The latest news from Wizards of the Coast is that they’re increasing the one-month subscription price of D&D Insider from $8 to $10, as of July. Angry blogger TheUruguayanGamer calls it an unjustified price hike, while others aren’t concerned.
Does D&D Insider justify its subscription fee? It’s up to the individual, and what value they place on the content. What are D&D Insider’s components worth to you?
Dragon and Dungeon magazines
Back in 2007 I had a subscription to both Dragon and Dungeon magazines. Not including advertisements, the magazines had around 169 pages of content between them each month. Quality of the art and articles ranged from amazing to so-so. Although the cover price of the print edition was $7.99 per magazine, a one-year subscription to both magazines reduced this to around $6.65 for both. The price for international sales was higher.
D&D Insider’s online magazines suffer a major drawback: they’re online-only, in HTML and a cumbersome PDF format. You can’t take these to the bathroom or read them on the train, unless you feel like carting around a laptop. Thus, while I’ve yet to judge the quality of the content, the value is limited if you consider the digital format inferior to the traditional printed magazine. On the other hand, if you prefer the convenience and flexibility of an e-book format, this is an advantage, and international users will appreciate that there’s no expensive shipping involved.
The most recent issue is 190 pages in total, with no advertisements aside from promotional articles. Page-per-page, the online edition is perhaps slightly larger than the old print magazines, and despite the different form factor the per-page wordcount is comparable. A one-year advance subscription to D&D Insider retails for $5.95, marginally cheaper than the old print magazines. If you only read one of the magazines, an Insider subscription costs twice the old print Dragon subscription.
Character Builder and Compendium
I was initially skeptical about the D&D Character Builder, but my players swear by it. It’s better than most of the free character builders available online, and for newbies to D&D fourth edition it’s an alternative to tying up DM time or stumbling through the character generation process manually and making mistakes. For experienced players it’s a time-saver. The interface is a little tricky, but works well and the program seems to be well-maintained.
Particularly interesting is that the online service updates the program with data from published books and Dragon magazine, including books you don’t own. Using the free Character Builder demo, for example, I can look up the full statistics of a half-orc, a race in Player’s Handbook 2, even though I don’t own the book. Homebrew or third-party material can be entered, saved out and sent to players.
The Compendium is essentially just the source of data used by the character builder, supplied in web-based form. It fulfils a similar function to the Hypertext D20 SRD, except that it automatically extends to cover all official D&D books, as mentioned. If you own a lot of books this’ll be handy for searching for a particular feat or item; if not, it amounts to a subscription to game content.
A few Flash-based bonus tools are included: a points-buy calculator, encounter builder and a monster builder. There’s nothing here that isn’t already covered by the Character Builder or one of Asmor’s 4E scripts.
The two main features of D&D Insider are the online magazines and the game content / character generator. As of July the monthly charge is $10, or $6 to pay for a year in advance.
If you’re a player, you probably won’t be interested in Dungeon or the bonus tools. You will, however, have access to a database containing all official D&D player content (races, classes, feats, items, etc), even for books you don’t own. You still need the books if you want the non-rules content, artwork, pleasing bookshelf lineup and new book smell. If you own a lot of books already, you’ll have a character generator tool that collates data from those books. I haven’t reviewed Dragon yet, so you’ll need to make your own judgement on its content.
If you’re a Dungeon Master, you’ll probably be interested in both magazines, but beware that your players may also subscribe to Dungeon. The character generator serves as an NPC generator (took me under ten minutes to stat up a villain) and a generator for new player characters, especially useful for new players. It’s also a fantastic source of treasure items sorted by type and level, again, even if you don’t own all the player splatbooks.
At worst, you’re paying twice for material you bought in book form already, a character generator you don’t need, PDF magazines that advertise future products, and still no Game Table. At best, you have a free supply of player content for half the price of an MMO, a convenient character/NPC generator and both D&D magazines without the expense of shipping. I’ll leave the decision to you.
It should be noted that the Character Builder is not without its major, potentially game-breaking flaws. I have a friend with a copy, and we’ve both played around extensively with it at his house. The Character Builder usually works well, and admittedly it’s far better than anything else out there with a similar function, but not infrequently it’s prone to glitches and bugs.
One time I made up a character and the program decided it had 120 lb of encumbrance BEFORE equipment was assigned.
Often, the character sheet viewer will double up on power/item cards randomly, and completely skip others entirely. A character I rolled got two cards for each of his at-wills, but certain racial features were completely omitted.
Certain house rules can theoretically be added in easily, but others are altogether impossible. For instance, it is impossible to customize the language aspect of the game in any way. If you want to assign an extra starting language to your character, or add a new language entirely to your game, you’re out of luck.
The tool is certainly very useful, but in terms of quality and total user experience, it seems like a beta to me. I like it and would want to have access to it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend swearing by it; it’s too unreliable to trump good old-fashioned numbers checking.
On top of this, I’m not convinced the quality of the magazines is enough to justify the monthly fee. I read them regularly when they were free, but now that there’s a value attached to them, I find myself largely uninterested.
I wasn’t sure the price was worth a DDI subscription before, and with the prices set to increase soon, making that leap is even harder.
The price hike is pretty much expected by anyone who was paying attention when they rolled out the original pricing. The fact that they’re letting people buy another entire year’s subscription at the current price point pretty much means they’re doing their best to keep the consumers in mind—or maybe that they’ve noticed the trend of some people to pay for a month’s subscription when big ticket books—say PH2—come out, or every couple months at best, and end up with the same content the loyal subscribers have been getting all along, for less money.
(The current system allows you to download the entire backlog of Dragon and Dungeon magazines and update the character builder completely, rather than trying to restrict you to only the content you’ve had a subscription during. They do claim that this will not always be the case, but it’s Wizards, so who knows when the changes will roll out.)
RPGpundit complains that we don’t have a virtual tabletop, which is a justified complaint in light of the fact that it was promised when the game launched, but he also complains that there’s no indication that we’ll ever get one. That complaint is kind of facile, given that we do have an indication of the status of the virtual tabletop, and the indication is that Wizards has outright stated that they have cancelled that component. They are presently working on campaign tools to help GMs with creating and managing their own campaign material, monsters, etc; something like the character builder but with GMs in mind, presumably. The best idea would be to keep in mind that it’s Wizards and their track record with electronic media is laughable at best, as far as that application is involved, but also that the character builder turned out well beyond anyone’s expectations.
Another point worth mentioning is that the current price point, pre-raise, was originally set down when the only components to the Insider subscription that were available were the two magazines and a horribly underpowered version of the Compendium, which then provided access to a very small number of books. The Compendium has been dramatically improved, both in functionality and amount of content present, the Builder and Bonus Tools have been released, and the magazines continue to be what they’ve been since the beginning of this incarnation. A two dollar price raise, that you may not even be affected by for over a year if you extend an existing subscription or just subscribe to it now, doesn’t seem too rage-worthy from where I stand.
Then again, I subscribed back when it was just the magazines so I might not be considered objective enough to raise a valid counterpoint.
Good article. I subscribe currently, and have found it worth my time just for the Dungeon adventures alone, but I really enjoy the Character Builder and some of the columns.
However, if they’ve cancelled the tabletop as you suggest, I’m deeply disappointed. I was really looking forward to it. It looked like a great product. However, I guess it creates market opportunities for other people to step in and fill the void.
I’m mainly a player; however, I do pass ideas to friends who do DM quite a bit (what DM can spend 10+ hrs/week just doing research?). As a player, I don’t think $10/month is justified for what I get. I also prefer printed form that digital form. Even though I have couple of good, young eyes I just can’t read text on the screen for too long before I get severe eye strain.
Two friends who subscribe have mixed feelings about the character builder. While they like the convenience, they are too weary to fully trust the generator will create the character correctly.
The virtual table top is a huge bummer to be sure. A lot of DMs (and even players) will surely be considering their subscriptions to Insider as this was a great lure to begin with.
At the end, as usual, value is in the eye of the beholder (insert Beholder joke here) and whether giving Wizards (Mattel) $10 month for the product will actually enhance and improve the DM “job.”
Hasbro, not Mattel.
I signed up for a year of DDI when it was first rolled out. At $8 a month for the year subscription it seemed like a fair enough price. Last month I canceled the auto-renew and I definitely won’t be renewing. The price hike isn’t so much an issue as the lack of true useable content: Dragon magazine is OK, but not enjoyable to read on screen - call me a grognard but my eyes don’t like reading large amounts of text on screen and the magazine has no portability either.
Dungeon is again Okay but the adventures are very uneven, the adventure path’s emphasis is almost purely on encounters at the expense of story (at least one that I’m interested in), and again… if I want to use it I’ve got to print it out which isn’t all that cheap in the long run.
The character builder is cool. Fortunately you only really need to purchase a single month and update the data files to get most of the functionality out of it. Sure you won’t have all the latest stuff a few months from now but let’s face it: The game is bloating at an AMAZING rate and unless you’re going to buy every book they produce many of those classes still aren’t accessible at the table. If you’re really desperate a year from now, just buy another month and update again. So for me the character builder is sort of the “buy one month and then forget” kind of feature.
As for the rest of it, who knows? I know I read somewhere that they explicitly states that once the other E-tools are available, there will be a multi-tiered subscription model and those that want the e-tools (including the vaporware game table) are going to pay more. At that point you might be talking about $14-20 per month for a year’s subscription which is a very hefty investment, especially for someone like me who tends to just use the core rulebooks anyways.
By zerosided: “One time I made up a character and the program decided it had 120 lb of encumbrance BEFORE equipment was assigned.”
I noticed this “bug” as well - mine was worse, 250lbs! - and was initially really miffed by it.
Then I realised that the builder was incorporating the weight of thr 15,000gp that the character had.
And in that exact moment, I went from “stupid f$$^ing bugs!” to “oh, wow. Just… wow”.
There are a few bugs here and there, but the DDI character builder is by far the best of it’s kind that I have ever seen.
Colmarr: Ah yes, I noticed this too. I gave a character a million gold pieces, then wondered why he was suddenly under heavy load. Most DMs, it seems, don’t frequently apply the encumbrance rules.
I think the price hike is reasonable, as long as they use the incoming funds to further the usability of the subscription. If I don’t see those Campaign Tools sometime soon, I am liable to get a little disappointed. The one major flaw with a D&DI subscription is of course that those of us with Macs have to pony up $80-150 above the subscription cost to purchase Windows Xp, then partition our hard drives before we can even use the Character Builder. I’ve asked WotC customer service (this was a couple months back) and thus far they have no plans to support Mac with their software.
As an aside—for people who may stumble across this and take the comments as up to date and accurate—the information in the first comment about the impossibility of customizing languages is completely inaccurate. I was able (with some prodding) to both add additional campaign-specific languages as options to be selected and grant a character additional language slots with which to select it.
They seem to be good about adding in functionality that has been requested, albeit they do it at a rather sluggish pace, but they do keep their customers in mind when deciding what to add to their programs.
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