Sizing Up The State of D&D Insider
It is no secret that D&D Insider has been a slow starter. Way back in June the ad tucked in the back of the 4E core books were touting the virtues of the service when indeed there was no virtues or even service to speak of. Five months later we were only getting some magazine articles, a very early compendium and a beta version of the character builder. But now here we are at whatever the date is this article goes up, WotC has had plenty of time since the release of 4th edition so just what is the state of D&D Insider?
Attentive comment readers may recall that I have made some negative remarks about the program in the past. Well, I was wrong. I had some initial frustrations in learning how to use the software but now that I have figured it out, I recommend it to my entire group. I have seen players’ eyes light up when they discover that the program does all the math for them on each individual power card and even offers helpful reminders about situational modifiers that might affect the use of the power. It is particularly helpful for classes with a tricky powerset, like the swordmages who need to keep careful track of which powers use the sword as a weapon and which ones use the sword as an implement. Also useful is the program’s feature to compile all of the powers and feats relevant to your character from all books and magazines. Most of us don’t have the time or desire to dig through all of the back issues looking for a new racial feat or encounter power that might help out our character. This programs cuts out all that work and insures that we don’t miss out on any of our options. The autobuild character feature is useful for generating NPCs or viable PCs for visiting players.
The software is not without its flaws, however. Some of the UI elements are not immediately intuitive, particularly during stat generation and item purchasing. I’ve also encountered an error on my own character where two of my paragon path powers were switched places in progression. Additionally, there is no direct way to save the character sheet as a pdf so that it can be opened outside the character builder software. Despite these flaws I consider the character builder the strongest part of Insider so far and it is still being frequently improved and updated.
The compendium is not a bad feature, in fact it is great. The trouble is that it is great at doing things that I don’t really care about. The compendium is used to look up things like class features, powers, feats and items. That’s all well and good except that stuff is already on the character sheet and cards I printed out from the character builder. While it is nice to be able to look up those things, it doesn’t replace my books during play. What I really need to be able to look up is rules. I find myself looking up bullrush, the restrained condition and stacking ongoing damage. The compendium simply doesn’t cover those things.
In my dream version of the compendium I could look up a power, such as the gnomish racial “Fade Away”. Once I looked it up I could click on the keyword “immediate reaction” and be taken to a compendium entry for the rules governing reactions or click on the word invisible and find out what the benefits of that of that state are. If I am really dreaming the whole thing would be linked into the character builder so I could go directly to the rules governing my feats and powers while picking them or using them from my digital character sheet.
Virtual Table and Character Visualizer
Both of these features are missing in action. I don’t know if they are coming, when they are coming or have much of an idea what they will be like when they arrive.
I am interested in the virtual tabletop, although it will never replace the real thing for me. It seems like a useful tool for keeping up old gaming groups that have scattered to the winds or for people who don’t have groups available at all. The big question for me is if the program requires a subscription for every player. If so they are dreaming, my entire group is not going to pay a monthly fee particularly when there are free alternatives which have the advantage of existing.
I am unsure of how to feel about the character visualizer. On the one hand I can’t draw and therefore burn with desire to somehow bring my characters into a visual realm. On the other hand I have my doubts about how versatile a program like this can be when it needs to serve so many races and variations. I don’t think it can really do unique characters proper justice and WotC has yet to step up and demonstrate otherwise.
Dungeon and Dragon Magazine
There is enough content in these two magazines that you are going to find something to like. Personally I enjoy the blogs and more personal articles like “Ampersand” and “Confessions of a Full Time Wizard”. I also like the new races, powers and feats that can be found in articles although I don’t usually read them, I just let the character builder collect them for me. Beyond that you will also find spotlights on new cities and lands you can use in your games, mini-adventures and dungeons, details looks at races and monsters and a huge variety of other content. If you like D&D then there is going to be content here that appeals to you.
It is important to mention here that included in the Dungeon and Dragon magazine content is previews and playtests for upcoming products. Now I know there is a lot of unease among the community about paying for previews and I must say that the anger is not wrong. I am a documented consumer whore but even I find it hard to justify paying a monthly fee for three levels of a class that I will need to buy in a book later on anyway. For my part, I consider the other content if Insider worth the price of admission so it doesn’t matter to me if the previews are pay or not but if you are unmoved by the rest of the content it hardly seems fair to charge for what is essentially teasers and advertising.
In my opinion every group should have exactly one subscription to Insider among them. Going without it is passing up some rich content and a very useful character builder. Having more than subscription is probably excessive, whoever has the subscription is just going to share the best stuff with the rest of the group anyway. So far the tools and content released by the service have ranged from solid to actually very good. Where the service has weaknesses it is typically what they are not doing, rather than what they are, which holds it back.
Are you a subscriber? What do you think about the Insider service? Let us know in the comments!