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

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.
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Adam Roy is a contributor of Westword, a former editor at Outside and Matador Network, his writing has also appeared in Paste, High Country News and other online and print publications nationally and abroad.
Contact: Adam Roy

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