CNET reported on Wednesday about the D&D application for the Microsoft Surface from Carnegie-Mellon’s SurfaceScapes team. According to CNET, the team is working with Wizards of the Coast to potentially roll this out commercially, perhaps to gaming stores. Here’s a video of the table in action:
It’s a cool concept, but having run D&D games online for more than two years now I’m seeing a few flaws in this preview release.
First, despite the CNET writer’s opinion that this will speed up the game, this app is actually quite slow. Players appear to wait in turn to roll initiative using a shared d20, something no traditional D&D group settles for. The table simulates real dice like the iPhone app Mach Dice, when there’s no real need to. Anyone who’s run a tabletop game online in real-time will tell you a computer can calculate rolls much more efficiently than a human rolling a lot of real dice. Once you’ve lost the tactile sense of real dice, there’s no benefit to simulating rolls except to look good in a preview.
The virtual table dice also roll slowly for graphical effect, like an oversized d20. You can also see the dire wolf in the video move quite slowly, much more slowly than a real Dungeons & Dragons player would move his miniatures. Units in Rome: Total War move slowly across the world map like this, and the first thing I do is hit the key to speed them up. One would hope the DM’s interface is good.
Another difficulty in producing this product commercially is creating 3D models for the miniatures of the game’s massive number of monsters. When I counted the D&D Insider Compendium in January, there were 3,143 monsters not including templates. Each monster in this demo has animations for moving, attacking and standing idle, and we should also consider powers, terrain, and alternately coloured versions of the same monster to differentiate special units (orc captains, for example).
Even very high-profile videogames have a hard time including a tenth as many 3D assets as this: for example, PokÃ©mon Battle Revolution, a game which features 3D graphics for all 493 PokÃ©mon and 499 different attacks, pales in comparison to D&D 4E’s 3,143 monsters, 4,813 powers, 7,203 items and 342 traps.
I shouldn’t sound too negative, though, as I really like this concept. A D&D-specific gametable could handle lighting and line of sight much more accurately than most normal DMs care to. It can track powers and status effects more quickly and reliably than a human Dungeon Master. The Character Builder software could include QR code blocks that let the table read your character. And, as I said in December, you don’t need exact models for every miniature: a few hundred is plenty to adequately represent most of the creatures you’ll come across.
What would be especially cool is if you could roll real dice and have the table read the dice by OCR. It might announce results by voice – “Twenty-five. Critical hit, max damage.” The table could even be used to check dice for bias by rolling repeatedly. You would of course need a wider table area for people to keep their character sheets and dice, with a raised edge around the screen so nobody’s dice nudges onto the screen accidentally. Certainly a snazzy way to get new players into the game, and as a Dungeons & Dragons blogger who’s always interested in new readers, I naturally approve.