The Analog Gamer: 'Edditional' Information Part II
Modernization is a good thing in general. Its brought us electricity, access to immense amounts of information, both trivial and important and generally has outstripped the ability for many of our hobby and leisure activities to properly leverage it.
Continuing the discussion of the forthcoming 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it would be a mistake not to mention that even D&D is now joining the modern era with official, integrated digital features meant to make the game more approachable and manageable for players and storytellers.
The tweaks and changes for the system lie not only in the new streamlined rules, but also in the access to information and a new business strategy for its publisher, Wizards of the Coast. The addition of accessible digital tools might just change not only how the game is played, but Wizards believes, just who is playing.
Dungeons & Dragons is one of those cultural icons. While not everyone plays it, the game is a well known brand, whether as a subject of ridicule from stereotypical jocks in Hollywood cinema or as a distant memory of long nights in high school, college or on a military deployment that was spent commanding Wrothgar the Gnome Barbarian on his quest to regain the Lost Candelabra of Gorgenzola from the forces of the demon Orcus.
The new version of the game is paired with an on-line resource and service called the Dungeons & Dragons Insider. The insider is comprised currently of a website and the content that once found its way into the print magazines Dungeon and Dragon currently publish only on the web and are free to registered members.
The plan may be to take some of this content behind a subscription service, but the D&D Insider site itself will have articles to support the new game for free as well as serving as a hosting site for some of the new digital services Wizards of the Coast has planned to help everyone create characters, map out dungeons and even create portraits or diorama scenes customized to the favor of players.
The D&D Insider tools currently are in development with no solid word on when they will be released to players and the cost and nature of the subscription associated with some of the tools is also being finalized prior to June 6th’s launch of the new books.
During my visit to Chicago to speak with members of the D&D team Executive Producer Ken Troop happily demonstrated some of the tools with a hint that Wizards was hoping to expand them after launch based on player feedback.
Troop outlined the three basic reasons for the new approach saying that the first priority was to create a definitive on-line resource for the game. Allowing players to become 100% digital or 100% analog if they wished, but realizing that most groups would fall somewhere in between. The second goal was to embrace the laptop and Internet as a tool for traditional gaming. The final goal, he explained, was to enable easy remote gaming. Wizards wants to reclaim lapsed gamers or those whose geographic circumstances forced them to move away from the hobby. The digital tools are meant to enable people to play with anyone anywhere if desired.
“We really value the interactions with our customers. We really want to know what tools they want to help them.” Troop stated more than once during our demonstration. “We’re building the tools to support the game, not changing the game to suit the tools.” Troop also mentioned that the company was eager to embrace the “digital space” with the tools it will be offering through the D&D Insider program.
D&D Insider currently includes a number of digital resources, the first and probably most useful tool for anyone playing the game is the Dungeons & Dragon’s Compendium, a digital database of rules, powers, feats and character options that will be updated with new mechanics and information on or shortly after the release of new Wizards published materials.
The Compendium will serve as a reference to the print product and while it will not replace the need for the books, it will help organize and create a searchable archive that players and DMs can use during play or preparation as the system grows and the library of character and rule options expands over multiple tomes in the coming years. Troop said that the goal of the Compendium was to embrace the change in gaming technology. Many players have begun using laptops and wireless Internet connections to access rule references during gameplay and Wizards wanted to become the authoritative source for that information.
Two of the tools Troop demonstrated had a very graphic feel to them, he admitted that the versions we were shown were in the fairly rough stages and that things could change before they saw release but the first tool, the character visualizer, allowed players to take a 3D representation of their character and dress them up like a paper doll while posing them and positioning them against a desired background. This tool had no mechanical value but for players who lack artistic talents or who will use the Virtual Tabletop portion of the D&D Insider software suite, the program allows you to create a miniature for your character to use in a combat or dungeon encounter as well.
The visualizer looked a bit like the simplified character customizer from the Sims 2, but with all the fantasy adventure items and outfits contained in the D&D Compendium available for use. Troop demonstrated that the level of customization would be most interesting to players because while you might have a +1 longsword, the program enables players to customize the look and special effects associated with the weapon to create some pretty unique interpretations of what that sword might look like. Effectively everyone could have their own variation on the +1 longsword.
Players also gain access to an on-line character generation program. Unlike many of the tools out there in the current generation, the D&D Insider version will have complete access to options and powers published by Wizards and players will be able to leverage the information in all the published materials without having to search multiple printed books to create a character. Those concerned about being limited strictly to the published rules need not worry, the character generator was built with an understanding that many players integrate house rules into character creation. For instance if you have a house rule that grants a feat every level to all players in addition to the normal progression, the program will allow you to add the feat. though it can be set to “warn” you if you make a rule breaking choice, it will not force the standard rules on you.
I asked the question of whether subscribers would be able to import custom generated content to any of the tools and the initial answer was no, though Wizards is dedicated to expanding the content in the tools themselves and will likely offer new art and new options in the future. Troop did not rule out the possibility completely but he explained that at least for now the focus of the tools would be on getting a solid suite of services up and running and that Wizards might one day reconsider user created content if it was possible to do so.
The one tool that Troop mentioned would be freely available to all players, whether they subscribed to the services or not was the Dungeon Mapper. This tile-based tool is meant for quick and dirty dungeon mapping. It’s built to integrate with the virtual tabletop, but can be used independently to create printable maps and scenarios for home games as well. Owners of the D&D Dungeon Tile series will also find it a good guide to use with that accessory since the art assets are drawn from that line of published products.
Once dungeon masters create their ultimate dungeon layout they can share them with the most interesting tool Wizards has planned and the Virtual Gametable. This tool for play is not a game in and of itself, it does no rule calculations and does not feature any artificial intelligence for monsters or opponents, but instead is meant to be a tool to help visualize the Dungeons & Dragons experience.
Players, along with a dungeon master can use the Gametable to simulate the look and feel of a dungeon delve. Tools like dice rollers a shared white board and the ability for a DM to send images and text to players make this a tool for playing D&D online or with a projector or monitor at the real game table. Integrated voice chat also makes it a viable desktop replacement if you plan to play from afar or if one or more players can’t make a session due to problems like say the lack of transport or business travel.
The one key unknown at this point for many players will be the cost associated with these new tools. Wizards once stated that gamers who purchased the print books would be granted a serial key that would give them access to the online version of the product but that approach has since been changed. Subscribers to the D&D Insider will have complete access to all the Compendium information as well as all the tools in the service.
Non-subscribers may have limited access to the tools like the Gametable or Character Visualizer. Another interesting possibility is that Wizards may adopt a micro-transaction based purchasing methodology for new digital content like virtual gametable miniatures or new art assets for the visualizer in addition to the monthly subscription. The cost associated with the tools and services may determine how popular they ultimately become.
Regardless, the D&D Insider tools show a great step toward modernizing not only how D&D is played but also with how Wizards is attempting to adapt its business away from the tradition model of print publishing. The Analog Gamer will keep you up to date as more details are released about these products and tools. Hopefully soon we’ll know how much of the household budget will be needed to sustain the D&D gaming habit on-line.