Most of the rule revisions, though, are an attempt to streamline the D&D experience, making it easier to set up and to play. "Ensuring that everybody has a good time at the table - ensuring that the core experience remains getting round the kitchen table with your friends and throwing the dice and having some fun," as Ryan puts it. He describes the 3rd Edition of the game as a 'great toolbox', pointing to its flexibility, and certainly the underlying d20 System served as the basis of various other games (notably the Star Wars RPG). But the upshot of that versatility is that actually playing the thing requires a lot of preparation on the part of DMs and players and even then it can still prove clunky in practice (talking about his own experiences as a DM, Ryan reckons he spends an hour preparing for each hour of play). "So the idea was to streamline the gameplay experience, with a little bit more focus on what makes the game fun to play."

One important change for gamers is that encounters are structured differently under the new rules. The old rules treated enemy parties as individuals, essentially. The new rules introduce party tactics, with differentiated roles for enemies, but more clearly defined roles for party members, so it's more difficult to come up with a character who has so many skills that they bring little to the party. The new rules also expand the range of tactics for big solo monsters: miss a dragon and they'll attack you with their tail now, instead of simply waiting till their next turn to attack.

So in many ways the game is a return to the roots of D&D at the expense of some of the universality of recent editions. "The core concept is the same," agrees Ryan. "You sit around the table and have a good time with your friends, rolling dice, moving little guys around the table, fighting monsters, kicking open doors, killing monsters and taking their stuff, making your character better. So the co-operative play, group storytelling, medieval fantasy, all those elements that are familiar are not changing." What will change is that play is faster, preparation is less, and, of most interest to Eurogamer readers, the new game will be making several concessions to the online era, from fostering an online community, to making it possible, if you've got an internet connection, to play D&D whenever and wherever you want.

The original D&D was shaped by the likes of Tolkien and Michael Moorcock. The tastes of newcomers to gaming are now shaped by the electronic worlds that were once inspired by D&D - games like WOW. The 4th Edition rules will, in turn, take some inspiration from this.

The biggest change over previous editions, and the one that takes it closest to the orbit of videogaming in its own right, is the fact that it will be going online. At the heart of this transition will be Dungeons & Dragons Insider, or D&DI - a subscription service that will provide players with a suite of tools that will enable them to set up faster, and play more easily, and over the internet. Not all of the tools will require this fee: some will be entirely free; some will be partially free; and some can be shared among players by using 'guest passes'. Pricing is USD 15 a month (or USD 10 a month for a year), though UK pricing is not yet announced. And while various third-party applications have allowed pen-and-paper RPGs to be played online for a while now, this is the real deal.

There's a character generator, a character visualiser, various ways to track your character's progression, ways for DMs to build encounters, a digital gaming table, a database of rules, Dungeon/Dragon magazines, and organised/tournament play. The character manager will allow you to create your character (using house rules if necessary, but tagging this for other players to see), print character sheets and save them online. The character visualiser is similar to those that you'll have seen in various MMOs but much more detailed. It can produce images that can be exported to a character sheet, or as a JPEG, or to the online game table as a digital miniature. As for the online game table, it provides DMs with dungeon tiles and digital miniatures, but they can also draw their own maps, import images, and even implement a fog of war effect.

New rule: you can only dress like this if you have a sufficiently scary mallet.

Crucially, however, it doesn't provide any sort of rules adjudication. DMs can force untrustworthy players to use the in-game dice, but it won't do their legwork for them. What it will do is allow the traditionally pen-and-paper D&D to be played online. Or you can just print the materials out and play offline - allowing the game to be played in a spectrum of ways: from around the table, to fully online, with various stages in between (such as playing with some players round a table, and some online, for example).

And that, in a big nutshell, is the 4th Edition rules. It's due for release on 6th June, though D&DI will be scaling up gradually. The official adventure campaign kicks off with Keep on the Shadowfell, which is already out. It includes quickstart rules and takes players up to 3rd level, though the sequels will eventually take players all the way through the 30 character levels that are supported by the game. Forthcoming publications include all of the major tomes that any self-respecting dungeon explorer would expect: Adventurer's Vault; Martial Power, Draconomicon; The Manual of the Planes; and a new starter set for newcomers. So if you've ever thought about dabbling with those old-fashioned non-videogame games, perhaps now is as good a time as any to start.

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