No matter how much you love pen-and-paper roleplaying games, the math and paperwork involved can make them a pain. Character creation can be a ton of fun or it can be a day-long, nightmarish slog flipping through rule books to consult various reference charts, and asking the dungeon master questions that take an hour to answer.
I love running games for my friends, but as we've spread across the country and started playing on Skype, all those old math and reference problems have gotten much worse. Sometimes people lose their character sheets or I misplace their backup. With half the players beaming in through Skype, there's no way for me to check their dice rolls to see if they're lying.
For a few years now, we've made do with fan-made, ad-hoc solutions such as Steam's Tabletop Simulator and Hero Lab. Those tools have been a godsend, but they come with their own problems. Tabletop Simulator is slow, clunky, and ugly. Hero Lab is great for managing character sheets, but not much else.
Thankfully, Dungeons & Dragons—the first modern roleplaying game—just launched a new digital toolset that will take some of the pain and suffering out of pen and paper roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons Beyond is a wonderful digital enhancement to the old game. It's already easing my dungeon master's burden: It used to take me at least 15 minutes to track down an obscure magical item referenced in an adventure module. Now it happens in an instant.
"Creating a comprehensive toolset for D&D is challenging," Adam Bradford, Product Lead at Curse—the company behind Beyond—told me in an email. "The game itself is 'structured make-believe.' There are rules, but no real limits. As much as I enjoy playing an open-world video game, those games are still bound to the edge of the map. This isn't the case with Dungeons & Dragons. I think that because of that challenge in digitizing D&D, it's taken some time to get here, but we're committed to make it worth the wait."
Beyond's toolset is an online portal new players can hop into with a Twitch account. Using an account traditionally tied to a streaming video game service may seem odd, but there's a logic to it. Curse—a company that got its start building mods and tools for video games—designed Beyond. Twitch owns Curse, and Curse users use Twitch accounts to log into all its services. .
"With the advent of popular livestreams such as Critical Role and Acquisitions Inc., streaming D&D is more popular than it's ever been," he told me. "The number of gaming groups that set out to stream is growing all the time, and that growth is a kind of flywheel for the game. More and more people are coming to D&D because of streaming, and more people are streaming after coming to the game."
Twitch integration is coming, Bradford promised, but for now, Beyond is a digital toolset that helps players learn the game, make characters, and zoom through reference books faster than they would hovering over a table or paging through a PDF document.
Within 10 seconds of logging into the system, I had randomly generated a level one Rock Gnome rogue named Muzzle. That's the quickest I've ever created a character for any RPG. From there, I could tweak his stats from a detailed but straightforward system of drop-down menus.
Beyond does more than give players the stats to equipment and various magical items. It also reorganizes the information to make it more palatable for the digital age. From Muzzle's character sheet, I could click a link to learn more about Rock Gnomes, then click another to learn about their various quirks and lore.
With Muzzle tweaked to my liking, I could export him to a proper character sheet and print it off. Within a few minutes, I had finished a job that normally takes hours. It's true that Muzzle was randomly generated, but Beyond's toolset will still shave hours off of character creation—a task I usually set aside for an entire session as a dungeon master.
The character creator was great—and free—but I wanted to dive deeper and see just how robust this new system was. That's when I ran into some trouble. Dungeons & Dragons Beyond isn't cheap, but neither is the traditional game. The digital versions of the books cost the same as the hardcover editions—$30 each.
For that price, players get access to the full content of the print book—complete with artwork—but in a handy digital form that's cross-referenced and hyperlinked. This is much more than a simple PDF. No more hunting for multiple books to chase down a reference of specific trait. The digital books are intuitive and filled with hyperlinks. If I'm reading some lore and see a monster referenced, I can hover over the name to get a tooltip or click the name to jump to the full description of that creature wherever it may be in Beyond's ecosystem.
There's also a tiered subscription service for players who want to fully integrate their campaigns into Beyond's system. It's cheap: just $2.99 a month for players and $5.99 a month for dungeon masters. The sub allows users to make as many characters as they want (Beyond limits free accounts to six characters) and share homebrew content. DMs get the added benefit of sharing any content they've purchased with any player signed into their campaign. That way, not everyone has to buy the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual.
Beyond is a good start and, in my opinion, better than a lot of the fan created tools. There are some bugs, but it's early days for the system and it didn't take long to sort out my specific issue. I'm really looking forward to the Twitch integration Curse has teased as part of the next phase of development.
Despite the quirks, I'm going all in on Beyond. For the remote dungeon master, the ease of use is too good to pass up. And once the Twitch integration comes around, I can spend most of my gaming week planning a story instead of cross-referencing character sheets and keeping players honest.
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