The last week has been an interesting one, for D&D-related news. Fans had been worrying for a while about the mysterious disappearance of several books from the official 2011 product catalog, which was followed by their removal from online shops such as Amazon. Not only that, but the recently adopted changes in the D&D insider content schedule (moving away from a fixed content calendar to a fairly anarchic scheme where a list of articles was announced at the beginning of each week without specifying what got released each day) were resulting in several days in a row with no content whatsoever. Several fans complained about this state of things, as well as the lack of communication from the company... until, finally, this wednesday we got some official answers. And man, when it rains, it pours.
There is a lot of stuff going on right now, so I’ll try to give a brief summary: half of the D&D book releases for this year have been cancelled, Dragon and Dungeon magazines will have delays in the short future due to improvements in the editing process, monthly compilations for these magazines will no longer be provided, and DDI will provide weekly columns starting next week. There are reasons to be concerned, but also a few glimmers of hope (or, dare I say, points of light!).
Let’s start with the killed books. This is a harsh blow, particularly since the 2011 release schedule was pretty sparse, to begin with. Of the six books that had been announced, only three will make the cut. Heroes of Shadow, the only one with material for players, is delayed until april due to a change in format from Essential-like softcover to a more traditional hardcover. The remaining two are rather exciting DM resources: the Shadowfell boxed set and a new Monster Vault. The cancelled titles are a more strange lot, though. The Class Compendium was to be released next month, making this sudden change all the more surprising, but it was always a controverted book, and probably not an easy sell - consisting on a reprint (with Essentials-style format) of five classes from Player’s Handbook, plus some extras such as feats, rituals, and rules for better integration of Essentials and classic builds. Then there was Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium (aka Adventurer’s Vault 3), which is the book I will miss the most. It was suppossed to include enough flavor and description to actually make a readable magic item book... but also to provide some much needed Common and Rare items to use with the new reward rules. Finally, we had Hero Builder’s Handbook, originally due out this summer, which had a hazy description regarding non-combat related options for player characters. I was never sure what to make of this one, but Character Themes (à la Dark Sun) had been mentioned, which would have been a nice thing to see.
The changes to digital content production are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, putting up with weeks of content delays is an annoyance... but the upside is encouraging. As explained by magazine editor Steve Winter, from now on all digital content will go through the same development process as printed products. How is this different from the previous system? Up to now, both Dragon and Dungeon were reviewed by the game R&D team, which did a fairly good job but still left a good deal of bugs and typos. These were more often than not corrected in the monthly compilations, though. With the new methodology, the reviewing effort increases, and there are more people involved, so we should see a noticeable improvement in quality. Moreover, there’s talk of harmonizing this content with R&D’s long range plans for the game, which is an interesting prospect. One of the downsides of DDI articles has always been their random nature: the published articles depended on whatever got submitted and the preferences of the editor, but this led to an irregular growth of the game. As an example, some popular options, like fighters and wizards, ended up with a ton of content, but others (say, Seekers or Changelings) got left behind.
This brings me to some interesting speculation. In an official FAQ regarding the product changes, we find this explanation for the cancelled books:
We are constantly striving to remain conscious of the way our fans consume our content. We felt that the material in these titles would best be presented in other ways and we have plans to make it available in the future.
So, if future Dungeon and Dragon issues are to include R&D-sanctioned content, and the cancelled books will be presented in ‘other ways’, it’s not a huge logic leap to get to the conclusion that material from these books is likely to get salvaged for DDI. There is only one hole in this story: if they are doing this, why aren’t they telling us? Right now, these cancellations are only seen in a negative light - D&D content for this year is being kept to a minimum. If the books were going digital rather than disappearing altogether, the sensible thing would be to announce it, loud and clear! So either they are saving the announcement for a specific time (perhaps the Dungeons & Dragons Experience, at the end of this month?, or we are missing something important, or their strategy makes little sense.
Speaking of absurd strategies, the end-of-month compilations for Dungeon and Dragon magazines have come to an end. From now on, digital articles will have to be read separately, which is fine for regular readers, but not so much for those catching up after a time away. The official line mentions lack of user interest as the main reason, but that looks like a poor excuse. Very conveniently, this change discourages users from subscribing to DDI for one month once or twice a year, and downloading a lot of content in one go, not unlike the recent changes to Character Builder and the announced new version of Monster Builder. The fan response to this change has been almost unanimously negative, and not without reason - this is a straight downgrade in service, with little in the way of compensation.
Thankfully, not everything is grim in the future of DDI. A major change to the D&D website (that will benefit non-paying users to boot) is the introduction of free weekly columns! The only surprising thing about this initiative is the fact that they hadn’t tried it before - after all, this is the same company that gave us the extremely successful columns in the website for Magic:The Gathering, including the absolutely awesome designer insights from Mark Rosewater. Column series will include “Legends & Lore”, a game theory piece from Mike Mearls (which I really look forward to reading), “The Dungeon Master Experience” by expert DM Chris Perkins, “Design & Development”, which gets upgraded to a weekly feature” and “Rule-of-Three”, which will be a Q&A series. There is also a fifth title to be determined. Honestly, this looks like great news.
So that’s it for now. I expect some kind of follow-up in the near future, if only because many of these changes don’t make much sense unless there is something else going on. Time will tell...