With Surfacescapes, Dungeons & Dragons becomes high-tech
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a popular pen-andpaper role-playing game. Part of the reason people enjoy playing it as much as they do is that it leaves almost everything to the imagination.
The game is not really played out on the table in front of you, but in your mind’s eye, and this aspect, along with the game’s many rules and complex setup process, often turns away newcomers. Many attempts have been made to integrate D&D with modern graphics, but this causes it to lose the interactivity and physicality of the tabletop game. Fortunately, the students at the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon have come up with a proof-of-concept project that combines the ease of use of a computer game with the pen-and-paper charm of D&D.
Called Surfacescapes, this project is run by Whitney Babcock-McConnell, Michael Cole, Stephen Dewhurst, Bulut Karakaya, Dyala Kattan-Wright, and Maokai Xiao, all master’s students at the ETC.
Surfacescapes is a version of D&D that can be played on a Microsoft Surface, a type of touchscreen table that can literally combine a table and a computer.
Every ETC student is required to complete a project in order to graduate, and this can either be a client project working for an external contractor or a project of the students’ own design. According to Babcock-McConnell, he and two other team members were “working on a client project for Lockheed Martin ... in which we were working with a Surface table.” One of the creators of the webcomic Penny Arcade, Mike Krahulik, was visiting the group and offhandedly suggested that they should put D&D on the table. They loved the idea, switched projects, and assembled a team to work on it.
The system has two software parts, both written in various Microsoft programming languages. One runs on a laptop or desktop and allows the person running the game — the Dungeon Master, or DM — to control every aspect of the game being played. The other part of the software runs on the Surface itself and allows the other players to interact with the game. Players interact with the game through the touchscreen and by using special game pieces that represent their game characters. These pieces can be identified by the Surface and are used to navigate the game world.
A useful way to visualize the game is to look at it as a board game where the board is constantly changing to reflect the results of the game. All of the dice rolling and computation can be done painlessly by the computer, though purists can also play through the game without assistance. Babcock-McConnell pointed out that the team “wanted to take away as little as possible from the original game.” They “did not want to take away any of the role playing and storytelling.” They simply wanted to make it easier to avoid the tedium that such games can involve, including keeping track of the many pieces. They also included features that, according to Babcock-McConnell, “allow you to pull up the rules and allows the game to act as a reference.”
Unfortunately, Babcock-McConnell said that “there is no future beyond the end of the semester.” He noted that “the team is going to become fractured” as they start getting jobs in the industry. Also, he points out that “we have no right to the Dungeons & Dragons intellectual property.... The moment we stop being students we would run into all sorts of legal trouble with the IP.” The group also noted that Surfacescapes technology will not be put up for sale. However, they will be showcasing their project at the Penny Arcade Expo this April.
The fact that surface tables are very expensive and can only be purchased by businesses also reduces opportunities, although it is definitely worth keeping an eye out for the technology in the future.