A D&D Pipe Dream

Reading @SarahDarkmagic's latest post, named Recently Initiated Loud Mouth, made me think of the pipe dream I had after Unearthed Arcana came out for D&D 3.5e. So instead of rambling on in a comment over there, I'll clutter up my own corner of the 'Net with it. Yes, it will require some work. Yes, it will be a different approach to D&D, and it may well be unpopular. But I'll tell you anyway because I like you.

Personalized Rulesets.

Unearthed Arcana (Dungeons & Dragons d20 3.5 Fantasy Roleplaying)Centralize and digitize the rules, then let GMs pick the rules they want to include in their games. No elves? No problem! Uncheck the box and they're gone. Want inherent bonuses to avoid the magic item glut? Click and done. Alternate hit point and healing rules? You've got 3 options, go crazy. After the GM is done selecting rules, an email goes out to the players with a link to the character builder pre-loaded with campaign-specific options and ready to print or save as a file to use on other campaign-planning sites. Also, the GM can download a PDF of the hyperlink-riddled Rules Handbook for that particular campaign, complete with simple personalization like the campaign name in the header of each page.

As new rules come out, add them to the list of options, but they won't change any existing Rules Handbooks. You could offer "pre-set" rule choices so if you wanted a bare-bones Starter Box game or a Dark Sun game, one click would get you the rules as written which you could then customize. You could even extend this idea to allow sections of user-generated house rules inserted into specific locations within the PDF. If the author wishes to share his house rules with specific fellow GMs or even with the whole community, that's as easy as clicking a button.

For the publisher, this gives incredible insight into what rules and settings are popular, and so what products would be well received. For an enthusiastic fan base who create House Rules, the community can "vote up" a particular house rule by using it in their campaign. The publisher would have access to the house rule usage stats and provide a convenient stable of new rules and content authors. The publisher could approach the author of the house rule to develop the rule further to make it an official rules option through the rules site or develop it as a full-blown adventure or setting supplement.

Official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Unearthed ArcanaTruth be told, I'm a systems guy. I love tinkering with how the world operates and then turning the players loose to figure out how the world works. I view rulesets as toolboxes, as ways to express the stories and scenes I have in my head. This approach would be the ultimate toolbox. You could cover the gamut from extremely rules-light Blue Book D&D to really crunchy settings like Birthright or Dark Sun with a click and a printout.

Further, it moves the rules from static book form to a digital format from the ground up. Integration with tablets and smartphones would be easy with a smart enough API. Granted, no core rulebooks other than the Rules Handbooks the GM prints means no aftermarket for used core products, which makes me a little sad. But I think the freedom granted to GMs more than makes up for it.

What do you think about this approach? Too radical? Too practical? Like it? Hate it? Do you want your five minutes back?


  1. Its an interesting idea. Basically you're looking at a web application that works as a wizard geared towards a print on demand operation. Back in the day there were several attempts to create an XML d20. As far as I know none of them got off the ground enough to do anything useful but they'd make for a good data source for this kind of application.

    There was a manual version of just this sort of thing in the Mutants and Mastermind's Mastermind Manual (try saying that 3 times fast) where you could check off which of the optional rules you were using. I used that check list for my Paragons of Freedom game but I don't remember if I ever showed it to my players.

    At this point I don't know that you could ever integrate that into D&D or Pathfinder but it'd be interesting to see an smaller game developer take that approach for say a revival of True20 or the d6 System.

  2. Love it! Great ideas there. Simple, great way to encourage community involvement deep in the development of the system while giving WotC a lot of honest feedback about how the system is actually being used.

    Although, to be honest, I would miss getting books from my FLGS. That's the kicker for me. I want to support those guys, too.

  3. On the bare surface, this a phenomenal idea. I've had similar thoughts in the past.

    When you start getting into particulars, though, it gets stickier. You would need to build the system to be even more modular than d20. Balancing the system as a whole would either be extremely tricky, or totally thrown out the window.

    The implementation of this would require an interactive system that, honestly, is still a few years away from being really practical. Probably longer than that with the IT resources of most game developers. While it is technically possible with current technology, it would not be easy. After all, you aren't simply talking about stringing together a bunch of text blocks. You need to be able to swap chunks of text in and out in the middle of sentences without disturbing the grammar and readability.

    I think that we are likely to see something like this eventually. But, not soon. And, I will be very curious to see what happens to the social structure around it. (As the recent fourthcore developments demonstrated, D&D already has severe issues with a fragmented fanbase.)

  4. @DarkTouch: Unearthed Arcana in 3e had a checklist to use as well. Which was good since they provided a couple of options to modify hit points and healing.

    Basic d20 or 4e would be a monumental effort, but True20 has potential. Great idea! It's a smaller ruleset to start with, anyway. And once the data structures are in place, swapping the data to support a different game system should be slightly easier, or at least easier to release for editing and playtesting. Hm...

    @Sully: The publisher could release several versions of the base rules as dead tree books, plus all the campaign setting and fluff would be in setting books and supplements. I could see sections of "If you want to use the rules for Foo, you can apply them here and here" in supplements to give GMs ideas on how to extend the base setting. I love books too. I don't think they would go away under this system, just change their content and print run.

    @Marshall: It's tremendously sticky to implement, especially for a big ruleset like D&D. The logic needed to swap individual sentences or words based on user input would be a tough nut to crack, especially if house rules were to open up to that level of customization. I think you're right. It's doable, but more effort than can be afforded by anyone in the industry at the moment.

    I'm curious about how something like this would be received in the wider community as well. There would be complaints as with anything new in gaming ("You're forcing me to subscribe to DDI, so I'm leaving!"), but I think it would remove some of the 4e/Essentials style friction since officially-sanctioned rulesets can be compatible given strong publisher presence and community playtesting. Though with user-generated house rules, all compatibility bets are off...