When Wizards of the Coast began gearing up for publication of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition in 2008, they rolled out a series of videos that seemed to show the future of table-top role-playing. In this tantalizing glimpse, computer and conventional gaming converged, with the laptop taking the role of the DM Screen and doing all the heavy-lifting for character creation, number generation, and adventure building. The most impressive part of the system was the D&D Game Table, which allowed people to link up online for conventional, pen-and-paper-style games using a 3D map and set of chat tools as a virtual gaming arena.
Here's what was being planned in 2007 as part of the 4th edition rollout:
I thought it looked a little good to be true, and it was. As of 2011, the whole "Game Table" concept has yet to materialize, but a number of individual tools have made their way to the internet and are available as D&D Insider, a premium site for serious D&D gamers.
D&D Insider does a good job of supplementing the D&D experience in ways both small and large. The core features are a Character Builder, Monster Builder, Compendium, and online editions of Dungeon and Dragon magazines.
The heart of the experience is the D&D Compendium, a searchable online reference work that lists all the races, classes, items, skills, creatures, powers, traps, deities, and epic destinies found in every 4th edition book, supplement, and magazine published to date. These are complete, printable entries, which can be searched by any number of parameters or merely browsed. For instance, select “Creatures” and “Search,” and you get a list of 4315 critters, searchable or sortable by name, level, main role, group role, or source. The other tools refer back to the Compendium and integrate its data, making D&D Insider a fairly essential tool for Dungeon Masters.
The Character Builder draws on this data as it walks players through every part of character generation, from choosing a race to re-training skills. It even offers gamers things they may not have seen before by integrating races and classes not just from the Players Guide, but from the Compendium, drawing upon all 4th edition materials. This means you can create a character from of the more exotic races or classes that have thus far only appeared in the pages of Dragon Magazine, such as a Shadar-kai Swordmage. When you’re done, you can print out a standard character sheet and a set of cards with the details for every power and item associated with the character.
Making characters on the computer is much more flexible and fun than the old way. By placing all the information right on the screen, the Character Builder makes it easier to find the proper balance among all the different elements without a lot of flipping pages and consulting multiple reference sources. It even includes a shop where your character can buy any item that has appeared in any 4th edition source, which is nice, because otherwise I’d never be able to pine for a Rod of Flaying +6, which only appeared in issue #367 of Dragon magazine.
And speaking of Dragon, you also get a full subscription to both it and Dungeon magazines, plus access to the archives. Dungeon is a magazine specifically for complete adventures, and publishes several new playable modules each month. Dragon is a more general interest magazine, offering columns, articles, and supplements. Together, they add up to about 150 pages of new content per month. Right now, one of the more intriguing Dragon projects is a complete “Adventure Path,” which takes players on a single campaign from level 1 all the way up to level 30. About a dozen of the individual modules have been published so far, and each can be viewed and downloaded at the site. All of this content is viewable in PDF format and can be printed.
Most recently, Wizards has added a completely revamped the Monster Builder, which allows users to access any monster in the database, perform some customization, save it, and print it out. Thus far, this tool remains in beta, and the functionality seems limited. Although you can use a slider to adjust the monster's level (which automatically adjusts its other stats), you can't really dig into the monster profile and change things around on your own. You can rename Powers and Traits, but you can't modify them or rewrite their text boxes.
For instance, one standard trait for an Abhorrent Reaper is "Bloodthirst." If I want to, I can change that trait name to "Bunnydeth," but I can't alter the base trait to say, "When the Abhorrent Reaper attacks an enemy carrying a stuffed bunny, the Reaper is immediately reduced to a puddle of tasty pudding." In other words, the Monster Builder remains limited to level changes and purely cosmetic name changes.
I may in fact be missing some hidden feature, but I can't find it because the help window doesn't work. It's still in beta, so a few kinks are expected.
A pair of browser-based tools for DMs round out the Insider offerings. The Encounter Builder allows you to create balanced custom encounters tailored for a specific group of adventurers, while the Ability Generator automates the point system,
Look, there is a lot of content here for the serious 4th edition gamers. The compendium and character builder are very powerful tools, and the well of content provided by Dungeon and Dragon magazines is quite deep. Naturally, it comes at a price: subscriptions for D&D Insider are $9.95 per month, $7.95 per month for 3 months, and $5.95 per for a year. Still, if you’re into D&D, having all that extra material at your fingertips may be well worth the cost.