By - March 13, 2009 - 28 Comments

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?

Character Builder

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.

Compendium

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.

Editor’s Note: I had the chance to look at both applications at GenCon last August. Here’s my quick take on them:

Character Vizualizer: I will have a lot of fun with this one. WOTC is building with extreme flexibility in mind and it looked like a fun tool to add substance (fluff) to a game. It will be useful and I predict awesome time-killing capabilities.

Game Table: it showed promise but looked like it needed a lot of fine tuning back in August.

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 Summation

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!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Leave a comment (28 comments so far) »

  1. Yax says:

    I am a subscriber and I am satisfied with what I get for my money.

    I wouldn’t mind having the option to get a paper copy of the magazine, even if it meant paying a little more. Reading on a computer screen can be rough with a bad computer desk setup.

  2. Pharen says:

    The Insider stuff only supports 4ed stuff right?
    ’cause then I’m missing nothing, were still playing 3.5 around here. Maybe when one of the two campaigns our group is doing comes to an end we’ll start a 4ed one.

  3. Tom says:

    “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.”

    Awesome. I AM interested in the gametable, but you 110% summed up by feelings about the situation.

    I subscribed for one month then immediately canceled the auto-update. I just wanted the character builder, my subscription should hopefully cover the PHB 2 update, if not maybe I’ll get another month.

  4. lochutus says:

    Character builder doesn’t work on linux so that’s a deal breaker for me as they say. shame as it looks very good

  5. kaeosdad says:

    Nicholas: I agree rules info would have been a good feature for the compendium, doubly useful if you could click on a link directly from the power to the definition/glossary of the rule. From what I hear though the compendium has a good future in store for subscribers, more features each month along with the updated content according to gaming in code.

    I’ve been liking the content so far but the last couple of months were lacking. I read somewhere that wotc is actually looking for more writers for the digital magazines so maybe once they secure more writers we’ll be seeing more frequent articles.

    This month looks promising though. Art of the Kill is coming out Monday and looks kick ass along with Codex of Betrayal next week.

  6. The one thing that you didn’t mention, that for a number of us is a big deal, is that the Character Creator is windows only. It is also the expectation that the future tools will also be windows only. I know it is “easy” to install windows on a Mac to access those tools, but the legal licenses to can run you well over $100 which is steep when you consider the only application I want to run is exceptionally cheap.

    I’ve run the beta on a friends machine, and I was really impressed, but not impressed enough to install windows for a single application. An application that I think would be more amazing as a web application so I could access my characters from any internet connected computer.

  7. MJ Harnish says:

    I am a DDI subscriber (paid for a year to get the better rate) and I’ve been generally satisfied with the contents. That said, I almost certainly won’t be renewing because, as I understand it, the prices will be going up if you want access to the digital tools like the CB and visualizer and at that point it will be ridiculously overpriced. I love the CB but use it once a month, maybe…. am I really going to pay $3 or more extra per month to access it? No way.

    Dungeon & Dragon magazines are okay (some of the content is good, some just okay) – Dragon is better though like you said, do I really want to pay money for previews of classes that aren’t really usable unless I’m running a low level campaign? It seems like half of the content in Dragon is in some way a preview of something I will need to buy later to get the full details. Dungeon has been really spotty IMO – the writing quality of the adventure path is nowhere near as good as what I’ve seen with Paizo’s PF series, nor are the maps. I started running the Scales of War adventure path and dropped it mid-way through the first adventure because it was written like a typical “easter egg hunt” CRPG. I think if I was going to continue investing money in something with adventure paths I’d probably just go the Paizo route and then convert them to 4E (because I hate 3.5).

  8. Dave says:

    For the PDF, you can download a PDF printing program such as CutePDF, and it adds a printer that if you print to, creates a PDF file of whatever you printed.

  9. Wimwick says:

    I’m a DDI subscriber and I’m happy with the service it’s providing. In fact as a result of my subscription I don’t buy the books anymore (I do purchase campaign settings, or at least I will be purchasing the Eberron one when it’s released). All the information I need as a player is updated through the CB or can be found on the compendium. I’ve decided to embrace the digitial initiative and it’s working for me.

  10. Marcel Beaudoin says:

    I am a subscriber (disclaimer, I am, as mudbunny, also DDI VCL on the WotC forums) and am very happy with the service so far.

  11. Todd Bradley says:

    Not since Daikatana has there been a piece of entertainment software so anticipated that the company screwed up so badly. I’m a software engineer by trade, and if my product management made so many commitments they couldn’t keep, they’d all be fired (sadly, we developers would, too).

    As a potential user, I just can’t get behind the whole DDI thing at all. No Mac support, screwed the pooch on the design of the Compendium (In the Wikipedia age, how hard can it be to make a useful hyperlinked knowledge base?), and Virtual Table falls squarely into the “cold fusion” category of “Oops, well we THOUGHT we could make it work!”

  12. Steve V says:

    I think it is a great deal for 5 dollars a month. (I paid for a whole year up front.) Originally I got it only for the Dragon and Dungeon, but now I find the compendium very useful, the character generator awesome, and the encounter builder a very helpful tool. The other two bonus tools I have no use for. As a DM, this is probably some of the best money I’ve spent on supplemental stuff for the game next to the Gamemastery Combat Tracker.

    I really do not see ever using the virtual table but I may use the visualizer for NPC creation.

  13. Phil Jervell says:

    I took the chance and bought into the year long subscription back when doing so got you the CB beta. Thus far I am pleased with the purchase. I plan to pick the DM mantle again once I am more familiar with 4e. The articles are great for ideas, a welcome break from making your own delves etc. As for the class previews I like them. The whole package is what one pays for, I do not understand those that pick out a single piece of it ans say it is not worth it. Heck for the monthly updates to the CB makes it worth it. $50 for the year, heck I pay that much for one board game. All this is MHO.

  14. MageMirin says:

    Yea, on the PDF thing, you need to install a PDF print driver. I use PrimoPDF. Another advantage to the PDFs is that I’ve found character builder to not allow for the printers minimum margins properly so it chops off the side/bottom of my character sheet. Acrobat has a nice feature to shrink the whole thing down to fit the printer’s margins and it still looks good so last time I printed a character sheet, I “printed” it as a pdf and then printed the PDF from acrobat instead of from inside character builder itself. And with the price of the books, character builder shouldn’t be a subscription thing. It should come with the PHB or DMG and each time you buy another book you get a code to download/activate that data in your copy of the character builder. It’ll sell more books that way too.

  15. gull2112 says:

    I like the DDI stuff and I don’t mind the price and I find enough to be useful to justify the cost. I use the character builder and the encounter generator and the monster builder; that makes it worthwhile for me. The gaming table will be really useful if I can print out dungeon maps that look as good as the commercial maps that come with the modules. Some official mapping software, all scales, dungeon to world, would be cool and seemingly a no-brainer sin qua non for a company that’s trying to cater to DMs. Yeah, there are things that could be better, but I am very satisfied with what I get and none of my players need to get it.

    I also realize that with the down turn in the economy and the downsizing that has occurred at WotC as a result, that not everything that was promised will be delivered. It is everywhere the same. People who think the cost of the books should cover the cost of the software and support obviously don’t run a business.

  16. Jacko says:

    Bring back paper copies of Dragon and Dungeon Magazines. Electronic is just not the same.

  17. Expy says:

    You can downloaqd the character builder updates 5 times per month. So a group of 5 could get the updated version every month on a single subscription. Pretty neat.

  18. Nicholas says:

    That’s right, Expy. Hopefully the virtual table will use a similar system.

  19. sturtus says:

    Wizards has never lived up to their promises of featured online or offline software. 3rd edition users may remember the character creator that came bundled on a CD with the first release of the Player’s Handbook. This piece of software was never updated and very quickly abandoned. I expect the same of the virtual tabletop.

    Technically speaking, there is no reason why their application(s) needed to be released as an offline executable at all. An online character creator is no more difficult to develop than the offline one. What they lack is real vision for their online and software components. My guess is they have employed a number of ASP and IIS developers who just don’t know AJAX, XML, XLST, SQL, or even PHP well enough to create a secure and useful online experience. Hell, they can barely synchronize their forum user database with their DnD Insider user database.

    Encounter Builder was developed in Flash? REALLY? And what is my output for using it? No monster cards, no encounter templates, just a list of what I could have easily put on a pad of paper.

    And what’s with the like 10 minute timeout? I have to log back in constantly when I’m using any of their poorly designed tools.

    I paid my money, but what I really got was a subscription to Dragon and Dungeon, a reliable character generator, some horribly designed over-graphicked (not a word) tools, and empty promises.

    For my campaign online I use Skype, MapTool, and Campaign Cartographer. I will be incorporating the Character Generator as well.

  20. Mike says:

    Todd Bradley said:
    I’m a software engineer by trade, and if my product management made so many commitments they couldn’t keep, they’d all be fired (sadly, we developers would, too).

    I am pretty sure they were.

  21. bugbear says:

    i kind of diliked the magazines format. landscape format makes it kind of hard to run. and i don’t like the whole subscription thing. if it would just be a complete character builder for phb1 and the trial magazines, and by the way when is the tile mapper coming out? it needs to come out

  22. Rock says:

    I’ve been a subscriber for about 2 months. I love the CB and the compendium is okay. I also enjoy the content of both e-zines, nothing earth shaking in either but they help satisfy my d&d fix when I don’t have a game going on. I’d say it’s well worth it for a game group to have 1 shared subscription as the CB rocks and can be on up to 5 machines. I will have to wait and see what the price hike will be when visualizer and the game table are released to see if I renew into next year. I’d agree that the weird programming and graphic choices (compendium update I’m looking at you) leave a little to be desired as well as the lack of rules content in the compendium. I don’t know about anyone else by I got real spoiled with the availability of 3.5 rules being available online and nice hyperlinks (tear, I miss you).

    Overall, if you dig 4e and you play with a regular group, insider is the way to go.

  23. gull2112 says:

    It can be on up to 5 machines?!? I did not know this, this could be great if all four of my players could also have access to the CG. How does that work?

  24. Tom says:

    @gull2112 – Have them install the character builder, then update it with the account password.

  25. Nicholas says:

    @gull2112: You have to give your group your account info. Every time the software is patched you get five updates, so the patch can be applied on five different machines.

  26. gull2112 says:

    Not to sound overly daft, but that means they have to use my account name as well. In other words just like I was logging in from their machine? I have known these guys for a long time so it is not that I don’t trust them, I’m just concerned with trying to download it to a different address than the one associated with my account.

  27. Raemann says:

    RPTOOLS.NET …

    I went to GenCon last year and I too witnessed the touting of this fantastically wonderfull all encompassing program. Sadly it has two problems – the elements which it offers do not live up to individiual FREE offerings other people have on the web (like rptools – more in a moment) and you have to pay for these inadequacies. Why could they not make a product like rptools or better yet do the microsoft thing and buy it? OK – rptools is not as glitzy as the virtual tabletop that they were working on but you can play it on ANY computer that runs Java or basically any computer that uses electricity. Some folks out there march to a different drummer (linux, Mac) so lets include those folks.

    Bottom line. they came up with an idea, made a “trailer” and then found that they could not develop a program to live up to their touting. quite sad.

  1. [... 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 ...]

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