The Power Struggle for Dungeons & Dragons’ Soul
Online protections may stifle the game’s DIY culture
To be a consumer in the internet age often requires a choice between convenience and control. Look at your Spotify account: It offers a sprawling library of music at your disposal on any device, at any time — much easier than thumbing through a stack of CDs or clicking into a folder of downloaded MP3s. But as legions of Taylor Swift fans learned the hard way when she pulled her music from the platform in 2014 (only to return years later), Spotify’s offerings can shrink without warning. Control is in a record label’s hands, not yours.
Far away from greedy music execs and pop stars, in realms like Mystara and Eberron, or the sprawling cosmic expanse of Planescape, things aren’t any less complicated. In recent months, Dungeons and Dragons, the 44-year-old role-playing game in which players conjure entire fantasy universes through pen and paper, has become an unlikely symbol of the compromises demanded by digital services. A culture once known for DIY adventures is changing, and it’s all the internet’s fault.
Wizards of the Coast, the company behind D&D, as it’s more colloquially known, didn’t exactly step into the future with the launch of D&D Beyond in 2017, but the company did make a firm stride into the present. The selling point was simple: Convenient online services for a complicated game. No longer would players have to flip through the index of a hardcover book to look up the minutiae of an obscure rule, or rewrite a lost character sheet from memory — a painstaking process that can take forever, as players try to recall the enchantments on a half-orc’s helm or whether a sorcerer had mastered “Scorching Ray” or “Aganazzar’s Scorcher.” D&D Beyond promised, at last, a digital toolkit to simplify or automate the most arcane processes required to play the game.
There was just one problem: Enthusiasts had already created a ton of unofficial resources for D&D. Many people preferred taking things into their own hands and creating solutions for no compensation at all, dodging the small subscription fee — either $2.99 or $5.99, depending on access level — that Wizards charges for full access to resources in D&D Beyond.