Exploring D&D Battlefields with Microsoft Surface

Ever since Chewbacca defeated R2-D2 in holochess, geeks have wanted a virtual table top for their games. Things have taken a major step in that direction with SurfaceScapes, a proof-of-concept app for Microsoft surface created by students at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s based on the D&D 4th Edition rules, and those who’ve seen it are suitably impressed:

For those who haven’t seen it before, Microsoft Surface is a sort of digital coffee table; it’s got a large, flat touch sensitive screen (kind of like an upsized and hard-to-move iPhone. SurfaceScapes puts an interactive map on the Surface, which you can interact with by moving around specially designed miniatures. All of the rules you need to run the game (e.g. movement, powers, etc.) are built into the game, and you can interact with your character through a handheld device (e.g. an iPod touch or smart phone).

Putting aside snide comments about 4E finally realizing its video game roots, I think this is pretty darn cool. As a GM, I love the idea of using Campaign Cartographer to create rich, beautiful maps, complete with sound effects and event-triggered background music, but it’s hard to pull off in the real world (not impossible, just challenging).

Something like SurfaceScapes could let you do all that, while simultaneously abstracting away all those crunchy RPG rules (as we already do every time we fire up Dragon Age, Fallout or Mass Effect). I think games like D&D (be it 3.x or 4.x) led themselves to this sort of digitization, and I could see the hobby moving in this direction someday.

But (and you knew there had to be one) … there’s a real problem with cost. These Microsoft Surface units cost upwards of $12,500 (see Wikipedia for cost estimates) making them unrealistic for most people’s weekly game, and putting them out of reach of most hobby stories.

I also wouldn’t really want this to replace my conventional game — I like using my imagination for all of this, regardless of how cumbersome the rules can be at times. But would I rent one for an afternoon at my local super arcade? You bet.