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‘D&D Beyond’ finally brings tabletop role-playing into the 21st century

Will Fulton
Dungeons and dragons beyond game

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Though it was first published in 1974 — generations ago in gaming time — Dungeons & Dragons remains one of the most popular and relevant games in the world. The original pen-and-paper role-playing game’s influence can still be seen throughout pop culture, and the 2014 launch of the game’s fifth edition ruleset has brought more players than ever into this classic game of swords, sorcery, and collective storytelling.

Seizing on the game’s growing popularity, publisher Wizards of the Coast is preparing to take it to a new level with the August 15 launch of D&D Beyond, the official digital toolset for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. According to project lead Adam Bradford at Curse, Inc., D&D Beyond will streamline and automate some of the most tedious parts of the rules-heavy game for incoming players.

Dungeons and Dragons Beyond will serve two major roles when it launches on August 15: a searchable digital database of the game’s many, many rules, and a platform for creating and sharing in-game content, such as characters, monsters, and magic items. You’ll still need your imagination to play, but Beyond will do a lot of the heavy lifting, sparing you from scouring and cross-referencing disparate sections of physical tomes, as D&D players have had to do for decades.

“We want this digital toolset that is going to make game management easier, that is going to provide high quality tools that the players will want to use over the pen and paper methods that they’re used to, and we’re going to really care about game accessibility,” Bradford explained.

In this case, accessibility means both packaging the game’s rules in a way that is easy to process for new players (like automating character creation), but also literally making the content from Beyond available on any connected device, including phones and tablets.  “[It’s] a really tough balancing act, but that’s what we set out to do. … Make the game accessible to anyone, at any skill level, on any type of device.”

Bed, Bath and…

Bradford described the various tools in Beyond as three distinct “phases,” in which they were rolled out, before elaborating on some of the plans they have for further down the road.

“Phase one,” which has been available in beta since March, is the digitized compendium of D&D’s core rulebooks, including the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual — all of the core rules and content for one of the most famously elaborate and rules-intensive games in history. D&D players have been manually navigating these enormous data sets for decades now, but this is the first wholesale effort to leverage the power of modern computing to make that data fully networked and searchable.

Dungeons and dragons beyond game

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

“You can find the listings for spells, monsters, and whatnot in a lot of places, but we have taken a lot of time and effort to parse all the metadata out of these game elements,” Bradford said. “So for a spell we have translated that spell into something a relational database can use. Now we have the ability to see that that spell requires a charisma saving throw or a ranged spell attack roll.”

Translating the InDesign documents for the rulebooks sent over by WotC into parsed data had to be mostly done manually, which has been a huge percentage of the man-hours spent on the project to date.

“I am an expert on every spell in the game at this point, I can assure you,” he chuckled, “but again the end result is something that we’re going to be able to use and is going to be really important for us down the road.” After catching up on the 13 products they are aiming to digitize by launch as a foundation, adding subsequent content will be a breeze.

“Phase two,” which has been in beta for the last several weeks, is the character builder and digital character sheet. Historically the labor-intensive process of creating a character is one of the major hurdles for new players to pass before enjoying the game, involving a taxing combination of math, storytelling, and mechanical min-maxing.

“From the beginning we knew that creating characters was one of the major pain points for the game right now,” Bradford said. “I’ve created characters with I don’t even know how many groups over the years, and I’ve most recently created some characters with seven 12-year-olds — my son wanted all of his friends to play. So we sat down here at the table and it was what we in the South call a ‘Blunt County Goat Roping’ — it was really, really challenging. It took three-plus hours at a minimum. When I saw that was just before we started development on DDB I knew there has to be a better way to do it.

So even for a veteran I can create a paper character probably in 30-45 minutes all the way through, backstory and everything. What we’re trying to do in this character builder is reduce that to less than ten minutes. I can go on there now and do it in five minutes probably at this point.”

The character builder really is that easy. Step by step, it walks you through the process from start to finish, choosing the species, class, characteristics, and skills of your fledgling adventurer with simple drop-down menus. Given the amount of information you need to keep in mind, all of the previously-mentioned compendium information at your fingertips is instrumental in making the process so smooth as well, so you don’t have to keep flipping around the Player’s Handbook to check spell rules, feats, and racial characteristics, for instance.

Originally the plan was just to launch with the character creator, which would format and output your information into a standard, printable character sheet. This is still possible, and many players will prefer it, but early in the process it became clear that some players wanted a fully digital character sheet on their phones, tablets, and laptops.

Previous attempts at digital character sheets have gone “down to the tablet level,” as Bradford put it, but no one has yet fully cracked phones. “A character sheet has a lot of information, and trying to condense that into something you could use on a mobile phone is extremely challenging,” he said, “but I think it was a really worthwhile thing that we set out to do.”

Using the digital sheet live will allow you to track changing variables like health, spell slots, or death saving throw attempts. For dungeon masters, Dungeons and Dragons Beyond’s character sheet tool keeps track of players’ capabilities without necessarily tipping their hand as to what’s coming up. For example, a DM could check and roll against a character’s Passive Perception number without asking for it and giving away to the player that there’s something to potentially notice.

Bradford has found that the digital character sheet can be just as useful (and fun) outside of the game:

“The great thing about the digital character sheet, whether you end up playing with it at the table or not, it’s a way for people to stay connected with their characters, which D&D players tend to do a lot,” he said. “You only need to do a quick search on DeviantArt to see how much time people spend making art of their characters and thinking about them between play sessions.”

The third tool that will be available at launch enables “homebrew” content, including spells, races, classes, items, and monsters. Players will be able to create, share, and collect homemade content across all of these areas, integrating it seamlessly with the official material from WotC. Dungeons & Dragons has always been about player creativity, so building this into the foundation of Beyond is important.

The final component of Beyond for launch is “Campaign Management.” This allows DMs to create campaigns, inviting players to join so they can access their character sheets. It also provides space for both public and private notes.

“It’s a really barebones thing at the moment, because it’s more of a foundation,” Bradford explained. “Its primary purpose now is to allow the DM to share any content that she’s unlocked with her players. As the DM, if I unlock the Volo’s Guide to Monsters content, then all of the players in my campaign could create Tabaxi (cat people) characters, for instance, without them having to pay for that content.

In the future we’ll end up doing way more things with it–we’ve announced stream integration with interactive stream overlays.” D&D Beyond is already hooked up to Twitch, requiring a Twitch account to log in.

“All of that will tie into the campaigns as well, so you simply pop that campaign URL into Twitch and so it will do the magic and arrange all the elements on the screen.”

Roll for initiative

Beyond is definitely not the first attempt at digitizing D&D, either official or unofficial. Wizards had its own digital toolset for fourth edition, D&D Insider, which also included a character builder and rules compendia. A strictly paid subscription model and reliance on Silverlight (Microsoft’s proprietary and outdated plug-in) prevented it from catching on. Roll20, a third-party alternative is the most successful attempt to date, but lacks the accessibility, automation, and content creation/sharing features built into Beyond.

Previous attempts have faltered, in large part, because of how complicated the game is. “Digital tools have had some difficulties and challenges getting off the ground for Dungeons and Dragons, historically,” Bradford said. “Skyrim, for instance, is a huge game that has so many options. Dungeon and Dragons has a million times more options than that because it can be anything that people want to do.”

Developer Curse has heretofore worked exclusively in video games, creating third-party community databases and toolsets such as Gamepedia and Hearthpwn. When Bradford joined the company last year, they were looking to expand outside of the increasingly-crowded digital gaming space.

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“As a Dungeons & Dragons player for more than 25 years I knew that this was a great place for us to move,” Bradford said. “I knew that the experience we had in building community sites and especially sites that have tool sets would be a perfect match for what D&D needed.”

Before selling Wizards of the Coast on Beyond, Bradford had to sell his own co-workers. “Many of the people in the office had not played D&D, so in order for me to pitch this internally was to say, ‘You love Skyrim, you love Diablo, you love all of this — all of it came because of D&D, so why don’t you guys check this out and play with me.’

As it turned out, that was the easiest pitch of all: “I started a campaign after the first session that was all it took–people were totally addicted. One guy went out and bought a $400 case of miniatures online. It’s just taken over our office–I think we’ve got five campaigns going and we’ve got 50 people in our office.”

Once Curse was invested in the game, it was easy to leverage their experience and passion from video games into this new enterprise, because their basic mission stayed the same. “We approached WotC after we had an initial pitch and we’d started a little bit of effort on a proof of concept,” Bradford said. “We sent it out with some of the contacts our president has on the Magic side of things. I had a phone conversation within a couple of days and everything clicked immediately. They said, ‘This thing that you’re trying to do is a holy grail for us.’”

The future’s so bright, I gotta cast Darkness

Someone has to pay for all that hard work. Fortunately, many (if not most) players will be able to get everything they need from it for free. Free “basic” accounts include everything from the beta, with storage for up to six characters. That will be plenty for most players, who aren’t involved in more than a handful of campaigns at a time. Free users will also be able to create, use, and share their own homebrew content, but a paid account will be required to use and rate content created by other players (limiting the number of spammy reviews that could gunk up the sharing and rating platform).

The “Hero Tier” subscription, for $3/month, will be able to make unlimited characters and use homebrew content from other users. For $6/month, the “Master Tier” subscription unlocks the ability to share paid content with up to 12 other players across all of their games, as mentioned above. That paid content includes rule supplements, such as Volo’s Guide to Monsters, which will cost a fixed, one-time price of $30. Adventure modules, such as Curse of Strahd, will cost $25 (though special Founders’ Pricing on the first seven days after launch will instead be $20). Free accounts can purchase these supplements as well, and no content will be lost if your paid subscription lapses.

Looking ahead, Bradford said his team intends to work on a more full-featured monster builder, with the ability to scale creatures up or down for difficulty. Currently, if DMs want a weaker version of a monster, they will reskin a different foe at the desired Challenge Rating. The monster builder will allow them to directly level up or down creatures instead. That may launch alongside an Encounter Builder, which will help DMs designing battles in context for their players.

“Really the utopia we’re marching towards is automated combat initiative tracking at the table.” Combat in D&D happens in a tight economy of actions and rounds (representing six seconds of time). Tracking the order of actions between players, their foes, and their allies can be a bookkeeping nightmare in big battles, made even more messy with things like magic spell durations. Automating that process to track initiative and durations would remove a huge logistical burden from the shoulders of DMs.

We’re really impressed by our time so far with D&D Beyond. We’ve already seamlessly integrated it into our own play just with the beta, and are excited to see how it grows. More than just how it will integrate into our established gaming practice, however, we are most excited by how this will enable new players to join the hobby. Dungeons & Dragons was a crucial pillar of 20th century pop culture, and D&D Beyond will help carry that relevance forward to its rightful prominence into the 21st century for a whole new generation.