Guest Post: Why I stayed with DDI

Posted on April 14, 2011 by

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I posted my “Why I left DDI” post this week and received numerous responses.  Some were supportive of my decision, while some were calls of me even somehow being a “traitor to WOTC and D&D” whatever that means.  I know, ridiculous.

One of the most level headed guys in the community is Teos Abadia, who also goes by the name Alphastream on twitter and the WOTC community.  He offered to write a counter-point to my article, and I accepted.  I’ve been after him to write something for my site for a while.  Here’s his piece on why he stays with DDI.

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I’m incredibly busy these days, but I do care passionately about RPGs and D&D. I struggle between providing these thoughts poorly and not doing so at all. In the end, here are my rough thoughts on a response to the post “Why I Left DDI”.  All of this is with tremendous respect for NewbieDM.  Here is why I have stayed with DDI:

An Undervalued Resource

We love to rage on the interwebs and especially on the D&D forums or Twitter. And yet, the reality is that DDI seems to be a really huge success. Subscriptions seem to continue to climb and turnover is made up for by new subscribers. DDI seems to be succeeding (along with Encounters) at bringing tons of new players together and at furthering their involvement in the hobby.

The loudness of the rage often drowns out the positives. An announcement might be made around four really cool articles, some of which are amongst the best in months, and the first three comments will inevitably be negative. More than negative, they are destructive. If you click past the rage, what you find is a really good value.

The quality of Dragon and Dungeon is phenomenal. Sure, we have some balance issues. Sure, we have some hiccups in publishing. You know what? Most RPG companies would kill to have WotC’s error level. When it comes to some of the RPGs I play, you can hardly separate what needs errata from what doesn’t because the whole rules set is built on shaky ground (how are you doing, Legend of the Five Rings 3rd edition, let alone your friend 3rd Edition Revised that has just as many typos and problems? Oh, hi Shadowrun… how many editions will have magic be completely broken?).

I can go on and on about how much better 4E is balance-wise than many games I really like and play.

And the distribution schedule? Let’s just say that some RPG companies are so bad at updating things that entire living campaigns (high, Shadowrun Missions!) start and end without the web site ever being updated.  The same is often true of product releases. I love the guys at Crafty Games (Spycraft, Fantasycraft), and they will be the first to tell you how hard they have struggled to publish on schedule (let’s not look at the deadlines for Ten Thousand Bullets, lest we cry).

When it comes to volume, WotC is in a class by itself. (Shout out to Eclipse Phase and a request for more of their awesome adventures and supplements!)

We can look at Kobold Quarterly and Paizo to compare magazines. I’m a big fan of KQ and I love their business model and how they ignore the edition wards. I’m also a big fan of Pathfinder books. I find their fluff to be exactly what I like in a sourcebook. My friends and I have played some four Pathfinder Adventure Paths converted to either 4E or to Enlightened Grognard. I think I can be pretty objective when I say that I truly believe Dragon and Dungeon are at least comparable and that it is more realistic to say they are superior than the offerings from other companies.  The models are different:

Frequency:

DDI: monthly

KQ: quarterly

Pathfinder: bi-monthly

Page Count:

Dragon+Dungeon: Lowest issue of Dragon had 56 pages, Dungeon for that month had 59 plus free content just on the web site, plus the DDI tools. Total pages is 115/month and has been much higher.

KQ: Fall 2009 had 82 pages, or 20.5/month

Pathfinder: Companion’s book on elves had 32 pages or 16/month

Pricing:

DDI: $5.95/month
KQ: $27.99 per year for 4 issues of the paper mag, $15.99 for pdf or $4.00/month.
Pathfinder: $6.99 paper or 7.99 in pdf and the subscription is $9.99 or $10.99 every two months – average of $5.25/month.

Cost per page:
DDI: $0.05/page each month
KQ: $0.20/page each month
Pathfinder: $0.33/page each month

Quality

It is hard for this to not be subjective. We can say that at worst all three have top-notch contributors. I suspect that WotC is likely to receive more submissions and have the most talented staff.

My point is that any way you break it down DDI is a really huge value. All of the comparisons above don’t even add the digital side, the quality of the web site, the free offerings, the industry information, the information on gamedays, the living campaigns, the con support, the forums, the… etc., etc., etc.

A Continued Subscription Keeps Your Game Fresh

While NewbieDM notes that at some point you may feel like you have endless content, the reality is that the useful ideas keep on coming.  A DDI subscription is a great way to stay connected to the game and keep your game full of cool ideas.

One month I might find myself using something from Dungeon, such as the really cool 24-page Dark Sun adventure Beneath the Dust by Jared Espley and its ideas on NPC/foe interactions and player options.  The next I might find myself modeling something based on what Chris Perkins does with his Iomandra campaign. I might add Dark Sun variants of Genasi or provide an arcane caster with a Dark Sun familiar. Sometimes the players are the ones that come in with the new content.

While I can look at vast bookshelves of material and hard drives stuffed with RPGA play and Dragon and Dungeon, the reality is my DDI subscription is one of my secret weapons that keeps my home campaign rocking and that helps me as an author. At the price and given the impact on my games, it is a sweet deal.

Those Tools

We cast a mad ton of interwebs rage (watch, someday there will be a unit of measurement called the ‘mad ton of interwebs rage’) at DDI’s online tools. It isn’t without reason. WotC’s missteps here are almost legendary. And yet, the offerings are even at their worst something that exceeds anything we have had before and anything other RPG companies can offer.

I have used automated character creation tools for ages. I was a contributor to HeroForge in the 3.x days. What a nightmare! Our collective hundreds or thousands of hours of work resulted in a clunky bloated spreadsheet that was fairly intimidating for a new player.

4E offered us the Character Builder. The offline version was unarguably better than anything before it. The new online version had plenty of trauma initially but many people are starting to favor it over the older model. I’m in between, but I suspect in 1-2 updates I will find myself using it in all cases. WotC’s challenges here are again a problem other RPGs wish they had. Dare I compare to the generators for other RPGs? And they don’t have half the volume of player content that the CB handles!

While I play online infrequently, I have managed to try out the Virtual Table Top. While not as robust as MapTool or some online table tops, the VTT holds its own. It is pretty easy to use and its real advantage is in pulling in PCs from the CB and monsters from Adventure Tools. That alone saves DMs and players a ton of time. For some this will be a huge value.

Now we come to Adventure Tools. Sigh.   As someone that has worked hard within the Community to gather requirements and squash bugs, it was pretty depressing to see the MB released as a monster viewer with a slider. But, it does seem like actual monster building functionality will be reintroduced. Until then, I follow a few steps in the old MB to ensure I can make cool monsters without problems. Even with the possible glitches (it strips auras, recharge rates, and triggers if you aren’t careful) the tool is an amazing value to me and to living campaigns.

All-in-all, these are best-in-class tools at a really reasonable price. That you get with DDI these tools and also the Dragon and Dungeon content is really incredible.

Exclusive Content

NewbieDM mentioned exclusive content. Like many, he saw an erosion in value in the Executioner Assassin being first shown as DDI-only and then in books. In my opinion, DDI-only content is a trap. It pretends to offer value but then actually forces WotC to maintain independent support streams. Offer a class or race only in DDI and then it will likely see weak support in print.

What I would like to see is more DDI-only sneak previews. The way they showcased the bard and the monk was spectacular and really sold a lot of people on DDI… while offering some free playtesting and creating a link between developers and Community. I would like to see fewer previews of paragon paths and more of this “completely playable” approach.

Support D&D

Now, I get why NewbieDM doesn’t subscribe… he isn’t playing 4E, he is playing Dragon Age! When you aren’t using something it is hard to find value in paying for it. That aside, I do find a personal value in supporting the games I love. I often buy RPGs for their production value or to honor my appreciation for their product.  For example, I’ll be glad anytime to buy an Eclipse Phase adventure for a convention (as I did recently) because I believe in Posthuman Studios and I absolutely love their open content model.

I’m willing to give WotC feedback when they aren’t doing well.  What I will do is be constructive about it.  When Dark Sun content was late I twice called and had my monthly subscription fee refunded.  I wanted to send a message.  But, I also want to be supportive and to honestly assess and recognize their value.  I deal with customers often as a consultant… I am beyond pleased not to have forums for my customers.  I cannot believe having to deal with the self-destructive negativity that gamers voice about the brands they love.  No, when I look at DDI and my gaming I see clear value and I stay with DDI.

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Teos Abadia

While some think Teos Abadia was created by tinker gnomes in a device powered by space hamsters and others think he was bred by templars of the Sorcerer-Queen Abalach-Re, he was actually born to wonderful parents that encouraged an active imagination. Teos is one of the administrators of the Ashes of Athas story-driven organized play campaign. He has preached the gospel of Athas to anyone who will listen (and many that weren’t planning on it) in an effort to get every last person playing the fantastic setting. Having a 4E version is only bested by his two young children now reaching the age to play D&D. The circle is nearly complete. You can follow Teos on Twitter (@Alphastream) and find his thoughts on his forum account.

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Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming