I had the distinct, geeky pleasure of reliving my dice-hucking days earlier today, only it wasn't quite as I remembered it. Back in high school (two years ago, right Will?), I used to traverse the ol' imaginary Forgotten Realms campaign setting with a few of my neighborhood friends. Yes, that's right. We played Dungeons and Dragons. And even back then, I was on the cutting edge of technology in a pencil-and-paper universe.
When I joined my group, I was given a bootleg (ie: burned) copy of the fabled Dungeons and Dragons Core Rules program. Firing it up for the first time was akin to little Drakh the Mage acquiring a Staff of Power. Inside the application were rules--glorious rules--for a proverbial crap-ton of D&D books and settings. But these were just the potatoes. The real meat of the application lay in its character generation program, a super-integrated designer that allowed you to roll up new characters in at least one-fourth of the time it would normally take you by hand. You could save your characters and pull them back up after each tabletop romp, adding in your latest loot and re-tweaking your character's new powers and skills with each level up. In short, the Core Rules became a staple of my nerd life, and I had forever longed for an updated version that used Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition rules overtop the program's awesome old-school interface.
Wizards released a demo of a Third Edition application by the time I stopped playing D&D. It only figures, then, that the company is launching more applications with the impending June release of the Fourth Edition ruleset. Only this time, you're not just getting a character builder--you're getting a suite!
I chatted with the Wizards team about the background for Dungeons and Dragons Insider, the name they've assigned the to-be-released chunk of applications. They're noticing a distinct pattern in their audience. Namely, while hardcore D&D enthusiasts may sometimes dress up like Peter Pan, it's only an illusion. These stereotypically basement-dwelling folk are growing up, and a new generation is replacing them as D&D's core player base. And they aren't used to pen-and-paper games, nor do they consider "grabbing a ton of books and sitting down for hours" as "gaming." To them, hopping online and clicking the mouse for hours is what a true gamer does, and the release of D&D Insider looks to capture that fact.
Well, even though Neverwinter Nights did it first. But I digress.
The Wizards team showed off three different applications today. First up is the Character Generator, a combination of tabletop roleplaying and America's Next Top Model. It's the end-all-be-all of fantasy fashion. And it bows to no ruleset. You create a character based on one of the core Dungeons and Dragons races (sorry, Planescape fans: no Githzerai for you) and play dress-up however you see fit. Assign your character different types and colors of armor, even armor from a different race if you want. You can select all sorts of weapons to equip, clothes to wear, the particular stance you want your character to have, et cetera. When you're done, you can export the character as desktop wallpaper (with a customizable background, of course), as a headshot graphic, as a printable token for a tabletop game, or even as representation in D&D Insider's Game Table--we'll get to this in a bit.
One note: this character generator is completely independent from anything you do in your adventures. D&D Insider isn't Neverwinter Nights in that regard: the loot you pick up during your campaigns is yours to keep track of. And if you feel the need to update your character's avatar with a reflection of what he or she now wields, you'll have to go in and do that manually. Likewise with whatever loot or cash your character picks up whilst slaying evil (or good).
The second half of the Character Generator but replaces all the pretty elements with cold-hard statistics. It's the very embodiment of the Core Rules application I mentioned earlier, where you let the trusty computer help you create your character sheet. Anyone who's ever played a role-playing game based on the D&D system should recognize this one. Pick your race, class, skills, feats, et cetera. The application links a great deal of detail from the 4E Player's Handbook so you can see exactly what you're doing and the ramifications thereof--perfect for newbies who have no understanding of the subtle differences between, say, a Mage and a Sorcerer. Similar to my experiences before, the application keeps perfect track of your character, including any fudging you may have done. If you decide to assign 25s to all of your stats, that's your prerogative. The program also marks your character as operating under "house rules," which will prevent you from running Dave the Asskicker in any official RPGA online tournaments.
Application number two is D&D Insider's Dungeon Builder. This one will be launched as a free downloadable application as well, giving you access to a tile-based 2D map creator. Operating the program is pretty easy. You simply drag and drop different art elements to create digital versions of the top-down maps that most D&D players are quite familiar with from their pen-and-paper days. If you need to take an element off-grid--say, to make a big cavern--you can just select the handy drawing tool and freehand it in yourself. Ta-da. The program is as basic as map creation gets, but the added bonus is that you can transfer your maps into a rendered, 3D environment with...
Game Table! It's the third and final application in the suite that brings the entire package under one roof. It's also the means by which players hop online and join or host D&D adventures. For the DM, this means using a map from Dungeon Builder (or a prebuilt campaign) and populating it with miniature monsters, lighting effects, and other wicked customization options. You also get a suite of tools to make your online adventuring easier (and cheat-free), including a dice roll utility and an initiative tracker. In essence, Game Table recreates a miniatures game in a digital format. As a player, you move your character in a fog-of-war setting, discovering traps, loot, and monsters exactly when your player normally would--as decided by the DM, of course. The rotating 3D environment isn't built with hard rules in mind, allowing for complete and total D&D-style customization for whatever situation is taking place.
Absent from the mix is any way for you to edit the parameters of the players or monsters themselves, attributes like size, thickness, or unique identifying factors. Truly, it's like a miniature campaign. If the third Orc from the left is holding a giant bloody scythe, well, you'll just have to pretend that Generic Orc #3 in the digital dungeon is indeed doing that. Which will be helped, in part, by Game Table's build-in voice chat.
Well, that's it! Minus one critical detail--access to these applications will be on a limited version for free users. If you want the total experience, you're going to have to pony up some cash. Wizards hasn't set the final price of the services yet, but they're looking in the range of what one would typically pay for an awesome MMO: $10 to $15 monthly. Yes, that's right. Monthly.
It's a hard pill to swallow, so before I choked, I asked the assembled Wizards team what would prevent me from finding a similar, if not better roleplaying experience from a free Neverwinter Nights campaign. Or, for that matter, jumping ship to an MMO that offers a greater content and player base. Remember, Dungeons and Dragons is a powerful name, but even all of its glorious, geeky history can't save a product that's ill-thought-out or poorly designed. Their answer? D&D Insider presents a product that's more integrated with the 4E rule system than any "variant" experience out there, and it will allow Wizards to achieve faster updates and tighter control of Dungeons and Dragons than ever before. Throw in official tournaments and a user-created-content database (a post-launch idea), and they believe that the monthly fee is but a drop in the bucket, comparable to what one would otherwise spend each month on campaigns from the ol' comic store.
We'll all find out soon enough whether D&D Insider is a Critical Hit or Miss -- the first of the applications will premiere with the June 6 release of the new Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master's Guide. Start polishing your dice, be they real or virtual...