Getting out of the garage and into VR with 'Dungeons and Dragons'

When I was a kid, my best friend's garage was a magical place. My friends and I would gather around a dirty table on cold winter nights, huddled between unused sports equipment and the family's spare TV, to kill monsters with dice. It was where we played Dungeons & Dragons. Then I grew up; my friends grew up. We all got jobs and moved away. Now all the old building does is hold cars.

Over the years, our group has tried to recreate our adventures over the phone, through online chat programs and even over Skype, but nothing ever felt right. Tabletop gaming is a social activity that demands a sense of presence, which makes playing Dungeons & Dragons across state lines really hard. Recently, a company called AltspaceVR invited me to try an option I hadn't considered before: Playing D&D in virtual reality. Believe it or not, it might actually work.

I almost dismissed the idea outright. I don't want to play a Dungeons & Dragons video game, I want to bond with my friends in a nerdy, pen-and-paper tabletop adventure. I want to play a part, roll dice and share an imagined world with my friends -- exactly as I did in that garage all those years ago. AltspaceVR's Bruce Wooden tried to put my fears to rest as he set up an Oculus Rift (DK2), promising a classic D&D experience -- the company just signed a deal with with Wizards of the Coast to make its platform the first officially-licensed Dungeons & Dragons experience for virtual reality.

"That's really the driving force behind this," he told me. "This can make you feel like you're around the table again." To a lifelong D&D player, that's a big promise.

Wooden explained AltspaceVR's collaborative platform as he strapped the Rift onto my head: It's a virtual reality space designed specifically for social interaction, a "VR space where [people] can talk to each other and be comfortable." He pulled up an in-game mirror to show me my avatar: A glowing robot that mimicked my head and arm movements thanks to the combined technical wizardry of the Rift's head-tracking camera and a Leap Motion device. But despite this, my doubts resurfaced again. Could this really lend me enough presence to play Dungeons & Dragons over the internet?

Minutes later, I found myself standing in front of six other robots in a medieval tavern. Between us sat AltspaceVR's Dungeons & Dragons module: A tall table with a map, character figures, a few monsters and virtual displays that can be used to read character sheets, modify player stats and browse handbooks. The chandelier above the table is made of dice that, when activated, tumble to the floor and provide randomly-generated numbers. My party was already halfway through a battle with a troll who was on fire. I picked out a pre-made character and cautiously joined in.

Before long, I started to forget about the odd combination of robots and taverns, and started to just enjoy hanging out with other people in VR.

For a moment, I was distracted by the absurdity of it all. Seven robots, in a tavern, playing Dungeons & Dragons in virtual reality. I snapped out of it as our dungeon master described the troll's flesh melting off its bones. A twenty-sided die fell from the chandelier, and we all glanced at our floating character sheets to check our initiative modifiers (that's "D&D speak" for figuring out which character goes first). I started to lean on the table in front of me as the game continued, carefully looking at the map and casually glancing up at the other players and the dungeon master as I heard them talk. I watched their heads bob as they voiced their characters, and peered down at their character sheets to check their stats. It was still a little surreal (Humans pretending to be VR-robots pretending to be humans!), but somehow it felt almost natural.

As the game went on, I started to notice what it was about AltspaceVR that had me hooked. The avatar's stiff faces were emotionless, but watching the other player's head movements clued me into their mood. A clever combination of head-tracking and spatial audio invited me to look directly at other players when they spoke. It felt comfortable. Natural. Easy. Before long, I started to forget about the odd combination of robots and taverns and started to just enjoy hanging out with other people in VR.

We played for over an hour. When we were done, I insisted on taking a screenshot of the group before signing off. I pulled up the file when I came home from the demo and felt a familiar pang: nostalgia. I barely knew who these people were, but I already missed them. Our time together was short, but it was remarkably like those long afternoons in the old garage. We laughed, we yelled and we played together. Tabletop gaming in virtual reality actually works.

AltspaceVR's Dungeons & Dragons module isn't perfect, but the seeds of greatness are here. The 3D space, the motion capture and the spacial sound all add up to a sum that's greater than the Skype-based alternatives I've tried to use. Yes, Roll20 and other online RPG systems already exist for the die-hard fans, but none of them gave me the sense of presence this did. This felt effortless.

Tabletop gaming in virtual reality actually works.

As much as I want to get my old party back together, virtual reality still hasn't hit the mainstream. It's going to be a while before my friends will have the hardware this distance-closing experience requires. But when they do, AltspaceVR's D&D experience will be waiting. It's simple. It's not flashy. It still needs a lot of work, but it has the foundation of the one thing it needs to succeed: presence. It's not enough to replace my buddy's old garage, but it's more than enough to stand in for it.