July 18, 2024
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Shard Co-Founder’s Take on WOTC Purchase of DnD Beyond

I recently sat down with Hal Howard, Shard Tabletop co-founder and massive D&D enthusiast. We focused on the recent WOTC purchase of DnD Beyond.

Hal Howard’s Take: WOTC Purchase of DnD Beyond

The acquisition of DnD/D&D Beyond gives Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) a massive opportunity to grow the digital ecosystem that has been key to growth of the game for the past several years. If they adopt an open approach to third-party tool providers in the same way that the Open Gaming License provides an open approach to content, the ecosystem will flourish. If not, they could do harm to this growth engine.  

People want choice in tools. Some Dungeon Masters want tools that create an almost video-game level experience for the tabletop game. Others prefer simpler tools that make it easy to include your own content (homebrew) or fold in third-party OGL materials and create an experience that requires less setup. Some will be happy with tools that only support personal computers and others will require tools that embrace mobile devices as a native experience.

In today’s closed world, there are only three official licensees of digital versions of Wizards’ content (D&D Beyond, Roll20, and Fantasy Grounds). Wizard’s official community content program on DMs Guild only supports one of those platforms.  If you want content for each of those platforms, you have to buy it separately. If you want to use D&D Beyond’s character sheet in conjunction with Roll20’s virtual tabletop, then you buy the content twice.  They need to do it once for all the player character options, spells, and items needed by the players and a second time for all the maps, monsters, tokens, and encounters on the virtual tabletop.

WOTC Purchase of DnD Beyond

Howard believes, as do many others, WOTC should take steps now to signal its support of a “third-party ecosystem” by announcing support for “universal digital content.” This would allow players to make one digital purchase of any product from D&D Beyond to be used across any online toolsets that elect to support the license.

Head Shot

Hal Howard, Co-founder of Shard Tabletop – an integrated online toolset (VTT) for playing Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

“Wizards’ purchase of D&D Beyond creates an opportunity for them to give players more choice, not less.”

Universal Digital Content – WOTC purchase of DnD Beyond

As Howard looks to the future, he hopes to see Wizards of the Coast implement a system that would allow one to go to D&D Beyond and purchase one electronic copy of a module or book and receive some type of code. Then you could go to the VTT (virtual tabletop) that works best for you, enter that code, and be on your way. This would mean only one purchase of electronic content to use the content you want, where you want it.

Howard’s History

Howard speaks passionately about the future of the game of Dungeons & Dragons because he has lived its past. He started playing in 1979, in junior high. He continued to play, as time would allow, throughout his adult years. After 20 years at Microsoft leading development teams and founding and selling a successful software startup, he retired and had the time to put some serious thought into how to make the game he loved much easier to play. He and Darren Shakib, a high school friend and fellow Microsoft alum, started work on what would become Shard Tabletop.

Shard Tabletop

Shard Tabletop is a virtual tabletop (VTT), character sheet, and campaign manager dedicated solely to 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Shard celebrated its official one-year anniversary in early 2022. It has grown quickly in popularity due to its intuitive interface and pleasing design.

However, as is the case with most VTTs, a user can’t purchase official WOTC D&D content on Shard. Along with Owlbear Radio, Astral, Foundry, and others, Shard is at the disadvantage of not being able to provide the official source books, expansions and modules. While it is perfectly possible to run WOTC content on any of those platforms, it takes a lot more work on the part of the DM.

Third-party VTTs like Shard are loved by homebrewers. They are much less expensive, if not free, and are designed to be customized to fit one’s own, unique style. The wealth of content on Shard’s marketplace attests to the current health of the “third party ecosystem” in today’s world of online D&D. Howard, and many others, want to keep it that way.

Player Desktop
Shard Tabletop has grown quickly in popularity due to its intuitive interface and pleasing design.
Image Courtesy Shard

Third-Party Ecosystem

When it comes to analyzing what the WOTC purchase of DnD Beyond means for the game, we need to keep a few important things in mind. Today, there are only two VTTs with a license to directly sell official Wizards of the Coast D&D products – Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. Of course, there is also D&D Beyond. But DDB is now Wizards, so there is no need for a license. True, D&D Beyond still does not offer a VTT. Regardless, the wizards are now firmly in control of online D&D.

Howard is hoping WOTC will make decisions going forward that will work with, not against, the wants and needs of homebrewers and third-party content creators. He said the adaptability of the game of D&D is what makes it the great game it is.

Diversity is at the heart of D&D. The beauty of the game is that you can make it your own. No one tool is going to satisfy everyone.

– Hal Howard, long-time dungeon delver

Wizards’ Options

With the WOTC purchase of DnD Beyond, its decisions going forward will have a huge impact on the future of the game. Howard hopes they will make “universal digital content” the new way people buy all the digital versions of their products. Such a system would ensure a healthy third-party ecosystem in D&D’s future.

As Howard sees it, Wizards has two options:

  1. They can opt for a closed approach where one needs to pay for their official published materials on each platform and not license to any other content sites or VTTs.
  2. Or they can adopt an open system of universal digital content.

“If they opt for the first approach, the closed approach, then the D&D world gets smaller, with less choice. Ultimately, that would not be good for the game. Diversity, and the ability to modify it to your taste is fundamental to the game itself. Preserving that diversity is incumbent on Wizards as shepherds of the game.”

– Howard on the importance of WOTC choosing an open approach to digital content
Wotc Purchase Of Dnd Beyond
Shard is virtual tabletop (VTT), character sheet, and campaign manager dedicated solely to 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Image Courtesy Shard

Looking Ahead – WOTC purchase of DnD Beyond

Shard will clearly be affected one way or the other by whatever decisions WOTC makes. But Howard said he sees his situation as “neutral.”

He explained that Shard is already in the situation where [WOTC] won’t license its official content. But with the recently added capability of being able to import a character sheet from D&D Beyond, he says the purchase won’t have an adverse impact on the company. Wizards controlled what D&D Beyond was doing anyway.

But Wizards is now in a position to have a huge, positive impact on the game if they open it up. People want universal digital content, now is the time to offer it.

Tell them

Howards says the best way for D&D fans to influence WOTC’s future decision is very simple:

“Write them a letter, post your thoughts and opinions on social media. They want to know what their customers want. Tell them.”

– Howard on how to let WOTC know what you want

What do you think about the WOTC purchase of DnD Beyond? Wizards does distribute surveys to its customers on a regular basis. Wizards of the Coast’s customer service website for D&D can be found here. They are on Twitter @Wizards_DnD and the customer service phone number is 1 (800) 324-6496.

Carla Bumstead, the author of the above article on the WOTC purchase of DnD Beyond, serves as Managing Editor of the Dungeon Cooperative.

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Carla Bumstead

Carla Bumstead serves as Managing Editor/Publisher of Dungeon Cooperative. She has been an editor and community journalist for over 20 years.

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