Dungeons & Dragons Goes Open Source

Dungeons & Dragons, the granddaddy of role-playing games, is looking to the latest trend in software development to take its wizards, trolls and elves to a new level.

Wizards of the Coast, which obtained the rights to Dungeons & Dragons in 1997, is hoping to bring the swords-and-sorcery game back to the popularity it enjoyed in the early 1980s with a very modern ideal — the software-born “open source” concept.

When the third edition of D&D is released in August, Wizards plans to give the core rules for the game away for anyone to use and amend, hoping that when other companies publish games, whether they are supplements for the basic D&D game or new games entirely, it will lead gamers back into the fold.

“We’re not creating a new game, but we’re creating a much better version of the rules,” said Ryan Dancey, vice president in charge of D&D at Wizards, based in Renton. “We think these rules will be flexible enough for a wide variety of games.”

Tech Idea, Geek Game

Open source licensing was popularized in the late 1990s by software developers working on the Linux operating system, a free system that competes with Microsoft Corp.’s Windows products. Anybody can download and use Linux, and can make any changes, so long as those changes are offered up to the rest of the development community.

The open source license has created a network of Linux developers worldwide, busily improving the operating system on an almost daily basis.

Under Wizards’ “d20” open game license, created in consultation with the software community that helped create the open source license, companies can take Wizards’ core rules and create any kind of game around them, from an elves-and-dwarves fantasy game compatible with D&D to a horror or science fiction adventure.

Game publishers can also change the rules, or make up new ones, which Wizards can then incorporate into D&D or other games.

The thinking behind the move is simple: if a single set of rules becomes commonplace and more people get used to them, then more people will be attracted to D&D and other Wizards games.

Wait-and-See Stance

While Wizards hopes d20 will become the industry standard for all role-playing games, other companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“The operating system gimmick is interesting,” said Steve Jackson, president and founder of Steve Jackson Games. “Of course, a generic role-playing game system has been done before.”

Steve Jackson Games has produced its GURPS (Generic University Role-Playing System) line of games for more than a decade. That game, however, is fully proprietary, and is much more detailed than D&D’s system. “We tend to get D&D players looking for something more,” Jackson said. “If Wizards doubles its sales from this idea, then in a year they’ll double mine.”

Tim Avers, director of marketing for Atlanta-based game company White Wolf Publishing Inc., agreed.

“D&D is an entrance level role-playing game,” said Avers, whose company publishes horror game titles such as the controversial and best-selling Vampire: The Masquerade. “I say this because it’s the game most suited to bring people into the market for the first time. When D&D’s day is up, the same will probably be true for the entire marketplace.”

That’s nearly come close to happening, however. On store shelves, D&D is overshadowed by titles from White Wolf, Steve Jackson and other companies, which all have struggled to maintain market share in the face of new hobbies, such as the collectable card games, such as Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering, which Wizards produces.

Dancey said the d20 system could create a renaissance in gaming, pulling people back to D&D and other role-playing games. And that, to other game producers, would be just fine.

“Anything that expands the audience is great,” said original D&D creator Gary Gygax, who now runs his own independent game company. “I think Wizards could pull it off.”

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