Opening the dungeon

Does game maker Wizards of the Coast really want to create an open-source Dungeons & Dragons, or is it just trying to capitalize on the buzz?

Published March 29, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Have you ever cast a magic fireball into a lair of Orcs? If so, you might be able to imagine the overheated reaction within the Net's gaming community, when Wizards of the Coast announced that it was contemplating making the core rules to one of its prime properties, Dungeons & Dragons, open source. Wizards Vice President Ryan Dancey said in an interview earlier this month that the plan was to make the essential D&D rules available as a free license to anyone interested in creating, publishing, even selling their own D&D-derived work; his hope was that the move would spur sales of an upcoming release of the classic role-playing game.

The impact of this news caused double-hit point damage throughout the hardcore tech community. "Like computers and caffeine," Slashdot contributor Emmett Plant notes, "Dungeons and Dragons is a geek staple." What's more, Dancey's announcement linked the future of D&D to one of the most inspiring (to geeks) crusades in the kingdom of software -- the open-source movement, which declares that making the source code to software programs freely available results in better software.

The timing couldn't be better. Although Dungeons & Dragons, originally created in the 1970s by the legendary Gary Gygax, may seem rather hoary, fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) have never been more popular. On the Net, massively multiplayer role-playing games like Everquest and Microsoft's Asheron's Call are proving that RPGs can lure hundreds of thousands of players into persistent (and due to the monthly fees, persistently lucrative) realms of magical heroism. Meanwhile, "The Matrix" producer Joel Silver will bring "Dungeons and Dragons," the film, to the big screen this fall featuring Jeremy Irons, "American Beauty's" Thora Birch, and lord help us, Marlon Wayans. Also slated for 2000 release is the first film in New Line Cinema's version of the beloved "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the Tolkien novels that imbued the genre with its essential tool chest.

But despite this excitement in the air, reaction to Dancey's plan has been decidedly mixed. The relationship between the corporate owners of Dungeons & Dragons and the fans obsessed with the game has not always been harmonious. Was Dancey simply trying to ride along on the bandwagon of the phenomenally popular open-source movement? Or was he really sincere, hoping to increase D&D's popularity and, at the same time, assuage some of the bad feeling accrued in the past? The answers to these questions requires a trip through D&D's twisty past, a journey almost as mysterious and labyrinthine as a dungeon campaign from days of yore.

In some online forums, to be sure, a few observers were optimistic: On Usenet, Henry Link proclaimed, "If this is drafted, then not only does [Wizards] benefit, but fans and small publishers benefit also." Rick Gutleber echoed this in a Slashdot post, saying, "Sounds like a return to the old days [when Gygax ran TSR] ... This is wonderful news for the players and the future of the game and RPGs as a whole."

In his Slashdot article, Plant quoted an Oregon game-store manager, who vowed to sell fan-created campaign modules and other game supplies published under "D20," the name Dancey proposes for D&D's open-gaming license. Until very recently, all Dungeons and Dragons material was largely confined to the forges of TSR, the company founded by Gygax, and since 1997, a subsidiary of Wizards of the Coast. (Wizards is the purveyor of the phenomenally popular Magic and Pokimon collectible card games and was purchased last year by Hasbro.)

Dancey's open-source suggestion also provoked some ominous flames of discontent from gamers still feeling the scars from an epoch when less benevolent rulers ran TSR. The company didn't want anyone posting any version of D&D or anything related to it (like the charts and graphs found in the rulebook) on the Internet. "[In the early-to-mid-'90s, TSR] sent out cease-and-desist letters to many, many people. It was a horrible, horrible time," says Bryce Harrington, project leader for Worldforge, an open-source, online role-playing game. "I couldn't believe this company, which had produced so many things we loved so much, could be so callous and vindictive. Kids who were just trying to share the fun of their game ... were being called thieves and threatened with legal action," says Harrington.

For the thing of it is, Dungeons & Dragons has always been, by design, open source. Back in my own more youthful days, occasionally (misspent?) as a Dungeon Master, I remember modifying this rule or that, as desired. By doing so, you then had a "patch," so to speak, on the gaming rules. It was "open" so far as you were willing to communicate your changes to other painfully introverted adolescents. In the beginning, this interchange was largely confined to infrequent game conventions and nearby gamers. But with the growing use of bulletin-board systems and Internet discussion groups, this became a worldwide, active consortium.

"When I first became involved with Usenet while in college, in the '92-95 time frame," Harrington reminisces, "there was a very strong sense of community-sharing and free gaming collaboration." This took many forms, from transcribing D&D's rules and supplementary material to data files, to creating game-management programs. Much of these migrated to Internet servers, where anyone, anywhere, could access them.

"[Back then], TSR hated the Internet," Harrington speculates. "It made them nervous. Why were these people talking about TSR products and sending files back and forth on this network?" Like bolts of Eldritch lightning, cease-and-desist e-mails streaked out of TSR's citadel in Geneva, Wis., striking individual gamers and server administrators alike. One such e-mail claimed as TSR's intellectual property "elements of the gaming system, such as ARMOR CLASS, HIT DICE, and so forth" -- features already common to other RPG's.

Gygax, who in the mid-'80s left TSR, the company he founded, on the heels of internal conflicts that read like a treacherous palace coup, confirmed the gist of Harrington's charges: "The former management of TSR was, in my considered opinion, quite incompetent," he says in an e-mail. "Indeed they had a most aggressive enforcement policy in regards to their copyrights, and their fan base eroded considerably, in part because of alienation due to their strict enforcement."

By now, the melee between Internet culture and old corporate media is well known, and ongoing, be it studios and networks battling fan Web sites that use their material, or the unresolved strife the recording industry has over MP3 and Napster. Often, the fans prevail. But then, TSR's policies were among the first blows in that conflict, and some gamers took critical hits.

"I know some -- myself at the least -- threw in the towel at this point," concludes Harrington, "forswearing further purchase of TSR material." It's hard to escape the sense that TSR was, during that time, the Microsoft of RPGs. The artifacts of this era are still evident, in Internet postings that refer to the company as "T$R," or the witticism that the acronym for Tactical Studies Rules actually stands for They Sue Regularly.

Dancey himself identifies the company's litigious behavior as a cause for TSR's demise. After Wizards purchased the near-bankrupt company, Dancey writes me, he led a kind of siance over its hollowed corpse, to divine the cause of its death: "[We] began an extensive analysis of the old records of TSR ... to see if we could determine what had led the company to its eventual collapse ... [W]e eventually concluded that TSR had seriously damaged its relationship with its customers by breaking down the value of the player network -- we believe that the players didn't abandon the game, they abandoned the company."

Given TSR's history, then, it's not surprising that hardcore gamers are skeptical about Dancey's plans. Kevin Andrew Murphy, a writer of role-playing-game modules, worries: "[B]y the terms of the D20 contract, if I have the right to Web-publish my own adventure ... TSR has a right to clone that page, sand off my name, say it was written by 'Elminster,' and publish it on their own Web site."

Meanwhile, other gamers assert that Dancey's rhetoric is just a shameless PR move to associate D&D with open-source media hype. Rogers Cadenhead, onetime contributor to TSR's Dragon Magazine, groused on Usenet: "[Wizards] should just be honest ... and stop pretending it's 'open source' to capitalize on a hot buzzword." Another Usenet gamer with the handle 'Dracos' seethes, "This open sourcing of 3rd edition D&D just screams 'devious marketing scheme.'"

Open-ended, open-source RPGs like Steve Jackson's GURPS already exist, available to all. But Dancey traces his interest in the open-source movement to his pre-Wizards tenure at ISOMEDIA, where he created a mail-order business for game hobbyists. "ISOMEDIA had created an ISP in 1996," he says, "and the ISP was becoming heavily reliant on free software, notably Linux." This eventually led him to the open-source evangelism of Eric Raymond, whose essays, said Dancey, were "... a very good introduction to the theory of why the open-source movement was having success in a market heavily tilted in favor of large, closed, software development projects."

Co-creator of the popular card game Legends of the Five Rings and co-founder of the Five Rings Publishing Group, Dancey helped broker both Wizards' purchase of TSR and Five Rings. After post-merger management reshuffling led to Dancey's promotion to a Wizards' VP, he was in the ideal place to advocate the open-source ideas he had first learned at ISOMEDIA and apply them to the RPG market.

Not simply by way of public-relations hype, he insists, but by urgent necessity, to reseed a land left cursed by TSR's previous management: "As we geared up for the release of the third edition of D&D, scheduled for midsummer in 2000, we had to confront the fact that our active player base was severely disenfranchised ... Our fans have always been individuals who create content to share with each other, either through the exchange of ideas, or through play of the game."

And Gygax now enjoys a working relationship with his game's new owners. He's under contract to review and critique Wizards' development of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, and seems excited by the possibilities of D20: "The open-source idea is a great one for Wizards ... If the concept is embraced, it will certainly promote the D&D game system through support of the fantasy genre and expansion into other genres."

Dancey brushes off the notion that this open-source idea is Wizards' ploy to pilfer from independent designers. But he defends the company's right to publish, with proper credit, the work of anyone who is using the official D&D core rules. Through the D20 license the company would be "... releasing our core-game system in an 'open condition'" he says. "In return, if a designer chooses to use that material to create a derivative work, and if we choose to use that work (with full documented credit) in a product we produce, I see no theft of value of any kind."

Dancey also believes it's the best way to mend the trust broken by TSR early last decade: "The open-gaming effort is the most visible action we could take to clearly state our position on the benefits of fan-created content."

Harrington has his own ideas about how Wizards could further mollify veterans like him: "An apology and acknowledgment would be a logical first step. Returning the contents of [TSR's proprietary server] to the public would be a good second step." On the whole, though, he seems impressed: "I applaud Dancey's vision, and think that raising the importance of open gaming is a service we as a community will always be grateful to him for."

If Dancey is right, and the open-gaming license is enacted with Dungeons & Dragon's 3rd edition, it would tap a market that is still, by his measure, the most popular RPG, online and off. "There are 1.5 million people who play D&D every month in the United States between the ages of 12 and 35," he says. A recent marketing study conducted by Dancey shows that D&D commands 60 percent of the table-based RPG market.

"Baldur's Gate, the D&D computer game, has sold more than a million copies [while] EverQuest has at most 300,000 people paying membership fees," says Dancey. "Asheron's Call is a nonstarter, despite the fact that it was funded and published by the largest software publisher in the world." In other words, the world is ripe for his wares.

All well and good, if the core rules can build on the game's appeal. "The rules are OK for what they are," says Robert Rossney, a longtime gamer. "The problem is what they are. They're overly mechanical, obsessed with the minutiae of hand-to-hand conflict and the notion that characters develop by accumulating money." Though D&D created the role-playing genre, he finds it lacking against its recent antecedents.

"D&D is very skimpy on actual role playing," says Rossney. "The rules in the games I like -- Legend of the Five Rings, 7th Sea, Over the Edge, Feng Shui -- emphasize character development and role-playing ... [and] none of the players spend much time arguing about whether a two-handed sword should really get a +2 bonus if it's wielded against spiked armor."

To this, Gygax gently demurs: "[D&D] remains the most popular of the RPGs. This seems to indicate that at least a plurality of participants want a system that deals mainly with combat and gaining treasure ... The RPG is a game form with many facets, but as with all heroic-quest theme entertainment, fighting and slaying evil foes is a key and central element."

But while D&D is still associated with the hack-and-slash, swords-and-sorcery mayhem that first enthralled teens in the '70s and '80s, mainstream culture now seems infused with a wildness that outstrips such trappings, accommodating everything from the satiric phantasmorgia of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to the breakneck kinetics of Hong Kong action movies. Many of the games Rossney cites seem to reflect this promiscuous mix and match of genre and mood, accompanied by an ironic knowingness, which Dungeons & Dungeons decidedly lacks.

According to Dancey, however, "The D20 system, the core game rules themselves, are not D&D. They are a set of axioms which create a robust, fun foundation for a gaming experience ... Laying on top of that core is a healthy chunk of fantasy sword & sorcery rules ... But that layer can easily be altered; or completely replaced." In previous interviews, he has said he would be happy to see it applied to myriad unexpected genres and eras, from gothic horror to the old West.

Perhaps some future D20 variation may even take a cue from recursive movies like "Being John Malkovich" and the "Scream" series. In it, you'd play a game-company vice president with the Bard-like name of Dancey. To win, you'd need to regain the trust of embittered former loyalists and guide them through the bizarre Astral Plane known as the Internet -- where a cruel kingdom called Microsoft battles a guild of gnome-like tinkerers and their nebbishy leader, a sorcerer from faraway Finland, the one with an unpronounceable name and a magic penguin.

By Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

MORE FROM Wagner James Au

Related Topics ------------------------------------------