I've been a Dungeons & Dragons player for many years. I love the game for about a dozen different reasons, but one of the biggest hassles in my lifetime of playing has been looking up information. A Player's Handbook is basically one of the game's most required elements for reading and planning. I got away with not owning one for years, especially with rule changes between Second and Fourth edition. When I finally snagged a copy for Fifth, I found myself doing what I normally end up doing during character creation and gameplay: wading through pages upon pages of information to find what I needed. And that's kinda been the standard for ages as people make characters and try new things that they don't have a clue how it works.
Even though there's a complete PDF to the rules online, organizing everything into a system that makes it easy to find is still a challenge in the printed form, especially when it came to characters. It's why you can go on your smartphone and find a dozen different apps that allow you to create character sheets by imputing the info and making changes as needed. After all this time, Wizards Of The Coast have finally broken through on the digital front and have created D&D Beyond. The idea of which is to give you complete access to the tools you need for the game without having to thumb through all the pages of the books. Right now the Beta is online and totally free to try out, so we threw on our garb and hunkered down in our friend's basement to see what it has going for it.
Immediately from the start we need to address the obvious: No, you are not getting a free version of the book. The closest you'll ever get is the PDF which we linked above. The books are full of art and long descriptions of stuff, as well as additional materials that make buying it worthwhile. D&D Beyond is strictly informational. At least they are at this point, who knows how the design will go down the road. The system is divided into five pieces: Compendium, Spells, Items, Monsters and the Forums. The Compendium is your basic rules from the Player's Guide and Dungeons Master's Guide, minus character creation and finer details toward character classes and races. Each area you click on will give you an array of information, boiled down to the basics without any kind of flair. A good example would be if I wanted to look up Languages, you're given an introductory paragraph, followed by the lists of standard and exotic languages. Informative, but simplified.
The Compendium also comes with the two areas that plague players the most when figuring out what they can do and with what—Equipment and Combat. The Combat tables go into depth about how they're carried out and how the different types of dice rolls work to determine if what you can do is plausible (depending on how much of a savior or dick your DM is) and how to effectively carry it out. It even simplifies the ever constant argument I've seen with Mounted Combat. As for the Equipment, everything is broken down into the item, cost, and weight—with the exception of magical items, which have more complicated properties to them. This spreads out the information in a much clearer tone, but I would be lying if I didn't say I miss the visuals.
The next area is Spells, which I found to be absolute heaven! First off, every spell you could possibly cast is listed in alphabetical order. Then, and the top you can click the type of spell-casting role you're playing as, and the list will change to the spells available to said character throughout the game. Off to the right, you can click the "+" symbol to get detailed information about the spell's basic mechanics and how it will grow as that character levels up. So if I wish to cast Acid Splash, it will give me the basics of what I can do, and then how it can grow as I grow. This is a handy little tool as you're given casting times, duration, ranges, the attack/saving throw and the damage/effect it has. When this system turns into an app, finding that info as a player will be far more useful than relying on memory.
The Items listing is also simple in nature, but complex as far as a listing goes, and will be the one you most likely spend the most amount of time browsing. You'll have 36 pages of information to go through, which a single page could take you a half hour to read and understand everything correctly, so you have a vast library to comb through if you truly wish. You can search names alphabetically, which will include its properties, item type, attunement and additional notes. This is heavenly as I often end up with collected items that I have zero clue what they do and I don't want to waste time trying to find it in the middle of adventuring, so often I end up like a mythical hoarder carrying around junk I never use until I sell it or break it later. This makes it far easier to determine what it is I'm holding onto and why.
The final area we'll discuss (because forums pretty much explains itself) is Monsters. Now to be clear, this is NOT a complete Monster Manual, at least not yet. It is a damn good guide as to what everything can do and serves as a great way for DM's to research monsters and figure out just what they feel like adding to the game. To me, there's a better sense of control here, but there's no new information. A good example would be if I wanted to send in a moving skeleton, I have all the information in front of me of what I could do, but no real guide as to what I should do. The MM guide in its physical form would give you outlined descriptions of what these characters are and how they perform, as well as suggestive behavior and spots for placement. This offers none of that—it's simply the information on whatever creature you looked up. It'll be nice to see if there's an updated version coming with that info.
As far as a beta goes, I'm impressed with D&D Beyond so far. There's definitely things that need to be ironed out, and there is a part of me that misses the storybook kind of information that is added to the originals that give it character. But as far as information goes, this is everything you could ever want for the basics. I would like to see what happens when they introduce the app and how character sheets work out. I'd also like to see if they'll have a system in place linking the DM and player's info all together so the game can be more interactive. But that's all stuff we need to wait and see about down the road. For now, this is awesome, and even better that it's currently free, which makes it an awesome time to be a DM.