Monday, June 20, 2011

D&D Insider Virtual Table - Table Top Gaming in a New Medium or Old Hat Repackaged?

Update - it looks like this is now being given away for free and done through a 3rd party... interesting. RPGTable Online

D&D Insider has been in beta for awhile now with their much anticipated D&D Virtual Table. The gametable offers a chance to allow a group of people to play table top D&D with nothing more than their computer and an internet connection. The web application ties in a number of resources such as voice communication, macros for simulated dice rolling, pogs for character representation, status and initiative tracking, monster creation with a tie into to the compendium as well as a decent set of tiles to work with when creating a dungeon.

Now I'll admit that It has probably been at least 2 months since I last tried it out but given the rate of progression I'd seen in the application, not much if anything has noticeably changed since the beta first opened with perhaps the exception of being able to invite people not currently in the beta to play it. While I only managed to go through one simulated game with another person I did spend a good deal of time becoming familiar with the controls and UI. Overall it seems like it would be a nice addition to the D&D community and give people with a D&D insider subscription a chance to play virtually more often than they may otherwise be able to in person.

While the Virtual Table isn't finished yet I was rather disappointed with what beta players were given visually to work with. Namely the graphics were strictly limited to tiles and pogs on a virtual map rather than a fully explorable 3D dungeon experience that much of the initial hype was built around.

For an example this is what beta players were given

Where as this is what I was expecting:

Credit:
gadgets.boingboing.net

As you can see there is a stark contrast between what was promised in 2008 and what's yet to be delivered to the masses as of 2012. Still it is in beta which is kinda like saying there is still hope for visual improvements. However if you're looking for something in the here and now, or perhaps just lazy like myself and you've let your D&D Insider subscription expire there are alternatives to virtual table top gaming.

Game Table:
The nuts of bolts of any virtual table top gaming environment is, well, the table. This is where everything is placed and is essentially a shared viewing space or desktop among all the players. Here players will be able to manipulate pogs (playing pieces) and tiles(environment). Many such tables also include the ability to draw or write directly on the table as well as point to a location and choose to make views private or public. Marking something such as a pog or tile as private is key for building an adventure ahead of time because it allows a DM to make a room or monster or even an entire dungeon layout and then hide if from the players and only reveal it to them a piece at a time. Some tables have other niceties such as trackers for whose turn it is or which player is slowly dying on the floor as their entrails seep out of their eviscerated abdomen.

I've personally had great success playing through many online D&D gaming sessions using Game Table which is a simple to use, flexible, open source piece of software built in java. There are plenty of others out there however, and rather than list all of them here I'll kindly point in the direction of a resource dedicated to the subject and let you take a stab and whatever tickles you're fancy because I really don't know how you like your fancy to be tickled. Virtual Table Top Options

Voice Communication:
Being able to speak with other players at a virtual game table is essential to the online gaming experience. In some cases premade text could be used, say like if the DM wanted to describe a room in intimate detail but if a player has a a question about something that just happened in the game everything must stop while that player pecks out a dialog on their keyboard to the rest of the group. Good voice communication software can make or break an online gaming session. I can say from experience, nothing is more annoying that trying to listen to the DM unveil some intricate political plot while someone has something like "America's Next Top Model" blaring in the background. This kind of goes hand in hand with having a good set of head phones also but the software should at the least give options to adjust your inbound and outbound sound and of course have good clear voice quality.

In my personal experience I have found Ventrilo easy enough to use. Also the setup isn't bad and it is capable of handling a number of players you might expect to be sitting around a gaming table. As with any piece of software however there are alternatives so here is a site, although a bit dated now, that lists some: Voice Communication Options

Wrap Up:
So if you took the time to look at any of the alternatives to Wizard's of the Coast's Virtual Table you can see there are really a number of online table top gaming options that have been around for quite some time. I feel like many of them are all but unknown to many D&D players however. I am not sure if this is just because most of the people currently playing D&D go to D&D insider for all of their online D&D resources or if the people I've just spoken to about it in person just aren't that technically savvy. In either case if you're interested in trying out an online table top gaming session going it's really not that hard to do. Overall it can really be a nice alternative to traditional meetups especially if your regularly scheduled gaming group is spread out across large distances or you just don't feel like putting on pants when gaming.

I would recommend that if you do plan to start gaming online you make sure that everyone already has all the necessary and agreed upon software installed and working on their systems as well as time to make sure it works before the gaming session actual starts. I can't tell you how many times I have connected to the vent server only to find some's mic wasn't working, or in a few cases, that my own headphones had been used in a tug-o-war match by my kids and had ripped the cables clean in half. Making sure things are working ahead of time, or in my case, having a backup pair of headphones, can help ensure that the actual gaming session runs smoothly and without annoying delays as people trouble shoot problems.

If You'd like to find out more about D&D Insider's Virtual Table you can get information about it here: D&D Virtual Table