Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Dungeons & Diablos: Past and Present Attempts to Port a Foundational Action-RPG Series to Tabletop

Dungeon crawling had existed in some form, traditional or digital, for a solid 20 years before the release of the first Diablo title for PC in 1997. It was a tried-and-true formula of exploring dank halls, killing increasingly deadly excuse villains, and acquiring loot and ever-greater power for your character. Sometimes you perma-died when you inevitably got unlucky, sometimes there was a save file or a cleric sitting at the table with you; the differences between crawlers were typically tangential to that core gameplay loop. When Diablo released, it changed none of those steps, yet still managed to transform the dungeon crawl genre of video games forever.

Functionally, there is no difference between what you're doing in Diablo and what you're doing in Angband, rogue, or The Keep on the Borderlands. Diablo differed in how it presented and delivered that dungeon crawling experience using procedurally-generated dungeon floors and items, enthusiastically shlocky, gothic fantasy visuals, fast and relentless real-time gameplay (for its time at least), and sound design calibrated to make your brain light up with good job happy time chemicals like a Skinner Box rat whenever a treasure chest opens or loot pops out of a boss's corpse.

When Diablo II released three years later, it took that formula and honed it almost to perfection. It gave you more monsters to kill, more characters and powers to kill them with, and more loot to get for killing them, all while crafting a story and a world that were pretty decent, even beyond their primary function, which was to exist in service of the gameplay loop. They were big hits, and they helped cement the long-ago tarnished pedigree of Blizzard Entertainment, who acquired the original developer Condor and renamed it Blizzard North shortly after Diablo I released.

You can learn more about the series as a whole from this very good and extremely long retrospective Noah Cladwell-Gervais released a few weeks ago, if you're interested. I've been playing it on loop for inspiration as I work on this. But that's enough parroting better writers than me for the moment. I'm here to talk about the interaction between Diablo and the medium of TTRPGs.

Video games and their tabletop predecessors have always been in conversation with one another, each influencing the other over the decades in ways that are often far more subtle and long-lasting than the uproar about D&D 4E being "MMO-like" that one time. So it's little surprise that eventually, somebody wanted to port the Diablo flavor of dungeon crawling back to the genre's birthplace in Dungeons & Dragons.

It's also unsurprising that no one has yet pinned down how exactly to do that.

Stuffed almost entirely into the year 2000, WotC and Blizzard got together to take several shots at a Diablo tabletop game, each slightly different from the last. They are weird artifacts of that liminal twilight era of AD&D 2E, sandwiched between the acquisition of TSR by WotC and the emergence of D&D 3E.

Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game: Diablo II Edition: Fast-Play Game: The Bloodstone Tomb (Early 2000? Publication Date Claims 1999)

A mouthful of a title for a pretty small game, written by Jeff Grubb and Bill Slavicsek. This fast-play booklet is 16 pages long, including cover material. It was apparently packaged with certain copies of Diablo II the computer game on release, and served as an introduction to tabletop gaming for newcomers using Diablo as the hook.

The D&D "Adventure Game" is something that has popped up several times throughout history. Normally it is a very simplified version of the game rules packaged together with some dice and token or map pieces in a little boxed set, similar to the Starter Sets and Essentials kits of later years. AD&D2E got one, as did 3E- the latter with its orange box and several of the iconics flanked by a red dragon on the front was my first ever experience with D&D.

The Bloodstone Tomb is not that, however. It's a one-shot module that uses an even more simplified system, to the point that it mechanically does not resemble D&D. You don't even use polyhedral dice outside of the ordinary d6. The attack mechanic is 3d6 roll-above your character's to-hit stat, for example.

You can play 4 different premade characters for Bloodstone Tomb; Amazon, Barbarian, Paladin, or Sorceress. Sorry, Necromancer. You didn't make the cut. Each character comes on a card that has set ability scores, Life and Mana displayed in little bubbles that you can individually cross out, short descriptions and lists of equipment, and 1 or 2 skills inspired by the computer game. Barbarian can Bash for triple damage for 1 mana for example, or the Paladin can Pray to heal d6 damage from anyone.

The adventure itself is very basic: your party discovers the wreckage of a merchant caravan in the wilderness and follows the curiously bodiless blood trail to a nearby dungeon in the hills. There you fight bloodhawks and fallen ones to rescue the survivors from sacrifice. Six rooms later, you're left at a cliffhanger where you can journey down the stairs into pitch blackness and an unknown fate.

It's quick, simple, reasonably Diablo'y in tone, and easy to tackle for a couple of kids who got their parents to buy them an M-rated game. It actually plays a lot like a simulation of a "cellar dungeon" from newer Diablo titles. But it's not really enough to play a full game with. For that you need the full version of the Adventure Game, which is conveniently advertised on the back cover.

Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game: Diablo II Edition (May 2000?)

The full version of the game introduced in the Fast-Play, that isn't really similar to the fast-play at all. Which strikes me as odd, because this version was also designed primarily by Grubb and Slavicsek.

This boxed set contains a full set of traditional D&D dice, a rule book, quest book, monster book, several dozen tile-based terrain pieces to arrange for your own dungeons, monster tokens, character sheets (including the Necromancer this time!), and a DM screen. It is much closer to a D&D Adventure Game this time around, both in contents and mechanics.

Diablo II Edition still uses pre-made character cards, but they look more like traditional character sheets this time. They track level and experience, THAC0, armor class, simplified all-in-one saving throws, movement rate (in squares), and magic item slots. They retain all of their Diablo-themed parts too, such as Life and Mana, skills, and somewhat curiously for a D&D spinoff, a grid-based inventory a la the computer game's backpack.

Characters have more than 1 or 2 skills this time. They start off with their choice of only one, but every level-up they may check off a new ability to use, up to a total of 4 out of the available 5 each. This is similar to how you acquire new skills in Diablo II, albeit without the cross-skill synergies or the option to add more points to a given skill to make it more powerful.

You also get a hit of loot randomization (and a reason for getting loot to begin with), which was absent in the fast-play. Whenever the random magic loot table roll results in a non-unique piece of equipment dropping (which is a solid 8-19 on a d20), you customize that item by rolling on a table for Prefixes, Suffixes, or both, which affect its stats and bonuses (or penalties). That hand ax might be an Iron Hand Ax of Quality that has a +1 to attack and damage, or that shield might be an especially unlucky Rusted Shield of the Vulture that decreases your AC by 1 and life by 1d4.

There are thousands of different combinations, which is a pretty good approximation of the dizzying numbers of items the computer game is rolling for behind the scenes every single second of play. The rate of loot acquisition might be slower than in the digital version of the game though, or else the session might slow to a crawl as your DM pores over the same couple of tables until their eyes bleed.

Other mechanics are far closer to D&D. You use a d20 for most things including attacks, ability checks, saving throws, etc. Weapons deal differing amounts of damage besides d6 for example, though they don't use variable damage vs Medium or Large-sized adversaries, which was en vogue in AD&D. You get better to-hit and saving throw ratings with each level-up, but life and mana are linear increases rather than random rolls or determined by ability scores.

The quests for Diablo II Edition are an odd mix of Diablo 1 and 2 themes and locations. The party starts in Khanduras, somewhere in the mountains close to the Citadel of the Sightless Eye, the headquarters of the Rogues sisterhood. This is almost identical to the beginning of Act I of Diablo II, except instead of being centered on the Rogue Encampment where Warriv's caravan is stopped, you find yourselves in the village of Waystruck. Here you are directed to most of your quests by the villagers and Delpha, a healer and seer of the sisterhood who is obviously a reskin of Akara from the video game.

What begins as a few disconnected quests clearing out dens of evil (but not the Den of Evil starter dungeon from the video game) soon gives way to larger plot: there is a powerful Overlord demon lurking in the pass, hunting down the infamous cleaver that once belonged to The Butcher boss beneath Tristram from Diablo I. If this demon, The Slayer, is allowed to take up the cleaver, he will gain all of its former wielder's power and in fact become the new Butcher.

That's a weird but kind of nifty bit of lore completely unique to this book, but it also just so happens to explain why The Butcher keeps on popping up in almost every single Diablo game to date: it's a title passed down among many demons alongside the weapon; a legacy character kind of like a big red cannibalistic Green Lantern.

Also notable is that starting here in the Adventure Game and going forward into all future Diablo books, you gain bonus experience points specifically for completing these quests, not just for killing things or stealing loot while doing stuff pursuant of completing the quests. It's a means of incentivizing satisfying narrative conclusions that video games had been using for decades, but which mainstream D&D was hesitant to try until it began experimenting with different kinds of progression starting in 4E.

The adventure is very oriented toward newbies to tabletop roleplaying, players and DMs both. It has ample sidebars explaining how to play NPCs, how to use the tables, and what to do if the party tries something unexpected- to the point that they have half a page dedicated to the contingency of one of the players panicking and murdering Delpha the second they meet because they think she's a ghost. 


All told, the Adventure Game is a novel and fairly even split between D&D and what you could expect to do with Diablo without automation. But it isn't a full game of either type, because the quests and progression track fizzle out at only 5th level. To have an entire campaign worth of content to hack and slash through, you'll need to buy the fuller full version of Diablo for D&D.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Diablo II: The Awakening (Also May 2000?)

While writing this post I realized that what's going on here has a weird parallel with how early Basic and AD&D were envisioned by Gygax and some of the other folks at TSR: when you're finished with the simple game for babies, you're expected to "move up" and shell out for the bigger version of the game so you can play with the big boys. Except in Blizzard's case, it isn't being done to screw Dave Arneson out of his money.

The Awakening is designed with existing AD&D players in mind. There is far less space dedicated to teaching newcomers the basics of play, and more focused on if and when to use this product as a sourcebook that is in conversation with the rest of the edition. It even advises you on how to slot the challenges and character options of Diablo II into your group's existing campaign world, genericized into setting-agnostic chunks kind of like Greyhawk in D&D 3E.

Because of that concession—that this is a box of Diablo supplements for a diet consisting mostly of AD&D—the mechanical influences from the two games no longer have the same parity that they enjoyed in the Adventure Game version. It still tries to emulate the feel of Diablo, but it is AD&D first and foremost.

You can see this right away in the character classes, which are presented as kits for AD&D's base classes. Amazons, Barbarians, and Paladins are Fighters, while Sorcerers and Necromancers are specialist Mages.

There are no Druids or Assassins in The Awakening, which I think is the most lamentable part of the whole book. The introduction only references the story of Diablo II up to its incredibly rushed base game ending, with no mention of the events or added content from the Lord of Destruction expansion pack the Druid and Assassin are from. This is despite the expansion having been out for a good 6 months before this book released, suggesting to me that it was either finalized very early that year or that they just chose to omit them. Maybe they would have added them in a sequel book that never came to be.

A sidebar describes how regular Fighters and Thieves from AD&D can be slotted into the world fairly easily, although I don't know how well a Thief would do in the heavy combat emphasis of the game with no Diablo powers to draw upon like the above kits provide. None of the classes in the Priest group really exist in the Diablo setting, but you can force a Cleric to fit if you want to. The book makes this easier by putting some Paladin and Necromancer spells on the Priest list.

And I mean spells in the traditional, AD&D sense. Mana points and the abilities you spend them on are gone in The Awakening, replaced by a mix of nonmagical skills and good old Vancian spellcasting. Sorcerers and Necromancers use Mage spellcasting progression, while Amazons and Paladins progress as fast and as far as Bards with a small spell-list. What remained a skill and what got turned into a spell is a little arbitrary; Necromancers have Bone Armor as a skill for example, but Create Zombies is a spell. Barbarians are the only kit with no spellcasting ability at all, and bizarrely they can't specialize in weapons like Fighters or their video game counterparts, but they do get some nifty abilities like a self-heal, and a taunt ability that actually works half-decently.

Skills (and spellcasting progression, where applicable) are purchased using proficiency slots. Weapon or nonweapon proficiency slots can be used, depending on the skill in question. As was the case in the Adventure Game, skills are named after and inspired by the abilities you use in Diablo II. Each costs between 1 and 3 slots, meaning you can start with several at 1st level. It also makes Intelligence a really desirable ability score regardless of class, because bonus proficiency slots at 1st level are keyed off of Int. A Sorceress with even middling Int can probably grab 1 rank in every single skill on her list.

You can dump more than 1 rank into a skill if you want, as in the computer game. But rather than making the skill stronger, more ranks make the skill more likely to succeed: skills are activated using an ability check with an associated penalty, and every rank above 1st decreases that penalty by -1. Unless you use the optional rule to make it -3 per rank instead, because most classes only get 1 nonweapon proficiency every 3-4 levels, and spending it on such a tiny bonus to a single roll can feel pretty unrewarding in a game that is largely about pummeling you with rewards.

You can use more than 1 skill in a round, but typically can't use the same one more than once, and they often have internal cooldowns besides. Some of these are measured in rounds, others in hours, so you can't quite spam them like in the video game. Still, it gives martials a surprising number of Nice Things for AD&D.

The randomized loot tables are back and bigger than ever, spanning 9 pages and boasting over 1,000,000 combinatorial magic items (a word which the writers assure you does not mean "demon-summoning incantations"). The book throws some d40s and d60s at you in amidst the d20s and d100s, but it's nothing you have to use custom dice for.

The monster list is bigger too, over 100 total counting stronger palette swap versions of creatures, although each entry is truncated somewhat by taking a few stablock lines and making them universal for all monsters in the game.

I don't think they thought that one through, because this technically applies to everything including the completely ordinary wildlife of the world. It is slightly amusing though.

Also, one of the demon types is literally just named Balrog? And they printed that and used it in multiple games for years with no issues? I guess the Tolkien Estate was busy copyright hounding somebody else at the time.

At the end of the monster list, we are treated to a set of new mechanics that try to emulate the sometimes random and chaotic monster AI and pathfinding in the game: frontage, trains, and streams. If you've ever ran out of a packed Fallen den and heard their caterwauling and Rakanishu'ing coming up behind in spastic and random intervals, this is basically that, but reified into the game text.

Frontage is not a unique mechanic in and of itself so much as an acknowledgement that bottlenecking numerically superior enemy forces in a narrow area can be a good idea. Certain monster-dense rooms in Diablo I and II can be trivialized by standing in or next to the doorway and taking enemies on one at a time. Choosing to engage enemies in a constricted space with limited frontage can do the same, here.

Trains are what happens when a party engaged with monsters leaves the room and those monsters follow them out of the room. There is an 80% base chance that [total # ÷ 2d4 (round up)] monsters will start a train and pursue fleeing heroes, which can be bad if it's a serious retreat, or good if you're falling back to a place where you will have more advantageous frontage.

Streaming is when the monsters who didn't leave the initial room continue to send groups of reinforcements after the train, and have a 40% chance to start sending 1d4 monsters every 1d4 rounds. The force is greatly broken up and easier to manage in smaller chunks, but they become a constant, harrying problem if the group is trying to do anything other than stand its ground and grind demons into paste. Manipulating foes to train or stream into areas with limited frontage can greatly alter the dynamics of a battle in your favor.

Just watch out if anyone thinks to throw a fireball into that crowded hallway.

After all the lists of magic, items, and monsters, we are treated to a description of the main setting for the Awakening adventure...


Because despite this book being titled Diablo II, talking about the plot of Diablo II, and showcasing most of the classes from Diablo II, the actual plot of the campaign is lifted straight from the original Diablo. King Leoric has gone mad, evil festers in Tristram Cathedral, Griswold's still hammering away on his anvil, you can kill the Butcher again (again), and Adria is standing around pretending that she won't have world-shattering plot significance in a few years.

It's such a weird creative backtracking decision that tells me once again that this book's development was disjointed from the rest of Diablo II media. It was either finished way before the final game launched, faced some behind-the-scenes issues, or was consciously limited in the hopes of using the extra stuff in a sequel book that never panned out. I can't be that critical of the book alone for this, though. Diablo II the video game shipped barely finished, thanks to the legendary amount of rush and crunch its developers were put through.

As it stands, the book ends when you kill Diablo. The campaign conforms to the soulstone possession stuff from canon, but it doesn't include the Dark Wanderer as an NPC, nor does it ask any player to sacrifice their character to become the next vessel for plot significance. Instead a completely made-up fighter/thief adventurer named Qarak leaps into action to seize the soulstone just as Diablo is killed, having been hiding in the corner of his room next to his own dead party for who-knows-how-long using his invisibility armor. It somehow feels even more contrived than the next vessel being Aidan, the other son of King Leoric whom nobody namedropped or even acknowledged the existence of in Diablo I.

Weird and disappointing though it may be to me, hey, Diablo I is still a pretty good dungeon crawl to adapt to tabletop from a gameplay perspective. 16 levels of tombs, caves, and a section of Hell with a town and shop located conveniently on the surface is exactly like many classic roguelike games. The Awakening also adds Shrines throughout the levels, which grant buffs (or debuffs) to help keep the party in a flow state of dungeon delving and loot-selling for several sessions before they either hunt down Diablo or die horribly.

Speaking of dying horribly, there's a roguelite rule for that.

Perhaps I was unfair to say The Awakening is more AD&D than Diablo, because it includes the most video games-ass optional rule I've ever seen printed in a tabletop book. Death is common, even likely for a Diablo protagonist, even when they have friends. In order to take some of the sting out of TPKs and keep to the game's spirit of jumping right back in where you left off until you cleave your way through that one part of the dungeon, an optional Save Game rule is offered.

If the DM lets the party save their game, they are to set their character sheets aside and not touch them for the entire session. All changes to their characters, items, actions, kills, etc. are instead recorded on copies of the Adventure Tracking Sheet included at the end of the book. If the party survives their excursion and makes it back to Tristram, they update their sheets and save their progress. If they all die, the tracking sheets are torn up and the party restarts from its last 'save point', so to speak.

As someone who knows how important narrative can be to the flow and enjoyment of D&D, I understand that this hard reset option might feel cheapening and silly. As someone who genuinely hates tabletop character death and dislikes the naked corpse run Diablo II saddles you with, I also love the option being there.

For folks who don't like making things easier, don't worry: The Awakening also carried over the difficulty modes from Diablo II.

You can play on normal from levels 1-10, or you can play on Nightmare (recommended for levels 11-15) by upgrading some or all monsters with +3 HD/AC/Damage/Damage Dice Per Ranged Attack. If that's not enough you can crank it up to Hell difficulty (ideally for levels 16-20) where it's a +6 to the above. And if you still want bigger and beefier monsters, throw a second layer of Hell on top of the unique bosses for a total of +9 to everything. Naturally, this cranks up both the XP and magic item rewards you earn.

I think The Awakening is about as complete a mechanical port of Diablo II as one could ask for, barring figuring out how to implement the Horadric Cube or runewords or something like that. It's rough in places and missing some pieces, like its parent games, but it gets pretty close to what it set out to do. If Blizzard had an opportunity to go back and update it, I feel like they could have nailed it.

Dungeons & Dragons: Diablo II: Diablerie (December, 2000 for sure this time)

Orrr they could decide to go the Diablo III route and give existing ideas and concepts a facelift without fundamentally altering or improving upon them.

A few months after Diablo II launched, so did D&D 3E. With it came the waves of 3rd party books that earlier incarnations of the Diablo RPG actually preceded, but which the latest book, Diablerie, released right alongside. I've rewritten this paragraph several times now because I can't quite figure out where in relation to the 3E Gold Rush Diablerie lies.

On one hand, there's some amount of care and craft put into emulating the video game on tabletop. Not to the extent that the Everquest RPG went hog-wild with its books, but definitely more than some other d20 adaptations. But on the other hand, most of that craft is preexisting material adapted from the 2E and Adventure Game books, with relatively few genuinely new additions introduced for 3E. Does that make Diablo 3E a bit of a cash-grab? I'm not sure.

Diablerie (which is a pretty fun alternative to just saying 'devilry') is first and foremost an edition update of everything important that was in The Awakening. The 5 base classes are carried over (still no Assassin or Druid), their powers are a mix of spellcasting and mana-less active skills (renamed magic abilities so they don't cause confusion with 3E's skill system), and magic item tables were ported over virtually untouched, d60s and all.

Nightmare and Hell difficulties still exist- albeit here they're just a suggestion to beef up the monster list for a room with tougher creatures appropriate to the party's CR, rather than increasing existing enemies' stats by a prescribed amount. Which feels like a needless change that introduces more work for the DM. It's also a wasted opportunity to take advantage of one of the edition's new mechanics, because 3E was the age of monster templates and that's essentially what The Awakening's difficulty adjusters were.

The most meaningful gameplay change from AD&D to 3E in my opinion is the shift of abilities from nonweapon proficiency slots to level-gated class features. The Amazon, Barbarian, and Paladin get 6 tiers of abilities to choose from, virtually all of which require a full-round action to use, unlike previously. Each tier is a list of 4-5 abilities, of which you may only ever choose 3 before moving on to the next tier. Some abilities have prerequisites from earlier groups, so you're encouraged to map your character build out well in advance.

This bit of metagame is very true to the experience of playing Diablo II, where most practical builds for high-level play ignore huge swaths of character abilities in favor of a very specific path to power. They have to be this rigid because you have only 1 character respec available per playthrough, so no points can be wasted. You have even less recourse here in tabletop where there is no retraining option for characters, barring table fiat of course.

Necromancers and Sorcerers get only a few passive "mastery" type class features this time around, with the overwhelming majority of their power coming from spellcasting. Remarkably, that spellcasting has been significantly reined in compared to their AD&D counterparts; they only advance to 6th level spells, putting them more on par with the Amazons and Paladins of The Awakening, or Bards in core 3E. Those spells are still big and flashy and can deal a lot of damage, but the lack of 7th-to-9th level spells coupled with the naturally narrower spell lists available to Necromancers and Sorcerers means that there's much less of a power level gap between them and the martial classes than normal for a 3E game.

Another step toward fidelity to the game that I am far less thrilled about is equipment durability. Technically speaking, durability is already a thing in 3E if you really want it to be; most items and materials have hardness and hit points listed somewhere, and sunder experts are just a few feats away from ruining the group's wallets. But those are a collection of overlapping rules that don't have a lot of attention paid to them, normally.

Durability in Diablo is a whole bespoke system, meanwhile. Instead of having to be targeted by sunder attempts or certain AoE damage, you are constantly checking for equipment damage just by playing the game. Weapons degrade by 1 point for every 2 damage you deal above their hardness, while receiving a damage-dealing attack causes a random piece of your armor on a d20 roll to suffer damage at the same ratio. At 1/2 durability weapons and armor suffer -1 to damage or AC respectively, -3 at 1/4th, and they're completely destroyed at 0. Yes, items get 3x the usual hit points than in core D&D, and anyone with the Craft skill can attempt repairs during downtime, but it still strikes me as a time-consuming busywork mechanic, even more than it is in the base game since you can't automate it while conducting combat.

At least they recognized how annoying running out of Stamina in Diablo II is, and made the Fatigue rule optional. It's the exact same thing as the core game condition, except it prompts you to check for more things than the specific causes of fatigue in core, and it can be cured with 10 minutes of rest instead of 8 hours, or by chugging one of the many stamina potions you're likely to come across. But at the same time, this rule being optional highlights the artificial inconvenience of durability.

As I see it, the reason stamina and durability exist in video game Diablo (and plenty of other games) is to act as a resource sink or time-waster to slow progress and therefore extend the game's playtime and make it seem bigger and implicitly better. Kind of a "ludo-monetary" continuation of the logic that you need to do whatever you can to keep people standing at the arcade cabinet for as long as possible. This is opposed to situations where those mechanics are meant to act in service of value, tone, or realism. There absolutely are games that do accomplish that with the mechanics, but the Diablo series isn't one of them in my opinion.

Diablerie ends with another short adventure, Morgen Keep. It's very short, consisting of only 3 dungeon levels, putting it closer to the Fast-Play's bloodhawk lair in scope than the Waystruck campaign or the Tristram delve. But the two underground areas are dense and looping and full of dead ends, which feels just like a bite-sized Diablo II dungeon. The adventure ends with the party facing the demon Crushskull, who is guarding the magical Siegehammer, an anti-undead and -demon heirloom of the family that once owned Morgen Keep. He was watching it until more powerful demons could come to destroy it. It's the perfect gift for your group's aspiring Barbarian or Paladin, or alternatively a quest item to spin a greater plot out of- the rest is up to you.

Dungeons & Dragons: Diablo II: To Hell and Back (March, 2001)

It wasn't until the following year that we would finally get a full Diablo II D&D campaign that finally addresses the plot of Diablo II. To Hell and Back makes that long-overdue delivery. It also completes a pretty nifty split cover art piece with Diablerie that I didn't notice until I was writing this post.

To Hell and Back follows the base storyline of Diablo II almost perfectly beat-for-beat, so I won't go over each of the acts in detail. What I find more interesting is the ways the book tries to emulate the video gamey feel of playing through that campaign, by implementing a few mechanics that were absent in earlier books.

To start, respawns. Respawning monsters are a staple of farming in Diablo, and they've finally been added to the rules. Now no matter how many times you run through a particular area, it will never be demon-free for very long. Once a week as long as there are surviving stragglers, or once the party is wiped out, all zones in a region respawn their monsters. Which implies that the campaign world is meant to persist beyond a single group, and that this edition declined to carry over the Save Game rule.

Next up, waypoints. Those iconic stone circles with gently glowing blue lights that teleport you from major location to location within the same act made their debut in Diablo II. They are very handy for getting back to and then back from town without using up your supply of town portal scrolls. They also act as useful landmarks and points of reference to look for within the semi-random wilderness regions.

In previous books, scrolls and higher-level spells existed to bring you back to town, but the waypoint network was absent until now. Their presence can greatly reduce or eliminate travel time between completed areas, which as far as Diablo is concerned is empty downtime. They make it so the utilities of town are never far out of reach, but more importantly get you back into the action faster once you're done with them, giving more time over to dungeon delving or hunting through the overland maps for a new secret, unique enemy, or next waypoint to discover.

Those maps are also randomized this time around, or at least can be. The book gives very specific instructions on how to do this: get a pad of 8 1/2-inch x 11-inch graph paper with 4 squares per inch, then subdivide an 8x10 area into 2-inch square zones to populate with monsters and other random map features, with each square equaling 10' in-game. Make the map edges jagged, add impassable terrain like cliffs, trees, and insurmountable waist-high fences in between zones, plop the waypoint down somewhere, and the region map is good to go.

I like the idea behind this, although the execution feels a little claustrophobic and mismatched with the game. At 10' per square and 4 squares per inch, the entirety of the Blood Moor is an area of only 320'x400', for example. Combining all the outdoors zones in Act I gets you less than 12 acres (that's 0.05 square kilometers for most of the rest of the world).

That's absolutely tiny by D&D standards; an Amazon with a longbow could loose an arrow from one edge of a region map at a target on the other side at only -8 to-hit, and an unencumbered character could use the run action to clear that same distance in about 4 rounds. The book explains this away by saying that Diablo's influence has created general overcast and haze over the land, greatly reducing visibility and making it so that each encounter zone remains somewhat self-contained and separated from one another (with the aid of all those hedges and walls they told you to add, of course).

Personally I think that sounds like the Kryptonite Fog justification from Superman 64; a system limitation that the designers tried to give plot excuse to. It might have been better to measure regions in larger increments than 10' squares, or instead to approach outdoors regions via hexes or just a simple pointcrawl. Because as it stands, the areas of expansive wilderness meant to encourage wandering and exploration just feel like slightly larger dungeon floors- which is another moment where I think video game emulation is a detriment here, because Diablo II's developers had wanted to create a larger, more open world before all the technical limitations and player legibility considerations came into play later on in the game's development.

Gripes about specific rules aside, this is the most full and complete Diablo tabletop experience we have ever had, for better and worse. As I mentioned earlier, it did not go as far in its simulation as the EverQuest RPG for d20. But it did do more to distinguish itself than other 3E products would.

I don't know the reasons why the product line was discontinued, but had it not been I could easily see a Lord of Destruction splatbook coming out to finish up the plot and round out the class roster.

But this is not the last Diablo tabletop game we will ever have.

Diablo: The Roleplaying Game (TBA)

Late last year, Blizzard announced that there are a Diablo RPG and board game in the works. It is being developed by Glass Cannon Unplugged, a studio that seems to have board game adaptations of video games as its whole shtick, if the Apex Legends, Dying Light, and Frostpunk titles in their catalogue are anything to go by.

I don't know how transferrable board game expertise is to a proper tabletop RPG, but I'm curious to see what exactly they wind up making. It's confirmed that the game will use its own proprietary system rather than using something else like d20 5E, but beyond that we really don't know much about it. Press releases have been sparse and pretty buzzwordy since Blizzcon.

Apparently there will be an emphasis on fast combat with large numbers of enemies, as well as some kind of inner struggle that suggests a corruption mechanic or karmameter that would be new to the universe, despite how prevalent demonic corruption is in the story. They also seem to want to push the story and setting in new directions, rather than following existing games- although the branding and art style we've seen thus far are extremely Diablo IV-inspired, including a prominent image of Lilith on the website.

What I'm most curious about is why they're making a TTRPG and a board game. Will they be designed to play similarly? Differently? Can they share assets like character minis? Will they go for some kind of weird integration between the games like D&D has done with the Battle System or Warriors of Krynn over the years? I guess we'll find out more when the RPG's crowdfunding campaign starts later this year- because of course Blizzard wouldn't front the money for a project when they can just make their customers pay extra for it instead.

Unenthused as I may read, I do hope they do something worthwhile with this return to tabletop. I want to see how they continue to emulate the video games, or alternatively how they might move beyond them in a new creative direction. I loved the WoW RPG more than it deserved back in the day, and I still seem to have that susceptibility now. I won't back it, and I don't participate in the predatory monetization schemes of recent Diablo titles, but I too am touched by that insidious corruption we call hype. How cynically appropriate for a series about fighting demons.

Just gimme a dang Druid class while you're at it, alright?


  1. Another good article.

    I think they are making TTRPG in addition to to get on DnD train.

    There is a pretty fantastic video about early Diablo by Mr. B. Tongue on youtube (

    It is strange but looking through the books you've listed I distinctively remember a Diablo TTRPG with a different cover. It was either early 3 Ed or ADnD second edition and it went up to 30 levels with some rather ridiculous numbers more befitting JRPG, I think, but now I wonder if it was a fanwork of some sort. Unfortunately I didn't keep the file.

    1. You're not the first person I've spoken to who swears there was other Diablo 3E material somewhere that they half-remembered. The other one was convinced they had a PDF that included the druid somehow. I don't doubt there was fan material once upon a time, but if there is I missed it.