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The Perfect Table: A Return to D&D SurfaceScapes

The Perfect Table: A Return to D&D SurfaceScapes

Wouldn’t it be great if your dice never fell off the table? What if every attack roll came with a sound effect, and your character’s damage, marks, and every other condition were all tracked for you? It would be the perfect gaming table, no?

Well, stop wishing because it exists and I saw it in person this morning. The SurfaceScapes team at Carnegie-Mellon University first showed off their prototype last year (last year’s video walkthrough), and it was awesome. Now they’re rolling out version 2.0, with a better interface and added functionality. They will demo the real 2.0 at PAX East and GDC — but they revealed a few secrets to the shifty Kobold Masters.

Well, and to other game and tech bloggers, apparently, but hey, there was no way in hell I was going to turn down the invitation.

The D&D application on Microsoft Surface is pretty much everything you’d want in a game table. It is a smooth, enjoyable environment that does all the numbers, movement, and turn order. It shows you your options for single and double moves (including around terrain!) when you lift your figure. It provides power descriptions and choices as needed. Check out CNET’s short demo video of the current functionality above and you’ll see what I mean.

Now, the fact that gaming is driving some tech innovation shouldn’t be surprising. The Surface technology was originally called PlayTable, and SurfaceScapes pretty much represents a return to those roots. On to a few points worth noting from my short, 45-minute test run:

1) Movement and line of sight work great. In fact, a clever DM can distract the players, then move an orc from one patch of cover to another, where he again becomes invisible — right until the moment a PC gets line of sight on it.
2) It’s still a demo. They’ve got a TON of work to do to integrate more powers, but the newest build for PAX East covers up to 5th level PCs, plus area attacks. Lots of basics still aren’t implemented, like say a charge or anything outside the 1st PHB half-Heroic tier.
3) The sound effects. Subtle, but powerful. Each attack comes with a sound. Dropping a dragon figure on the surface generates a roar and cloud of smoke. I could get used to this. What does a beholder sound like, I wonder?
4) The Infinite Map. Being able to scroll the map under the figures is nice; it makes the table infinitely large. Not news for Fantasy Grounds players, but obviously useful. When the map scrolls, colored lines connect your figures to their new positions to make them easy to shift.
5) Figures and Screens Together. The combination of real and virtual PCs and NPCs worked much better than I expected. There’s been some hard work done on the interface design which takes me to …..
6) At Your Fingertips Overall, the interface is intuitive and easy to learn. You can pull up your PC’s powers on the table. Frankly there’s no reason this couldn’t be integrated with the DDI if that’s the direction the team wanted to go.
7) 4E-Only. I asked about Pathfinder or generic game support. It ain’t happening; this is specifically meant to handle 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. A generic system would probably be less valuable to gamers than one that handles specific rules.

The Smartphone App
They showed us little more than a basic character sheet, but it’s possible to pull up your character sheet on a smartphone (for instance, to consult when it’s not your turn, or the table is crowded with minions) that is linked to the character’s damage and conditions at the table. I would love to tell you more about this, but …. I was just able to grab a quick picture.

DM’s Screen
The other new element is the related DM tools. They didn’t talk this up because it’s not done through the Surface, but through a linked PC. Here’s a picture of the DM’s experience on a PC; he can move elements, show area maps, and so forth. You make already use your laptop screen as a DM screen — this just completes the loop and lets you modify the battle map without ever leaving your laptop. As a GM, having a “live” map like this where I can see current PC stats at all times would be amazing.

And hey, it’s not just PC character sheets that are integrated; you’ve got all your monsters and NPCs right where you need them, on a laptop linked directly to the animated monsters on the Surface. Better still, tracking monster HP or answering player questions about defenses just isn’t necessary; the calculations are all embedded. This frees up a not-inconsiderable amount of DM time during combat. Heck, it can even enforce the use of encounter and daily powers.

What’s Next for D&D SurfaceScapes
Beyond demoing like mad at GDC and PAX East, about 2/3 of the Carnegie Mellon team is graduating and looking for work. Two team members will continue the work at CMU, but it’s unclear whether Wizards of the Coast or anyone else is ready to fund a full rollout of the tech. That’s a shame, because they’ve come a long way with this concept, and it remind me a bit of the Wii controller and Project Natal: a new interface technology, which enables us to play old games in new ways — and of course, to invent entirely new games.

The reaction of gamers to this tech last year was pretty universal: everyone wants one for their home, and I can see why. But I’m pretty sure that’s not gonna fly. The price is still too high, for one thing (though there was loose talk of “examining other form factors”), and — more importantly — this is a technology you really only bring out for a group of people. It makes more sense in a bar, pool hall, casino, or convention hall than in your dining room. It’s multi-user computing, meant for groups around a table who all want to use the screen at the same time — ideal for board games and certainly RPGs.

I’d be satisfied if they delivered one to my friendly local game shop. Tomorrow.

31 thoughts on “The Perfect Table: A Return to D&D SurfaceScapes”

  1. We’ve been discussing putting in a ceiling mounted projector at the Local gaming store, this would obviously be much better. I’m done resisting change. Anything that free’s everyone up for fun is OK in my book. I already us the “Dungeon Master’s Battle Screen” on my laptop. You get to have all the fun.

  2. @Anne, I so wish there were a beta. No sign of that, though there is a Surface SDK.

    @Yoo-Hoo, I think a projector might be a fine step in the right direction. And yeah, if the thing had been smaller, I swear it was coming home with me.

  3. Mika, I think that for this little bit of EPIC WIN tech we could. Besides, everything has a starting point, if it became popular enough support and development of a great many other games could be had. Though I’d hate to see it become owned solely by WotC since they’ve shown themselves to be all too willing to let their properties wither and die on the vine.

    As I understand it Hasbro bought WotC mainly for the rights to develop and sell D&D electronic games. Since I’m certain that RPGA members would brown their trousers to get this to their events. Maybe after showing this to them (by linking this article and bringing them to the KQ holy land) and giving them contact info to Hasbro, DDI, and anyone else vets like Wolfgang think might help, we could get enough of a grassroots going to keep it all alive. Hell, it might do well in America but over in Europe? With the 40K players? If this becomes a company, buy LOTS of shares in it.

    Imagine several of these things at a convention. All linked together, running a massive dungeon or fighting each other on a giant battlefield. Each group’s decisions effecting the plot and environment of the other groups! It gives me chills.

  4. The fact that WOTC has not yet brought about their own virtual online gamming table despite the existence of several third party entries into the field and their promise of one two years ago doesn’t give me hope they will embrace the concept on a much rarer and expensive piece of hardware.

    It still boggles my mind and chaps my hide that WOTC has not made the effort to incorporate the virtual table into their DDI. Maybe they think that it would hurt miniature sales or dungeon tile sales? I guess the touch table would keep at least the miniature market open. Still I might be best served locking myself in the frozen food fridge at the kwik-e-mart until these are cheap and effective

  5. I wish they released their application as source code or as a project inside the Surface Community, it’s not really that hard to build a clunky multitouch screen, and there are more and more tablets and devices coming out there with multitouch support.

    So even if they buying a Surface is horribly hard, making this run in another multitouch enabled surface should be “easy” and a great for playing 4e instead of letting the project die.

  6. All of you who are talking about using a projector should be looking at MapTool. Visit http://rptools.net/ and read through some of the pages, or click the Tutorials link and see it in action, or visit the forums and read about all the users who are using the tools day-to-day.

    MapTool has two big strengths: it’s software designed to play games, not a game system implemented in software; and because it’s meant to be generic enough to handle as many games as possible, you can use it to play Risk, Rail Baron, or many other board games — over the Internet! Yes, that’s right: this free software includes the ability to run your own server and have as many clients connect as your upstream feed can handle!

    ((Disclaimer: I’m a satisfied user of the tools and I’m also the site administrator for the forums.))

  7. It has the gee whiz component but when it comes down to it, I think I would really rather roll actual dice. Get to know the quirks in the dice (real or imagined) and swap out the dice when needed to change my luck.

  8. I’ve been tinkering with an idea like this for about 4 years now myself. I obviously don’t have the resources to do this. Great to see someone else also thought of it and was able to make it a reality.

    From my research I found that a table like this would cost quite a sum of money, not including the software and computer to go with it.

    But, if I had the expendable income, I’d be first in line to buy one. I love the idea.

  9. Amen to http://rptools.net. The Lords of Tyr uses it all the time. There is nothing to get too excited about here.

    You can easily run this on a projector or big screen TV and get about the same usefulness as. I’d say its more useful because RPTools isn’t tied to a Microsoft technology. Yuck! :)

    RPTools runs great on my Linux server connected to my 50″TV. We even use part of the MapTools client screen for our uStream feed of our games so its easy for people to tune in and see what is going on. (Yes people actually watch D&D games over the internet!)

    So go get RPTools and enjoy!

  10. @Knight, it was a thing of beauty, and the students who built it are clearly devoted geeks who care about tech AND gaming. The way it sped up combat was amazing. But yeah, too pricey for the home DM.

    @Chadarius, @Azrhei, I agree that RPTools is great, but it doesn’t do 4E native support the way this does. A map+projector is good and useful, but having the stats/dice/turn order accessible to seven people AT THE SAME TIME is the thing that made the SurfaceScapes app really interesting and exciting. It’s a lot smoother and faster than just a laptop can be, because a lot of people play with it at once.

    At the risk of being flamed, it felt like playing tabletop on a LAN, but with all the voice and body language right there.

  11. lol…


    come on…

    RPG is a game of your OWN FANTASY, NOT the PC GAME. EVERYTHING you SEE there must come from YOUR IMAGINATION, not someone else creation…

    it is fine, as a mmorpg game, but as rpg, this is shit…

    Ps.: as for me if GM is good, the sound of the rolling dice is one of the most great’s and thrillings moments of the game.

  12. I’d rather either play a video game OR play tabletop RPGs. This is a gratuitous combination of both that doesn’t need to be. I’m glad some people think it’s cool. I can do without it personally.

  13. Strong resistance much?

    Wow. Just wow.

    Keep us posted on how this one pans out Wolfgang, please. If this has a chance of surviving it would be with you and the industry people you might have connections to. Good luck to the SurfaceScrapes developers.

  14. Now this, this is COOL. This is… right tool! Seriously, I appreciate this sort of stuff. The players can focus on the game instead of the game accessories (aside from drooling over the table itself ^_-) and the GM doesn’t have to have a bazillion minis for combat nor thick stacks of terrain that may individually only get used infrequently.

    I like very very much.

  15. Besides the sticker price (ouch), I can’t agree with the detractors. Sure, pen and paper gaming is about imagination, but if this offends that concept, you must also not be using minis at all. As a DM, having the ability to “redraw” the terrain/etc. at whim as needed is important versus “wait, take your minis off while I erase and redraw the next section”.
    The touch screen is just cool.
    That said, we like our dice.
    And 4E? Seriously? People are playing it? :)

  16. When I play D&D, it’s so I can run exciting combats with a light, anachronistic plot to tie them together. If I want deep immersive roleplaying, I’ll go play Burning Wheel, Primetime Adventures, or Dogs in the Vineyard.

    That being said, this looks really exciting. If it can speed up some of the more tedious parts of the combat system and make the fun part of D&D even moreso, then I’m all for it.

    And really, what makes me most excited about this is the wider possibilities. Imagine if a local tech lounge or game shop had one of these installed. You come in, pay for some time, check out player character figures, and sit down with your group of friends. If no one wants to DM, imagine if there were computerized modules which would run monsters in combats automatically. This opens playing D&D and, possibly, further roleplaying, to a much wider audience of casual gamers and people only passingly interested. If it can be a pickup game, then more people are likely to do it at least once in a while.

  17. Looks like a pretty wicked setup and would alleviate the time taken by the DM to make adjustments to the battle mat leaving more time – theoretically – to game. There are two issues for me personally one of those being the potential cost of the hardware and software the other support for 4e alone. I have yet to play 4e, I stick with 3.5e in one campaign and will be involved with Pathfinder in the other… It is a very interesting concept one that I would love to see become more than what it is.

  18. Intriguing and cool. Now I personally find computers at the gaming table tasteless so I can’t imagine myself playing or DMing with this setup, but it’s clearly the future of tabletop gaming. I don’t think such devices will make much headway with 4e, but I expect 5th edition will almost require them.

  19. As mentioned above, most of this has already been available for years with Maptool. And you’re not bound to 4E (thank god). Maptool already has a large and friendly community supporting more than one game system. There’s little new here.

  20. I have a buddy who programs for Surface… and well, I just can’t see investing $15,000 in the hardware that runs on Windows Vista Business :P

  21. For those singing its praises, MapTool is great but it’s not for the casual crowd. It was written -by- programmers -for- programmers – the barrier to entry is HUGE! It’s completely unintuitive and takes a MASSIVE amount of time and effort to learn – not to mention gathering images to make it useful. Not that I am complaining, mind you – it’s free! But it’s also nowhere near being a silver bullet for online play.

    All that aside this table is a really good implementation of a somewhat obvious idea.

  22. @Wolfgang Maptools tracks stats/dice/turns very nicely. Everyone in my group logs in to the Map Tools server with their laptops. We have all 10 of us all connected in. In additon I display it large on the TV or projector so people can casually see the turn information. Maptools supports any game, including 4e very easily. We play 4e and 3.5 on it without any trouble.

    There is no question that the D&D SurfaceScape looks amazing. But because it is not open source and readily available to… well anyone but some MIT folks its not really practical to anyone for playing. Even if it was available, how many people actually have a Microsoft (yuck!) surface to use it on? Hmmm. I know a lot of gamers and not a single one has a Microsoft Surface.

    @um It has taken our DM’s about 2 sessions each to get really comfortable with the tool. You don’t have to use all the bells and whistles to start with. Just using it as a free form digital battle map works great without any prep work at all. You can just draw a map on the fly just like you would on table. Although I dare you to try and draw a perfect line or circle on a table :). I can agree that there are some interface improvements to be made. But its still highly useful and it works great. Not to mention that it is open source (this is a huge selling point to me). Open source means it is free. It means that it will always be free. It means that, God forbid, the entire RPTools team got ran over buy a bus and died, that the project could continue on no matter what . It means that any Java programmer that wants to spend time improving can improve it. It runs on Java so it runs on every PC OS platform really well. RPTools is worth using and it is definitely worth improving.

    As for images to make it useful. Well you have the same issue for all of these types of tools. Luckily for us, we have found 10’s of thousands of images to use. Not to mention the handy use of a scanner. That argument is like saying that you have to go buy minis and a battlemap or dungeon tiles to use minis for your RPG. Yep. There is work involved, but its no different than using any visual aid you would use either real or digital.

    I am able to fully create/find all of the digital resources I need for an entire adventure in about 3 hours of prep time. This also includes all the npc information/stats, maps, and graphics for the npc pieces.

    Let’s wait and see where the D&D Surface and RPTools are in a few years. My prediction is that RPTools will have more users and more functionality, but will still not be as pretty. In the end, an open source project, running on an open cross platform technology, that doesn’t depend on a really expensive piece of hardware, with unlimited potential, and a much larger use base is going to do better in the long run (IMHO).

  23. IMO, any map-surface like this should be designed to put the power in the hands of the players. Nothing should be slower than a player doing the same task. If the computer makes the players wait (e.g. rolling initiative sequentially, and slowly, with a virtual die) then that’s not useful. It’s eye-candy, but nothing more. Same with the animated virtual miniatures. It’s pretty, but if it slows things down, then get rid of it.

    If you want to “roll initiative”, then there has to be a way for the players to roll off-table and supply a number, or for the DM to input the numbers himself, or for the DM to choose to auto-roll and indicate the result to the group.

    On the topic of Maptool – I’ve used a few different products over the years. For 4e, I’ve used Masterplan, DnD4eCM, iPlay4e and several others. Most recently, our group used MapTool. I can say without a doubt, that my ideal DM-ing software is some mythical combination of these things. They each bring something to the experience that the others do not. When one of our group couldn’t make the drive up MapTool’s remote capabilities saved the session. With Skype, and a web-cam and the rest of us on our laptops round the table, it felt just like he was right there with us.

    BTW – none of them come with animated dice rolling.

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