The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Attendees at the D&D Creator Summit got to see the upcoming D&D Virtual Tabletop. From hands-on demos to an in-depth presentation, we now have a clearer picture of what Wizards of the Coast’s VTT wants to offer, what it could mean for our hobby, and what Wizards must overcome to reach their goals.
Virtual attendees got to see a demo of the VTT, similar to what you saw if you watched the D&D Direct announcement or the focused D&D Direct video on the VTT.
The demo took place in a conference room with a large table with Alienware gaming laptops. Several staff were on hand to deal with bugs and jot down our ideas and questions. The team previously worked on the Magic the Gathering Arena app. Kale Stutzman, VTT Game Director (and it turns out, Mastering Dungeons podcast listener!) welcomed us and served as our DM. Kale said he started sketching out ideas for the VTT in October 2020.
The demo was a loose game where we could experience some combat in the VTT and try out the functionality. We played for over 30 minutes, which was plenty of time to feel well-acquainted with the functionality.
The build/version we playtested is the same pre-Alpha version seen in the D&D Direct videos, though they are already working in a different build, which features a revised interface. So, keep in mind that many of the aspects we saw could change or be tweaked even when the game reaches Alpha.
We logged in, seeing a beautiful 3-D landscape depicting a town with a flowing river (the water did flow), a temple, some smaller structures, and of course, a tavern.
Clicking an icon removed all the rooftops (this revealed every building’s interior; in the future, it should be possible for the DM to select buildings to reveal). We then used our mouse to “fly” through the 3-D landscape and peer down on the tavern. Inside were several 3-D character minis, and we could click on them to choose one (a fairly unintuitive experience which I am sure will improve). Our account names were all monsters and started with the word “Demo.” My account was called Demo-gorgon, so hats off to the clever staff member that planted that joke!
The interface was relatively straightforward. Click on my character mini, see menu, click on icons to then see choices such as rolling one of your skills or making an attack. Or, click and drag mini to see a circle showing your default speed, place the mini where you want it to go. When the DM ran combat, we rolled initiative and a screen banner let us know it was our turn and once done we could end the turn. Our DM could also end the turn or go back if we made a mistake.
Our “game” was very loose. First, the tavern was on fire. Why? Not clear, but there were fire 3-D tokens added to various spots and we did things to put them out. I think this is meant to show that the game allows for this sort of relatively open play, showcasing skill use and DM-player discussion of what can work.
Once a few of us had put out fires, an ankheg burst through the tavern’s floor (did it set the fires… we never found out). The ankheg featured different art, perhaps reflecting the art changes in the 2024 MM? We took turns attacking it and moving around. A melee attack has to be made within reach, while a ranged attack could be done from a distance. At some point the DM added goblins so we could just attack stuff for fun and experiment with interactions.
The interface is in English, but localization to add other languages is planned.
Action – Diversity: The topic of diverse characters came up, and the Wizards team agreed. But it is also important for the background art to be global. Towns, cities, and landscapes should not just come in fantasy Europe.
What fascinated me was that the visuals suggest a video game with tight rules. The actual gameplay is very loose – closer to Owlbear Rodeo than most existing VTTs. You can move your mini anywhere, even placing it on a wall. You see the distance you can move, but you can ignore it. You can move when it isn’t your turn, move through a wall, and even attack when it isn’t your turn.
This is a perfectly reasonable approach, even if it wasn’t what I expected. It’s arguably the easier approach. If the VTT were to control everything tightly, then every rule exception has to be perfectly captured or the VTT fails. Paraphrasing, here is how Kale described the approach: there are lots of ways D&D allows you to move when it isn’t your turn or attack when it isn’t your turn, so we keep all those options open.
I think some controls may be desirable. For example, letting any character attack or move at any time might be tough with a table full of middle school kids. Even in our game with “adults,” attendees started changing their token to owlbears or devils just for fun, and the game quickly devolved into silly play. That’s okay for a demo, but is likely worth looking into to prevent frustrating experiences.
The D&D Direct video suggests you can just port something over from D&D Beyond (DDB). That’s not quite the case at this time. Elements from Beyond are copied at the database level to the VTT, but you can’t control that. You can’t make a custom monster in DDB and bring it to the VTT, and you can’t modify a monster in the VTT either – such as to reduce its hit points or AC.
In VTTs like Roll20, our character is fully present and customizable in the VTT. Here, your character is copied, but it isn’t a live connection. There was a hyperlink to the DDB character sheet so we could presumably see the character in a browser, but the interface itself didn’t let me see what my character could do – it took a while for me to figure out what class I was even playing. If I level up or get a magic item… currently it isn’t clear how that would work. Do I have to do it twice, once in the VTT and once on DDB? Or would I do it in DDB and re-import my character?
I didn’t see a way to use special features in the interface, or my background, or anything other than select attacks. There are many unknowns for now, but I expect this will all improve in future versions, with the key question being how the VTT ends up connecting to DDB. What most players want (and perhaps expect) is a live connection between DDB and the VTT.
Critical Action – Integration: The strength of a VTT at WotC is that it connects to DDB. This is a dealbreaker. If it doesn’t connect and allow the DM to make the changes common at the table, why use this VTT? If the players can’t easily update their characters and see all of their features, that’s a problem.
Concern – Walled Garden: Wizards hasn’t clearly voiced that they will continue to support third-party VTTs having access to 5E products. We assume that’s the case, but it would be good for WotC to strengthen relationships with VTT partners so that players can choose the solution they want. Wizards should consider extending contracts to other companies, such as Demiplane. WotC: make a compelling product, but be good to your partners. A concern voiced on my Patreon was whether purchasing on DDB would lock them into the VTT in some way, making it hard to use other VTTs. That does not seem to be a limitation at this time.
The beautiful maps are currently sculpted as one-piece buildings. In the future, the idea is it would work more like Legos. Kale said that if a player asks if there were a window, you could quickly add one.
You can also add 2-D maps. While in our game, Kale added a flat 2-D map into the play space, placing it right next to the 3-D “island” we were playing upon. Similarly, a handout could be dropped onto the play area.
Kale says he doesn’t expect that we can import (or offer for sale) our own 3-D maps. Apparently third-party 3-D maps can stress the engine too much. The expectation is that all maps come from Wizards. However, there will be a marketplace for the VTT. Is the idea that the only thing being sold are adventures? Unclear.
Action – Marketplace: The marketplace needs to be easy to create for. A problem Roll20 has encountered is that creating a Roll20 integration is a lot of work and hiring someone to do the work is very expensive compared to the relatively low sales earned. To be viable, it has to be easy to create an adventure and market it.
Action – VTT and DDB Marketplace Integration: Similarly and additionally, if a creator markets on DDB, it should be easy to extend that product to the VTT. For example, if someone offers custom monsters on DDB, those should be easy to extend to the VTT. It becomes harder to envision a third-party subclass in DDB also working on the VTT. Enabling this will require planning up front to make the VTT connect properly and flexibly to Beyond content.
Kale stated the current goal is to make it a fun experience. Second goal is the creator side. More formally, a presentation broke it down as follows:
Playtesting will initially involve staff and their friends/family. It will then be extended to influencers (perhaps including attendees). After that, it will be extended to some DDB subscribers (unclear how they will be chosen). Not going live in 2024 is interesting, and means the investment Wizards is making is even larger (at least three years of initial development).
It’s clear that Kale and others have thought a lot about the economics of the VTT. Kale talked about how some games end up free that should have had a baseline cost, and some games end up very expensive when the base should have been affordable. For all the thinking, however, they don’t know what it will cost yet. They don’t know whether purchasing Lost Mine on DDB will unlock it on the VTT, for example.
That surprised me, because the VTT seemed core to their worries over the OGL and to their message to shareholders during several investor calls. It seems very important for Wizards to figure this out, unless they have decided movies and TV shows are the core sources of revenue growth? If it’s the VTT, they will need an economic plan.
Much was made during the OGL of things like spell animations. I honestly don’t think that’s why people will choose this VTT. The animations were cool, but far less important than integration, the marketplace, the features, and the play experience. The animations I want to see are things that really help the DM, such as rain, granular control over lighting to reflect the time of day, aging the wood in the tavern or making it look upscale and brand new.
Action – Accessibility: The VTT should run on an everyday computer. It should run on a phone (people in many countries around the world don’t have a computer at home even if they have high incomes). It needs to be affordable globally, as well as stable on a phone or older computer.
Action – Monetization: Monetization should be optional. The ideal model is one where you love what you start with, it feels complete, but you want to pay for fun options if you can afford them.
Concern – Larger Picture: VTTs are important. Just look at the growth of play during Covid. I get it. But, also, the growth before that, which was enormous, was all about people wanting to connect with one another away from screens. When I ran games for middle school kids, each time the parents would thank me for liberating their kids from screens and helping them to socialize in creative ways using their minds and their pencils. Wizards should keep an eye on both sides and make sure that any VTT push isn’t at the expense of what makes D&D special for so many.
We look at the 2024 Rules changes and D&D Beyond’s future. What do you think about the VTT so far? Leave a comment below.