D&D Gaming on Microsoft’s Surface

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.

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, Pokémon Battle Revolution, a game which features 3D graphics for all 493 Pokémon 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.

Comments (12)

Matthew Arcilla (February 16th, 2010)

It’s a common fallacy that highly sophisticated technology will improve or accelerate the tasks they were meant for. People thought railroads would annihilate the meaning of distance, telephones would speed up the democratic process and household appliances will cut down on housework time.

I’m probably not alone in having had experiences when technology actually slowed down things or became detrimental to the task they were designed to achieve. Right now, enough play time is being lost by rules lawyers spending too much time navigating their PDFs, sloppy players deciphering their digital character sheets, indecisives spending too much time on the charbuilder between XP levels and DMs wondering why their laptop is chugging because they’re trying to run five different apps to run the game… while Facebooking. And torrenting.

The Recursion King (February 16th, 2010)

Quite true and a good counterpoint to what is going on here.

If you want to simulate this, now, take a reasonable large monitor and turn it over, feed into it some images using a laptop and photoshop, place a piece of glass over the monitor’s screen and see how it goes.

Myself, I like the tactile feel and true 3d miniatures in a battle that you can actually hold, the clink of real dice and the ease of scribbling things down and doodling on bits of paper. But if it gets more kids into the hobby…

Andy (February 16th, 2010)

I see a lot of opportunity here, especially in streamlining things, but I’m also agreeing with the tactile element. I think if there were a good way to implement it, that could be quite valuable.

Here’s one thought: if you had miniatures on the table, the table could probably “calibrate” all the miniatures, and then track them, probably by a “lift and tap” system at the start and end of your figures’ moves. They could probably also use 3D models to represent the figures in “instant replay playback”, which would be a cool feature. I’d love to see an editor which allowed you to customize playback of moments in a battle, so as to have a digital record of your character’s Crowning Moment of Awesome.

Technology also has so many options to make things flexible, if it’s done right. And if the DM has the material to plug in. This could be a very cool application.

QR codes read by a scanner could be really, really cool. I like that idea. OCR to read d20s would also be nice, but what I think would be an even better idea is to embed a sensor in the d20 to detect its orientation, and ergo what face is showing on top. So you roll it in a dice box, and that box reads the orientation of the sensor, and plugs it in as a die roll.

Jonathan Drain (February 16th, 2010)

I thought of orienting a sensor, but that has two problems: you need to buy special dice, and the sensor might unbalance the die. If you can OCR the base of the die you can tell what number is on the top.

Stitched (February 16th, 2010)

Interesting take on the animation for figs.

I imagine that people could get by with non-moving assets; like people do now with any miniatures battle table. The alternative is to open the modelling / animation to the community - tap into that “power of the crowd” phenomenon. They may surprise you.

Brandan Landgraff (February 17th, 2010)

I’m pretty sure the pricetag attached to the hardware (I just checked, it’s like $12k for the non-development unit) will prevent this from being anything more than a novelty at any level. Efficiency in die rolling animations or attack visuals is hardly going to be a concern—this is just not a viable model for consumer release for most D&D groups at this time.

Honestly I’m not even sure I could see retailers buying into this given the cost of the hardware needed to run it. It might make its way to conventions, but realistically they’re building a tool for a platform that seems to be intended for something else entirely.

It looks neat enough, I suppose, but if I want an extravagant gaming table I can still put one together for less than that with a bit of imagination and some hard work…

Blake (February 23rd, 2010)

I am interested in knowing what on-line gameboards you like to use. I use d20Pro from mindgene. I like it a lot. It is still relatively new, and the staff is pretty quick for customer service.

Brandan Landgraff (February 26th, 2010)

JD and I both use Gametable for most of our online games. It’s light, quick, cross-platform, and completely free. It’s not especially pretty, but it does the job well enough.

I’ve also used Maptool from rptools.net, which has many more features than gametable, again, works cross-platform, and is also 100% free and open source. It has a higher learning curve, though, and mapping takes more prep-time than the simple line-maps most of us use in gametable. The learning curve and prep-time are what prompted me to switch back to gametable for my weekly gaming—my players aren’t especially bothered by simple line drawing maps, and it saves a lot of time and lets me improvise much more readily.

Brandan Landgraff (February 26th, 2010)

As an aside, cross-platform compatibility is a huge issue for my group, as three out of seven of my regular group use macs as their primary system. I believe in JD’s groups this has been an issue as well, though in his case it’s been more linux users than mac users. While neither I nor my players have issues with the Character Builder or Adventure Tools from Wizards being Windows only (in my case, I run my mac, a windows laptop, and a netbook dualbooting between ubuntu and windows, and for the other mac users in my group doing things by hand isn’t a problem) when it comes to virtual tabletop software it’s pretty much essential that everyone be able to run the same thing. Even if Wizards were to roll out their own virtual tabletop eventually, that alone would keep my group as a whole from adopting it.

Lothar Loc’Nar (August 19th, 2010)

We use RPtools(MapTools) currently and can connect to anyone anywhere in the world.It would be nice if your group could make this tabletop system interactive to anyone anywhere via telecommunications (internet). People would load their information from where they were and the DM could load the world they’d be playing in. They could move where they wanted and the screen would show exactly what was there as they see it. To get even more precise the DM could enter a certain spot check to be made for that particular PC to see what he/she could see (possibly only on their monitor) The sounds were nice and would be incorporated with a possible DM precreated sound track/translator system for people in other countries to understand the DM and vice versa. The screen would show initiatives in order as well as any encounters where the PCs went on the board already set up by the DM.

Lothar Loc’Nar (December 9th, 2010)

I’m awaiting the holo screens, the neural implants to facilitate the blend of computer with ones own brain, the die rolls would be a thing of the past when one can innately know when one missed an attack or succeeded in a critical hit. To have two complete processors, one to store data and the other to run the game. Someone said they like the feel of the dice and the real miniatures, well eventually the program could be designed with the actual neural(signals sent to the hands and fingers) “feel” of those same things if a player wanted or needed them to enjoy a computer assisted game. We are still far off from an immersion of mind and body into an accompanied A.I. but I certainly can visualize this in 50 -80 yrs. Another reason I want to be cloned…..lol

Lumen (April 2nd, 2012)

As a DM, I like the virtual layout, being able to literally paint the scenery would be really nice. Showing pictures ect is a nice touch too with the sound effects.
However, the tactical grid is too much, if it could be made into black cross’s to show corners that would be cool, as well as the ability to lay down objects, revile LoS ect would be really nice.
Lot’s of potential. This seems to be made however from a combat player’s viewpoint and not an experienced DM.

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