Sunday, July 13, 2008

Digital Deja Vu

Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) releases a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, making radical changes to the game.  They also prominently announce upcoming suite of digital tools that will make your life easier.  Quick question, what year am I talking about?

  1. 1974
  2. 1977
  3. 1989
  4. 2000
  5. 2003
  6. 2008

If you chose number four, you would be correct.  It seems like ancient history now, but when D&D Third Edition came out, every copy of the Player's Handbook came with a CD-ROM containing a sample Character Generator.  This Character Generator was only a preview for the soon to be released Master Tools!

Master Tools would not just be a character generator, but a comprehensive suite of digital software including a character and monster generator, a 3D map-making tool, and much more.  Like many DM's running a game at the time, I eagerly awaited these time-saving digital aids.

I ended up waiting quite awhile.  What I didn't know at the time, is that Fluid Entertainment, the company hired to create the original Master Tools, was running into bureaucratic red tape.  Basically, the contract lawyers at WOTC became concerned that the 3D map-making tools Fluid was putting into Master Tools would violate the exclusive contract that Bioware had in developing D&D video games.  So Fluid was forced to gut its own product.

This product eventually debuted at Gen Con 2002 as the E-Tools: Character and Monster Generator.  The reason for the "Character and Monster Generator" after the colon was that it was supposed to be the first in a set of E-Tools products.  Those never materialized.  Even worse, the product was substandard.  Fluid Entertainment seemed to have lost its taste for deal and WOTC was left with a bit of a lemon on its hands.

Knowing they had to do something for disappointed fans, WOTC saw a quick fix solution when they were approached by several individuals from the Open Source PCGEN project, looking to gain some legitimacy.  At the time PCGEN contained home-brewed data sets that contained comprehensive information about all the game books WOTC published.  The legality of including WOTC copyrighted data, even in a free open source character generator, was questionable.

So when WOTC and the heads of the PCGEN open source project struck a deal.  They would be allowed to legally sell data sets containing WOTC material.  But part of the deal was that they had to fix the extremely buggy E-Tools and support it for a period of time.  These individuals formed a new company called Code Monkey Publishing (now separate from the PCGEN project). 

Meanwhile, WOTC washed their hands of the fiasco.  While they maintained approval rights for the data sets Code Monkey Publishing created for E-Tools and PCGEN, they didn't seem to do much to support their "partner".  References to E-Tools on the Wizards website completely ceased.  It became obvious that they had given up on an "official" set of digital tools to support 3rd Edition D&D.

Fast-Forward to 2007.  WOTC announces the upcoming 4th Edition D&D will include a suite of digital tools that will make your life easier!  At this point I was hopeful that they had learned from the mistakes of the past.  In fact, all indications seemed to be that D&D Insider would be ready on launch! We saw previews of the Character Visualizer, Character Builder, Game Table, and Compendium. When June 6th came, I anxiously awaited to see what would be available to try out.

Well, we know how that turned out.  As of this writing, one month after the launch of D&D 4th Ed, only the D&D Compendium is available.  Since that is essentially a simple keyword search tool, it doesn't impress me that much.

I still maintain hope that D&D Insider live up to its promise.  I am a both a tech geek and a D&D geek, and I am always looking for ways to use digital tools to enhance my gaming experience.  I would love an accurate character generator to help some of the more casual gamers in my gaming group create and maintain their characters.  Because of time constraints and distance, my gaming group is often forced to game remotely, something a well done electronic game table would help with immensely.

I am the guy WOTC should be marketing D&D Insider to!

But I fear that DDI may become another embarrassment to be forgotten, shoved under the rug, and ignored until they decide to make a D&D 5th Ed.


Bronz said...

100% agreed on everything said here. I too, as you know, relish any chance to merge my tech geekdom with my roleplaying geekdom. In my experience thus far it seems that Excel and it's OpenSource counterpart Calc are far and away the best character generators yet, as long as you have the skill to create it or know where one is located.

RPTools has a simple and free MapTool as well, and from all sides seems like it will do a BETTER job than WotC's fully Direct3d gaming table. I see nothing but issues stemming from that, and I think it was all done just so they can sell some more "digital mini's" and try to create a new revenue stream. It's all really crazy.

WotC should learn from the mistakes of the past as well as their publishing expertise and get some synergy here. They already have licenses in place that share their IP and their branding. Why can they not simply do the same thing for digital tools instead of this in-house garbage? And I'm not talking fully fleshed out games here, simply roleplay tools that are specific to WotC games.

Todd said...

I can't believe I am about to say this, but Bronzis right! Given the limitations of insider combined with the fact that it is subscription based (forcing me to continue paying for product if I want to use it regardless of whether it improves to the promised level or not) I will not be partaking in this farce. Over all I have been a little underwhelmed by the new direction dnd has gone. While some glaring issues have been solved, give it a few months... I am willing to bet this system is just as breakable to the determined, and far less flexible.

Chadarius said...

I am not even going to hope that D&DI is going to be good. I know it will be bad. After seeing the whole eTools debacle, I'm convinced that a closed source product without tons of input and testing from a large group of people that can have a direct impact on the project is just not going to produce a useful tool. PCGen is able to do what it does because lots of people can work on the datasets and anyone can make updates and improvements.

The kind of access and development required for a dataset like D&D doesn't fit with how Wizards wants to keep its restrictions on the game. They need to open the flood gates for free projects to be able to use the data. The problems in the past have always been dataset related and how the programs related to the dataset. More eyes and hands will improve that. Without the right to do that, however, it can't be done.

I agree with Bronz. The best tool available for Character Generation is a spreadseet (I refuse to use Microsoft), like OpenOffice Calc.

I'm still a bit partial to Kloogewerks as a tool, but mostly because of its initiative tracker and mapping abilities. It is still lacking in the character generation department.

Digital game participation is becoming more and more important to us as a group. I still think that the non-Wizard and many of the free tools are higher quality than anything else Wizards will ever produce. Sadly even those tools are limited.

In the end, here are the basics when it comes to digital tools.

* Character generator (Spreadsheet or PDF)
-Don't worry about all the rules. Just let me plug in the numbers and do the math for me.

* Initiative/HP/Effect tracker
- Just keep track of hit points, whose turn is it and any effects on characters and monsters

* Shared mapping
- Share a map that is controlled by the DM. Allow players to move their character for combat. The only functionality would be the "fog of war" where the DM can reveal parts of the map as needed.

* Secure Dice Rolling
- There are a number of these available. In fact, I think it would be quite possible to integrate the spreadsheet with a secure dice rolling web url for games. Again, this is not reliant on any rules. You create the dice equation and it roles the dice.

Any system that is totally locked into a rule set will fail. It won't be able to handle house rules well, and frankly I have yet to see a rules implementation that wasn't full of holes and was easy to implement changes to.

So if Wizards wants to make things work right, they should just Keep It Simple Stupid. Anyone else doing the same thing would do well to follow. Of course we don't have much choice because no one can legally implement their rules for a digital tool anyways.