I wrote last week that I didn’t necessarily think that D&D Beyond would fly unless Wizards addressed the potential issue of double buying content.
This week, those of us who signed up for a bet account finally got our hands on a limited subset of the tools available. Now, I should prefix this article by stating that my day job is as a User Experience designer, so I approached this with a critical eye in terms of exactly how usable it is. I was pleasantly surprised.
The content is laid out well. In this first phase of the Beta, we have access to the Compendium (a subset of rules texts which seems to draw content from both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide), Spells, Items and Monsters. Let’s look at these individually.
The compendium is neatly presented with information broken down into sub-groups under core headings. Most of the key information useful to players in the PHB is presented. Explanations of core principles such as Advantage and Disadvantage, what actions you can take during combat and multi-classing for example are all present. All of it is clearly structured and concise but it lacks a search function, which is quite annoying after a while using the tool, particularly given the excellent search functions elsewhere in the app. The equipment charts are useful but the decision to list the equipment types alphabetically results in annoying quirks like Armor and Weapons, two things which are closely related, being at either end of a very long list. Not a deal breaker, but it does require you to scan the list each time. Still, overall it’s neatly done.
The Spells section was the highlight for me of the application. The search and filter options are very well done, particularly the ability to be able to filter spells quickly by class using the character portraits along the top.
I also really loved the quick summary in the search results table which outlines the casting time, duration, range and any saves, damage or effects. I can see this driving a change in behaviour of the players at the table whereby they might actually think “What do I need to do here” rather than “What spells do I have” in the first instance. A subtle but potentially high-impact change of thinking. This would be even more powerful a tool if it carries forward to the individual character spell books. Unfortunately we won’t know this until phase 2 of the Beta but hopefully it does.
The only flaw I found with the spells section was the use of unexplained “Magic school” icons. These are colourful icons to the left of the spell details in the listings. Unfortunately, there is no key for these icons so users know what they are and it’s difficult if not impossible to determine what they are from just looking at the icon alone. Even tooltip text when hovering over them would be useful.
Even as a DM, items kind of bore me. Thankfully I use Fantasy Grounds in-built tables and treasure generators which usually cough up some pretty good magic items without too much effort, because working my way through the badly organised, alphabetical item descriptions in the DMG is painful.
D&D Beyond changes all of that. I can actually start to filter magic items based on my needs.What kind of effect do I want the item to have? What level of magic bonus? +1, +2 or +3? If it’s a weapon then what type? Like the spells, this is actually a much welcomed reversal of the process of finding a magic item. I can see this reducing the workload of most DMs.
Monsters are my favourite part of D&D or any RPG for that matter. I own bestiaries for games I’ve never even played, nor even have any intention of playing. Again, the monsters section follows the trend seen throughout of reversing the approach to creating encounters. Instead of going through the Monster Manual from A to Z searching for creatures of suitable types and Challenge Ratings, you can now simply set the creature type and challenge rating range (and more usefully, their environment) from a series of filters. It really does make a difference. No longer do I need to trawl the MM from beginning to end looking for a CR6 urban creature to challenge my party. I can do it in seconds.
Monster details are clear and well set out on their own page, although the full detail can also just be opened from a concertina menu on the search results page which is really useful for comparing a number of options without forcing you to click back and forward through multiple pages.
On the whole, D&D Beyond phase 1 is impressive. It’s a tool I’d use. If the character and campaign management features are anywhere near as good then this is a game changer for me when creating and maintaining a campaign. However, ultimately the usefulness and usability of this product won’t be the deciding factor as to whether to buy into it. If the product follows the same “doube buy” pricing structure of the Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds add-ons then I’ll still stick to the books, despite this tool potentially making my DM life easier. If however there is a flat monthly fee, say £4.99 a month to access all of the content then D&D Beyond would instantly become the greatest D&D weapon in my D&D Armory.