When everything in the physical world is getting uploaded onto some great supercomputer in space, you will find me hiding somewhere dark, clinging to my Dungeons & Dragons character sheets. Yes, that's how much I love playing D&D the traditional way: real dice, real paper and real damn pencils. But Dungeons & Dragons' new companion app, D&D Beyond, is poised to drag me out of the Luddite cave where I worship graphite and tree pulp (and lose players' character sheets).
Out August 15th, D&D Beyond is a web app that lets players create and store characters, peruse items and monsters and consult digital D&D tomes (on sale for $US29.99 ($38) each), among other things. It's a "digital toolset" for the game. Fans who want more character storage or to share their purchased content with friends can subscribe to the Master or Hero Tiers. And after spending a few hours with its beta, I'm convinced now that D&D can be done well digitally.
Dungeons & Dragons' transition to the digital world has had its ups and downs. In college, I stumbled upon a third-party website that hosted interactive character sheets. Automatically, it adjusted stats by adding modifiers and the like. It was an easy, quick and seductive way for me to help new players build characters, but the sacrifices were manifest: Without learning how to make characters entirely on their own — the gritty way — these players missed out on some crucial learning opportunities. They were stunted.
D&D Beyond stands for "beyond pen and paper." If you're ever filled out a take-out order sheet for a bougie salad, you can make a character on D&D Beyond. A series of easy-to-navigate steps broken up by lengthy explanations guides you through the process. Say you're interested in Hill Dwarves. You're told about the race's ability score increase, age and alignment, as well as your "Dwarven combat training" and tool proficiency skills to help you decide whether to be a Hill Dwarf.
Then, after you choose that option, you're given the option of choosing what tool you're proficient in. And before moving on to class selection, D&D Beyond offers a few paragraphs about what a class is and how to best choose one. There's no risk of not knowing what you're doing.
D&D Beyond's beta has a streamlined design but plenty of content. In a way, it forces you to read more information than you might have if you were just designing a character with the physical Player's Handbook, since that information is your vehicle to the next design step. That's a good thing. It means you're learning how to play.
D&D Beyond gives equal weight to a character's combat statistics and role-playing background, too. While a lot of digital character sheets focus functionality on doing maths, this one's striving to make you think about who your character is. Players' backgrounds, flaws, ideals and bonds are all laid out in the interface. And thankfully, there's room for players' overwrought descriptions of their hair and stature as well.
All of this gets organised into sleek character sheets (with compact pull-down menus) where you can grab items from the site's vast database and link them to into your sheet. For example, you can search for a short sword, add it to your sheet, where its stats will show up immediately. The same goes for homebrew items like the "acid flower" or "Wyrmslayer."
One downside: Last year, the official Dungeon Master's Guild launched, allowing players to publish (and sell) homebrew adventures, rules, character options and booklets of items. A Wizards of the Coast representative confirmed that, eventually, players may be able to easily integrate homebrew content from D&D Beyond onto their DM's Guild content — but this seems like the type of functionality that should already be there.
In an interview with Io9, product lead Adam Bradford explained that his team's goal was "to use technology to supplement and enhance the D&D experience — not to turn that experience into a video game." He added, "We want to minimise the negative impact of rules at the table, such as taking a long time thumbing through books to find an obscure rule or not remembering all your character's options ... If all you want to do is automate character creation and progression and print your character sheet for a session, you can do that. If you want to continue to use physical books at the table but want something to help you prep adventures between sessions, we're still providing value for you."
When viewed as a toolset and not a replacement for D&D's traditions, D&D Beyond is exactly the sort of digital facelift the game needs to stay accessible, streamlined and relevant.
Personally, I will use D&D Beyond to store and adjust characters I continue to roll up with my Luddite equipment. I will use it to randomise non-player character stats. And I will use it to check out cool homebrew add-ons. My strong preference is still to play D&D face-to-face, without a screen mediating my interactions with players. That's why it's not a video game. Thankfully, though, D&D Beyond isn't asking me to make a choice.