This is something of a review, because one area I must criticise 4th edition D&D on was the support it received online.
Enjoying 4th edition places you in something of a minority, but it had it’s truly beneficial features. Stripping away to the bare bones of the system and starting again from scratch was a bold step better executed this time around, but in so doing Wizards of the Coast learned a few valuable lessons. However, for players new to the format the at-will/encounter/daily breakdown of powers, spells and abilities made for a readily comprehendible set-up for combat that was easy to grasp, and for DMs it made the process of creating new monsters, traps and various other key elements much easier.
Still I have come to appreciate 4th’s failings, and it’s hideous decline into Essentials – VAMPIRE IS NOT A CLASS YOU ~cough~ – anyway, and I can almost fully understand the outrage many of the die-hards and old school players felt during the releases. I’ve refuted some of it’s so-called weaknesses, espoused it’s strengths, admitted graciously it’s failures, and recognised how the mistakes I made as a 4th edition DM have hardened me into a far stronger practitioner.
But that’s not what this article is about, no edition wars in the comments please!
Wizards of the Coast offered up four pieces of support to subscribers to their Insider services: The Dungeon and Dragon magazines offered supplementary rules, errata updates and useful lore to DMs and players respectively, the former with regular dungeons and/or mini-campaigns, the other expanding on class, race and character options.
The Character Builder began as an excellent tool for… well building characters, and better yet it was a piece of downloadable software you could continue to use long after your subscription had ended, but could only be updated while you’re subscribed, seems reasonable. But when Essentials came around the software became restricted to in-browser only, and there were no more updates. Alright, not a great loss, right?
Adventure Tools started life with a catalogue of monsters that the DM could filter by level, role, and keywords, as well as searching by name. It allowed for easy encounter building, and also included a fantastic monster-building tool that did all the essential maths on your behalf, as well as offering up necessary guidelines to help prevent over- or under-powering your creations. Like the character builder it was available to download and update to subscribers, but subscribers never got the one thing they wanted most from the adventure tools, any other adventure tools. The software lived and died as the monster compendium.
Mini rant out of the way, now credit where credit is due.
5th edition began life as a series of .pdf files that were freely available to everyone with a request for as much playtest feedback as possible so that they could refine the game into a cleanly finished product that could be enjoyed by all, and it worked beautifully. What’s even better is that they have not finished the process.
If you have any kind of internet-capable mobile device that is able, get the Dragon+ app or get it straight to browser, which features a free monthly magazine with news, articles, lore, podcasts, and even better, new character options that are in a constant state of playtest. For example, the Mystic class – a psychic of many talents that falls somewhere between monk and spell-caster – is currently in its second iteration after a few months of being trialled, and is still subject to change as a final version may never reach a published book, and only ever appear in the hands of those who read regularly. The same is true of some Eberron-specific races like Shifters and Warforged, available somewhere in the archives of Dragon+, I forget where.
Free core rules are readily available for anyone to download including basics on character building for players and a limited selection of classes, races and spells to pick and choose from (although 114 pages is most of the Players Handbook, so you’re not losing all that much), and for DMs a collection of monsters, how to build encounters with them, and some magic items to hand out afterwards. Without spending a penny you can have enough to dabble into the full game, but they’ve given just enough to make the books well worth buying. If you own the books already get these downloaded onto your phone or tablet though, it helps when travelling light, or for sudden and unexpected gaming situations.
So that’s it, right? All the core rules and a nice little collection of extra supplementary material for free. They can’t give any more away, surely?
No, hypothetical reader, I am not done! And stop interrupting me!
If you’re a stalwart of the WotC flagship product then there’s a few other online tools you’ll be familiar with that some consider an absolute must for play. The virtual tabletops Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 are both now fully endorsed by Wizards and have official support for new releases, making it easier for people who prefer to play online – or are forced to by time and distance – to join in and get a richer experience. Granted that support isn’t free, but there’s a limit as to how much can just be handed out.
The DMs Guild powered by the DriveThru team who support content creators for RPGs is a dedicated platform for writers wanting to generate content for D&D within the official guidelines laid down by WotC. That may sound limiting, especially when you can just use the normal DriveThru RPG platform and make money the same way, but if you play by their rules Wizards might just pick up your content to go official, and the chance to have your work appear alongside the official staff writers. It’s a great way for Wizards to source the best material straight from the fan community, but it’s also a great way for writers to make money and get publicity at the same time.
There’s more, there is so much more, from the fan site toolkit, the Podcast (which featured the writer of Rat Queens one time and I squealed like a fangirl), the Open Gaming License, to associations and respective nods to other major companies, many of which fan-made that have grown to industry giants, some of which seemingly unrelated… like My Little Pony… just, click that link, you’ll be richer for the experience. Is it all perfect? No, but it is a huge step towards improving company-customer relations, and one that a company like Wizards sorely needs in order to keep revenue flowing. Those books aren’t cheap, but when you feel like your money is put to good use it all suddenly becomes a little more worthwhile.
Dammit Hasbro, you cunning puppet-masters, you made me love you a little bit.