Many gamers might want to play Dungeons & Dragons, but finding people to fill out the spaces at the table can be difficult. Present options for playing D&D over the internet are kind of scattered, with third-party programs trying to help DMs and players make sense of forums posts, emails and even video-conferencing through Google Plus. After years of Wizards of the Coast talking about releasing an official tool to handle long-distance D&D-playing, an official Virtual Table is now available for beta-testing for Dungeons & Dragons Insider subscribers. The Virtual Table (VT) is no substitute for playing face-to-face with your fellow nerds, but it is an adequate way to handle the nuts and bolts of the rules, while allowing an impressive amount of freedom for house rules or choice of edition. It works, but I'm not sure the VT is going to have a long shelf life, or even come out from under its beta-tagged umbrella.
Rory Madden approached me to check out the VT, and I jumped at the chance to play one of my favorite games in a new way. Madden works as a producer for a company called GameTable Online, which has built online versions of board games like Axis & Allies for Wizards of the Coast in the past and is now contracted to work on the Virtual Table for D&D. An avid tabletop gamer himself, Madden took time out before his weekly game night to show me how the VT worked. The interface seems a little muddied at first, with tons of buttons, menus and lists surrounding a grid map. But after Madden walked me through getting my voice chat enabled, and gave me the basic rundown of the tools available to players such as a pointer and a zooming tool, I could make better sense of the clutter.
The first step was to pick a character. The VT works directly with Dungeons & Dragons Insider's Character Builder and you can easily import any character you've already created. You can also create a character from scratch in the VT as long as you have the rulebooks handy, but luckily Madden had a few simple pre-generated characters from which to choose. After all the gate-keeping was out of the way, I was ready to adventure.
Madden, serving as the DM, had prepared a simple village map with a tavern in the center of town, and my character was happy enough to grab a drink at the bar. One of Madden colleagues played Pieter, a Human Fighter, and we had a brief exchange over voice chat. Because the character I picked was female - and my own voice is a bit too low to pull off falsetto - Madden suggested I try the "voice fonts" . These simple audio filters range from the useful to the laughable, but the "male to female" one actually made me sound like an impetuous lady adventurer to my fellow players. The voice fonts were a neat feature, and I could see a DM using the "orc" voice to add a theatrical touch to the game.
While the voice chat was cool, and the text chat served to disseminate information quickly, I think the one thing lacking for real roleplaying was the ability to see your fellow players' faces. Video chat has become a larger part of playing D&D over the internet, using the group video chat capabilities of Google Plus to interact with the party and the DM. Madden thinks video would be great, but isn't necessary. "We don't have any immediate plans to add video chat. The VT provides enough tools and visuals that in combat I am usually focused on what's going on in the map grid or looking over my character's powers and stats and so wouldn't gain much from video chat," he said. "In social encounters, however, I could see it being useful to have video chat up in another window to more closely replicate the face-to-face experience."