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Mayday! May 16, 2008

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A couple weeks back, I attended one of Wizards of the Coast's Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition and Dungeons & Dragons Insider meetings in Chicago, IL. I have had considerable time to think about what I saw (unfortunately). Read below for my impressions.

This update is a short on the review front, with just a single review for your reading pleasure. The stack of titles I have to review keeps growing, and I am hoping to put a dent it in soon. Between spring break and my wife nominating me to help coach my son's baseball team, I am not sure how soon I will be able to cut into that stack, unfortunately. Speaking of my busy schedule, you might have noticed we have an opening for editor of this column. I still plan on writing reviews, but you have probably noticed I am having a hard time getting these columns written.

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This Week's Feature

GameMastery Module E1: Carnival of Tears May 16th, 2008
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Tabletop Gaming News

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and Insider Impressions

   With the release of the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game and Dungeons and Dragons Insider suite of online tools coming in a few short weeks, Wizards of the Coast employees have been criss-crossing the nation to demonstrate and talk about these new products. I recently got a chance to sit down with members of the development team to get a glimspe of the future.

I flew up to Chicago to meet with Designer James Wyatt, Brand Manager Kierin Chase, and Executive Producer Ken Troop from Wizards of the Coast. The first topic of discussion was Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. James discussed the history of the edition, the goals of the teams working on it and reiterated numerous times that the way the game is played has not really changed.

James described the process of how the team looked at each monster, debated its merits and drawbacks, and made the call to bring it to fourth edition or drop it. Even with monsters that made the cut, most have been altered in someway (some more than others) to fit in with the new philosophies of fourth edition.

Speaking of philosophies, the primary philosophy of the fourth edition is improving the communication used by players and dungeon masters to present a unified set of terms for describing different parts of the game. This philosophy also makes itself felt in the changes in presentation of the rules, stats for monsters, and other key facets. Another philosophy that drove the design teams was the desire to lower the barriers to entry for new players, while increasing the options for those "boring classes" to make them more "sexy".

The new class options and methods of selecting them means that at any given level, all classes have roughly the same number of at will, encounter, and daily powers. More importantly, the new terminology helps players coordinate their parties without worrying that the party make up will not meet expectations. Also, changes were made to classes to help eliminate these situations as well. One of the examples James cited was the case of a player saying he would bring a fighter, but instead of a melee character he brings along an archer. In 4th Edition, the fighter class is no longer the best option for creating a powerful archer, so a player bringing an archer character will be bringing a "striker" character type instead, erasing any confusion among other players.

Another thing James talked about was how races are races and monsters are monsters. This is meant to eliminate the need to provide or devise sometimes complicated methods of translating monsters into player races. However, methods exist for making character classes that are like monsters. An example James gave was of a rogue (re)designed to mimic the fire archon monster.

The last item James spoke about was the upcoming adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell, which serves as a preview for the fourth edition. Like the other fourth edition products, the design of adventures has been overhauled, with a sleek but informative design replacing the often cumbersome design of third edition adventures. Wizards of the Coast has done away with long stat blocks that often lead to the Dungeon Master overlooking important details in encounters, replacing them with a design that is color coded to highlight the important aspects such as attack and defense options for monsters. Keep on the Shadowfell looks so nice in its folder packaging, that some might even be tempted to use it as a presentation piece to decorate bookshelves. Keep on the Shadowfell launches on May 20th, and includes all the information needed to reach level three in the 4th Edition ruleset.

Once James finished, Ken took over, demonstrating several pieces of the Dungeons & Dragons Insider digital platform. First up was the Character Visualizer, an application designed to let the player design how his or her character will look, down to the smallest detail. Players of Neverwinter Nights will find many of the options familiar. However, the Character Visualizer adds many new options, some that are used to integrate into other parts of the Dungeons & Dragons Insider and others that do not require Dungeons & Dragons Insider. Included in the assortment of options is the ability to export the character on a selected background as a desktop wallpaper. Several different background art options will be available on launch, and more are planned for a future release. The option to export a token image (think social networking avatars) and virtual miniatures for the Game Table round out the other export choices.

Ken also demonstrated the Game Table where players and Dungeon Masters can get together online to play. This was designed with the separate gaming groups in mind, but there is also a game search option, with a wide variety of options to filter the list down based on the Dungeon Master, character type openings, and other search terms. The final list has not been completed yet, and the door has been left open to add more options in the future. The demo shown was fluid and smooth and allowed numerous options for both Dungeon Masters and players. When moving the virtual miniatures a helpful movement counter helps players and Dungeon Masters alike move their miniatures around quickly. The ability for Dungeon Masters to keep pits and other traps hidden until a player's miniature moves near them is also a helpful option. One thing that might come to as a surprise to many people is the fact that the Game Table is not designed to adjucate the games. That aspect of the table opens it up to the possibly of games being played using other rulesets than the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

The Dungeons & Dragons Compendium was one of the items that Ken mentioned that was not demonstrated. This searchable database is intended to replace the somewhat cumbersome online lists that Wizards of the Coast currently has on their website and flesh them out with more complete information. Shown briefly was the Character Designer used to create characters. This tool is similar to the eTools product, but as James pointed out will have the full support of Wizards of the Coast behind it. Adding options in the future was one thing Ken mentioned frequently about the products. The Character Designer will warn if a character is "illegal" according to the choosen ruleset, but will not prohibit these characters from being saved or their basic stats exported to the visualizer, so that players can create characters that conform to house rules without worrying about the application rejecting them outright. Rounding out the application is the map designer tool, which is again easy to use and loaded with helpful options. Maps can be exported to both the Game Table and JPEG file format to be printed as 2D tiles.

Many of the tools, aside from the compendium and game table will include "offline" versions that can be used without the need to be connected to the Dungeons & Dragons Insider service. Updates will require a current subscription, and some features will not be available with the offline editions. Speaking of the subscription, Wizards of the Coast is not quite ready to discuss costs, but expect that information to be released soon, considering the service is due to be released June 6th. (Wizards of the Coast has since announced a subscription cost of $14.95 per month, following a free beta period. --Ed) It was mentioned, however, that there will be some content that has an additional cost. Since it has been mentioned before that buying books will unlock content, it is possible that this additional cost will not be incurred if the corresponding book is already purchased.

I walked away from the meeting thinking that from a mechanics standpoint, there is more similarity than differences with fourth edition when compared to third edition or 3.5, and most of the differences are probably for the best. The new designs of the 4th Edition products are very sleek, and very well thought out, in terms of how they present the crucial information to the Dungeon Masters and players. Still, at the back of my mind, there was a little concern, something that I simply cannot put my finger on.

I was happily surprised with the options and polish that was demonstrated by the Insider applications but disappointed that I can not yet judge value against cost. However, judging by the quality and variety of tools included, I expect a price similar to many MMORPG subscriptions. (Based on the new information about pricing, I currently believe the price to value ratio is a little high. However, the products shown were not the final complete versions, and so the PtV ratio may be skewed by incompleteness of the products as they were demonstrated. Also, the value of the service will probably be greater for players who have more time available for playing games via the game table.)



After many months of waiting, 4th Edition is almost upon us. The first 4E product, Keep on the Shadowfell launches in less than a week, and will provide the gaming public with its first real look at the new edition. Feel free to write in with your thoughts on that product, and the new edition.

Again, if you have any suggestions, ideas, or other things you think might improve the column, just click on the e-mail link below and send me an e-mail. I am particularly interested in any ideas for format change you might have. I am thinking of doing some forum-based updates--I always seem to get news items the day after I post the column as well.

Martin "Yes, I'm aware it took me almost as long to write this column as it did to develop 4E, you don't have to remind me." Drury

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