D&D on multi-touch table

Students at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) developed a Dungeons & Dragons experience for the Microsoft Surface multi-touch table. From ETC:

The objective of the SurfaceScapes project is to create a proof-of-concept for playing tabletop role-playing games on the Microsoft Surface Table. We will be using Dungeons and Dragons as a basis for our prototype, with the option for future expansion to other role-playing games. SurfaceScapes will provide Game Masters and players with a set of features to enhance the combat and role-playing aspects of tabletop games. This will include the ability to interact with the digital environment using real objects such as miniatures and provide automated calculations and visual and audio feedback for actions performed by the player and non-player characters. We are taking traditional tabletop role-playing games to the next level, adding a new layer of immersive and intuitive gaming to the Microsoft Surface Table and assisting both GMs and players in enjoying exciting and engaging adventures.
SurfaceScapes... what lies beneath.


  1. We used to play on a big whiteboard, flat-down on the table, so the DM could just draw/edit what we saw, and reveal by just wiping/redrawing. Good for notes, tallies, points, maps, clues, views.. It was the best. Only hampered by a lack of drawing recall.

    I dunno, maybe everyone played like that, I didn’t really play a lot after that group so it could have been the done-thing. For me though, before that was graph-paper and pencils, so it was pretty revolutionary to my sheltered, innocent brain.

    1. As an (ex)GM, I WISH I would have thought have that.

      I even have my own whiteboard.

      ANYTHING is better than graph-paper (and miniatures are too expensive for any campaign with more than 10 enemies)

  2. I’ve heard of ceiling-mounted projectors being used to display a map on the gaming table, but this is a massive step up from that. Expensive, I’m sure, but this is possibly the first practical use I’ve seen for a Surface …

  3. The pop up UI bits and map views are fantastic, but for me there will always be something about rolling your own dice that a CG number generator will never reproduce.

  4. Maybe, Jimh, but I’m attracted to any technological innovation that keeps the other players in my group from rolling their dice off the edge of the table and under the couch.

    1. I believe they already invited something that prevents people from rolling their dice off of the table It’s called the shoe box.

  5. Entertainment Technology Center? Fuck. I guess I went to CMU 14 years too late.

    #2: That’s what CMU’s Field Robotics department is working on.

  6. This is pretty goddamn cool but my DM has every miniature ever made and somehow I can’t imagine this taking it’s place

  7. This sounds really cool, and would make DMing a lot easier and more interactive.

    Only thing is, you could buy a hell of a lot of miniatures with what it costs to buy the table. And these things don’t seem to have many uses, to be perfectly honest. This is the first real use I’ve seen. So thats a pretty damn costly game of D&D.

  8. Yet another solution for a problem that didn’t really exist. Seriously, if you can’t handle rolling your own dice or drawing on a whiteboard, you’re probably playing the wrong game.

    Then again, that was 4th ed, so they’re definately playing the wrong game.

  9. That appeared to be an excessive amount of gestures in order to reach the outcome, which was a fireball exploding on a dire wolf.

    I’m unsure as to whether this would be a help or a hindrance in a game – as opposed to a player stating ‘I cast fireball’, rolling to hit, rolling damage, and the GM going ‘it goes woosh and the wolf dies!’

  10. I find this somewhat abhorrent, as now an official old school DnD player the Rolling and Fetishisation of dice is so integral to my game, going so far as to sing “don’t stop believing” to them, that any game that takes away my irrational belief that i can influence rolls through thoughts, encouragement, intimidation and occasional use of hammers is almost not worth playing.

    Also for that screen to be a true DnD screen it would have to have industrial strength protection against crumbs, spilled beer and soda and chinese food.

    But damn why didn’t i ever think of that whiteboard idea

  11. tha’s all well and good, but how the devil did the dire wolf avoid an attack of opprtunity moving through a threatened square?

  12. I agree with you Sievetronix. What will happen to the lucky dice? The cool dice sets? Dice bags (Crown Royale will take a hit here)? The time honored tradition of dice stacking!? Won’t someone think of the dice?!?!

    Overall, the touchscreen surface concept is very cool, though.

    And the white board – yeah – never thought of it, but it’s a brilliant idea. I *did* play a game once where the DM had the dungeon drawn out on a large board and covered it with a tacky paper to hide the layout. As we progressed through the dungeon, he would cut away portions of the paper with a utility knife. Pretty neat.

  13. Neat technology, but I think some of the commenters are touching on the wrong stuff. The main thing is that as a proof of concept, the combat stuff looks like it’s trying to emulate a traditional interface in an MMO or CRPG, and multi-touch tables can really go in new directions here. Also, remember that if you go 3d, then players have to have a lot of info assets instead of just 2d images that anyone can find (heck, Wizards publishes them). There’s been some good thinking about this by the guys at rptools.net, so maybe look at maptool and tokentool over there.

    The best part of the presentation was the stuff up front about the slide show and the world map. Those are areas where you were doing things you probably can’t do as well. Also, I’d think that the relevant control feature isn’t a radial menu with a set of pre-planned actions players can perform, but rather a character sheet (or some equivalent listing of character information, and this could be a place where the table shines) that each player can use as a method of initiating the relevant dice rolls.

  14. That virtual die rolling was sad. Why didn’t they set it up so that it detects the roll of a real die the same way it detects the miniatures? Foolish.

  15. Kind of cool. But it seems like a really expensive replacement for a battle-mat you can use write-on/wipe-off markers on….

    -abs prefers the battlemat, with it’s pre-drawn grid, to a whiteboard, but has to admit he loves minis and so wouldn’t like this even if it was cheaper

  16. I really think #16 got much of it right. As a regular gamer, I will keep my dice, but I want many of the advantages of which concepts like the world map offer.

    I also think that our DM would some how manage to do so much more with this then the current projected map onto the gaming table.

    Btw, I also saw something like this years ago in the back of a game store run by a former architect, but he did it on a light table with old school line drawing.

  17. I have to agree with the posters that said that the Surface technology is expensive, i’ve been wishing for something like this for a long time. I’ve eagerly watched each attemp over the years to achieve something like this. From the ceiling mounted projector, to everyone using a laptop and a toold like Maptool.

    Ideally i’d love to see a battle mat made of digital paper (much cheaper) that i can hook to my laptop. The touch capability would be nice but its not worth the price….unless i were wealthy.


  18. It’s funny to see such a bunch of luddites here of all places, decrying a new advancement in technology. First of all, if anything seemed sluggish or lacking in luster, keep in mind that this is just a proof of concept project. It has a long way to go before it even gets into beta testers’ hands. I’m a long time gamer, and while I wouldn’t want to play on this table as is, I think this project has a lot of promise.

  19. I’m a 20+ year DnD gamer and I think this demo is a fantastic application for the touch screen! That said, I would not want to use this device for DnD since we might as well all be logged on to an MMORPG. Paper and actual dice should never be removed from tabletop RPGs. I might be a curmudgeon for that comment, but I’ve experienced that as more technology becomes involved in a paper/dice game, the less connection and organic feel the game has and hence less attractive to me. But, Kudos to the students at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center!!

  20. Why are you playing 4e? It’s so different from… anything they have ever done. (You can tell it’s 4e because the wolf moved diagonally past a dude without incurring an AOO)

  21. @#24: Uh, that direwolf would have incurred an Opportunity Attack from a character in 4e as you threaten all the squares around you, diagonal or otherwise. If you’re going to hate on a system, at least get your facts straight.

    I think that this is incredible for things like showing pictures to set the scene, or for maps. As a DM who often spends far too long drawing things out on the battle mat, this would be a great time saver. I think using the system to keep track of monster movement, powers, animating fireballs and so on is overkill. And I think the die rolling is also an unnecessary step. If you are adding complexity to the system so that a simple task involves more steps or takes longer without bringing positive change to the result, that is not a good use of technology.

    And people like their dice.

  22. I reckon that if its not 3D, like holographic, its hardly any advance over existing tech assists; in fact its retrograde compared to the line of site gains achieved by physical terrain elements.
    Yeah I think its barking up the wrong tree… on the one hand we need to rediscover ancient techniques to enhance actual role-playing, and on the other hand we need to develop virtual reality capacities to enhance the game experience if the imagination isn’t powerful enough. That said there still are some advances over existing tech assists pointed at here, but only really useful for a fairly low order of RPG experiences.

  23. My question is, how easy is it to generate a nice-looking map, slide show, etc? That Map looked really great but do they have a user-friendly set-up to customize what you want without having to be really tech-savvy?

    I also know that for us, we commonly water-down or beef up our NPC’s to fit the situation, how much of that can be done on a computer system? Is it a rule junkie? I’ve even had times where I’ve adjusted an NPC during a battle to make more/less challenging… how much of that kind of stuff can you do?

    Finally, as a mom I have to ask- how easy is it to keep that screen clean? Lord knows all we eat during D&D is chips… and soda or mixed drinks… so does the screen, with hundreds of fingerprints on it, stand up to soda spills, greasy marks, etc? And how easy is it to store away when we’re not using it?!

    Other than those things, very cool.

  24. I’m always excited to see applications like these for multi-touch. Perhaps D&D isn’t necessarily the best choice, but it definitely opens up an entirely new realm of a gaming interface. I would certainly be interested in seeing where this goes, and with other games. I’m not too familiar with tabletop war games like say, Warhammer, but this technology seems more appropriate for such game systems that require entire armies of miniatures on the table.

    I really must agree that pen and paper are essential to the original games. If these projects bear fruit, my real interest would be in new game systems born with multi-touch function in mind.

    Our group spent $15 on a 50 page big graph easel pad with one inch squares. The DM would draw his maps in marker beforehand and we’d just use lead during play. Between sessions we could roll it up and put it behind the couch. But really we only ended up using that because the regular dry-erase battle map was too small.

  25. I Love this concept i am an avid D&D player and i have been waiting for something like this to help me DM. I have a couple questions tho 1. can the table be programed for all versions of the game? 2. Can it be programmed or is their options menu for house rules? I know its only a concept but i love to play D&D and so i have lots of questions many more to be exact. Thanks Bettreon416

  26. I truly am thrilled with this device. My friends and I are D&D nerds from way back when. I love how a device brings in the paper and pencil to an interactive medium.

    Will this device have applications that can create maps, sheets, dungeons, worlds? How creative can one get with this device? What are some of its limitations and such? When and where are we able to test it for our selves?

    From what I can see you are on the right road here. Keep going and show us what your truly made of with this device.


  27. I think this is great. I have been working on a projection system with a reverse screen using an old tech overhead projector lens so the distance needed to get a 3’x 3′ area is minimal. A Plexiglas top solves the crumbs and drink spill issues. Almost all of the face to face players I know want to roll their own dice, ( I know one guy that has used his own set for 30+ years now ) I am not a programmer so I was going with slide shows in power point, and just changing the slide when we need to change the board. Please send me any info on your program.

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