Last week at the end of my Using Skills – Deception post I mentioned doing a new version of my Rodential Rodents for this week’s “monthly” post as a break from the Using Skills series. Instead, having been immersing myself in the Dungeons and Dragons Beyond program, I thought I would type out my thoughts on it. Please enjoy this review.
Dungeons and Dragons Beyond is the belated digital arm of the new edition. Wizards of the Coast has long been fraught with problems when it comes to offering digital tools and programs for its games, so when I heard they were partnering with Curse (owned by Twitch and famous for hosting one of the largest modding networks on the internet), I was intrigued. These people know how to utilize digital product, having used them for World of Warcraft mods in the past, and being owned by Twitch certainly gave them impressive backing.
Now that the tools are out, are they the Fifth edition dream made reality? Do they improve or change the game in any way? Are they worth the price? Let’s get into it.
D&D Beyond is a digital tools suite for Dungeons and Dragons Fifth edition. It is described on the website thusly: “Curse has partnered with D&D to bring you D&D Beyond, a mobile-optimized web application that can be used on any device which lets you build, manage and track your D&D character, and serves as a compendium of D&D rules you can use on your computer, phone or tablet while rolling dice at the table or as a reference between game sessions.”
From the front page you can see the multiple sections including Compendium Content, Create a Character, and Homebrew Content. Below that is a series of videos and articles featuring celebrity role players and game developers discussing various topics related to D&D. To start purchasing, the Marketplace button is in the top right hand corner.
No matter what pricing scheme Curse and Wizards would have decided on, this would have been the most controversial element of the whole program. Unless they had made everything free, anyway.
The way the pricing works is a mixture of multi-tiered subscriptions and pay-once for content. Essentially, you get the Basic Rules and SDR content integrated into the tool sets for free. This is a surprising amount of content; one subclass for each class, plenty of monsters and spells for new players, a smattering of magic items to let them play with. You could, theoretically, not pay a dime and still use the tools to great effect.
Then, to gain the content in any other book, you can pay outright for it. These prices range from 29.99 for rule books to 24.99 and 19.99 for adventures. Or, alternatively, you can buy information from the books piecemeal. For example, I bought the races from Volo’s Guide to Monsters and the sub-classes and spells from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. These can cost anywhere from a dollar to two dollars each, and the cost of what you have already bought is deducted from the price of the book should you wish to buy it later.
Then you have the subscriptions. The three tiers are Free, Hero, and Master. The free level lets you build up to six heroes with the tool set. Hero (2.99 a month) allows you to build an unlimited amount of heroes, removes ads, and opens up access to the public home-brew system (in which people can make things with the home-brew tools I will discuss later and let other people add them to their collections). The Master tier (5.99 a month) includes everything from the Hero tier and also allows you to use content sharing. What this means is that if you are connected to a campaign (either as the DM or Hero), anyone else connected to that campaign gains access to everything that you own in D&D Beyond. In addition, other people’s content in that campaign becomes available as well. So theoretically you could purchase the PHB and the Master Tier subscription and invite ten people to a campaign you made, and all ten of those people can use the PHB for free. And if someone else owns Volo’s Guide to Monsters and connects to that campaign, by virtue of your Master tier that also gets shared.
The pricing system is a bit complex, and it will always sting to pay full price for a digital book. However, I feel that the system integration is worth the price of admission. I wouldn’t pay 29.99 for a PDF, but to have this information integrated into the different sections (which I will discuss later) creates enough utility that the price seems worth it to me. However, this is only because of the existence of the Master tier. Being able to content share with my players increases the value of this system dramatically, and creates an incentive to spread the costs around. If not for the Master Tier, I would think the program too expensive for most groups.
The Dungeons and Dragons beyond tool suite currently includes three parts: Characters, Compendium, and Homebrew.
The character portion contains the character builder and your campaigns. The campaign portion is very simple, being little more than a single page with a rich text editor in which you can write a blurb. Anyone connected to the campaign with a character will have a small box showing a summary of their character at the bottom. This part I am disappointed in. In the time of Obsidian Portal and City of Brass having not even a small amount of wiki integration such as the ability to create multiple pages, even for just a campaign journal or a place to upload maps and pictures makes this portion largely ephemeral. With my current campaign I write a small summary of the last session and replace it every week.
The character builder goes through multiple pages, each dedicated to a different stage of character creation. There a few options to make a character, including the Standard way as well as a Quick character and a Randomize option.
In the standard builder, you go through a quite intuitive process to make your character. Overall it is a successful builder beyond a couple of pain points. Equipment is the worst offender. You have to manually add any equipment from the listing yourself. There is a list of starting equipment for your Class and Background you can flip to, but it is just text rather than links you can click on to add it in. You have to look up each item individually to add it which is a bit of a pain. Also, there’s no way to buy equipment, so you have to deduct gold manually as well if you decide to add a purchased item onto your sheet later.
Speaking of the digital sheet, this thing is super awesome and powerful. I almost want to buy an iPad just for this sheet. Every piece of your character is viewable as an expandable section. Your class and race abilities, your spells, your equipment, everything you can click on to get a full explanation of what it does. The amount of time saved from flipping through the books makes this probably the best portion of the entire D&D Beyond system.
This makes the tragedy of the exported sheet all the more painful. I don’t own a tablet, and my phone is small and crappy, so my main use for this program would be in printing out a character after making it. The exported sheet is, well, just very bad. It is a plain version of the original form-fillable PDF you can get off of the Wizard’s site with your stuff plugged in for you, but all of the abilities are simply listed by their titles with no explanation of what they do or even page numbers. The same for your spells; there’s no spell card sheet at the end of it, just the spell sheet as normal with spell names and no reckoning of what any of them do.
While I certainly don’t expect the printable sheet to be as good as the digital sheet, this seems to me a very poor effort and probably an afterthought more than anything else. There are a bunch of great community sheets out there they can look at, and having a small summary of the abilities with a page number seems completely doable to me.
The compendium sections of the website include the rule books and adventures as well as the monster, spell, and magic item listings.
The digital versions of your books are quite nice. A bit like a souped up PDF combined with a wiki, everything is linked from the front index, and any terms you come across that might have game information, like the name of a spell, are highlighted with a pop out text explanation.
It’s quite powerful, and the only thing missing is a search box to type in something to find directly. Which is odd, considering how powerful the search functions are with the spell, magic item, and monster listings. (Edit: I apparently am not good at seeing, and there is indeed search functionality for everything in the top left hand corner. It covers the compendium and listings and is quite well done.)
I can see this completely replacing books for me at the table. I have been using my Chromebook to run sessions anyway, and being able to bring up the PHB or DMG in this manner is fluid and easy.
The listings for magic items, monsters, and spells are quite nice as well. As I mentioned, it has a very powerful search function that lets you filter spells by class, damage type, attack type, and a whole host of other ways.
So finding the perfect spell, item, or monster is made very easy.
Overall I am very impressed with the compendium portion of the website. While I’ll still be buying hard copies of books as a collector, I can definitely see myself using the website more often than cracking open a rule-book.
The home-brew system currently allows you to make custom magic items, monsters, and spells and then share them with your campaign group. If you are in a tiered subscription, you also get access to the public home-brew archive and let’s you put anything you’ve made on there to be used by other folks.
This system is very robust and open-ended. You can start with an item, monster, or spell from the rules and customize it or go whole hog from scratch. There are no sort of limiters or rules-based functionality in setting levels or DCs however. Everything from the CR to the HP is set manually, so it is not like the monster creator from the 4e tool set. Essentially, you have to know what you are doing. Since the DMG has rules for creating monsters, I wish those rules were at least given as an option to help determine the CR for what you are making.
I played around with this part of the system somewhat, creating a couple of spells for a Sorcerer player in my Strahd campaign and tweaking a few monsters. I like the system, but I hope in the future it has some sort of auto-CR or auto-level functionality.
Overall the main systems of Dungeons and Dragons Beyond are versatile and useful. The digital sheet and the compendium are game changers for me, creating a layer of utilization that hasn’t existed before in 5th edition. However, the exported sheet is crap, and there are a couple of pain points that need addressed in the character creation process including the equipment portion as well as the Traits, Bonds, Ideals, and Flaws section where you must type them in manually rather than being able to click on the table to add each of these automatically.
I hope for in the future a better exported sheet, better campaign functionality, more types of things to home-brew (including basic mundane items, as I use a lot of new weapons in my Al-Qadim game), and a few new tools such as an encounter builder, dice roller, and initiate tracker.
Despite this quibbling, however, I think the program is a success. While one can debate about the necessity of the program for a simpler system like 5th Edition, it has already changed how I play the game. The biggest hurdle I can see for lasting success is trying to sell the price of admission to people.
That’s it for this week. Next week we return to Using Skills with History. See you then!