Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is incredibly ambitious. The newest version of the popular tabletop roleplaying game was announced at Gen Con this year, just last month. It will feature a completely revised set of rules, along with a tie-in to a web component never before seen in a tabletop RPG. Fourth Ed. is far more than a new set of rules, though, it’s WotC’s lunge toward mainstream acceptance. WotC is going to make it big or break the tabletop industry trying.

When Third Ed. launched in the summer of 2000, D&D was on its way out. New games from companies like White Wolf, FASA and Steve Jackson Games had stepped in to take its place. The relaunch of the Dungeons & Dragons game, with streamlined rules playable by someone without a math degree, marked a turning point for the tabletop industry as a whole. The d20 system, with its open-source component, spawned a cottage industry of second-string groups making content for D&D players.

Then came the mainstream adoption of MMOGs. For a lot of gamers, World of Warcraft and EverQuest 2‘s streamlined gameplay preempted the need for a GM and gaming group. Seriously you could play with the same friends you would have hung out with at a table, only everyone could relax at home. Even the GM could have fun without worrying about making up the game! WotC themselves saw the writing on the wall and targeted the MMOG demographic with a sarcastic advertising campaign:


And well they might target MMOG players: Third Ed.‘s heavy focus on combat and stale rules were likely sending a lot of their veterans into the virtual worlds based heavily on WotC’s very own system; if you’re going to play a hack-and-slash loot fest, why bother with the dice rolling? Just the same, those rules are perfectly serviceable in their own right. Longtime players could give you a raft of complaints about running a game, starting with the grapple rules and ending with encounter building. Just the same, while they’re not airtight, they work. They work better than any other edition of D&D ever has have attracted plenty of fans.

So why change the rules now? What does WotC hope to gain with this newest revision? This is nothing less than a grab for mainstream acceptance. Revisions for the new edition are supposed to “support the way the game is actually played,” rather than forcing a style of play onto players. People will be able to run games online, on a “virtual tabletop.” Even beyond the d20 and digital realms, with projects like Gleemax (a social-networking site targeting tabletop gamers) and a focus on organized play, all signs point to WotC aiming very high with its ambitions.

Many of the statements WotC has made so far have been intended to calm current players, and might persuade you it’s really not looking to cast its net far and wide. Phrases like “the digital tabletop isn’t intended to take the place of your gaming table,” the intent to “bring the current players along before we go looking for new ones” alongside aphorisms like “tabletop gamers may be niche, but they’re our niche” all convey a certain respect for the past.

But it’s transparent, at best. You don’t get into social networking for the fringe niche. The announcement of a subscription service for a tabletop game with user-friendly rules and a slick, new format just a few years after the popularity explosion of subscription-based online games with user-friendly rules and a slick user interface? If WotC isn’t aiming to be the Blizzard of the tabletop gaming industry, it’s certainly putting on a good show. Who knows; perhaps, in a few, years we’ll see celebrities admitting their admiration for Dungeons & Dragons like WoW-playing celebrities do now.

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