We were faced with two deep pits, one of which had spikes at the bottom. Through some clever problem-solving, I decided to throw the little halfling in my group across one pit so he could set up a rope on the other end for us to cross. I was wary about crossing on the rope however, given my heavier weight and size as a human Fighter, so I decided to jump the gaps instead to utilize my high athletics skill. Each die roll was incredibly close to failing, but I rolled just high enough to clear each gap.
In AltSpaceVR, playing Dungeons & Dragons feels just like the real thing. The dice roll and bounce around the table without being automatically calculated, adding suspense to every moment. I have to turn and look at my character sheet to determine my abilities and manually track my health and other stats. Each miniature is manually moved and manipulated around the board. The Dungeon Master can physically place and move tiles around. All of this works so well that I honestly had no way of telling who was in the office next to me and who was in another city altogether. Above all else, it pervades the sense of presence that all virtual reality experiences so desperately try to capture.
Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game that's played using multiple different types of dice, rulebooks, stat sheets, sometimes grid paper or maps, and always a hefty dose of imagination. It's the sort of experience that not only thrives off of social interaction, but demands it.
AltSpaceVR, a Redwood City-based virtual reality technology company, has created a platform by the same name, or AltSpace for short, that allows people to get together and hang out without physically being in the same location. They invited me to their offices to chat about what they're doing and to try their version of officially licensed virtual reality D&D.
The thing that makes playing D&D in virtual reality such a magical experience isn't what it does differently from the real thing. AltSpace didn't reinvent any wheels with this platform. The impressive part is that I wasn't sitting in a room with other people around a table. There were no actual dice, no physical grid paper, no dungeon, and no character sheets. No, I was sitting at a computer using nothing but a mouse, keyboard, and Oculus Rift.
"We see ourselves as a communications platform that allows people to hang out in virtual reality, share the web, and share the room with anyone in the world that they want," Wooden told me during our brief sit-down prior to me logging into the AltSpace for the first time.
It's a powerful concept with a potential for user-created environments and fully editable features. It's already fully cross-platform between the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Soon, the Gear VR will be supported as well. I can imagine an infinite number of uses for a shared, virtual reality space, but after my demo, I'm currently most excited about using it to play D&D.
"We knew we wanted to do D&D, it was an obvious choice for us after one of our internal game jams," Wooden said.
When I first logged in, it took me a few minutes to get my bearings. I'm not new to virtual reality. I own a Gear VR and have played with several headsets at conventions and trade shows, but I was new to this particular experience. Once the Rift was on, I took a few moments to just look around my environment. We were in what looked like a traditional medieval tavern, complete with a bar, fire pit, and appropriate furniture. The ambiance was amplified by a soundtrack of classic tavern music—something our Dungeon Master, AltSpace's Software Engineer Kevin Lee, selected for the occasion.
AltSpace works by creating a virtual 3D interface that can interact with the web, utilizing their custom software development kit, and pulling information and objects directly from the internet. This means I can pull up a 2D floating web browser in front of myself in AltSpace, find a song, video, or article I'd like to share, and throw it up on the wall just like you would with a Chromecast or projector screen. It's simple, it's intuitive, and above all else, it just works.
Once we picked our characters and started the session, Lee ushered all of us towards the firepit in the center of the room. He wanted to set the stage for our adventure by taking advantage of the surrounding environment to lend a sense of thematic atmosphere. As he described a powerful wizard that gave us a questionable task that was sure to lead us to grave danger, I looked around the room at my comrades. Everyone was represented by a slightly different robotic-looking avatar. They reminded me of Disney's WALL-E mixed with Rayman. Most were limbless, but a few of them had floating hands or arms which could be manipulated with their HTC Vive's handheld controllers.
Product manager Mary Treat, or Magooves the Paladin in virtual reality, was particularly emotive with her maraca-shaped controller, dancing, pointing, and generally staying active throughout the night. Which is part of what made the AltSpace experience so special. Since they've already locked down head-tracking so well and even have hand-input devices functioning, we could project our personalities both with our voices and with our physical bodies. Some people tilted their head back when they laughed. Others often leaned forward to inspect their miniatures or character sheets.
One unfortunate part is that the resolution on the Oculus Rift is so painfully low that it's incredibly difficult to read the small text on things like character sheets. Luckily though, it has the depth recognition and positional tracking for me to lean in to get a closer look and that issue isn't as prevalent on other devices.
While I'm not going to describe the entire quest in detail, it was incredibly fun. I've played games of D&D on web-based tools that try to recreate D&D like roll20 and Fantasy Grounds but it just doesn't feel the same. They each do a fine job of capturing the rules and general ideas behind a D&D session, but you're missing the visceral feel of actually sitting in a room together while you play. The dice are automated, stats are calculated behind the scenes in a lot of cases, and you're left dealing with flat 2D representations of characters and monsters.
But beyond the presentation, just the sheer ability to feel a part of a group, no matter the distance, is where the real beauty of virtual reality as a social platform lies. Regardless of location, you can accurately recreate the sense of togetherness and presence that, previously, only actual physical interaction could do. It might seem hard to imagine without experiencing it for yourself, but when you're shut off from the rest of the world and are instead locked into that moment of collaborative storytelling with a small group of people, it's thrilling.
For me, one of the biggest benefits that often goes unrealized, is that since I could hide behind an avatar, I felt much more comfortable being myself. Hiding behind an avatar, but still being able to interact on a personal and physical level, allowed me to happily engaged in some light roleplaying without embarrassment. I didn't feel awkward about embracing the group and, as a result, the game itself. That freedom and self-confidence was entirely because of the virtual reality platform.
Playing D&D in virtual reality opened my eyes and brain to what this platform could hold for the future. It has its limitations, for now, like the low-resolution, limited amount of content, and high-barrier to entry, but a world where consumer-level virtual reality is affordable and accessible to the masses isn't that far away. And if we have companies like AltSpaceVR helping to replicate more of our physical world in virtual space, then they're going to not only preserve seemingly outdated cultural practices that brought people together physically, like D&D, but also improve the ways in which we interact with one another.