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Beyond the Digital Curse

Wizards of the Coast has once again launched a digital effort for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition with Curse's D&D Beyond. This is a good time to review D&D's rocky relationship with digital platforms and the opportunities where Beyond might succeed where previous attempts have failed.

[h=3]A Brief History of D&D Online[/h]The D&D brand has always had a presence online, evolving along with the Internet. The collaborative fan community was strong in magazines like Alarums & Excursions, helped in no small part by the fact that original D&D ruleset was open-ended enough to accommodate a wide range of innovations and contributions.

Then-D&D-owner TSR changed its tune with the creation of Dragon Magazine GEnie's TSR Online RoundTable. The Online RoundTable was followed by D&D newsgroups, which TSR eventually saw as a threat, attempting to restrict content to MPG-Net, a TSR-themed American Online forum, and GEnie.

Wizards of the Coast's acquisition of D&D from TSR raised hopes of a better relationship with the online community. WOTC launched Gleemax, which was supposed to be an all-encompassing platform for WOTC's digital content. It didn't work out that way.

Gleemax was followed by D&D Insider (DDI), a five-part plan to encompass the Fourth Edition of D&D: digital versions of Dungeon and Dragon Magazines, a rules compendium, an online character builder, and a monster builder. It also included a virtual tabletop that was failed and restarted several times.

Fourth Edition D&D's chilly reception coincided with the cancellation of several digital efforts. As the company moved to Fifth Edition, WOTC threw in the towel on digital entirely. PDFs were yanked from the Internet. Dungeon and Dragon Magazine were cancelled. Citing the growth of other social media platforms, WOTC shut down their own online forums at the end of October 2015.
[h=3]Fifth Edition: A New Hope?[/h]The arrival of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons seemed like a restart for how WOTC engaged with digital. It didn't turn out that way.

Trapdoor Technologies promised a comprehensive platform similar to the D&D Beyond announcement, including rules, character sheets, and adventures together into a clean interface. It was codenamed Morningstar. WOTC's relationship with Trapdoor didn't last. After WOTC abruptly broke up with the company and cancelled the project, Trapdoor Technologies transitioned to Pathfinder and struggled with alternative funding through Kickstarter, eventually shutting down entirely on October 19, 2016:

On Wednesday, Oct 19th, Slingshot Capital Partners, the group who own Trapdoor decided to close our company immediately. It is now the staff and management’s sad duty to tell you that there will be no new products, product updates, Trapdoor Tuesday releases or other company functions. As you may already know, our Kickstarter campaign for Playbook Essentials on Android has also been canceled. Despite the efforts of the former staff to find a way to keep Playbook going, we have exhausted our options.

Despite Trapdoor's failure, WOTC wasn't done with the digital space. The release of the DMs Guild provided a path forward for PDFs and fan-created content once more. There were more changes to come though, and it started at the top.
[h=3]A Digital Leader[/h]WOTC's latest CEO, Chris Cocks, has his roots in online gaming:

Chris Cocks, who most recently served as Vice President, OEM Technical Sales at Microsoft Corporation, where he led a global sales and technical engagement team. Prior to his eight-year tenure with Microsoft, Chris served as Vice President of Educational Games at LeapFrog, where he led a cross-discipline team to drive hardware planning, software design and development, marketing and channel management. He began his career in brand management at Procter & Gamble and served in product management and marketing leadership positions in Xbox and MSN, including work on hit franchises like Halo and Fable, prior to joining Leapfrog.

With WOTC's announced partnership with Curse to create D&D Beyond, Cocks is revisiting a platform where the company has yet to be successful...at least by WOTC's own standards.

D&D Beyond
will include a D&D compendium (like DDI), character management (like Trapdoor's Project Morningstar), D&D forums (like the old WOTC forums), and the ability to leverage homebrew content (presumably an outgrowth of DMs Guild content). One additional and important note, as Morrus confirmed, is the ability to play offline. Notably missing is any virtual tabletop, which at this point has largely been outsourced to online platforms like Fantasy Grounds and Roll20.

With Cocks' experience and some hard-won lessons about digital initiatives under WOTC's belt, D&D Beyond seems like the company's best chance at getting digital right. Here’s hoping that the name of WOTC’s new digital partner is not a sign of things to come.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


I have suffered through many of Wotc's failed digital attempts---particularly with Code Monkey Publishing. I am not going to be an early adopter on this---but let's see what the reviews show after awhile.
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
I have suffered through many of Wotc's failed digital attempts---particularly with Code Monkey Publishing. I am not going to be an early adopter on this---but let's see what the reviews show after awhile.

Despite the clunkiness of that program, it did work pretty dang well.
 


Despite the clunkiness of that program, it did work pretty dang well.
Possibly, but I got burned pretty badly by CMP and by extension, WotC. I bought virtually every (PCGen) 3/3.5 dataset CMP had to offer largely on the promise that these datasets would also be applicable for CMP's new digital aide---Role Playing Foundry (RPF). However, RPF was horrifically delayed and eventually WoTC pulled the rights back from CMP. RPF never happened.

Of course, I could still use these datasets for PCGen---but I have found PCGen to be about as much fun as MS-DOS. (if you don't know, look it up).

Further, I am convinced that if CMP had their stuff together, they would have been awarded the contract for 4e and subsequent digital aide attempts might not have dragged us all through the muck. Instead, D&D players are still waiting for a worthy digital aide that really should have been part of the game for at least the last 10-15 years.
 

TerraDave

5ever
Thats quite a brief summary.

Just focusing online, if you wanted an example of success, the closest was 4E, whose online tools probably became the biggest source of revenue for that edition.

Of course, first there was horrible Gleemax (never forget), then the failed VTT, then a popular downloadable character builder that was replaced by the online version and pissed off a lot of people in the process. But it did work well, and the DM monster builder was extremely useful. They also made maps and images from published books available, which facilitated playing on Roll20 and other online platforms.
 


TheSwartz

First Post
Finally! the gaming tools we've been looking for. On Curse? I didn't see that one coming...

I'm hopeful. They've been my go to for everything addons in WoW. I'll patiently wait to see how this turns out.
 

Thats quite a brief summary.

Just focusing online, if you wanted an example of success, the closest was 4E, whose online tools probably became the biggest source of revenue for that edition.

Of course, first there was horrible Gleemax (never forget), then the failed VTT, then a popular downloadable character builder that was replaced by the online version and pissed off a lot of people in the process. But it did work well, and the DM monster builder was extremely useful. They also made maps and images from published books available, which facilitated playing on Roll20 and other online platforms.
I never went deep into 4e, and most of the reason was from the deeply flawed digital tools implementation. They teased us terribly with the VTT, which was never produced. They promised us a fully integrated tool from the get-go---never happened. The initial reviews noted a lot of bugs---and then they tried to go nuts on the cash-flow and have it only be online/subscription based. Worst of all---they killed the hard copy magazines (Dragon and Dungeon), in order to force people onto their failed online offerings (Gleemax et al).

Nope. There has not been a single implementation of a digital tool package that has gone well. Not a single one.

I will not buy into any 5e digital tools unless the following are clear from the get-go:
1. It's a fully integrated package (character builder, monster builder, encounter tracker, dungeon builder, treasure counter, campaign manager)
2. It is Windows/Mac compatible and has smooth implementation with Android/iOS components (character builder and encounter tracker in particular)
3. Information can be stored locally or in a cloud, and various components shared in a variety of ways. (sharing a campaign with a player remotely, replaying an encounter for fun/fans etc)
5. Purchasing plans make sense and don't overkill subscription fees.
6. Allow for homebrew variants
7. Is NOT buggy at launch.
8. Is well reviewed.

Yeah, I know that's a tall order, but WoTC needs to get it right this time. They could have been raking in serious amounts of cash and potential cross-over with online RPG's if they had got it right back with 3/3.5. Anything less than an excellent product will not interest me at this point. I don't have time to waste on anything buggy or requires a significant learning curve.
 
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I posted my take on the history of D&D digital on my blog... http://rpg.brainclouds.net/2017/03/13/wotc-announces-digital-tools-again/

And, yeah, Trapdoor still owes me $14. :p

You missed quite a bit. There were attempts going back to 2e to have digital tools for D&D, but each attempt has ultimately failed. The 4e attempt might have lasted the longest---but I wouldn't consider it successful by any means.

And again---I got burned so badly by the 3/3.5 fracus---that I'm not going to buy in unless it's very clear they are putting out a quality product that they will support for some time.
 
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Koloth

First Post
As one who used the CMP datasets with PCGen, I liked the end product. The other option was something called E-Tools which IIRC was the descendant of a product WOTC included in the early 3E PH called Master Tools. CMP got the license when the originator of Master Tools failed to deliver a finished product. WOTC pulled the CMP license for 3.5 when they announced V4, which pretty well killed CMP's cash flow and gutted the company. At least one dataset ready for release was cancelled. That is why I suggested that one of the questions needing answering on the newly announced product is how the end of life licensing will be handled. IMO, it needs to be a lot more customer friendly then how WOTC handled the wind down of 3.5 prior to the V4 release.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
As one who used the CMP datasets with PCGen, I liked the end product. The other option was something called E-Tools which IIRC was the descendant of a product WOTC included in the early 3E PH called Master Tools. CMP got the license when the originator of Master Tools failed to deliver a finished product. WOTC pulled the CMP license for 3.5 when they announced V4, which pretty well killed CMP's cash flow and gutted the company. At least one dataset ready for release was cancelled. That is why I suggested that one of the questions needing answering on the newly announced product is how the end of life licensing will be handled. IMO, it needs to be a lot more customer friendly then how WOTC handled the wind down of 3.5 prior to the V4 release.

I'm also concerned about end-of-life or change-in-edition will be handled. The 4th Edition D&D Insider tools worked very well, and were put in the fridge upon the transition to 5th Edition. Not sure, but they may be entirely dead by this point.

I don't expect WotC to go backwards and provide support for 0th through 4th Edition (although, that would be super cool), but I don't want to invest in D&D Beyond and have it all disappear when the inevitable 6th Edition of the game comes out.
 

ddaley

Explorer
I spend a lot of money on Kickstarter projects, dmsguild/drivethrurpg products, and on Fantasy Grounds content (I also own Realm Works and Hero Lab, though don't use either of those much... yet), not to mention physical content from stores/amazon/etc. I have no problem spending money on content. However, I draw the line at paying a subscription. Oh well.
 

Olaf the Stout

Adventurer
I'm happy that WotC has decided to partner with a bigger company this time around. Almost all the previous instances have involved WotC working with a tiny company without much of a track record in the space. Unsurprisingly, most have been a bit of a trainwreck for WotC, D&D gamers and, eventually, when the licence is pulled, the company making the product.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Thats quite a brief summary.

Just focusing online, if you wanted an example of success, the closest was 4E, whose online tools probably became the biggest source of revenue for that edition.

Of course, first there was horrible Gleemax (never forget), then the failed VTT, then a popular downloadable character builder that was replaced by the online version and pissed off a lot of people in the process. But it did work well, and the DM monster builder was extremely useful. They also made maps and images from published books available, which facilitated playing on Roll20 and other online platforms.

I loved the 4e Compendium, Monster Builder, and Character Builder. They were excellent tools.
 


MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I spend a lot of money on Kickstarter projects, dmsguild/drivethrurpg products, and on Fantasy Grounds content (I also own Realm Works and Hero Lab, though don't use either of those much... yet), not to mention physical content from stores/amazon/etc. I have no problem spending money on content. However, I draw the line at paying a subscription. Oh well.

I also spend way too much for underused digital tool. I use RealmWorks and HeroLabs heavily, but many a map-making program sit unused on my laptop.

Actually, I don't mind a digital subscription at all in the right circumstances. If instead of paying hundreds up front to get all the content up front, I would rather pay a reasonable monthly fee. But it will also need to include cloud-based backup (buy still be able to run off-line), automatic software and content updates, and enough content to make the fee worth it.
 

ddaley

Explorer
First, I don't like having a regular monthly expense for something that I am not going to use consistently. Second, I don't like the feeling that I will lose all of my content once I "unsubscribe." I would rather pay more upfront, not have my data stored in the cloud, and have my application and data permanently...

I also spend way too much for underused digital tool. I use RealmWorks and HeroLabs heavily, but many a map-making program sit unused on my laptop.

Actually, I don't mind a digital subscription at all in the right circumstances. If instead of paying hundreds up front to get all the content up front, I would rather pay a reasonable monthly fee. But it will also need to include cloud-based backup (buy still be able to run off-line), automatic software and content updates, and enough content to make the fee worth it.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
First, I don't like having a regular monthly expense for something that I am not going to use consistently. Second, I don't like the feeling that I will lose all of my content once I "unsubscribe." I would rather pay more upfront, not have my data stored in the cloud, and have my application and data permanently...

That reminds me I need to get back to the gym and cancel Spotify.
 

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