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?
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.