On November 18, Wizards of the Coast announced that its long-awaited Virtual Tabletop software for Dungeons & Dragons was finally entering invite-only beta testing. The company first promised this software as part of a subscription-based online toolset due to debut alongside the 4th edition of the game, back in the summer of 2008, and it had long been presumed cancelled, so this is a bit of a pleasant surprise. Just as interesting, parts of the original version of the Windows-only toolset—Dungeons & Dragons Insider—that did make it to the public were recently retired in favor of web-based tools.
The main idea behind the virtual tabletop is to make it possible for people to play the tabletop RPG over the internet. As the FAQ states, “The main tools include an editable map, movable tokens, a dice roller, character and monster information storage, condition tracking and both text and voice chat.” You and your friends all sign on at once and play the game in front of your computers, chatting with each other while interacting on a virtual map and playing through an adventure designed by your Dungeon Master.
This kind of tool is aimed at people who just don’t have the time to set up a regular campaign that requires long drives to reach friends who have schedules that are as insanely busy as their own. (In short, just about everyone who plays hobby games.) Instead of dealing with all those hassles, you can just log on, start quoting Monty Python, and get your virtual dice rattling. Plus, when you’re done, clean-up is a snap.
This is, of course, not a new idea. Several other companies have developed similar online play spaces before, although none of them have had the marketing muscle of having being the official venue for the world’s most popular RPG behind them. By way of example, check out Fantasy Grounds, RPG Virtual Tabletop, Open RPG, Battlegrounds, and RPG Tonight.
Every one of these differ in their levels of polish (pixelated to HD) and price (flat-fee to subscription to free). Most of them allow you to play any RPG you like. The new D&D VT will, of course, restrict you to D&D—and perhaps, later, some of the company’s other RPGs—but if that’s all you like to play, then that’s not too much of a concern, is it?
The latest and snazziest entrant into the field before this was Infrno, which debuted at this year’s Gen Con. It’s marketed as Facebook for gamers, encouraging you to blog about your game and your characters and helping you gather players for your gaming sessions. It also integrates video chat into the engine, so in that respect at least, it’s a step above D&D VT, and it’s in open beta at the moment, so you can still check it out for free.
Is virtual gaming the future of tabletop gaming? Sure. For a good chunk of people, this is the inevitable vanishing point on the gamers’ horizon, something we head toward but never actually reach—because every time we reach the first point we saw, there’s a new frontier waiting for us, too. I prefer sitting across a table from the people I play games with, but I’m solidly in favor of anything that makes games simpler to play and help players cut down on the bookkeeping and get straight to the fun. Services like this fit the bill.
Matt Forbeck is the author of thirteen tie-in novels, most of them having to do with Dungeons & Dragons or Blood Bowl. Just this month, Angry Robot published his first original novel—Amortals—and his second—Vegas Knights—is due out this spring.