Boulder's Codename: Morningstar Wants to Bring Tabletop RPGs Into the Google Age

A screenshot from Codename: Morningstar's Kickstarter video.
A screenshot from Codename: Morningstar's Kickstarter video.
Courtesy of Trapdoor Technologies

As anyone who has ever played Dungeons and Dragons can attest, tabletop role-playing comes with a lot of rules. Getting through an adventure can mean wading through thousands of pages of them -- in bestiaries, player handbooks and other hefty tomes. It's a problem that gamers Chris Matney and Evan Newton of Trapdoor Technologies know intimately.

"Tabletop gaming has a lot of maintenance time that's required to play the game properly," says Newton, Trapdoor's producer. "You spend up to an hour a night of gaming looking up rules and trying to figure out how things work."

But soon, there might be an app for that. Trapdoor, a digital publishing company based in Boulder, is trying to lower the learning curve for paper-and-pen role-playing with Codename: Morningstar, a new, cloud-based suite of storytelling and game-management tools designed to replace tabletop gaming's traditional piles of printed books and dice.

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The core of Morningstar is Trapdoor's Story Machine, a software platform the company originally built to help streamline the process of preparing Kindle ebooks and educational texts for market. The Story Machine automatically crawls ebook manuscripts and helps add links to appendices and other works, whether websites, videos or related books. Before its development, Newton says, the company spent "hundreds of hours" preparing each book for market; the Story Machine cut that time down to five or six.

Creating software to simplify tabletop role-playing was a personal project for Matney, managing director at Trapdoor and a role-player since discovering Dungeons and Dragons in 1977. "I was actually sneaking in and using the Story Machine to take my own RPG content and make an app out of it to run on my tablet," he says. By cross-linking rule books and adventures, he could click a link and have the rules for spell-casting or the monster stats for a lich at his fingertips, right when the quest called for it. A built-in chat function let him and other game masters exchange secret messages between individual players' devices without tipping off the others.

Matney and Trapdoor soon started shopping the application to gaming companies around the U.S. They ended up partnering with the publisher of Dungeons and Dragons, the Hasbro-owned gaming juggernaut Wizards of the Coast. Codename: Morningstar was rebranded as Dungeonscape, and tooled to fit D&D's rule set.

Progress seemed to be moving along smoothly at first, and in September, the two companies released a beta version of Dungeonscape to largely positive reviews. By the next month, however, the project was foundering. In October, Wizards of the Coast announced in a brief statement on its site that the beta would be shutting down.  

Chris Matney
Chris Matney
Courtesy of Trapdoor Technologies

The failure of the partnership with Wizards left Matney and company in a pickle. Trapdoor had developed Morningstar itself, and with Wizards gone, they found themselves sitting on a mostly-complete application with no distribution partner, no license for D&D's copyrighted rule set and little cash to finish the job.

In a meeting shortly after Wizards announced its decision, Trapdoor and its investors agreed to move on with the project through Kickstarter. Between Halloween and the launch of the campaign about a month later, the team shot a video and pulled together its pitch essentially from scratch.

"We had the advantage of knowing what our product is going to be, because it is very, very close to being ready to go," says Matney of the rush to assemble Morningstar's Kickstarter campaign. "But there is a lot of work that has to be done to get it started and running."

To complete Codename: Morningstar, Trapdoor is asking for $425,000. (Whether it can actually hit that goal is debatable; with less than a week to go, the team had only raised about $66,000). According to Matney, much of that money will go to putting the finishing touches on "The Forge," Morningstar's final module, which lets players create, modify and share their own content, with another portion going toward adapting the app to the open-source Pathfinder rules.

Should Codename: Morningstar make it to market, Matney hopes that it will find an audience not just with old-guard players managing campaigns that have spanned years, but a younger, video-game-weaned generation that has a hard time imagining games without a screen.

"There's some sort of Pavlovian need, I think, that some people have to be on their devices once an hour, twice an hour," says Matney. "What we're doing is we're giving them a reason to be on the tablet that's still inside the game."

Catch Adam Roy on Twitter at @adnroy.



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