The problem with using virtual tabletops for D&D

I’m certain that WotC’s virtual table top will be getting released in the near future. I’m also certain you’ll get some interesting products for RPGs on the horizon as certain technologies becomes more attainable for the public. With more people getting regular access to wi-fi and smaller, more portable, computing devices, you’ll likely be seeing a demand for RPGs to work in a digital format. I expect that future incarnations of D&D will be going in that direction.

However my last game session made me realize there is a kink in this future digital format of D&D. As the pic shows, you’ve seen this slow expansion of tokens, cards, and other paraphernalia at the table (not to mention the ever present dice). Long ago I adopted using cards for player powers and magic items. I also started using tokens for action points and a means to mark combat conditions.

I think there has been a general shift in the gaming hobby from having very spartan and abstract way of handling player resources, to utilizing tokens, markers, and other items represented by physical objects. This is seen in other RPGs like the use of bennies in Savage Worlds, or fate points and I’m not surprised that has D&D followed suit.

While you can certainly keep track of everything on a sheet of paper, I think there is a stronger impulse to have some type of physical marker. There is something about having that visual and tactile representation of a game resource that seems more pleasing to players. It’s like a way of reminding the player, ‘Hey, don’t forget about me. You’ve got this handy tool to help out with this obstacle.’ Likewise, for D&D it can be a reminder that something bad is currently happening to your player that you need to shake off. You can record all of this on your character sheet, but I think we prefer having some other way to keeping track of this stuff.

This is something that the board game industry has definitely picked up over the years and have implemented in their game design. I expect that improvement and reduction of costs in manufacturing of plastics, distribution, and online marketing has a lot to do with it. However, I’ve noticed a trend in many games getting more physical bits and pieces in games. Sure you could keep track of victory points on a sheet of paper, however I’ve noticed a trend that most games implement some kind of marker or token instead. While I think years ago this might have been a feature for board games, it seems that now this is something that is required. I really feel that customers have grown to expect something like this when they purchase a game.

Where does that leave this with digital versions of RPGs? I dare say that is going to be a problem. Virtual tabletop RPGs are going to need to include features that allows players to manipulate some type of tokens. While you won’t be physically handling a bloodied marker, I can see a DM pulling a bloodied marker out of a menu and dragging it to a PC’s icon. In turn that player might see a new ‘token’ on their character sheet in their iPad. Removing the bloodied condition might mean the character passes that token icon back to the DM, simply dragging it off their sheet. Likewise, I can see player powers and abilities working like virtual cards, that ‘flip’ when used.

There is an alternative to this. That is to simply keep everything automated with minimal record keeping. A player might just click on their virtual miniature and see the range in squares they can move. Click on a power, click on a monster to attack, hit a button and all the damage and status effects are kept track of automatically. The new facebook game Heroes of Neverwinter looks like it might be going that route.

However, managing some game mechanics manually is needed to help reinforce that interaction around the table (subtracting hit points might be the exception). Otherwise I think games will slip into being too passive. I feel you’ll likely end up with people shutting down during fights, slipping into some automated mode where you click a few menu options and crank through combat.

So I believe that will be the challenge for D&D as it becomes a virtual product. Programmers and game designers likely will have to figure a way out to keep resource management that is handled through some type of ‘tokens’ that pass between players. Sure you could bypass it all and keep track of everything automatically, but you risk making the play experience too much of a passive experience, or at the very least reducing that interaction you get sitting around the table.


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