05 August 2012

The Next Step in Pencil and Paper RPGs

Executive summary: D&D needs a real digital platform.

As I work on the last stages of publishing my own module Manse on Murder Hill, I have been thinking a lot about layout details. How should I format the PDF of the module to be the most useful to readers? I have the examples of TSR's own modules from the 70s and 80s which can easily be translated into a digital layout. I have also looked at contemporary OSR efforts at layout, which offer some innovations too.

Then I had one of those "monolith moments."

You will remember that in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a mysterious black monolith appears at key moments in history to prod the evolution of man. That happened to me and now I understand what the OSR community and Hasbro/WotC have been doing wrong with the hobby. It is as obvious as the title of this blog.

Move the tabletop to the cloud.

Commit to this vision and a whole bunch of obvious consequences manifest. To an extent, the community and Hasbro is moving in these directions already, but not fast enough.

Leverage the cloud for communication.

Video conferencing technologies like Google Hangouts and Skype bring low-cost video conferencing to everyone with a high-speed Internet connection. These technologies are already being leverage to create "virtual tabletops" where players can get their RPG on. What is needed is additional software to make these platforms customized for the RPG experience. Some projects have already been started, but I think there is room for much larger investment in this area and, yes, larger returns.

How large am I talking? Think of a massively multiplayer online realm like World of Warcraft, but for PnP players. Do I think that D&D can be that popular again? With the right implementation, I think this is possible. We see human on human interactions now on that scale with platforms like twitter, facebook and WoW. The hobby still appeals to creative young (and young at heart) people, but getting facetime with each other is harder now for some reason. Computers can fix that.

Leverage the digital devices for content.

The problem I have been facing with layout is really about thinking in analog terms. Why am I thinking about conventions and restrictions that applied to paper? Sure, PDF is meant to be printed and I will produce a layout amenable to that. But most RPG players these days have computers and use them during play. Rulebooks and modules need to take advantage of 20 year old web technology and move to well-designed hypertextual layouts.

To this end, I will be producing a prototype of this for Manse that will be free available. It will look best on iPad, but should be usable on any device.

What I am talking about is not merely using the existing ePub or mobibook format. I mean is that we need use web technologies to radically change the way module content is presented. Modules need to be more like mobile apps, not PDF documents. And WotC if you are reading this and see dollar signs in your head, call me.

Leverage social media to enable the hobby.

D&D has always had a problem: bring players together. I have pointed to early Dragon magazines in which Dungeon Masters were listed with their addresses. The hobby still has this issue. One attempt to solve this is ConstantCon, which is a good first step. Blogger has also become a sort of standard for OSR blogs.

What if Facebook were RPGbook?

A social network of players has the potential to re-ignite this hobby like it was 1979. Google+ is a proto-version of this. Whether the solution to the social networking aspect comes in the form of building apps for existing platforms or building a new platform, I can't tell. However, it is an obvious area of expansion.

So rather than futzing with rule changes or inventing new monsters or even figuring out new polyhedron dice, I want to the community to think BIG. Any hobby that inspires 40 years of creativity and community is special. There is something profoundly different about the experience of traditional PnP RPG to CRPGs and MMORPGs.

What has been holding the hobby back is not message but the medium. Luckily, the hobby is perfectly adaptable to the new medium of the Internet. That work simply has not yet been done.

I may be crazy, but someone is going print money executing on this idea.