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Surfacescapes Demo Walkthrough from Visual Story TAs on Vimeo.

Have a look at this: it’s a prototype for D&D play using Microsoft’s tabletop Surface technology.

What I see is something pointed in the direction of the interactive tabletop we’ve been waiting for… but not something that would significantly improve my play experience. It recreates a lot of things that happen in a D&D game, but I’m not sure it makes them faster, more vivid, or more informed. Those are three core things that an active tabletop would need to contribute to play for me to treat it as anything but a luxurious toy.


We tend to get through an encounter or two a night when we play D&D, because we’re doing a lot of description (and a lot of tangential talking), but also because we’re hemming and hawing over power usage, considering the merits of certain designs, and other such tomfoolery. But we’re also just plain adjudicating play — counting out squares, rolling the dice, doing the maths. This is fine, but it’s an area that a table should be able to do faster for us.

What I saw wasn’t especially faster. The pantomime die-rolling isn’t an essential part of the experience for me. If the number’s going to be generated by the computer, I don’t need to wait around for digital dice to animate just to get a vaguely related experience. If the thing is new, be new.

If you need dice, let us roll dice. They’re not slow. We can input the numbers on a touchscreen keypad and have the thing add them, apply resistances, and do all the other business for us.

More Vivid

That map, that wolf, and that explosion weren’t so visually thrilling that I’d trade in the experience of player-invented descriptions for them. In fact, I’m torn here between whether I’d want the table to animate the arcane lightning bolts and the holy lasers of beloved D&D powers, or if I’d even have much interest in playing if those things were trumping the player descriptions.

I like that the table seems to interface with local speakers to enliven the ambient atmosphere — I’d love it if torches flickered, if the sea was crashing outside the windows, and if we could hear the haunted winds through the walls — and I’d love to see some handsome maps loaded into that thing. This doesn’t even mean realism, you’ll note. I’d rather have maps that are deeply atmospheric and evocative than Google Maps-style top-down views. I want level design, in other words.

When crafting these kinds of spaces for play is part of my weekly prep as a DM, I’ll be glad.

More Informative

Most importantly, I didn’t see the table conveying much information. I saw a list of powers, which isn’t an improvement on my character sheet, and I saw it highlighting squares for movement (which is nice), but I didn’t see it quietly imparting ambient data. I didn’t see it increasing my situation awareness all that much. It didn’t display essential D&D bookkeeping powers, like the ability to track ongoing effects on the characters or the environment.

What I want to see is a map with sparkling waters and crackling firelight that, at a touch of a button, hides or displays which squares have cover or concealment, what’s difficult terrain, and what I can reach with my magic missile as I move my finger across the table from target to target like a stylus. I want that range-finding animation to follow my finger like a comet’s tail, and I want it to change color when I reach too far away. I want to tap a square and have the table show me how far my power’s burst reaches out from that point, and when I tap my finger twice, I want it to trigger the power, generate the numbers, and subtract hit points from the monsters in range.

I want to see status effects hovering about characters on the map when I summon them up, maybe with little MMORPG-style icons or floating numbers. I want an ephemeral but intuitive UI design that feels like D&D when I want to see it and gets the hell out of my site when our fingers aren’t on the table. I want to be fed data with the focus and immediacy of a Terminator’s HUD one moment, and I want all that information to fall away in favor of ambient noise and fantastic atmosphere the next.

As a prototype, though, I don’t want to discourage the Surfacescapes team. These could be the people that bring us that interactive table we’ve been hoping for. Maybe it’s closer than I think.