Fri
Nov 19 2010 5:54pm

Playing Tabletop Dungeons & Dragons Online

Virtual Dungeons & Dragons

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.

11 comments
Evan Langlinais
1. Skwid
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.

That's a bit of a throwaway comment on something that elicited levels of nerdrage the likes of which I have seldom seen! Pretty much every forum I visit that was remotely related to D&D was overwhelmed with people bitching about the horrible implementation of the new web tools.
j p
2. sps49
Aww, does it have to be 4.0?

I would love a DM app that sorta mimics the ToEE game mechanics (you know, open the die roll history box & see how Ftr1 with +1 holy greatsword rolls against a Raging bugbear) for die rolls, etc., but in a manual version. Like tabletop; keeping the folks at the table, but replacing the PnP and dice with a program that will take PC1 vs TrapX and give a result.

This sounds interesting- depending on cost (I dislike recurring charges for most everything).
Bob Gallo
3. StormbringerGrey
Looks cool. I thought Fantasy Grounds looked pretty slick for running CoC with my old gaming group, never got past the planning stage though. What we needed was a way to play asynchronously because we could never get our schedules matched up, something like play-by-forum but with a more graphic interface.
Matthew B
4. MatthewB
Too little, too late.

It doesn't even work with the other tools they have already released. Flat top-down perspective. Limited selection of tokens and tiles.

Pricing not yet determined, which probably means it won't be part of the regular D&DI subscription and i recall from their initial discussions that they were considering selling pieces (extra tiles and tokens) separately like video game xpansions.
J.R. Parsons
5. J.R. Parsons
Unless it can match MapTool's mapping and MasterPlan's initiative/damage/condition tracking, it will be DOA. That said, I'm eager to test drive it. Any price other than "free with DDI subscription" is a deal-breaker, though.
J.R. Parsons
6. Blueluck
It's possible that you're right and the project is DOA. On the other hand, I'm curious to see where this will go if it's successful enough to survive past version 1.0.

Over it's 36 year history, D&D has a history of revising an average of once every four years. Less, if you take out the outlier nine-year gap that occurred while TSR was failing financially and could barely afford to publish, let alone revise the game. Right now we're 2.5 years into 4th edition (3.5e came 3 years after 3e) and I expect we'll see some equivalent of 4.5e soon.

If the web tools and the next edition or revision are developed together, there's a possibility of something really excellent being developed.
Matthew B
7. MatthewB
@Blueluck
The web tools were supposed to be ready when 4e debuted. They were a major part of the announcement and the only thing that i and many other people thought justified a new edition at that time.

But Wizards has never been good at managing software projects and the tools were all delayed, scaled back, and/or canceled entirely, so now here we are. If they have built these tools well then they should be able to accomodate new versions relatively easily nd be ready to release them simultaneously, but that's very big "IF" considering their history.
J.R. Parsons
8. RPG Ike
I also prefer to sit at the table across from my players, but this will let our group get together to play despite living in different cities.

Also, what's to stop a person from ignoring the monster storage and just run whatever system you want? We play Pathfinder, and the shared map, dice roller, and voice chat might be worth the price of admission alone. I'm looking forward to trying it out.
J.R. Parsons
9. DDOer
I will say that I am a bit dissapointed in thier efforts to move some of this. They have split up the old MM into 3 or 4 different books. Recently took their decent character creator program and swapped it for the online version which is NOT very good. If you want online D&D you should just go to Dungeons and Dragons Online. You can get the skinny at http://www.ddmsrealm.com/ddo . This is where I go to get my online D&D on. Then on Friday nights we get together for some PnP and figure out how we are going to fix the PnP stuff that Wizards is letting fall flat.
J.R. Parsons
19. Kuldar
This is something me and my buddies would love to get into.
J.R. Parsons
20. Orrbain
A newer version of this that's come out recently is Roll20: http://www.roll20.net . It's free to use and they have over 100,000 players at this point.

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