As we start working on the Dungeon World monster maker I’ve been thinking a lot about online tools for tabletop RPGs. The most obvious example is D&D Insider: what did it do well? How did it shape the game that 4th Edition became?
Let’s start with this: D&D Insider was almost certainly a success in direct monetary terms. It succeeded in converting a number of tabletop players who might have otherwise only bought a product every few months into monthly subscribers, which I’m sure is a nice sort of income for a business to have. Even now, with 4E fading in the face of next, Wizards is still making money off of Insider with minimal monthly investment.
It’s effects on print products are harder to analyze without full access to the sales numbers. At the very least D&D maintained dominance as one of the top (and often the top) RPG product sold in hobby shops in the 4E period, as tallied by ECv2. While that doesn’t tell us how 3E would compare to 4, it seems like it at least stayed in the same neighborhood.
The more interesting effect is on the relative value of content not made by Wizards.
While there is plenty of 3rd party content for 4E (539 PDFs on DriveThru RPG right now), none of that content is in Insider. Wizards did such a good job of making Insider the central reference for 4E that content not in it became less useful. As the core books expanded the ability to search for a monster or magic item that meets your needs became hugely valuable. Looking beyond the search results was rarely needed, so 3rd party content tended to be less valuable.
It’s entirely possible that this was a deliberate decision. Whereas 3rd Edition was defined by many other companies along with Wizards, 4th Edition is clearly their game. The license of course plays a part in that, but it’s not the only reason. When most players make characters with the character builder, any class not in the builder is going to be less valuable. When most DMs find monsters by searching the compendium, any monster not in the compendium is less likely to get played.
In some ways RPGs still haven’t really caught up with the electronic era. While PDFs are bigger than ever and some games have tools they’re still barely scratching the surface of what electronic formats can do for RPGs without fundamentally changing anything.
There’s no technical reason why the D&D Compendium couldn’t feature content from other companies, or why the character builder couldn’t have been extensible. The ability for players to create new things is one of the greatest draws to RPGs, but most online tools barely approach that. Even the customization tools the D&D Insider does offer are targeted at making things (monsters and characters mostly) for your home game, not for sharing with everyone else.
The dream extension of RPGs into the digital realm is essentially what the OSR is already doing: a community of people who make stuff and share it, but with tools to aid the process. Stat blocks have standard formats, so why not provide HTML/CSS (or embeddable images or iframes or whatever) to put the monsters you make everywhere, like a YouTube video? Go beyond wikis and make tools that help players make content and share it instead of just giving them a place to store what they already made.
What if content for a game looked like the Wordpress Plugin Directory? Anyone can have their content hosted. Quality is a product of user reviews. Revision history is automatically tracked. Compatibility is suggested by the creator and graded by the community.
The key part of tabletop RPGs is their customization. Any online presence for an RPG needs to not just embrace that, but promote it.