Game Review: D&D Insider

OK, not strictly a game, but it’s close enough.

I’ve had a D&DI subscription for a little over a year now, and if – as I was a year ago – you’re wondering whether it’s worth it: Yes, I think so. Why? Read on for details.

First, the cost. My subscription costs about £50 per year, which is about what I spend on coffee every couple of months, so it’s not a huge drain on my resources – Your Mileage May Vary. (Hmm, maybe I should cut back on the coffee. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the hundreds of green moles crawling over the walls? No, surely not.)

The much-vaunted online gaming table never appeared, much to my disappointment; but there are a number of third party alternatives, like d20Pro, Screen Monkey, and Fantasy Grounds. I’ve run games over MSN Messenger, and that works well enough. So I can work around this, but I’m still a bit disappointed.

What you do get is access to Dungeon and Dragon magazines, the online rules compendium, the Adventure Tools, and the Character Builder. There are also name generators, character sheets, maps, and so forth, but those five are the big ticket items.

Adventure Tools is still in beta at the moment, and so far only has the monster builder tool, which allows you to browse existing monster stat blocks or create your own. This isn’t a complete replacement for the numerous Monster Manuals, as you only get the stat blocks, with some tactical info for some monsters. There are four other buttons greyed out (actually, bronzed out) at the moment, so more may come later. You can export monsters as RTF, or print those green stripey blocks one gets in the Monster Manual or published scenarios. This is useful as I can then take only the monsters I need with me, or cut and paste them into scenario notes. Rating: Good.

Character Builder allows you to create and maintain characters (surprise!) using any or all of the options from any of the numerous Players’ Handbooks or Dragon articles. You can then print or view character sheets, with or without power cards. I find I don’t need character sheets at all in most games; I print out the power card pages (which can be set to include abilities, skills and basic ranged or melee attacks as well as powers and magic items), laminate them, and play the character as a card deck. It’s very fast and intuitive, turn the power card over when you’ve used the power up for that encounter or that day; and I’m seriously thinking of adopting that approach for other games. I’d like to see cards for rituals too, but so far the only ritual we’ve used is Gentle Repose, and by definition your character has time to stop and think about a ritual. There’s a lot more background information for characters than for monsters, and I’m easily able to create and use characters from Players’ Handbooks I haven’t even bought. Rating: Excellent.

Dragon magazine continues to be 1,001 ways for power gamers to optimise their characters; new (or expanded) races, classes, deities etc. I very rarely venture beyond the basic dozen or so races or classes myself, and don’t see the need for my players to do so either. So there. Rating: Not my cup of tea, thank you.

Dungeon magazine is a mixture of adventures – ranging from short side treks to fill out gaps in a regular campaign, up to 30-level adventure paths – and designers’ notes. I can generally get a couple of usable adventures from each issue, and not just usable for D&D, either; currently my baseline EPT party and Dark Heresy group are both running through D&D scenarios, if only they knew it. (Since I run both under Savage Worlds, it is fast and easy to convert the monsters and treasure from any other setting.) Rating: Excellent.

Finally, the Rules Compendium is a database of about 8,000 entries, in which every creature, item, race, class etc is described. I was disappointed when the PDF versions of the core rules were taken offline, especially since I hadn’t bought them yet; this database could partially replace them, but only if I’m online, which I might very well not be while playing. I would like there to be some way to view this offline, or better still, be able to buy an ebook version of the core rules. I find it the Compendium a bit clunky to use, but on the plus side it has entries from every book, adventure, and article, so pretty much everything is there, whatever the navigation is like. Rating: Could do better.

I will say that setting up an account was one of the most complex and least user-friendly experiences I’ve had on the web, and I spend a lot of time here; but you only have to get that to work once. (Admittedly it took me nearly two evenings of trying.) Overall, though, I think it’s well worth a pound a week. Your call.

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