My meeting with Shelly Mazzanoble, an associate brand manager from Wizards of the Coast working on the D&D franchise, began like most of the other prescheduled meetings I had at PAX East. I checked in with the PR team that was managing the event for WotC, some quick organization of meeting space and personnel took place in the organized chaos, and after a few moments I was face to face with a person who was doing a good job of trying to look as excited as she possibly could while getting ready to say basically the same things I suspect she’d been saying for two days now.
Mazzanoble started telling me about the plans around Rise of the Underdark and the two-year story they were readying as part of a multi-pronged media strategy. Then I said something I don’t think she fully expected. I told her the truth, which is that I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons in a traditional capacity so seldom that I could count the times on one hand, with fingers left over.
Then I told her about my eight-year-old son who had recently strode into the house after his long day of second grade and proclaimed that he was now part of his elementary school’s Dungeons & Dragons club. I mostly spent the next few minutes squaring the fact that there was a sanctioned D&D club in his school with my basic understandings of reality.
I asked Mazzanoble how you keep a brand on track that is at once a new and living thing to eight-year-olds and a long and trusted friend to now-adults who’ve played since they were eight. The answer, as it turns out, has nothing to do with rules, manuals or dice. It is, as many of you likely already know, all about creativity and ownership of the experience. It is, in short, all about the real genius concept born from D&D: the Dungeon Master.
My father-in-law is what I think of as a man of the people. I’ve never seen the man meet someone he couldn’t connect and build a rapport with. He’s got this southern-gentleman kind of charm about him, a slow easy style that puts you at ease. Whatever you want to talk about, he’s got an anecdote, joke or story at the ready. And he’s the first one to tell you that the easiest way to be that guy is to never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
I don’t know that D&D is a game he would ever ken to, but if it were I think he’d find that it suits his nature. The thing about the game — and when you talk to someone at Wizards, you begin to discover that it’s a concerted effort — is that the game has less to do with crafting an experience that you participate in and more to do with giving you the tools, the platform, the world and the background to craft your own experience.
In our conversation, Mazzanoble talked about a pivotal moment when she was struggling with being a DM and the confines of the rules impacting the player experience. One of her colleagues pointed out that the answer was incredibly simple: Change the rules. Ok, so your character only rolled a 16 and they needed a 17, but the more fun thing for everyone is to have had the 17 happen, so just act like it did. You’re the dungeon master; the world bends to you.
When I sit down and think about it, I’m at a loss to think of a game family aside from role playing games that essentially cedes power to an arbiter. The dungeon-master concept is frankly the brilliance of D&D, the thing that I think keeps it alive and thriving, because it gives you unlimited flexibility to shape the game to the needs and desires of the players. Whether that means you want to create a very fixed, rigid, rules-based game where the consequences are immutable, or a highly flexible, almost casual experience, the game can support it.
When you ask the question of how you can create and maintain a brand that wants to appeal to both the rules driven, live-for-a-challenge, long-time player-base, as well as someone like my son who has a significantly reduced capacity for living with the capricious and unforgiving roles of a die, the answer turns out to be quite simple. You give all the power to a player whose job is to have the best interests of the experience at heart. And it really only could work in this kind of game, one where the experience is the whole point.
Because the thing about games like this is that winning is irrelevant. It’s not about levels or spell damage, saving throws or abilities. It’s about the story, a story told to you by a friend where you’re the star. The dice and the paper and the manuals are just tools to build that story, a framework from which you can start. It’s organized playing make believe.
As I stood up from my conversation with Mazzanoble, I had a handful of notes about the new content being developed for D&D, but more importantly I had a clearer understanding of why people have and continue to care so much about this game. My experience with D&D-related products from CRPGs to books has always been entertaining, but for the first time I know what makes it special.