Wizards of the Coast made waves in the online D&D community on Thursday, November 18, when they announced that they are working on a Virtual Table program, the closed beta of which would be starting on November 22. (FAQs are here.)
Obviously, we don’t know very much about the Virtual Table yet, but we’ve been given some information. The approach is similar to MapTool – two-dimensional, top-down view of the battlemap with circular tokens to represent player characters and monsters. It’s programmed in Java, but apparently within a web application (for what it’s worth, MapTool is also a Java program). It will also apparently have integrated voice chat.
This leaves much room for speculation, and there are many unanswered questions. Let me first say that I see this announcement as good news. I love MapTool and would be perfetly happy to keep using it forever. But if WotC brings out a better product, great! I’d be happy to switch. I’m already a Dungeons and Dragons Insider (DDI) subscriber, so I obviously approve of their tools. I also REALLY want to get in on the beta – I’m a great play tester and I think my input would help them improve their product.
Anyway, below are the questions to which we do not yet know the answers, and my thoughts on those questions.
What will the Virtual Table cost? From the announcement, they haven’t figured this out yet. This means that it’s unlikely to be just a part of a normal DDI subscription. I see a few possibilities here.
- Free program to everyone. Pretty unlikely, unless they think this will drive new subscriptions to DDI or something like that.
- Free to DDI subscribers. This could happen, but I think it’s unlikely given the announcement. If this is the case, I imagine that every player in the game would have to have a DDI subscription, not just the Dungeon Master. That’s a bit of a bummer; I don’t think all of my online players, for instance, are subscribers.
- Included as part of a “higher tier” DDI subscription. The existing DDI could still give you access to everything it does now, but the “Gold Tier” subscription would provide access to the Virtual Table as a DM, the Monster Builder, a potential Campaign Builder, etc. This seems like a reasonable possibility.
- Microtransactions. This one makes me shudder, but I fear that it might be the way they go. The basic program would be part of DDI (or potentially totally free), but the DM would have to pay for dungeon tiles, map objects, monster tokens, trap tiles, etc. For players, who knows? Maybe they would have to buy access to races and classes and even powers individually (or possibly as packs that would give access to a book’s worth of content). This has some similarities to Magic Online, which has been successful for WotC. I really don’t like this approach as a customer, though.
This is obviously complete speculation, but my guess is that they’ll make the Virtual Table part of a regular DDI subscription, and it will include tokens for the monsters in the Monster Vault and some basic Dungeon Tiles. You’ll probably also be able to have character tokens from Heroes of the Fallen Lands. If you want more than that, they’ll charge you for it. To be fair, it takes me about 10 minutes to create a new monster token in MapTool (finding the image, making it into a token, setting its properties, programming its attacks and abilities), and if I could pay a dollar and have a pre-made token, that might be worth it to me (my time is worth more than $6 per hour).
Creation of maps
I think it’s pretty clear that the Virtual Table will support Dungeon Tiles (whether you have to pay for the various sets of tiles, of course, is an open question). So, building maps out of Dungeon Tiles will be the default. Will there be support for drawing custom maps as in MapTool? What about importing JPG maps? What about extra objects to drop on top of Dungeon Tiles? I have no idea. If MapTool can handle custom drawing and importing and objects, it seems like it would be a failure for Virtual Table to not be able to do this. But I won’t be at all surprised if it’s Dungeon Tiles only.
Creation of monsters and PCs
The announcement says that there is currently no integration of Virtual Table with the online Character Builder or the future online Monster Builder (I’m glad that they’ve confirmed that there will be a new Monster Builder – I had assumed as much). Maybe that integration will never come, but that seems like leaving it out would be completely stupid. Let’s face it, the big win for Virtual Table over something like MapTool would be easy importing of PC and monster tokens, complete with stats and powers and everything. I know that some folks have built tools to do this with MapTool frameworks, but having it built-in as part of the program itself would be nice.
The other possibility is that you’ll have to buy PC and monster tokens individually or in packs. Sigh.
Built-in rules support
MapTool and its ilk generally have no knowledge of rules – they’re just virtual tabletops. I’m guessing that the Virtual Table will have some kind of rules support built in by default (though to be clear, the announcement does say that you CAN use it with older versions of D&D, just with no built-in support). This will likely mean that the player can click a button for their attack, click for their targets, and have the effects of the attack be handled automatically (hit or miss, damage, ongoing conditions, etc.). It could possibly keep track of triggered abilities, reminders for saving throws, and so on. Again, some frameworks do this for MapTool, but built-in support would be cool. D&D4e is a complicated game, though, and I think it will be tough to do this right (especially since abilities are so open-ended and interactions with other abilities are nearly infinite).
I said above that it would be nice to be able to import monsters from the Monster Builder, but I certainly hope that there’s some support for customization. What if I want to give a monster an extra ability or tweak some numbers? This is easy in MapTool, and I think it’s important to keep it easy in Virtual Table. What about house rules? I love the Bonus Point mechanic (more on that in a future post) and I intend to keep using it. If I can’t do that in Virtual Table, that would stink.
This is an area where I could see the Virtual Table starting off with very little support and then having some of that support get added over time.
Finding a game
I think it’s likely that there will ultimately be an “online community” around the Virtual Table, just as there is for Magic Online. There will probably be a server that the program connects to, with various “rooms” that you can go into to meet your friends and then invite them to the appropriate “table” where your game is being held. This would also allow for the possibility of pick-up games, which is a cool idea. I could see this being a place for weekly Encounters games to be available to people who can’t come to their Friendly Local Game Store, for instance, or for big events that take place with multiple tables playing the same adventure at once. If this works, it could be a big advantage over something like MapTool.
The downside of this approach is that the game runs on the WotC server, and is therefore prone to slowdowns and crashes. This was definitely a problem with Magic Online when I played during the release of new sets, so I worry that it could be an issue the with Virtual Table, too. We shall see.
Usability with a projector on a physical table
This one probably doesn’t matter to the vast majority of people who are interested in the Virtual Table, but it matters to me. I am an all-MapTool DM. I use it for my weekly online game, my weekly in-person game and my occasional turns as DM at my local store for Living Forgotten Realms. I really need the functionality to have one instance of the program running on my main laptop screen as the DM and something like a second instance running in full-screen mode on the projector. Would I need two separate DDI accounts for such a thing? I have no idea.
This is another area where I could see support not existing at first (because, let’s face it, most of the users don’t care) but perhaps being added later.
Overall, I’m excited about the idea of the Virtual Table. It has the potential to be tons of fun and to make it even easier to prepare for and run D&D games using a computer (which would make me happy). It has the potential to stink horribly, of course, but I like that they’re announcing their beta plans and that they’ll be letting beta testers blog about their experiences.
And if anyone with any connections at Wizards of the Coast is listening: Please send me an invitation to the beta test! I would be extremely useful to you, I promise.