D&D 4th Edition: A Behind the Scenes Look at D&D Insider

By Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor
By Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor

The gaming industry has now come full circle. If a gamer could look back to the very beginnings of video gaming, they would find that many of the very basic foundations of our gaming experience began with Dungeons and Dragons. Now, as we enter into the summer of 2008, the game developers at Wizards of the Coast are preparing to unleash a newly refurbished D&D experience upon the world and this latest edition will include a digital experience unlike anything we’ve seen in the past.

Recently, I had the incredible opportunity to visit the Wizards of the Coast studios and take a look at the upcoming Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition rule set and the spearhead for WotC’s digital initiative: Dungeons and Dragons Interactive. To learn more about the soon-to-be-released rulebooks and D&DI, I sat down with Chris Perkins (Story Design Manager) and Chris Youngs (Editor-in-Chief) who both work closely with the D&DI project.

The 4th Edition of D&D will be in the hands of fans very soon.

After the usual pleasantries and discussions about my background with Dungeons and Dragons (which is relatively extensive), we cut right to the chase. Rather than giving the usual introduction for reporters unfamiliar with D&D, Perkins immediately opened up and explained why Wizards of the Coast opted to create an entirely new experience with the 4th Edition of D&D.

“4th Edition came about because we decided to simplify parts of the game that needed simplification, and take all the complexity that people like and put that in the right places,” Perkins said. “We also wanted to make it an easier game to learn and an easier game to DM. Frankly DMs are finding less and less time to themselves to prepare the games. Everything we did really stemmed from those base desires.”

“D&D 4th Edition is really the marriage between the traditional tabletop game with this new digital element,” Perkins continued. “The idea is that we want people to play D&D either 100% analog, 100% digital, or anything in-between. The analog part of the game is rolling out in a way that’s familiar to a lot of players, starting with the three core rulebooks. We’ll then expand it with future supplements that will add new toys to the toy box.”

At this point I really wanted to learn what D&DI had in store for the MMO gamer. What would MMO gamers see when they first logged into D&DI? Why should they be interested in this latest edition of D&D? Why build such a provocative game to compete with the MMO space?

“We’re at a place in our industry where Wizards really commands the tabletop roleplaying game arena. We don’t have any competitors," Perkins stated. "Our competitors are the people who are competing for people’s entertainment time. Anything that takes up entertainment time – World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Xbox Live – all of those products are our competition. Some individual’s play MMOs, but they’d just as soon be playing D&D if they could find a way to do it.”

While some current players of D&D are incredibly excited about the changes coming to the D&D landscape, others have been less than thrilled about the idea of D&D trying to span that digital medium and directly compete with video games. In fact, there’s even been some confusion that D&D may be totally reworking its rules to be more “video game friendly” and has adopted terminology that may be familiar to gamers – particularly the “talent tree” term that is used extensively in the latest edition of the Star Wars RPG. I asked Perkins about this confusion and whether he could clear the air concerning the new direction of D&D.

This was how D&D used to be played before D&D Insider.

“Thankfully, we don’t have talent trees in 4th Edition,” Perkins said, laughing. “It is in the recently re-released Star Wars game, and I think people assume that the 4th Edition rules will have talent trees because of Star Wars. I can dispel that false issue. The Star Wars game is really based more off of the D20 Modern game.”

“However, the greater point that you’re making – this sort of borrowing of terminology on occasion – certainly occurs at Wizards, but it also works in reverse,” Perkins continued. “I have always believed, and the people that I know in the gaming industry have always believed, that we’re all in this industry together and communicating with a customer base that have a particular sort of vocabulary. We are comfortable looking at the games – the MMOs that we play – and asking ourselves what they’ve done right and what we can take that will make our games better.”

“They’re doing the exact same thing,” Perkins concluded. “World of Warcraft looks at D&D and decides what they like and don’t like and what they want to take out of the experience. It’s a sort of back and forth in the industry helps us in the long run. It helps solidify the community.”

With Perkins’ answer out on the table, I had to wonder just what sort of changes Wizards was making to cause such a startling amount of confusion. What was Wizards doing to make the easier for players to dive into, and what should old and new players expect from the new edition?

“While we don’t have talent trees in D&D,” Perkins answered, “we are making a stronger effort to point to character roles and calling them things like ‘Defender’ and ‘Striker’ and “Controller.” They’re definitely more familiar with the audience we’re looking at.”

“We don’t explicitly use words like “DPS” or “Tank,” but everyone understands that that is what we’re doing,” Perkins continued. “ The reason is obvious. There’s a significant part of the community that has already incorporated that knowledge into their subconscious when it comes to games, so why not talk to them on that level?”

“That’s our rationale,” Chris stated. “No talent trees in D&D. We do have feats. We do have powers that are called different things by different classes – wizards call them spells, fighters call them exploits. Maybe someone will steal that for their next game.”

The 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is extremely exciting for a generation of fans that were waiting for the latest iteration of D&D, but this latest go-round with the folks at Wizards of the Coast also offers video game players a whole new look into the world of D&D, one that can only be seen from the inside of the digital realm. Digital gaming will be a whole new experience for D&D, and will be spearheaded by Wizards “Dungeons and Dragons Insider” content.

“D&D Insider is going to be a number of software and web applications, along with editorial that is delivered through the online magazines: Dungeon and Dragon,” Youngs noted. “There are really two software applications that really epitomize what the D&D Insider applications are all about. The first is the character visualizer, which allows you to take the character inside your head and realize it in a fully 3D environment. We want you to – for the first time – really explore the options that have never been visually available before.”

Do you think D&D players will enjoy the digital format?

According to Youngs, the character visualizer offers a no holds barred version of character creation. Just like in normal D&D character creation, you pick your race and class, adjust height and weight, customize your portrait, and you can also change your pose to however you want your character to look. With this amount of detail available to players, Wizards didn’t want to skimp on the finer points of generating a character, even allowing players to adjust skin and hair color with no restrictions at all. The software has no rules, restrictions, or anything like that. It allows you to do whatever you want to your character.

As I watched, Youngs produced a male human fighter for me to observe, yet it was obvious that Youngs could put any sort of items he wanted on the character. “You can have a wizard in full plate,” Youngs said. “Or if you want to have your fighter wielding a wand, you can do it. Want to have blue skin? You can do it.”

While many of us classic D&D players are used to having these sort of options available, what would the introductory player choose to do with the appearance of his character? Thankfully, Wizards has insured that even the newest players are able to find the “appropriate” color palette for their race or class. “We have a pre-generated color palette based on your race, but that’s entirely up to you,” Youngs said.

Of course, it wouldn’t be D&D without items and equipment having the appropriate “glow” effects. “You can make anything glow,” Youngs continued. “All of your items; even your skin or hair can be made to glow. Item color can be adjusted as well as the positioning of the weapons. You can have them on your hips, back, forearms, along with your hands.”

Along with the glow effects, you can also choose to have a variety of different versions of your character saved onto your computer. From what Youngs described, you could have your avatar decked out in his full adventuring gear for the dungeon crawling portion of the game, but then switch him out for the well-dressed hero for the in town situations.

The entire concept of character creation – in the past – has been almost entirely focused on the mechanics of your character with the visualization being an after thought or something more oriented towards roleplaying specific games. Now with the character visualizer, every type of player can now construct their own look and feel for their character.

“It’s really a virtual miniature creator,” Youngs said. “You create a miniature then you load it into the virtual D&D table. For those players that aren’t using the D&D table, you can load it onto your digital character sheet and it automatically fills in your character portrait box, which is a big step up from the printed pictures or little stick figures that you had to previously tape or draw in that box.”

The future for D&D seems bright.

Rather than simply leaving players to fend for themselves for good character art, Wizards has incorporated the essence of character into the entire visualizer. Players can print out their sheets along with using their D&D characters as wallpapers for their gaming desktop. Players can choose from a variety of different backgrounds to drop their characters onto.

And Wizards won’t simply give players the visualizer then let them fend for themselves. Over time, they’ll be continually adding more items and equipment to the visualizer. Everything can certainly be enhanced, just like any online game, and the Wizards creators are more than aware of those possibilities.

With that, this will end Part One of my adventures with Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and the D&D Insider. If you're interested in learning more about D&D Insider and the virtual gaming table, check out Part Two of this exclusive preview!

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