I never thought I’d hear first about a D&D organized-play initiative from CNN. (Well, I guess technically I heard from Mike Mearls’ Twitter feed, but that’s 2010 for you. I sure don’t mean to suggest that CNN is relevant in the bigger scheme of things.) This piece completely reads like it was pre-assembled and delivered in the manner that PR firms do, but A) it’s frankly reassuring to see that Wizards can still manage to get that done, and B) I’m actually impressed by the specific content they’re doing it with. D&D Encounters is a way more strategic move than it looks like.
Time has been one of the key things plaguing the public perception of D&D since the ’80s. Along with the need to study tomes of minutiae, the long playing time which D&D demands by default leads more or less directly to non-players feeling like D&D is either some sort of cult or an all-absorbing lifestyle rather than what it is: a fun hobby that doesn’t noticeably hurt anyone. Directly attacking the time issue is strategic on WotC’s part in a very specific sense of the word: it makes things better on multiple fronts. It makes D&D take an amount of time that people expect a game to take, and thereby says “hey, this is just a harmless game,” much more effectively than, well, saying so in a press release. It addresses the needs of older gamers, and thereby gets word out that D&D players are older than they used to be. It puts a very much non-digital D&D game into the media, to help repair the PR debacle that was the Virtual Play Table announcement. And on and on.
I think the fact that CNN picked up this story at all, even just on the web site, lends a lot of credence to the idea that playing time is, or was, a major squick factor for the mainstream. That is my theory, which is mine. And for the rest of us, hey, a series of bite-sized Dark Sun previews.