When I initially saw Microsoft's Surface multitouch tabletop device about three years ago, the first thing I thought, as a geek, was how absolutely perfect it would be for Dungeons and Dragons games. One reason these games tend to be the domain of geeks is that they require math, and lots of it. Line-of-sight for attacks; variables for cover and concealment; modifiers for things like how much weight can be carried and whether your character is currently on fire--all these can make the game a laborious process for those who don't have a love of such things.
Then I heard that some whiz kids with Carnegie Mellon's SurfaceScapes team had been developing just what I wanted: D&D for the Surface. After a few e-mails, I got word that the team would be showing it off for the people at Microsoft and that Yours Truly, living in Seattle, would have a chance to try it out. You'd better believe I was excited.
And not just because of the novelty. The Surface did indeed live up to its potential as a gaming platform. There are no cumbersome character sheets with stats, abilities, and so forth; all that stuff is handled in the game's brain so you're free to shoot magic missiles at orcs.
The figurines--optional in regular D&D but great tools here--are "tagged" with dot codes on the bottom. The Surface is able to use its tiny cameras to view these unique codes and determine which character is where on the game grid. This means the game can automatically determine line-of-fire angles and keep track of enemy health.
This really speeds things up. A combat round in traditional D&D can take awhile. Initiative, roll-to-hit, damage, movement, and everything else has to be calculated. The program on the Surface automates all of this. Instead of several minutes, the combat round we tried (in which we killed a couple of weak orcs) took only a minute or two. And it was more fun.
The Dungeon Master (yes, you still need one) uses a PC networked with the Surface to control the game and the environment. All of the functions a DM fills in the traditional game, from generating monsters to mapping caverns, are available here. As a DM, I've always wanted to draw the game map dynamically.
The virtual dice are another great touch. Swiping your finger on the table launches your hit die across the game. The Surface automatically calculates your to-hit modifiers (bonuses players can get to their to-hit rolls based on modifiers in the game) so you know immediately how the combat goes.
Working out the kinks
The Carnegie Mellon team is working with D&D owner Wizards of the Coast in an attempt to commercialize their product, which currently is just a student exercise. If things work out, Microsoft Surface rep Eric Havir says he hopes to see Surface devices running the completed software in gaming centers and shops across the country. After playing the game, I could see this being a money maker.
That said, the team is still working on a few bugs. At one point, for example, the dungeon master dropped a dragon onto the game board on top of an orc and the Surface appeared to get a little confused. The team was quick to point out that we weren't playing the latest version, which will be playable at PAX East in March.
If you're going to be at the Penny Arcade Expo, check it out. Even if you're not a traditional tabletop gamer, this brand of D&D demonstrates where the future of the Surface for games might be headed. That said, they'll get my Settlers of Catan when they pry it out of my cold, dead hands.