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Dungeonscape: The Fellowship of the Thing

If you’ve been attentive, you might remember that I got to sit down with three of the folks from Trapdoor Technologies, LLC back in August and discuss their upcoming suite of electronic tools for Dungeons & Dragons 5E, Dungeonscape. If you haven’t been attentive, PAY ATTENTION! I don’t do this s$&% for my own health. I do it for you because I’m a motherf$&%ing altruist.

You might have heard that a lot has changed since that August dinner in Indianapolis. The partnership between Wizards of the Coast and Trapdoor Technologies is kaput. Dungeonscape for D&D 5E is not going to happen. And those of us who were following the development were left wondering what the f$&% happened? The iOS version was practically done and ready to ship. They had started early beta testing on the Android and web versions. And we were all just waiting for the day when they said “here it is, guys and gals! Give us your money!”

Among the fans and detractors, there’s been a lot of speculation. Did Trapdoor take too long? Was Dungeonscape not up to snuff? Was it corporate politics? Did jackbooted Hasbro Corporate Enforcers put the kibosh on the deal for fear that Space Pirates would steal all the D&D over the internets? The rumor mill was abuzz. Meanwhile, on Twitter and other internet platforms, the name quietly changed from Dungeonscape back to Codename: Morningstar (the secret name they had been using before the project was officially announced). Soon thereafter, Morningstar posted a cryptic message on their blog about embarking on a new adventure like some Dragonlance fanfic just waiting for a cease and desist from Margaret Weiss.

And that’s where your old pal, The Angry DM, comes in. I hunted down Chris Matney, the managing director of Trapdoor Technologies (he was on the Internet, where everyone is) and bullied him into answering a few questions using a complex interrogation technique I like to call the “Hey, Can I Ask You a Few Questions” method. He said “okay,” and that was that. Where are your rebel friends now, Matney?!

All right, it was just a friendly interview on the phone. But I scowled a lot anyway. And while Matney couldn’t discuss absolutely everything, he was willing to share a lot about Dungeonscape, now Morningstar, the past, the present, and the future. And, I gotta be honest, it’s a pretty exciting future. If it happens.

“We allowed ourselves one day of wallowing in self-pity,” he said, “and then we sat down and asked ‘what’s the new plan?’”

morningstar

We ginned up this logo ourselves. Nothing official, yet.

The Past: The Forging of the Thing

Since my first conversation with Chris Matney, Evan Newton, and Rachael Bowen of Trapdoor Technologies, LLC, a lot of additional information came out about what Dungeonscape actually was. Or perhaps I should say “what Morningstar was.” Ultimately, it wasn’t just a character builder. It was a revolutionary new way of delivering RPG content. Trapdoor had developed a platform called The Story Machine. Essentially, it would take a properly formatted e-book and, through the magic of technology, index it, link it all up, bookmark it up, make it searchable, and so on. It had primarily been used for educational products. Imagine a text book given the wiki treatment on steroids. There you go.

Now, Matney is a 37-year veteran of the gaming trenches. And you can’t be a veteran DM and NOT recognize the power of a system like The Story Machine for gaming. Veteran DMs see EVERYTHING in terms of gaming. Matney had been using the Story Machine platform to run his personal weekend games. And he realized that many other DMs would love to have the same sort of tool.

With a bit of self-proclaimed entrepreneurial spirit, he sold Trapdoor’s investors on the idea of seeking a partnership with role-playing game publishers to offer them a distribution model “beyond simple PDFs” for their games. Searchable, indexed, linked e-publications with expert systems built over the top to parse the information and allow players and game masters to do useful things. And more importantly, to share their content. With each other and the world.

“The independent adventure writer actually doesn’t have many avenues to publish and share their creations,” Matney said. “Morningstar could fill that role.” Pressed further, he admitted that Trapdoor is actually “trying to change the way role-playing games are consumed, created, and curated.” “Gaming,” he said “is ready for a renaissance. The future is very bright.”

And it was rife with those possibilities that the Trapdoor team took the idea to the annual Game Manufacturer’s Association Trade Show (GAMA) to show it off and see if anyone was interested. And there was a lot of interest, according to Matney. And among them, Wizards of the Coast. And thus a fellowship was forged.

The Present: The Breaking of the Fellowship

When the discussion turned to the question of what had happened between Trapdoor and WotC to scuttle the deal, Matney was quick to point out that he has a lot of respect for all of the folks at Wizards of the Coast. “They are smart,” he said, “passionate.” And he said they are committed to quality. “The challenge we faced,” he said, “was a fundamental difference in approaches.” Trapdoor and WotC simply had different visions for the future of gaming.

“Wizards saw Dungeonscape as an extension of a character roller and a way to sell rules,” Matney explained. But Trapdoor was interested in more than that. They were trying to do something revolutionary. As Matney had said, trying to change the way content was delivered and consumed on a fundamental level. And he said WotC just wasn’t ready to make that change. WotC is a paper publisher. That’s what they know. He likened it to book publishing houses, fighting tooth and nail against e-books “…until the technology was so pervasive that the fight was over.”

Moreover, Trapdoor wanted Dungeonscape to enable independent authors and basement adventure writers to share their creations easily. And that also seemed to be a philosophical difference between Trapdoor and WotC. “Saying you can write your stories, but not share them, is the wrong way to do it,” he said. “We wanted Dungeonscape to facilitate the create and sharing of immersive experiences.”

Of course, that’s not the whole story. It simply can’t be. And we’ll probably never know the whole story. After all, if Matney and Trapdoor were courting developers with this sort of revolutionary delivery method in mind and WotC really wasn’t ready for that, one wonders why Trapdoor got so far with WotC or why the deal was even signed at all.

But WotC does have an odd relationship with technology and they’ve flip-flopped in the past. You only have to look back to Dungeons & Dragons’ 4th Edition to see a weird, scatterbrained mess of electronic distribution. D&D Insider (DDI), the electronic suite for 4E, had delays and problems from the get go. Even after it was released, features were periodically scaled back or hacked out. DDI went from being a downloaded tool to an unstable web application. It went from being able to export content or save it locally to cloud-based saving only, no exporting, and limited printing. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Recall that early in the lifespan of 4E, the core rules and other products were available in PDF format for purchase, but those were suddenly pulled down and WotC was done with PDFs thereafter. Only recently have they started to make products available electronically. Currently, they’re limited to older, out-of-print products through the D&D Classics store. WotC just seems oddly technophobic. And when they do try to embrace technology, they seem to stumble and break their noses in the execution.

At the same time, Chris Perkins, D&D Designer, Editor, and DM to the Stars at Wizards of the Coast, was very vocal just a few weeks ago about the D&D team’s desire to see electronic distribution of the 5E core rules. Speaking at Gamehole Con, he said “we have every intention of releasing the books in electronic versions, but we don’t have a date at this time.” It’s very telling that WotC doesn’t seem to have any specific plan for electronic distribution just yet and that lends some credence to Matney’s impression of a company that isn’t ready to embrace the technology Trapdoor is offering.

Some have speculated that the deal may have fallen through for other reasons. It’s been suggested that Dungeonscape didn’t meet Wizards’ quality standards. Critics point to the state of the Android and web versions of Dungeonscape that had recently entered beta testing. Matney was quick to dismiss concerns about quality, though he does admit that the Android and web beta testing could have been handled better. With the release of the iOS version of the app delayed while Trapdoor and WotC hashed out the details, Trapdoor wanted to keep the community engaged and so they opened the Android and web beta testing. Matney admits the product might not have been ready for that. He also suggested that the team could have done a better job communicating with beta testers about the state of the application.

As for speculation about delays, Matney says the delays were on both sides. Ultimately, though, Matney admitted that all they can do to really prove themselves to the community is release a good product. “We know how to write software,” he said. “We’ll let our product, our attitude, and our commitment speak for themselves.”

And if all goes well, Morningstar will get the chance to speak for itself.

The Future: One Does Not Simply Walk into an Overdone Lord of the Rings Meme

I asked Matney whether Morningstar had a post-WotC future. “We allowed ourselves one day of wallowing in self-pity, and then we sat down and asked ‘what’s the new plan?’” There wasn’t much question, at least his mind, that the project wasn’t dead. “We have too many opportunities to make the game better… the future of gaming is very bright.”

And how does does he see Morningstar improving the game? “I have only so many hours to work on my game every week,” Matney said. “And I want to focus on the story.” Morningstar will handle the mechanical minutiae. The statblocks, the math, the pain-in-the-ass stuff every DM would stop doing if they could. And that’s not all. At the table, fully indexed rules and character sheets and stat blocks might save just a few minutes in each encounter, “but that could add up to an extra hour of play at every session.”

Once Matney got started talking about the possibilities, it was hard to get to him to stop. He talked about how the application would make it easier to bring in new players and teach them the game, how old content and adventures could be easily brought into Morningstar and made indexed, searchable, and usable. But he’s also quick to point out that he doesn’t want to see the app distract from the game. “The value of the game,” he says, “is in the storytelling. In 37 years years, there’ve been many changes to the game. None of them mattered. What mattered was the story you were telling.”

I asked if Trapdoor had started reaching out to other publishers. “We’ve been talking to other publishers,” he said, but he wasn’t ready to get too specific about who just yet. Talks were still ongoing. But he was quick to point out that any gamer who knows the major players could guess which companies Trapdoor was approaching. And this isn’t the first time they’ve spoken to most of these publishers. Back at the GAMA Trade Show, they talked to a lot of people before they ultimately signed the deal with WotC. And, if no one wants to sign, “there’s always the OGL” as Matney put it.

“There’s been no discussion about not going forward. We’re on the right track, we have the right product, and we have the right team.” Most importantly, he said, “we have the support of the community. What’s the product without the community?” The gaming community has apparently played a bigger role in ensuring the future of Morningstar than any of us realized. The bigwigs at Trapdoor, “The Investors” as both Matney and Rachael Bowen mysteriously refer to them, were won over by the community. “We’ve got 20,000 fans who like our product,” Matney said. That made it easier for him to convince The Investors to keep moving forward, even though they’re not gamers.

Actually, according to Matney, that’s not entirely true anymore. At least one of The Investors, an attorney, has started playing D&D with the help of Dungeonscape. And if it can turn a lawyer into even a casual gamer, maybe Matney is right about it’s ability to help new gamers join the community.

But what is the future of Morningstar? According to Matney, the basic platform is sound, most of the work has been done, but it will take some time to adapt it to a new gaming system. And, in the meanwhile, Trapdoor is going to need some help. And for that, the obvious choice is crowdfunding. Again, the team is still ironing out their plans, but they are working fast. Matney and his team seem to want to keep up their momentum, to hit the ground running. And while they couldn’t give me a firm date, they’ve suggested that a Kickstarter is probably going to go live before the holidays, possibly even in just a couple of weeks.

Matney seems extremely optimistic. Working on their own, he says Trapdoor will have a bit more leeway and with the fans backing Morningstar more directly, he foresees more opportunities to engage the gaming community. “Our engagement with the community was very successful,” he said, “and we plan to continue that. Gamers are the experts in gaming.”

And what if the Kickstarter doesn’t fund? I almost didn’t want to bring it up, but I had to ask. Matney was frank about it. He’d try to push it out even without Kickstarter support, although that might not be entirely possible. But, he also thinks that Morningstar, or something like it, is inevitable. “It offers too many advantages for the game.” So, if not Trapdoor and Morningstar, someone is going to fill this niche. He’s quick to point out Trapdoor is in the best position to do it right now, though, “We have a few year’s head start, and the platform is already there.”

Personally, I agree with him. Much as I’ve been an ardent decrier of all things technological at the table, I think Matney is right. Gaming is ready for renaissance and it’s time to move beyond PDFs. I’ll always want my hardbacks, my books, that’s not going to change. But I’ll happily supplement them with any useful tools that make my job as a DM less of a pain in the a$&. Now that gamers have seen the possibilities, it really isn’t a question of if this will happen. It’s a question of when. And I’ll take it sooner rather than later.

[NOTE: We contacted WotC regarding both their plans for digital distribution and for a follow-up interview about Dungeonscape. They declined to comment on either topic and instead referred us to their initial announcement about their separation from Trapdoor Technologies, here. -Ed.]

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