Back in August, Wizards of the Coast made a grand proclamation that D&D Beyond was up and running and was, finally, their method of getting books into digital format. Sure, every other gaming company figured out how to release PDFs in about 2003, but WotC has been plagued with dumb decisions and things like Gleemax. Never forget Gleemax. Much to my chagrin, D&D Beyond is a browser based compendium and it will cost you through the nose if you want to see everything it has to offer. Digital books are full price and, on top of that, there are optional subscription models for additional stuff. It sounded like WotC had dropped the ball again, but I’ve been using D&D Beyond almost every day for the past few weeks and, I have to admit, it’s worth the price.
I’ve been getting back into D&D over the past few months due to my kids wanting to play and introducing the game to a friend of theirs who moved to Florida. After visiting said friend over the summer, they concocted a scheme to play D&D online together and tasked me with figuring out how to make it all work.
Thus began my research of virtual tabletops. I already had Fantasy Grounds through Steam, but decided to give Roll20 a try in an attempt to lower the cost of entry for our gaming Floridian who is too young to have a job and has non-gaming parents who would balk at throwing $$ at a gaming habit. After a lot of trial and error, Roll20 turned out to be a fairly amazing tool for playing D&D and probably deserves an in-depth look on its own at some point down the road.
This article is about D&D Beyond, however, which I signed up for so I could have all rules at the ready while DMing on the laptop. I dropped nearly $300 on a bundle that included everything Beyond had to offer. This included all the core rulebooks, all other rulebooks (Volo’s Guide to Monsters, for example), and all published adventures. It was a lot of money, but it’s also a lot of content. Up to this point I had only bought the core rulebooks and one or two published adventures in hardcover, so much of the material was new to me.
The rulebooks and adventures are cleanly laid out and, believe or not, a delight to read on an iPad while laying on the couch or in bed. I’m not sure I’ll buy hardcover versions of books in the future, instead simply grabbing the digital version seems the way to go. The only downside is there’s no way to download the rules like you could if they were in PDF form, so if WotC decides to pull the plug on Beyond, I’m out of luck. It would be great to have an option to download an offline version of my purchased material, but WotC has always been against putting their stuff out there where it could be seen by non-paying eyeballs so I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen.
All the rules are cross-referenced and littered with pop-ups so you can easily go through the rules with quick access to anything mentioned that you might not remember. The site also has a universal search feature, allowing you to find that monster or spell simply by typing its name. Information entires aren’t stripped down versions, either. You basically get exactly what you’d see if you cracked open the dead tree version, complete with art, fonts, and all the fluff text and info boxes you’ve been skipping over for years.
A big draw of Beyond is their Character Creator. WotC has tried since the 3rd Edition days to have a digital character creator tool and has failed with laughable results. I wasn’t expecting this to be much better, but it is. The Character Creator is brilliant, giving you all the official options from the books as well as allowing any homebrew content your DM might have cooked up. As you step through character creation, everything is cross-linked as well, so you don’t have to leave to look up what a skill or spell does, just hover or tap and it pops up in a window. You can create characters in minutes and then export them to paper or use the website at the table and keep track of your PC on a tablet.
The site also boasts campaign management tools, but these are, literally, just boxes where you can enter text. There’s no encounter builder or way to upload maps or run a homebrew campaign from the website. We’re being told that more robust campaign management tools are coming, but at this point Beyond is only great at running the published WotC adventures you purchase.
Preparing for our next campaign on Roll20 has been a breeze simply by keeping Beyond loaded up on another tab. I can quickly look up any rule or find any treasure table in seconds and keep the game moving like a well oiled iron golem. Not only has it made prepping for our campaign a breeze, but Beyond has rekindled my love of D&D and I’ve lost myself casually browsing through books in ways I haven’t done since I was 15. Excellently done, WotC, and I can’t wait to see how Beyond expands and grows alongside Fifth Edition.
[One way it’s going to grow is via a native app for mobile devices. Currently, you need to be online and access Beyond via a browser on your tablet or phone. It works fine, but we should be getting a version that plays offline on our devices soon.]