A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

7Dec/14Off

In Defense of Morningstar

MorningstarIn case you're not aware, the project formerly known as DungeonScape has re-launched on Kickstarter as "Codename: Morningstar". Now I haven't talked a whole lot about the product, and in the past I admit I have been a little critical of it at times, but I wanted to put in a few words about it in the hopes that some of you out there will help support it.

First of all, I have to admit something: as a gamer, I question how much I'll actually use Morningstar myself. I'm generally not a fan of digital devices at the table, mainly because they're usually too "fun" and distract from the play experience. But you can't really look at this product as something that can *only* be used at the table... it's much more than that.

Filling the Digital Void

Whether I personally use Morningstar or not is not as important as my feeling that I think a product like Morningstar needs to exist in this day and age.

Since I'm a designer more than I am a player, I see a major benefit to something like Morningstar: it's not only another avenue by which to distribute my product, but the product ends up being significantly more useful within the application. Hardcopy adventures and PDFs are one thing, but Morningstar promises to make anything you create interactive, far more than the traditional e-book is. It allows the DM to actually use the adventure and its content in a much more interactive fashion.

Also, and I think most of us can admit to this: we kind of need digital tools. As D&D grows and its content base expands, it becomes virtually impossible to maintain and reference. Pathfinder suffers from that now: there are a dozen core books with supplemental material, so do you wheel out an ox cart full of books every time you need to look something up? Probbaly not. Instead, you go to the Pathfinder SRD and everything is there.

Now, arguably, a D&D SRD would be enough for most... but this is the 21st century. You'd think in this day and age we would be able to get the tools needed to shape the content in ways we need, from players designing characters the way they want them to DMs tweaking monsters and building combat encounters the way he wants them. We criticize Wizards of the Coast for living in the stone age, but we don't embrace digital tools ourselves. We need these tools, in one way or another, to pave the way for a brighter future.

Barrier of Entry

One common problem with any version of D&D is how easily newcomers can pick it up. And creating a character has not always been such an easy thing... Heck, I'm not sure if I can create a character from scratch using just the book, and I've been doing this for a while.

A digital tool, either online or offline, allows a player to not worry about the math. It allows them to click a few buttons to get the character they want and run with it, without having to worry if they calculated their AC correctly or not. It allows them to get right down to the game without having to worry about any changes.

For example, one of your attributes goes up by two... Do you know all the other properties that need to be changed because of that? How easy would it be to miss one? With a digital product maintaining all the math, one click and everything's in sync. Any idiot can maintain their character, freeing their mind to focus on what is important: playing the actual game.

Electronic Distribution

I have this vision that Morningstar could potentially be the Steam of tabletop roleplaying: a means to distribute content much more intuitively than now. For example, right now if you buy a product on DriveThruRPG you get the product as it stands the moment you buy it. If that product goes through changes or updates, sure you can get it from DTRPG but there's no notification of it. Not to mention that you have to download another PDF and make sure the one you use is the right one.

Also, it allows for free content to be distributed much more readily and allows for immediate availability. You don't have to advertise it, you don't have to click a dozen links in order to get it, it's just... there.

The Sour Taste of Beta

I know what some of you are thinking... "Why should I back this when the beta was horrible?"

Yes, let's be honest... The DungeonScape web beta was abysmal. We know that. Heck, I'm sure *they* know that. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

At least Tiamat didn't suddenly drop dead... yet...

At least Tiamat didn't suddenly drop dead... yet...

First, let's get one thing straight: EVERY beta is horrible. They just are. I've done my fair share of beta testing, going as far back as Ultima Online (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Quake III: Arena (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Half-Life 2 (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Neverwinter (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful) to Elder Scrolls Online (sweet merciful crap, that was god awful)... You sense a pattern here? And every time it's left a bad taste in my mouth, leaving me disillusioned about what the final product would end up being. Sometimes, rarely actually, my worries were right and the final product was a train wreck. Most of the time - as was the case with Half-Life 2, for example - the final product was fantastic.

That's the nature of a beta; it's an unfinished product that needs to be testing, and that testing goes on while development continues. It's not perfect... actually, it's way lower than perfect... but understand something about it: alpha or beta testing is not necessarily done to know what needs to be worked on, but how things need to be worked on. It's not done with the expectation of someone saying "XXX is broken", but rather with the expectation that someone will say "XXX is broken, but here's how it should be."

The DungeonScape web beta, quite honestly, should have not seen the light of day until months later... but I have a sense that it really wasn't Trapdoor's decision there. Wizards of the Coast is very traditional in their ways, and they had a certain timeline of when things were supposed to happen. They kept talking about these wonderful digital tools, building up the hype themselves, so they had a little bit of a problem in that they didn't exactly have anything to show for it yet. And Trapdoor was doing what they could, as fast as they could, with the resources they had...

Educated Guesses

...which brings up another issue: how do you build product "A", which is based on product "B", when you don't even know what product "B" is?

You see, at the time DungeonScape was being developed, the three core books didn't exist. OK, maybe the Player's Handbook existed in some capacity, but we all know the Dungeon Master's Guide didn't exist because that was the reason it was delayed: so they could work on it some more. So Trapdoor was tasked to create a product that would contain the functionality that was in a book that Wizards of the Coast didn't even finish writing yet.

Considering the limited time they probably had from the time they received content to the time it was available in the beta, I think Trapdoor did amazingly well. Especially considering that I doubt Wizards of the Coast did anything to make that transition easy for them.

The Elephant In the Room

The other concern many have is that they won't back Morningstar since it doesn't support D&D 5th Edition.

First of all, let me clear up a misconception that was circulating early in the Kickstarter's launch: it's not that Codename: Morningstar *won't* support 5th Edition. Wizards of the Coast has not told Trapdoor "no, you can't include 5E ever"... or at least I hope not, because if they did it would be one of the stupidest things WotC has ever said (and, let's face it, they've said some really stupid things in the past).

The truth of the matter is that we simply don't know: there is no 5th Edition license yet. Nobody knows what WotC is going to do, and only when the license is released will anyone have any idea whether 5th Edition will be available in Morningstar. If they go the OGL route it will most definitely be in Morningstar (and given that Trapdoor already has a lot of code sitting around already written, it should be an easy thing to do), but if they do something like they did with the 4E GSL - which explicitly prohibits software of any kind - then Trapdoor is up the creek. And, if WotC does do the latter, that will be yet another stupid thing they do, so I'm remaining optimistic.

Only time will tell whether Morningstar will support 5th Edition. I doubt we'll see a license before the end of the Kickstarter, but we could only hope.

In the meantime, Morningstar will support Pathfinder and - quite possibly - 13th Age. Many argue that this means they'll never use it because they don't run that game system... but I ask you to consider funding it not because of whether you'll use it or not, but rather fund the hope that the product will exist with a feature set that will make other game system publishers consider using it. Imagine a day where there would be a Morningstar for FATE... for Savage Worlds... for Star Wars... for Numerena... and, ultimately, for D&D 5th Edition.

Conclusion

Whether you think you'll use it or not, I ask you to consider backing Codename: Morningstar at some level. It's a product that, in my personal opinion, needs to exist and will hopefully pave the way for the future of digital tools in RPGs. They have a pretty lofty goal to reach, but their heart's in the right place.