One D&D and the Subscriber Model of Doom

Whenever anyone starts talking about “creating an experience,” it’s time to watch your wallet, and that’s not even the worst of your worries.

I’ve been playing dungeons and dragons, and games like it, since the 1980s. I’m hardly a grognard – I’m wide open to change in the form of streamlining and simplifying rules, expanding inclusion and representation, and making the product and role playing more accessible for all.

While there are things in D&D I maybe don’t always love all the time, D&D has generally been “my thing” for about 40 years now.

And yeah, now I’m looking at this next iteration of Dungeons and Dragons, One D&D, and getting a little bit of the “icks.”

All images are from the old 4th edition VTT – which was basically sadtrombone.wav

It’s not the rules per se – I think that with the first release of the character generation rules there’s some things that maybe I’m like meh on mostly from a storytelling and character depth perspective: I tend to think variant humanoids like tabaxi, harengon, and tortles lend themselves more to repetitive and obvious jokes (My tabaxi rogue purrs and licks himself lol ha ha) than to meaningful character development…but who am I to yuck someone else’s yum? Removing DM Critical Hits is another step towards power-to-the-players, i.e. making D&D more of a fantasy-themed superhero story than something gritty and difficult, but who really loves a TPK anyway?

That’s all stuff I can live with – really! And it’s always possible to tweak and roll back changes.

No, my issue lies with the digitization of the hobby, primarily in terms of what that means for anyone with a creative impulse.

So to get started, it’s maybe worth having a look at Baron DeRopp’s video on One D&D in which he explains that gamers being introduced to D&D via One D&D’s Virtual Tabletop will:

  • Likely be Microtransacted into poverty (or disinterest)
  • Come to expect digital bells and whistles (thus killing social tabletop)
  • Not learn the rules (if the computer does all the work every time)
  • Think only “inside the box” (VTT expects players to play by the dungeons’ rules, bypassing the neat, weird, outlandish, and clever things players often do).

I share these misgivings without necessarily agreeing 100% with the video maker. I actually like playing with terrain and minis, and I think they can be helpful storytelling aids so long as one remembers they are material representations and while hopefully pretty and fun to look at, are not to be taken too seriously. Not the thing, but the simulacra of the thing.

All images are from the old 4th edition VTT – which was basically sadtrombone.wav

But I want to talk about the “box” the VTT will expect players to play within – how much control does WoTC want /need / aspire to regarding the (oh god, I’m going to say it) “D&D Experience”?

As-is, I can make all my own maps, paint all my own minis, write all my own modules, and I can share those things as I see fit. They are also, it’s worth noting, mine. I can give my minis away, sell them, smash them with a hammer, distribute my maps, write a module and then give it to a friend, and generally live in my own cultivated D&D world, such as it is.

Considering the work of Timothy Morton on Ecology, this is an ecological move I am making: the primoridal ooze of my D&D-ness is connected to a larger gestalt of D&D which itself is made up of many other elements, and they all flow and gush together. It’s murky, messy, dreamlike, and alive.

But I feel that One D&D is seeking to confine and constrain. That at present there are many D&Ds – every play group has its own interpretation of the rules and their own way of utilizing them.

Will One D&D allow that? Or is this going to be another example of the 21st centuries move towards homogenization?

It’s more than a bit how cities now see a rash of five-over-one yuppie terrariums, panera breads, and Orange Theories where once there were, well…pick your city! Cities were distinct from one another – some were fun, some were dull, some were dangerous, some had great music scenes, some were known for food…but they were all different. Increasingly, in 2022, it’s getting harder and harder to look at a neighborhood and say “Oh, yeah, I know where I am” because how different, really, are any two Starbucks?

All images are from the old 4th edition VTT – which was basically sadtrombone.wav

That’s one aspect of my anxiety regarding One D&D – that it’s going to take this weird, diversified thing we do, tear it down, and then build a shopping plaza on top of it – a shopping plaza named for, and including plenty of pictures of, the old neighborhood that’s getting demolished.

Another aspect is, I suppose, about interoperability – it’s renter’s anxiety, to put it another way: what happens to my stuff if I can’t pay?

Suppose I play OneD&D for years and make all sorts of “content” (uck). I make dungeons, characters, monsters – I write whole campaigns using the VTT or whatever digital tools WoTC provides. I probably even have a pretty enjoyable play experience, for that matter – no reason to think it won’t all be at least a little bit fun, right?

Now suppose I want to write short stories about my characters and put them on my own website. Suppose that in sharing the weekly exploits of my characters, I build up a bit of a cult following on Patron or some similar writer space.

Is WoTC in for a cut? Am I going to get a DMCA notice for something I created just because I made it in someone else’s digital sandbox?

All in all, my concern is that under the guise of giving players more, they’re actually giving players less: less control, less diversity of play experience, and generally less room to grow creatively.

Suppose you go out for food and drinks, and the staff is perfectly competent, friendly – everything you’d expect…except as the night goes on, your server or host starts to play a more and more active role in your night. It goes way beyond an upsell – you expect that. It goes way beyond schmoozing for a tip – you expect that too. No mistake: you’re glad for the use of the space, and you’ve been well served all night, but suddenly the night isn’t about you and your friends anymore: it’s about the dining *experience*. It’s about the proprietary names they call all their food or cocktails, it’s about the branding on absolutely everything – it’s about the fact that your night, you are now very aware, is in service to their business, and despite the fact that the food was fine, the service was fine, and everything was competently delivered, you know that your night is simply a part of some corporation’s lifestyle-branded bottom line.

It’s a reminder that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing via the largess of whomever is providing the space, the meal, the drinks…or in this case the game – and you don’t own any of it.

As an owner, you might have certain rights or at least entitlements. As a renter, or guest, or player, you are using a service and as such that service has terms.

And that, I have come around to it, is what feels squicky about One D&D: a general omnipresence of the owning corporation, a reminder that everything is owned by someone big and powerful now – even your fantasies.

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