Previews

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

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By 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 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 D&D.”

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.

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 not.”

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 table.”

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.”

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.

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 subscription.”

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?

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 us.”

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 it.”

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!

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