over 12 million players). One issue they consistently mention designing around is making the game accessible.
In order to figure out how the designers might successfully make D&D more accessible, I want to first point out a few of the individual issues which lead to a game being inaccessible. I use my experiences of D&D in the past as a primary example here, but these points could apply to any game (in fact, thinking about how successful social and mobile games work very hard to be completely accessible can be really illuminating). First up, how a game manages complexity.
Many games need a certain level of complexity to function, but this can scare away anybody who wants to join, or, for those who took the time to learn in the first place, make it awkward and impractical to adjust to updates. Cutting down on this complexity is great in theory, but complexity doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere: it supports the game. Communicating a clear path of entry for a prospective starting player, a representative but not-overwhelming first experience, well-designed tutorials, and a well-paced learning curve are all necessary tools in combating complexity.
A second issue, particularly prominent in D&D, are practical concerns with playing the game, such as time, money or available players. If a game requires too much of a time or money investment in order to gain a reasonable amount of enjoyment in return, or requires a specific confluence of conditions to even play, then it’s naturally going to be less accessible to newcomers and veterans alike.
Some specific examples include the number of people who must be present and know how to play (formerly around 5 or 6), a large time commitment for said people to be in the same place at the same time playing the game (at least a few hours in a sitting, with many sittings being typical for a ‘campaign’), and an individual with the time and interest to act as DM (an altogether different experience, though no less a part of the game). Any necessary specialised tools of the game also make it less practical to play, like a full set of dice (often per person), a large grid, detailed maps, and representative miniatures.
Duels of the Planeswalkers, a limited digital version of Magic, stepped up in the last couple years as an excellent entry product for an otherwise complex game. It made it possible to learn the rules and joy of Magic with much less overwhelming complexity, less of a cost commitment at the early stages of learning, and without needing a second more experienced player (and without bringing in social pressures when learning from another person).
Streamlining in all these areas is obviously not trivial, but could benefit D&D and any other game (especially tabletop games) tremendously. Video games have different but related concerns. What kind of hardware is necessary to play a game? How many people need to be present? How long is the average satisfying sitting? The questions aren’t drastically different. I don’t have all the answers, and applying what has been mentioned here might change drastically depending on the game, but hopefully I’ve raised a few good starting points. It would be even better if I could come back with some stellar examples from WotC a la D&D Next.
If you’re a D&D veteran (or even a consistent tabletop role-player), whether you’re playing D&D Next or not, you should care about the accessibility of this game. New players keep a game fresh, keep it updated, funded and evolving. New players mean that all the players (new and old) have people with whom they can play and share common experiences. This applies just as well to, say, your favourite MMORPG or fighting game as it does to D&D.
I have a young cousin who has taken an interest in learning to DM and getting her classmates interested. She sees the potential for storytelling, fantasy and sharing it all with friends for fun. Greater accessibility means that she could better teach herself and her friends. It would mean that her parents, who are interested but busy and understandably hesitant, could get invested without it greatly interrupting their lives, thus making it a better bonding experience for the whole family.
Beyond this, my brother has spoken in the past about the divide between ‘gamers’ and those who still see it as a kid’s entertainment. Ultimately, a big part of bridging that divide is addressing accessibility in all games. For all these reasons and more, I hope to see D&D Next display great improvements in this regard. Join me in two weeks when I talk about my experiences so far with the playtest (I’ve been at it since it began last year, and the NDA is both generous and specific with what I can and can’t speak about).
Thanks for reading.