The New Dungeon Master

It must be tough to be 34 and already see your children overshadow you.

That’s what’s happened to “Dungeons & Dragons,” the roleplaying game that for decades has drawn geeks to roll dice and pretend to be elves, sorcerers and other fantasy heroes. It has never quite become mainstream entertainment, but it has inspired roleplaying computer games like “World of Warcraft” to borrow its principles and turn them into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Now, “D&D” is borrowing from its imitators. The next edition of the game, due out in June, will for the first time be paired with online features that the publisher hopes will lure lapsed players back to the dungeon.

Getting Back Together

“That group that broke up in 1987 because you all graduated from high school and went to schools across the country? Well, you can get that old teenage group back together,” said Scott Rouse, brand manager for “D&D” at Wizards of the Coast. The Hasbro subsidiary publishes the game.

Roleplayers have always faced the difficulty of getting together regularly, especially since the games are lengthy. But they talk warmly about the camaraderie fostered by the games, since the players cooperate rather than compete. Though guided by thick rulebooks, the games have an element of theater, with players using the voices of their characters. Not surprisingly, they’re considered uncool by those who lack an appreciation of fantasy.

The new edition, the fourth since “D&D” was created in 1974, may do nothing for the game’s social stigma, but at least players will have the option to commune online. Each screen will show the same virtual 3-D “tabletop” with monsters and heroes, and the players will be able to talk via Internet voice chat.

Wizards is also building its own social networking site as a Facebook or MySpace for gamers. The players will be able to create fantasy characters for themselves with an online tool. That streamlines a process that can take hours and dozens of reference books.

Wizards employees are avid players of online games, and the new initiative springs from that experience, Rouse said. It should make it easier to tuck the kids into bed, then “jump on the computer and delve into dungeons, kill monsters and take their stuff,” as he put it.

Internet Precursor

“D&D’s” influence on computer games was highlighted last month when the death of Gary Gygax, the game’s co-creator, sparked reminiscences across the computer industry. A senior editor at Wired magazine even hailed Gygax as “architect of the now,” seeing the game as inspiring Internet culture in general, like Gmail accounts and Flickr photo sharing.

Yet Gygax, who had not been involved with the game’s development since the ’80s, told The New York Times in 2006 that he wasn’t much into computer games and preferred the intimacy and imagination of the face-to-face game.

“What tabletop gaming gives to people is a reason to get together with your friends and hang out and do a fun social activity together,” said Chris Pramas, a former Wizards employee and now the president of another game company, Green Ronin Publishing.

Wizards emphasizes that it’s trying to keep the good parts of the tabletop game. It will let players, rather than computers, maintain control of the virtual world. It’s also streamlining the rules of the tabletop game to make it faster to play and more accessible.

D&D had about six million players worldwide last year, according to a survey by Wizards, though Rouse said the figure may be somewhat inflated. Many of those players probably yield little revenue for the company. The gamers buy books and sometimes miniatures, but only one player in the group needs to own a copy of each book.

Wizards does not reveal sales figures, but Pramas estimates the overall market for traditional role-playing games at US$30 million annually.

Meanwhile, the massively multiplayer online (or MMO) game “World of Warcraft” has more than 10 million subscribers, most of them paying. Publisher Blizzard Entertainment, a unit of France’s Vivendi conglomerate, doesn’t say how much the game is earning, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests it pulls in more than $1 billion per year. U.S. subscribers pay $14.95 per month.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the online features of fourth-edition “D&D” will carry a monthly fee of $14.95, though a one-year contract brings the cost down to $9.95 per month.

The new direction for “D&D” isn’t risk free. “Dungeons & Dragons Online,” an MMO game like “World of Warcraft,” hasn’t done very well. The game, run by Atari under a license from Hasbro, has less than 100,000 subscribers, according to various estimates.

The new edition of the printed game has already caused a rift in the “D&D” community. Paizo Publishing, an independent company that publishes popular supplementary books for the game, announced last month that it will not support the new edition. It says the previous edition of “D&D” is a better fit and will even create its own game based on that edition.

Then there’s the risk that the future has passed “D&D” by. Many of the core fans that got hooked in their teens are in their 30s now and today’s teenagers have a wealth of entertainment options.

“‘World of Warcraft’ has become the ‘D&D’ of this generation,” said Pramas, 38. “When I was a kid, if you were any sort of nerd, you played ‘D&D.’ That’s not the case anymore.”

“Jack Warecki, a software developer in Shirley, New York is also 38. He used to play “D&D but has shifted toward MMO games — he plays “Lord of the Rings Online” at the moment.

“In terms of time spent and bang for the buck, MMOs just do it better right now, so I’m just not interested in roleplaying,” he said.

All the same, he does find a “great social aspect” to the face-to-face game that’s absent from the computer versions. And yes, he and his high-school buddies still get together now and then for a game of “D&D.” He plays a wizard who shoots fireballs.

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