SAN FRANCISCO--This is not your big brother's Dungeons & Dragons.
On June 6, Wizards of the Coast will officially roll out the fourth edition of the D&D franchise, as well as a new suite of digital tools, and the world-famous game will never be the same.
And this time, it won't require the death of the game's inventor, Gary Gygax, to get D&D into the news.
I got a preview of what's new on Monday, and while I'm certainly no D&D expert, I'll try to spell out what I saw for you here.
To start with, the digital initiative, which is called Dungeons & Dragons Insider, will, for the first time, make it feasible to play a game of D&D with your friends over the Internet and without having to pull out the thick, iconic, hardcover books that have for so long been an essential element to the experience.
The basic idea behind Dungeons & Dragons Insider is that it will allow players to create their characters using an online avatar maker and then import those creations to a digital game table where they can they wage campaigns online with their friends.
And while the idea is not to turn D&D into an MMORPG--a massively multiplayer online game--like World of Warcraft or EverQuest, there can be no doubt that Wizards of the Coast has taken some cues from those games.
One of the sets of tools included in the D&D Insider is a complete collection of the items, classes, races, and spells from the books, as well as any of the official D&D magazines.
Then, once players have gone through the character creator--which allows them a pretty high degree of customization within all the various classes and races of their characters--they can then begin playing.
But those who are taking on the role of dungeon master can also use the character creator to build non-player characters that they can then put inside the dungeons that players will use as part of their campaigns.
One nice thing about using these online tools is that it is likely, I was told, that the entire process of getting ready to play will be much faster than it has always been to use the hard copy books. That's because, D&D Web specialist Chris Youngs told me, everything is organized in the online tools in such a way that players and dungeon masters alike will be able to find what they need without being required to flip around through the books. Which for anyone who ever played D&D knows is a seriously time-consuming part of the experience.
And while the online tools can automate the process of "rolling" a character, players can choose the option to still roll real dice and then input the results into the Web interface.
The last major element of the D&D Insider is the so-called "dungeon builder," a tool that allows dungeon masters to craft the environments where their players will carry out their campaigns.
One nice thing about this is that dungeon masters can set certain areas of the dungeons they're building as off-limits to players until the campaign leads naturally to them entering those areas. Then the DMs can toggle the access to allow the players in.
Practically speaking, this means that DMs can see the entirety of their newly-created dungeons while players can only see what the DMs want them to see.
One other nice element of the dungeon builder is that as DMs add more features--pits, fireballs, monsters, and the like, they can put dynamic lighting effects on those features. This is a nice little design choice and looks great.
As for the digital game table itself, it starts out two-dimensional, but can be rotated into being 3D.
Besides being digital, however, the upshot of all this is that the online version is designed to allow players and DMs to do anything digitally that they could previously do in the analog version of the game.
Yet, in keeping with this still being D&D, the digital setup does not set the rules or enforce them. Rather, the dungeon master is still in control of campaigns and gets to run things his or her way.
"It's not a video game experience," Youngs said. "It's a D&D experience."
Of course, even as Wizards of the Coast makes playing D&D digitally something to change the game forever, it is also preparing to launch an entirely new version of the game itself.
On June 6, the company plans to unveil the fourth edition of D&D, the first version since 3.5 was released in 2003.
Andy Collins, a member of the fourth-edition design team, told me the major idea behind the new edition is to streamline D&D so that there is less abstraction for players to absorb as they set out to create characters. That means all players will fit into four roles: Defenders, Strikers, Leaders, and Controllers.
The idea is that by pigeon-holing all classes of character into the four main roles, every player will have a sense of what they're doing in the game. Previously, Collins said, some players had been able to choose roles that didn't quite end up having any real place in a campaign.
Or, as James Wyatt, the lead story designer on the fourth edition, put it, "We didn't have the language before to tell you what (all the) classes were doing."
That problem is effectively solved in the fourth edition, Collins and Wyatt said.
"We rebuilt all the character classes from the ground up," Collins said, "to reduce to the core of what made...D&D exciting."
One thing I was curious about was how the emergence of games like World of Warcraft has affected D&D.
Wyatt said that such MMOs--and the ways that they have advanced the fantasy game genre--can help the D&D design team see elements of their game that they can refine.
But mainly, he added, he doesn't see MMOs being a major influence on the D&D team so much as an adjunct to find more depth in how to make D&D richer.
"We're not learning from (MMOs)," Wyatt said, "so much as looking in the mirror."
Finally, while Wizards of the Coast is still aiming D&D at its core players, it is also hoping that the fourth edition can reach many new players, especially those for whom the old versions of the game were effectively off-limits.
What that really means, Collins said, is that the fourth edition does away with some of the complexity of the game that was, effectively, a barrier to entry for many people.
That's possible, he, Wyatt, and associate D&D brand manager Sarah Girard said, because the new edition of the game boils down some of the complexity of the game and makes it simpler for players to find answers to questions that might previously have required spending a long time flipping around through the various books that make up the rule sets for answers.
"We've chosen to spend our complexity capital on things to do," Wyatt said. "Our books are full of options rather than nitty gritty details" that slow the game down and chase away many would-be players.
For now, players excited about the release of the fourth edition are going to have to bide their time. But, on May 20, Wizards of the Coast will release a single adventure, known as Keep on the Shadowfell, that will give players a taste of the fourth edition.
Then, on June 6, the company plans on rolling out the new edition. The following day, game stores around the country and the world will host D&D games so that players can get an instant taste of what's new.