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. … Read more