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

Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor

Editor’s Note:
A few days ago, I proudly presented online gamers an exclusive glimpse
into the intricacies of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and a piece of
the D&D Insider with Part One of my interview with developers
Chris Perkins and Chris Youngs. After bravely taking me into their
offices in Washington State, I gave them a barrage of questions
regarding the character visualizer and the basic properties of the
fourth edition of D&D. If you haven’t read href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/34993">Part One
yet, make sure you jump into that article to catch up on anything we
may pass by in Part Two.

For all intents and purposes, the biggest addition to the 4th Edition
of D&D is the virtual game table. When I entered the WotC
offices, I knew that most of my questions would be focused on this
particular element of the D&D Insider experience, because the
audience at Ten Ton Hammer would be most interested in this particular
portion of the new digital system. Rather than barrage Perkins and
Youngs with my own misconceptions about the virtual game table, I
allowed both of the developers to give me a brief tour of the client
before jumping into my queries.  

“The virtual game table is our way of allowing players to
engage in Dungeons and Dragons twenty-four hours a day, seven days a
week,” Youngs said. “We want people to come home on
Thursday night and decide to hop on the game table and play

With that introduction, Youngs went into the general log-in screen for
the game table, which looks strikingly like any typical MMOG log-in
screen. After he typed in his admin account information, the client
displayed a variety of scroll menus for him to choose from.

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This is what the
top-down view of the map looks like.

“In the lobby, you’ll be able to find games based
on campaign setting, level, and what type of characters
they’re looking for,” Youngs continued.
“If you’re looking for a private game that you know
already exists, you can just punch in an access code and find that
private game.

“When you load up a game, you can do a number of different
versions,” Youngs said. “You can do an E-version of
an adventure, which will be available along with any E-versions of our
print product. Or you can make and load your own custom adventures into
the gaming table, along with booting up any adventures where
you’ve saved the party’s progress.”

As he finished giving the explanation of the gaming lobby, Youngs
uploaded a demonstration map to show me exactly how the new online
gaming table would operate. One of the first maps he displayed was the
ever familiar Kings Road, which look exactly how it did when the map
was first conceived many years ago. After giving me the brief glimpse
of the road, Youngs booted up an actual dungeon map built using the
“Dungeon Builder” that Youngs described as a
“freeware app”.

Unlike some of the other online gaming clients that are available to
gamers and Dungeon Masters, the virtual game table will actually
feature a variety of 3D tiles that DMs can use to help visualize
certain physical objects, traps, and obstacles for the players.
Although a number of 3D tiles will be available initially to players
who subscribe to D&DI, players will also have the opportunity
to buy more tiles as the online client continues to expand. From the 3D
tiles that Youngs displayed, aspiring Dungeon Masters will definitely
be interested in having as many of these tiles as possible, because
they range from burning sconces to glowing pits of acid. Spider webs,
spiked pits, and even things like doors and thrones are also available.

While there will be 3D tiles available at launch, there unfortunately
won’t be options for varying terrain levels at launch
“There won’t be any buildings with balconies or
things like that immediately at launch,” Youngs said.
“But we are looking to do something like that for a future
expansion. We would love to do something like that.”

Along with the 3D tiles, the virtual gaming table also had a number of
unique nuances that I found completely thrilling from a D&D
players standpoint. Essentially, the virtual gaming table has two
views: the DM view and the player view. Although the DM can see
everything on the map, the players’ sight will be limited
based on their normal range of vision or the range of their torches.
“The ‘fog of war’ effect is actually
restricted in other ways as well,” Youngs said as we explored
the small map. “The DM can control whether players can see
beyond a doorway, depending on whether the door is closed or

On that topic, I asked Youngs whether there would be any rules
manipulation by the gaming client at all, or whether the DM would
control everything. “There’s absolutely no rules
adjudication by the client,” Youngs said. “The DM
basically keeps things under control just like at a gaming

However, the client wouldn’t be without several tools to
assist players in making dice rolls easier. “The character
sheets actually have tools that allows players to roll whatever the DM
needs: attacks, defense, and more,” Youngs said.
“After it’s rolled, it shows up in the chat window.
You can also save your character’s rolls on your shelf
(Editor’s Note: Which is just like an MMOG hot bar). So you
can have your d20+4 roll ready to go whenever your DM needs it.
There’s also an initiative tracker that helps DMs keep track
of turn-by-turn combat rolls.”

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And here's a 3D view of what players might expect to see from the game.

are also relatively easy to add to the gaming table, with DMs
having the ability to add monsters into a dungeon before the game
starts along with on the fly capabilities to increase the difficulty of
a particular encounter if the players prove to be overly powerful for
the monsters. Just like an MMOG players hotkey list, the DM can pick up
and place a variety of pre-selected monsters to the encounter, or they
can scroll through a longer list to find the monster figure they want
to use.

“One of the advantages of the virtual game table is that we
can do things here that we never could have accomplished in
plastic,” Perkins said. “Like have Beholders float
and have special effects associated with those miniatures. For example,
we may eventually come out with a Will-o-wisp mini and make it a
flashing pinpoint of light.”

Dungeon Masters will also have a variety of useful lighting options to
choose from while building their map as well. “There are a
whole variety of different light sources and radiances that DMs can
choose to employ,” Youngs said. “Intensity, color,
effect, flickering, all of these options are completely customizable
for the Dungeon Master.” Rather than attaching light sources
to the actual tiles themselves, the developers at Wizards have left the
lighting options completely up to the DM. “You can attach
light sources to tiles or monsters,” Youngs said.

The light sources may be appropriate for highlighting particularly
gruesome or monstrous figures, but what about those monsters that a DM
wants to keep hidden until they attack the players? “You can
hide monsters if you want,” Youngs said. “The DM
simply hides the figure from the characters until the monster attacks
or the players make a perception check. You can also hide tiles if you
want to as well, like pit trap tiles and that sort of thing.”

Although it was obvious that Youngs had plenty of experience with the
virtual gaming table client, it seemed like all of these options would
still be relatively easy to master with a few passes through the
dungeon creator. All of the lightning, monster, and dungeon options
seem to be available either through right click menus or as part of the
functions of the DM “shelf”. I’m sure
there are more intricate options available to the DMs and the players,
but with the limited time we had, Youngs simply wanted to show me the
majority of the basic gameplay mechanics before I had to run.

On top of the great ambiance created by using the virtual gaming table,
Wizards of the Coast has also integrated voice-over IP into the client
using Vivox, a company well-represented in the MMO gaming space. DMs
will have a particularly entertaining time using Vivox’s
stunning voice-masking technology to sound like a deep-voice dragonborn
or a slight-framed Halfling.

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Here's a quick peek
at what the character visualizer can do.

Throughout the initial description of D&D Insider, there has
been a variety of speculation regarding a number of different business
models associated with D&D Insider. Most of the gamers who are
interested in D&D Insider aren’t sure whether the
application would be worth a monthly fee, let alone any additional fees
that might be associated with it as well. To clear up some of the
misconceptions, I asked Youngs whether any of the additional content in
D&D Insider was going to cost users additional dollars on top
of what they’d spent

“If you’re subscribed to D&D Insider you
get access to all of the applications plus Dragon and Dungeon
magazines,” Youngs said. “Plus the D&D
Compendium, which is our first web application. It’s
essentially a way for users to search every single rules element in the
game, from every printed source and every issue of Dragon and Dungeon
ever released. It’s updated monthly, and whether or not you
own the print product, you can still use it as a subscriber.”

“Eventually we would like to sell virtual miniatures and 3D
tiles for the game table,” Youngs continued. “Those
will be micro-transaction based, and be very, very low cost. However,
you won’t need to pay for any additional features with the
character visualizer. Those will all be free with your

While this may sound terrific for the D&D Dungeon Masters, what
about the player characters? The setting that Youngs was painting for
the DM controlling the game sounded terrific, but what sort of
advantages would I have as a player playing on the virtual gaming table?

“The players have autonomous control over their own camera
angle,” Youngs said. “They can also control their
own figure and where they’re moving too. While the DM has
master control, the player can move his or her own figure wherever
they’d like to be placed. It’s just like the table
top experience.”

Nearing the end of our conversation together, I pushed the topics we
were discussing towards how Wizards was going to handle players who had
already purchased the core books and whether or not purchasing any
particular books was going to enhance their D&D Insider
experience. Would players ever receive a free trial period, either
through the purchase of books or just a simple free trial sample?

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You can play
D&D just like a tabletop with D&D Insider.

“Yes,” Perkins said. “We are definitely
looking at a free trial period. That said, not everyone who plays using
the game table will necessarily need to have a full subscription. You
will need to have access to our gaming table, but we want to give
people a way to join a gaming table without necessarily being a
subscriber to D&D Insider. Basically, we want to give DMs and
other players the ability to buy a pass for a player so he can jump on
and play. We don’t want to scare away those players that just
want to play with their buddies and not necessarily buy all of the
extra materials associated with D&D.”

“We’re also giving away ‘game
invites’ to subscribers so that they can hand them out to
their friends,” Youngs said.

“When we get everything up and running – all of the
software and web applications – we’re looking at a
three-tiered subscription price,” Perkins continued.
“You can pay $14.95 for a single month, three months for
$12.95 per month, or a full year at $9.95 per month. $9.95 for full
access to all of these applications seems like a great deal to

At the end of our conversation together, I really wanted Perkins and
Youngs to let MMO gamers know exactly what a product like D&D
Insider was going to bring to their world. Perkins jumped at the
question and his answer was direct and honest.

“We want MMO players to see that this is an experience that
is a little bit different from what they’re accustomed
to,” he said. “But they can relate to it. We think
it will give them a level of social interaction that’s
different from what they get in an MMO. One of the advantages that
D&D has over those types of games has always been the fact that
you’re not limited by what the designer of the game has
created. You’re only limited by your imagination. You can do
whatever you want in D&D, and the rules can handle

With that, I’d like to issue a big thank you to Chris
Perkins, Chris Youngs, Jessica Sheets, and Katie Page for giving me the
opportunity to present their product to massively multiplayer online
gamers the world over. Many of us have been waiting a long time to
relive the tabletop D&D experience online, and the products
that you presented to me will certainly fill that void. To the readers,
I hope my explanation of D&D Insider has cleared up any
misconceptions about the product you may have had, and feel free to
comment on the forums with any questions that leap into your mind!

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Dungeons & Dragons Insider Game Page.

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