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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.”

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Because we were pressed for time, Madden pushed the action of a straight-forward combat as a group of hobgoblins attempted to ransack the tavern. We rolled initiative to see who acted first by pressing the d20 button on the dice roller, and we took our turns controlling the actions of our characters by dragging their marker on the grid. I announced what power or attack I was performing in the voice chat, and then rolled the appropriate dice. When damage was dealt, we adjusted our hit point totals while DM managed those of the monsters. The VT was able to handle all the tactical intricacies of 4th edition very well, but I liked that the program doesn’t try to play rules lawyer for you. Instead, the tools are all there for the DM to adjudicate the game as he or she sees fit. And the player can handle many of the calculations on his own. In short, the VT really does simulate the tabletop experience by just getting out of the way.

“Aside from some useful combat aids, we’ve been pretty hands off about actual rules enforcement. We see this as a tool to facilitate playing D&D however you want to play it, not a rules engine that might exclude players who prefer certain house rules or have different interpretations of how to run their games,” Madden said.

For example, in D&D, players and DMs constantly modify the bonuses or penalties to die rolls. When you attack that hobgoblin with your buddy flanking him, you usually get a +2 bonus to your attack roll. The VT doesn’t do this automatically, though; you have to put that bonus into the dice calculator manually, which allows the DM to allow or disallow the bonus based on the situation. The neat part is the result of your roll is broadcast to everyone in the chat window, so the whole table can see what you’ve done, and even celebrate with you when you roll a natural 20.

In 4th edition, there are boatloads of combat conditions characters can be placed under such as “dazed” or “bloodied” and the VT easily tracked all of them, which can be useful even if you’re playing around a real table. “I don’t see an online virtual table as a competitor to face-to-face play,” said Madden, “but rather as a useful supplement for getting together with friends if they can’t physically make it to a session, getting into a game when people aren’t available in your area, or even just as a digital aid to help you track conditions or display maps in a face-to-face game.”

The code word driving the VT’s development was accessibility. “Some of the other virtual tabletops out there are really cool but they require extensive knowledge or preparation to use them to run an actual session,” said Madden. “We focused on making the VT easy to launch into, intuitive to use, and ready to play without additional setup beyond the usual prep to build an encounter or adventure. We wanted an application that was user friendly and that someone could log in and start using to play D&D without extensive tutorials or setup.”

Dungeon Masters have extensive tools to create adventures, and they go beyond just encounters and combat. Sure, you have a huge amount of tiles with which to lay out the landscape – including wilderness, city and dungeon tilesets created by Wizards’ artists – but you can also use the VT to leave background and setting notes. The DM can place objects on the grid that players click on to read a short bit of text and these can offer insight into the adventure, or note combat effects such as using a table as cover, etc. Journals are split into chapters and the DM can add setting information about deities or races in them, while players can share their own notes in the party journal.

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“Building an adventure using the VT is pretty easy, and in my experience the biggest constraint is actually planning out what I want to throw at my party,” Madden said. The integration with D&D Insider is helpful because you can easily import all the stats and powers of the White Dragon of Icy Death into the VT. If you prefer to make your own baddies, the VT has everything you need to kit monsters out with powers, stats and appropriate lore. All the tools make it about similar to what you’d spend on prep anyway.

“Putting together a few high quality encounters in the VT tends to take a couple hours, which is about as much time as I spend planning and mapping out encounters in a face-to-face game,” Madden said.

All that would be moot if you couldn’t find a game to play, but the lobby system is pretty simple. You can search for open games using various criteria such as level range or rule system, while your DM can make a session and invite you specifically to a private game. Right now, there are several open games available, but Madden hopes that once more people learn about the beta, the number of games will grow. The VT is available for all D&D Insider subscribers, and those people can invite up to ten of their friends, but Wizards of the Coast hasn’t done much to publicize all of Madden’s hard work.

GameTable Online has only handled development of the VT for the last two years, so it makes sense that it was built with 4th Edition rules baked in. I was not surprised by the Healing Surges and Shardmind Seekers, but the recent announcement of a new edition by Wizards of the Coast has me wondering if the VT is destined to become obsolete before it ever sees a widespread release. Madden assured me that the VT works for any edition of D&D just fine.

“We knew that the new edition was in the works when the announcement was made, and we’re very excited about it,” Madden said. “We built the VT with the flexibility to support integration with tools, stat-blocks, and skins for all editions of D&D, including future ones. While we did design the VT to work best with 4th edition, my experience has been that it works great with other editions. In fact, I’ve used it to play OD&D with only some minor changes to how I used PC stats.”

Whenever I’ve asked Wizards’ staff about the VT, they have been cautious to say anything about its status, but Madden didn’t acknowledge any of the reluctance I’ve observed. “The people we’ve worked with at Wizards of the Coast have been very supportive of the development of the VT, and we have worked closely with them on this project,” he said. If that is true, why has there been no announcement of the open beta for the VT on the D&D website? I suppose that Wizards of the Coast wants to concentrate on the message of the new ruleset, but where does that leave Madden’s work?

“I think an official VT for playing D&D is a great idea,” Madden said. I do, too, but I’m not sure it’s in the cards for the Virtual Table that Madden has produced to be used by very many gamers. It’s just too little too late. Despite the claims that the VT is edition-agnostic, there are too many flags marking it as a product of 4th edition. Madden and his team could probably scrub those clean, but the kind of tactical combat-oriented D&D that the VT facilitates with a battle grid might be out of fashion once the next D&D ruleset hits. Without featuring video chat, I don’t think the VT brings enough to the table – heh – for it to see widespread use. If the VT was released with 4th edition in 2008 – as was originally planned – then I could imagine Wizards of the Coast supporting it fully as a part of the overall strategy to gain new players. But even though the VT does what it is supposed to do, and does it passably well, I worry that it may end up being an artifact of its era.

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