D&D’s new virtual tabletop is surprisingly good for playing in person

Last summer, Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast unveiled something truly ambitious – a virtual table top (VTT) designed specifically for online D&D play. This will not be a simple top down experience with flat maps and tokens. Instead, Wizards is building VTT in Unreal Engine 5, its latest and greatest multi-platform suite designed for video games, television, and motion picture development. I went to Seattle to get a working demo of a very early pre-alpha version of this software, and while the project is still in its infancy, what I found was promising.



Even in its current form, D&D VTT works surprisingly well for a session played in person. I was sitting behind a large gaming laptop, still able to interact easily with the other players and the Dungeon Master at the table. With the mouse, I can access the scene and move my miniatures around freely – just as I can in a physical game. With all of the rich textures, advanced lighting, and simulated physics, VTT absolutely shines compared to even the best and most advanced tabletop terrain available on the market today. The interface that surrounds it is relatively light and fast. It looks attractive, and it has just the right amount of automation for both Dungeon Masters and players.

While in motion, the digital side of it almost dissolves. Even though I was using a computer, it still felt like traditional D&D. But it’s still pretty hard work, with just one map and a bunch of digital renderings of miniatures licensed by WizKids. In fact, not all of them have been colored yet.

Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done, including the online component. That’s why developers are careful not to get too ahead of themselves.

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“We shouldn’t ever be talking about this publicly when the basic advantages we have are to roll some dice, have initiative, have some chops.” [move] said Chris Kao, vice president of D&D Digital. Because she doesn’t say, Here is the big picture. And we actually trade in that on purpose—and this isn’t through the nobles, this is actually through the best—is that we don’t know the perfect method that people want to use.”

To hear Cao and his development partner, lead game designer Kale Stutzman, say, the entire design process thus far has been a bit of an exploration. During a 45-minute presentation, the pair sounded more like professors than software programmers. The problem they set out to solve: How are they going to translate a 50-year-old physical experience into a format that taps into digital natives, without losing the brand’s ephemeral essence?

“There are tens of millions of people who play “RPGs and who knows about D&D,” Tsao said. The actual number of people playing D&D at any given time is nowhere near the number of those playing RPG video games. [We believe that’s because] There is a missing piece of translation there. How do we give them something digital that will let them go, Oh. Yes. It’s got familiar video game stuff? “

VTTs like Reasons for fantasy They’ve been around for a long time, but it’s only in the past decade that they’ve officially teamed up with Wizards of the Coast for officially licensed content. That partnership has been an incredible boon for players at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as long-running groups have looked for a digital lifeboat to keep their home campaigns running while also social distancing. At the same time, people completely unfamiliar with the hobby have flocked to D&D, no doubt spurred on by shows like Critical Role and Weird things – And the boredom of being cooped up at home. As a result, industry leader Roll20 said it had doubled its user base, reaching 10 million registered users by the start of 2022.

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But Cao and Stutzman are surprisingly upfront about the fact that they won’t just be competing against other popular VTTs.

“If I’m building a map tool, what’s my competition? Google Images,” Stutzman said. “If I can type ‘pub’ into Google Images and get a better map than my map tool can provide in the same amount of time, then my map tool has failed.”

So the team at Wizards isn’t working on build tools first. This hard work will come later. Instead, laser development focused on improving the experience of playing together at the table. Without that, the lightning-fast builder wouldn’t make any difference. This meant the team was making small adjustments to a working prototype, and going through lots and lots of play-testing.

“The way to think about it is that you need to prioritize the things you’re going to do together versus the things you’re going to do on your own,” Kao said. Because the things you do together are the script. And that doesn’t mean that building [3D maps] not important. There is a lot of good stuff and a lot of good software focused on building. That’s great. But the reason you play D&D together, and spend time together, is because you create moments together.”

So how will VTT ultimately be monetized? Turns out that’s still on the drawing board, too.

“We know for sure that we want there to be a free portion of this, because people should be able to try it,” Kao said. “It’s free [part] It cannot be a free game [though]. It can’t be like Hey go play a few hours and earn some pointsBecause that’s not how D&D works. “

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Kao admits that things are still a bit turbulent at the moment as he, Stutzman, and the rest of their Wizards team sort out the details.

Kao continued, “I know these sound like soft answers, but if we can watch how people play, then I can align work with what they value rather than create a value structure in which you have to play. Because if we do that, in D&D – So that’s actually toxic to what D&D is. Because D&D is about that shared play and that permission to pretend. That doesn’t mean it’s free. That doesn’t mean we don’t monetize it. But if we don’t see how people use it, then we go along with that — if we try Predict it, or engineer it — we oppose our own brand. We oppose the thing that people create and make their own business out of, we oppose their own dreams. I think there have been mistakes in the recent past where we’re like, ‘We’re not going to do that.’ thatAnd we are very sensitive to that.”

Expect more about VTT to emerge soon as the Wizards plan to get involved A preliminary version of the platform with the public.

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