A few years ago, I was playing a regular 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons game. That edition was, well, interesting, for a lot of reasons: It formalized the management of space in the game, required a tactical map to play, and seemed to be developed in response to a lot of videogame trends at the time. You needed to know what at-will, encounter and daily abilities you had, and my Dungeon Master had to keep up with a fairly restrictive mode of item progression so that we could actually compete against on-level monsters. From the point of character creation, management and campaign creation, it was a little bit of a pain.
We were helped by the official Dungeons & Dragons character creator. It was an online tool that streamlined many of those things both for us players and the dungeon master, and that was a big quality of life change. Over the past couple years, I have DM’d some of Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th edition, and I’ve often thought about the tool that we used years ago. While I don’t miss much about 4th edition, the access to a tool that helps smooth the process of playing a fairly numbers-intensive game like Dungeons & Dragons has been on my mind for a while.
Now we have D&D Beyond. A tool for managing rule books, characters and campaigns from top to bottom, Beyond is developed by Curse (yes, the generally-about-videogames company) to make the process of planning and playing as simple as possible. It’s a comprehensive compendium and app that allows for easy play of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a way for a dungeon master to talk to their players, know what character sheets say, and generally manage a game. It is really rad.
When I spoke with Adam Bradford, the product lead for Beyond at Curse, we mostly talked about playing Dungeons & Dragons. That’s no accident, really, since the way Bradford tells it, making the program was just as much about facilitating games as anything else. He’s a 20+ year veteran of the game, and D&D Beyond is about expanding on the experiences he’s had during that time.
Bradford incubated the Beyond at Curse as an “ignite program,” which allows employees to spend 25% of their time on passion projects, and it quickly spiraled upward from there. He recruited other people at the company into a game with the idea in mind that getting them excited about the game would then make them excited about making something like Beyond.
What did that look like, though? “I wanted the people who had never played to experience a classic Dungeons & Dragons experience, so I went straight for Tyranny of Dragons, the first module published by Wizards for 5th edition,” he explained to me over Skype. “Even after that first session, people were just completely addicted. One of the guys went out and bought a $400 case of miniatures the second day.” It was clear to me while talking to Bradford that he understands how roleplaying games can integrate digital tech without turning into a gimmick. As a dungeon master, he makes extensive use of Slack to communicate to his players. “In between sessions we actually communicate,” he told me. “Any time I type in that channel, I am the Dungeon Master, and I can do a slash command that lets me talk as any NPC they’ve met along the way, and it pulls its character names and character portraits.”
While Beyond doesn’t quite have that level of functionality, Bradford’s understanding of what makes for a good campaign gives me a lot of hope for what the program will bring to the average roleplaying table. I have always been in awe of what makes for a good tabletop roleplaying game because it’s monumentally simple: The person running the game needs to be able to communicate to players, and everyone needs to be able to know what the given state of the game is at all times. That’s it. Everything else comes after, and D&D Beyond seems like a product that is committed to providing that basic substructure of character and campaign management so that players and DMs can excel.
While Beyond has the ability to interact with the official Dungeons & Dragons books, including the ability to mix-and-match to create custom character classes, races, or monsters, I wondered how far it could go. Being attached to the D&D brand and gameplay means certain things: there will be lots of numbers, combat will work in a specific way, and players and DMs have a very particular relationship. Beyond is tooled specifically for that, Bradford explained to me. “At the end of the day, we want to allow homebrew content to exist for races and subclasses, but changing the basis of what D&D is is not something that we’re going to be doing with this product.” Completely recreating armor class might not be something possible here.
Bradford ended our interview on a poignant note, and it’s one that I feel pretty strongly myself. “D&D has changed my life. I know people say things like that, and they throw it around pretty flippantly, but yeah, it’s been very central to even where I am at this point in my life,” he told me. “It awakened this imaginative spark that has carried me through my entire life. So I’m very grateful to be working on it on a daily basis.”
The best thing that a Dungeons & Dragons campaign or book or tool can do is help spark creativity in a player or a dungeon master. It seems to me that most tabletop roleplaying games are a way of getting to something else, whether that is self-reflection or self-expression, and the best thing that Beyond can do as a tool is facilitate that process. With someone like Adam Bradford behind the helm, with his specific concerns and desires, it seems like Beyond has an incredibly bright future.
D&D Beyond launches August 15th.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.