When Codename: Morningstar was announced earlier this year, players of Dungeons & Dragons greeted the news with a mixture of interest and apprehension. Veteran players of 4th Edition D&D had used the digital tools created by Wizards of the Coast for years with mixed results. The Character Builder certainly assisted in organizing the cumbersome process of character creation and maintenance, though its reliance on Silverlight was an issue for some. The Monster Builder was useful for certain functions, but other user-created tools (i.e., Masterplan) offered greater flexibility and functionality at a lower cost for designing and organizing monsters. Meanwhile, the Virtual Tabletop and was abandoned altogether, and other promised DM Tools never surfaced. Wizards of the Coast and Trapdoor Technologies, the development team for Codename: Morningstar, set out to renew hope that a functional digital toolset for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragon was possible.
Codename: Morningstar reintroduced itself as DungeonScape at Gen Con this summer. Since hosting a number of prominent online community members to demonstrate the functionality of DungeonScape, the team has attempted to answer questions and roll out a working product for players of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. A beta project was underway, and it seemed as if DungeonScape would soon be released. However, Trapdoor Technologies announced last month they would no longer be partners with Wizards of the Coast. Wizards followed up with a brief statement saying that the relationship with Trapdoor Technologies had been terminated, leaving the future of a licensed digital toolset for 5th Edition up in the air.
As with any news item in the D&D industry, speculation about how and why the relationship between Trapdoor and Wizards fell apart churned for a few days. Given that I had previously interviewed Rachael Bowen, a member of the Trapdoor team, and was able to debut the official icon for the iOS version of the program, I felt empathy for the team that was attempting to create a set of digital tools for players and dungeon masters. At the same time, I have had nothing but good experiences interacting with various members of the design team at Wizards of the Coast who have brought 4th and 5th Edition D&D to life – both games I immensely enjoy. While lamenting the loss of DungeonScape, I did not engage in open speculation about what caused the relationship to fracture. But I was certainly curious about what happened, and what it means for consumers of 5th Edition D&D who would like a functional set of digital tools to streamline their play experience.
I reached out to both Wizards of the Coast and the team at Trapdoor Technologies. While Wizards declined to communicate with me, the team with Trapdoor was willing to offer a limited amount of insight regarding about the events that have transpired over the last year. Rachael Bowen repeated numerous times that Trapdoor is trying to put the business relationship with Wizards behind them, “The support from the D&D community has been great. We want to rise above all the speculation that is happening. The partnership with Wizards of the Coast may ultimately lead to other exciting possibilities, which hopefully we can announce soon.” Trapdoor’s Managing Director, Chris Matney, would not discuss specifics about the business relationship with Wizards other than, “The contract termination came as a surprise, and the contract was not cancelled due to the quality of the product. I believe there was a deep philosophical difference between our visions for the product.”
I previously wrote about our culture of non-ownership, which discussed how digital media is routinely borrowed, rented, or stolen, and speculated how the roleplaying game industry could deal with these developments. It makes sense to me that staff at Wizards would be concerned – or even afraid – that their product could be taken advantage of in an online environment. One thing Chris emphasized while talking about the Morningstar project is his passion to create a forum for players to create and share content, “We want to engage the community of adventure writers. The general premise is for folks to share their content with the greater community, which can then be rated and consumed by everyone. The top-rated adventures would then get put through The Forge so all links, maps, and other features would be added then sold for a price.” As a dungeon master toiling away to entertain players on a regular basis, this approach to shared content sounds fabulous. However, I can also imagine that corporate powers with Wizards would be hesitant to open the door to digital homebrew content, which could spiral in a negative direction for the company and cost them money. I respect the fact that there is no easy solution to our culture’s entitlement to digital media for low – or no – cost.
Throughout the development process and up to the point of their relationship ending, Wizards of the Coast did not pay Trapdoor for any services. Trapdoor was notified the week before Halloween that Wizards was ending their business relationship. “We all waited around to find out if we had jobs,” remarked Rachael Bowen, “We had to lay off a few people that were incredibly important in launching on three platforms before the holidays, which was just heartbreaking.” She asserted that the remaining staff with Trapdoor is still capable of delivering, “We retained our core team including our Creative Director and user-experience guru, who has been integral in harnessing Chris’ dream and making it a reality.” My personal thoughts are that without any financial commitment to Trapdoor or DungeonScape, it appears Wizards’ concerns over losing control of the D&D source material overrode any goals for releasing a digital toolset for players and dungeon masters at this time.
Trapdoor was quick to acknowledge that DungeonScape was not as far along in development as they would have liked, citing hurdles and complications such as delays in the approval process, “The Beta was not as good as we wanted, and the web design was not ideal. There were many things behind the scenes that got in the way of us creating a good product,” remarked Rachael Bowen. The team appears eager to move forward with their work and turn DungeonScape into a set of functional digital resources for game content and DM tools, “We want to be at the center of DM content and creation. That was our plan with The Forge. We’re excited to continue our work in an environment without limitations.”
Through outside investors, Trapdoor has funding to pursue these interests, and recently hinted in their blog that they would solicit support from outside resources. “Yes, we are doing a Kickstarter,” asserted Chris Matney, “and it will be live before Christmas.” He added that the Kickstarter will feature multiple avenues for entry for those who only want the player, dungeon master, or creator tools. He discussed the timing of the Kickstarter and voiced that the Trapdoor team wishes to seize the moment, “Doing it during the holidays will be tough as we’re vying for attention during shopping, travel, and other obligations. But I’m confident we have a great product and I think there are a high number of people who want to use this technology.”
While Wizards of the Coast, which is owned by Hasbro, operates two flagship gaming enterprises in Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering, it has struggled to usher those products into the digital domain. In addition to the 4th Edition D&D missteps, Magic: The Gathering Online has been criticized over the years for poor customer support, numerous bugs, and famous crashes. Brian Kibler, a Hall of Fame Magic: The Gathering player, previously encouraged players to stop using the service, “My advice to you is to delete Magic Online.” Other games have sprouted to compete with Magic: The Gathering Online such as Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, which has been praised for being a better digital experience with superior design. Even with the troubled history of digital tools for its two premiere gaming franchises, it now appears that Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast may be hiring staff to develop a digital toolset for D&D internally.
Those of hoping for digital tools to make it easier to create and manage characters, modify and generate content, and play Dungeons & Dragons will have to wait – or rely on user-created resources much like 4th Edition D&D. Chris Matney spoke with passion about how now is the right time for a full set of digital tools for tabletop roleplaying games, “This is a pivotal moment in RPG history. There is a fundamental shift happening in RPG technology. Something like Morningstar couldn’t be done before.” He stressed that Morningstar is not intended to turn tabletop RPGs into a videogame, “The tools will give all players more options around the table as they interact with each other and it’ll save time during preparation and gameplay. In 20 years, we’ll look back and see that this technology ushered in a new era.”
Trapdoors’ vision and proclamations are bold – and perhaps even a bit Molyneuxy – but I have no doubt in their sincere desire to make these digital tools a reality. Chris highlighted his years of experience in running campaigns and creating adventures, “I recall the first time when I realized that the character I was playing had no limitations. I could do whatever I wanted, and it was so empowering. I’ve been playing in the same campaign for over 30 years. We’ve used different systems along the way but continue with the same storylines. I’m invested in D&D as a lifestyle.” He concluded our brief talk by emphasizing his belief that storytelling is the most important component to successful RPG sessions, “The true value is the adventures, not in the rulebook. You can have a great session with an adventure while not understanding the rules. You can’t really play a game with just rules and no adventure.”
Meanwhile, I wonder if the staff members making these decisions at Hasbro and Wizards have ever sat around a table to play a session of Dungeons & Dragons or constructed a deck for a game of Magic: The Gathering. There seems to be a schism between those who design amazing games within Wizards and those who decide how those games are translated into a digital format. In retrospect, I wonder how the D&D Basic Rules ever got approved to be offered online for free. While hopeful that the team with Trapdoor can introduce an exciting product into the RPG landscape, I remained dismayed that an official set of digital tools for D&D does not seem anywhere near fruition.
Likely speaking for many consumers out there, I sincerely hope Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast figures it out, and creates a functional digital toolset. Take my money!