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My Dinner with Chris (and Evan and Rachel): A DungeonScape Preview

I know you’re expecting to hear me tell you about something that pisses me off and why you’re a bad DM and you should feel bad, but I’ve got TWO surprises for you. First, this isn’t my usual sort of rant. Expect that Monday, as usual. Second, there is actually a company out there – an actual professional business entity – that considers me a legitimate gaming journalist. I know, right?!  I was actually called an esteemed guest. Esteemed!

That company is Trapdoor Technologies, LLC. Who are they? They got started when they were unsatisfied with the way the Kindle delivered electronic books and publications. They decided to build a better method of publishing e-book content with a focus on geeky books. And why am I talking about them and why would they buy me dinner and drinks and throw around crazy words like “esteemed” and “respected” and “journalist?” Because they are the folks Wizards of the Coast has tapped to develop DungeonScape, a suite of digital tools for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition players and dungeon masters. You may have heard of the project under it’s code name, Morningstar, but they officially announced the official name is now officially DungeonScape.

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Somehow, they got it  into their heads that I was a member of the gaming press, worthy of sitting next to people like Jonathan Bolding, tabletop games editor for the Escapist, and Ed Grabianowski, AKA The Robot Viking, who writes for sites like io9 and How Stuff Works. And, while they paid careful attention and scribbled furious notes like journalists are supposed to, I mainly cracked wise with Kevin Smith who writes Melvin Smif’s Geekery.

Anyway, they bought me dinner and let me play with their miniatures and iPads (which, apparently, were not for us to keep — as security politely but firmly explained after they managed to chase me down), so I’m obligated to put out… an article about what they’re up to.

But — and this is the shocking f$&%ing part — I actually want to. If you want me to skip to the punchline, I actually liked what I saw and I’m excited to share it. Even if I didn’t win a free iPad. And I’ll tell you why in a minute. But first, the factual stuff.

The Factual Stuff: What is DungeonScape?

To call DungeonScape a digital toolkit is a little misleading, even though that’s how they’re billing it: “a fully integrated toolset and knowledge database.” Honestly, it really shows Trapdoor’s roots as nerdy e-publishers. It’s really about delivering D&D content in a novel way and providing tools to put that content to good use. But I’m rushing ahead.

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It’s an app. DungeonScape is an app that will initially be available for iPad, Android, and through web browsers. It’ll have everything you expect from a D&D app. Character builder, a virtual character, and so on. You can touch all the little things and it is all cross referenced to the information in the rulebooks. You can roll dice in the app. DMs can track the party, keep their adventure notes and campaign notes, manage encounters, and so on. Honestly, if I ran point by point through all of that crap, you’d yawn and say “yeah, that’s just what I’d expect from a tablet-based D&D toolset.” But that, in itself, is kind of shocking. Because, really, it does everything you’d want such a tool to do. Or at least, it will, eventually. We’ll get to that. Trust me.

We got to go through character creation and play with the character sheet app. And it’s a character generation and character sheet app. Just like you’d expect. You can go step by step through the process, refer to any information you need to with a touch or a swipe or whatever. You’ll be able to input things like personality traits and ideals and bonds or pick from the sample ones. Depending on the level of help you want, it’ll simplify the process for you or let you dig deeper and really customize. You can input any information you’d like manually and even edit information, overriding the math of the game, if you want to.

Meanwhile, the DM can manage the party and keep adventure notes, campaign notes, encounters, and handouts and maps straight; swiping and tapping between them and even sharing any of the information via the mysterious Cloud with the players. There’s an encounter manager that tracks initiative and monster HP and puts all the monster stats right there. It can also gather information from the players character sheets and share information to them. We didn’t get to play with a lot of that stuff because it is still under development.

But, getting back to what I said, it really isn’t a suite of tools. It’s actually just a way of delivering content. At the heart of it all are the books themselves: the Player’s Handbook (PHB), the Monster Manual (MM, eventually), and so on. Once you’ve obtained the book, the book itself (or a digital equivalent) comes down from the Cloud and you’ve got it. It’s just that the DungeonScape suite allows you to use all that content in a variety of ways. The character generator and the DM’s tools just let you manipulate and organize and access the data. Basically, to use it. In some sense, the character sheet is very much like a paper character sheet. It’s just a thing where the data can go.

And that’s where things got interesting…

Where Things Got Interesting

You don’t need to hear me tell you what a character generator is and what it does. I shrugged at it myself while I was watching the presentation. Yeah, I get it: pick a race, pick a class, roll or input or select your abilities, whatever. And voila, you have a character sheet basically hooked up to the D&D Wikipedia. It’s not rocket science, right? Or at least, it shouldn’t be, but Wizards of the Coast sure has struggled with it at times.

But what really piqued my interest is the way Chris Matney, the Managing Director, talked about it. He wasn’t talking about a character generator or an encounter builder, as I hinted at. He talked about two things: data and possibilities. “Our rule of thumb,” he said “is there is no limit to technology.” Once they get the data in, there’s nothing they can’t do with it. Or allow you to do with it. And it shows.

To them, the idea of customizing the layout of your character sheet is the most obvious thing in the world. They agreed that some people would want it to look like a traditional character sheet, but that the medium allowed them to give people other options. Expand and contract the fields, move them around, hide the bits that don’t matter to your character, put skills and ability scores next to each other and put your saving throws next to your combat stats. Whatever.

And that’s really what made me sit up and take notice. Not that this team built a character generator, but that they built a method for delivering data and they want to hand that data over to every player and DM to use, abuse, and manipulate in whatever ways they can imagine. And they seemed eager to hear what ways people want to use the data.

At one point, Chris stopped our presenter, Evan Newton, who has worked on League of Legends, Dragonvale, and Halo 2, to ask us about multiclassing. He wanted to know what we, and the people we were ostensibly speaking for in the greater gaming community, thought about multiclassing and how the program might present that option for best effect. To be honest, the whole thing felt like a dialogue rather than a presentation. They wanted us to be excited about the project, but they wanted to pick our brains a little bit, too.

This fits in with Wizards of the Coasts’ own approach to D&D 5E: listening to feedback and giving people what they want. Letting people play the game they want to play in the way they want to play it. And it was hard not to get excited as we talked and joked and shared gaming anecdotes back and forth. Because Chris and Evan and Rachel Bowen — the Community Manager and Head of Customer Service as well as the voice behind DungeonScape’s Twitter account — all three of them are gamers. Real gamers. Chris has been running various editions of D&D since 1977 and Rachel jumped in and joined the party as Chris lead us through a short adventure.

And the fact that they were gamers showed in the product. Not just in the way it was put together, but in the attitude behind it. Because these real gamers understand that every gamer wants to play their game their way,  what they really want to do is empower gamers to do just that. They didn’t say it explicitly, but it was there in a thousand ways.

And yet, I was skeptical.

A Kindred Spirit

Early in the dinner, I joked (because it’s what I do), that it was funny they invited me given my stance on electronic devices at the game table. Which is basically F$&% NO! Before the presentation got rolling, Chris asked me why I felt that way. And while I was joking, there was a lot of truth behind that sentiment. I hate having laptops and iPhone and KindlePads at my table. I feel like they put a barrier between the people. And no matter how much someone insists they can multitask, they are never as fully engaged if they are diddling with an electronic device. Answers are always slower, more curt, more closed off.

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And the bastard agreed with me. It was a pretty rotten tactic. He was supposed to argue, but he didn’t. He admitted that the team, and he himself, were very aware of that viewpoint. And while they wanted to build a great tool to help players and DMs run their games, they didn’t want those tools to be more obtrusive than a character sheet. They didn’t want to replace time wasted looking stuff up in books with time wasted swiping on iPads and fiddling with crap.

During playtests, they observed the participants very closely to see how their attention was divided between the game and their devices. They worked very hard (and continue to work hard) to make sure that the device is not stealing attention from the game. And that’s not all.

They also admitted there were some features that they had pulled back and were re-examining. For example, they were still trying to decide whether to automate certain actions in the program, like tapping on an attack form and automatically getting an attack roll and a damage roll. As convenient as such a thing might be, they were cognizant of the fact that automating too much might ruin the “essence of the game.” I s$&% you not. They said that. “The essence of the game.”

In a lot of respects, Chris and I seemed very similar. He was a brutal, no nonsense DM who took a certain perverse glee when my dragonborn barbarian was buried alive under a pile of rubble while a purple worm attacked our rear guard. But he’s also a tinker, a customizer, and he seems to really take his game seriously. Like me, he seems to be in his campaigns for the long haul. So, I couldn’t help but trust him.

I really do believe that the DungeonScape team, as people who love gaming, want to build a slate of tools that every gamer can find a use for. But I still wasn’t entirely convinced.

Burn Me Twice…

Here’s the thing. We’ve been burned before. D&D Insider made a lot of promises. It failed to deliver on many, and the ones it did deliver on, it did so only clumsily. Hell, it actually took away some of the stuff it did actually manage to deliver on. It put limits on how much data you could store, data was locked in the cloud, printing and customization options were practically nonexistent, the whole platform became more unstable with every update, and the updates took a long time to deliver.

And I wasn’t shy about stressing  that DungeonScape was going to have to work hard to regain the trust that Wizards of the Coast has lost with D&D Insider. Nor was anyone else. There were more than a few questions that were just variations on “prove to us this won’t happen again.”

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For example, we wanted to know about internet access. What would happen if we didn’t have access to the Cloud. Would DungeonScape become an electronic brick. No, they said. Information was synched between the local device and the Cloud. Of course, some functionality would be lost without internet access, such as the ability for the players’ and the DM’s devices to communicate, but character data, adventure data, even the library of rulebooks itself would remain accessible with some limited exceptions, like video content that was too hefty to store on the client side.

We asked about licensing and pricing and subscriptions, and they couldn’t tell us too much. But right now, it seems as if once you buy a bit of content, be it a book like the PHB or a module or even just a single race or class, it’s yours to keep. Yours to use. Just like a physical book. Or like an e-book. On the other hand, it is unclear right now whether the purchase of a physical book will automatically grant you access to the electronic data that DungeonScape needs to use it. On that front, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Chris also seemed confident that we wouldn’t have to sit around waiting for a month or more before a newly published book’s data was available through DungeonScape. In fact, he said that once the data was available from Wizards of the Coast in the proper format, it was effortless to push it out to the Cloud. Whether that will prove to be true or not, only time will tell. But, it appears from the way the suite of tools is designed, he’s probably telling the truth. Especially given that’s precisely what Trapdoor Technologies, LLC made its money doing: publishing data. Of course, as brilliant as I am, I can’t claim to be an expert. Again, we’ll just have to wait and see.

In the end, I’m a skeptic and a cynic at heart. But you all know this. You don’t come to a dude named the Angry DM to hear how things are wonderful and how everything is going to work out just fine for everyone. But, that said, I feel cautiously optimistic. Being in that room with Chris and Evan and Rachel, they seemed so genuine, they seemed like kindred spirits. And it seemed like they were building their own dream tools. And that makes me want to trust them.

So, let me add DungeonScape (conditionally) to the list of stuff I don’t hate. I’m cognizant of the fact that what I participated in was, in the end, a sales pitch. Best foot forward, best first impression, that sort of thing. Only when we actually have the finished tools beneath our Cheeto-dusted fingertips will we know for sure. But I’m going to keep an eye on this project. And I’ve got a lot of hope for it.

Finally, let me leave off with what little they were able to tell us about the release schedule for the tools. They’ve got no firm dates yet, other than to say that everything below is slated to come out sometime before the end of this year. And the releases will be divided into three phases.

First, we’ll see the character creator, character tracker, and the library of core rulebooks (as they get released, obviously).

After those features are available, they will move on to the adventure and campaign tracking. Adventure modules will be available for download into DungeonScape.

Finally, we’ll get the Forge. While they had nothing of the Forge to show just yet, they did tell us that it’s a data creation tool for DMs. That’s where DMs will create their own monsters, traps, and other custom bits and pieces. Because, as Chris explained when I asked how much DMs would be able to customize, it’s all just data. Once you get it in the same format, it doesn’t matter whether it was Wizards of the Coast who created the data or some DM sitting at his laptop. It’s all the same to DungeonScape.

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