If you're reading this, there's a decent chance you're familiar with Existenz or Avalon or Harsh Realm or Ready Player One or that one episode of The X-Files about an evil first-person shooter. Even if you're not, you probably understand the trope I'm getting at — that the future of gaming is hyper-immersive virtual reality simulation. If you like war games, the ultimate goal is one where you're literally on the battlefield. If you're a role-playing game fan, you'd rather be exploring a real dungeon with your party. But this weekend, VR social network Altspace is launching a charmingly meta take on the genre: a virtual simulation of sitting around a table playing Dungeons & Dragons.
Altspace, which opened to public beta testing earlier this year, invites obvious comparisons to Second Life. But unlike Second Life, it's built specifically for VR, and it's less about customizing an avatar than conveying simple body language. The result is a series of "rooms" in which stylized robots can stand around talking, playing chess on a sandbox-sized board, or watching TV together — the day I came to check out the Altspace tabletop room, somebody was streaming the Evo fighting game championships. The ideal Altspace setup seems to be a headset and multiple motion trackers, which let other people see your head and arm gestures, but it can also be played with a flat screen and a game controller or mouse.
Once you get over the virtual reality elements, everything is pretty analog
Technically, what I saw wasn't D&D but "V20," an open-ended fantasy gaming setup in Altspace's new virtual tavern. To run a session, a game master builds a board out of pre-made tiles and monsters, and players pick virtual figurines that they can physically drag and drop around the map. Everyone rolls dice by tapping oversized polyhedrons that hover around eye level. Unlike some group role-playing games, V20 is relatively analog — game masters pick their own rule sets, and players fill out online character sheets that they can refer to using a built-in web browser. Other people can show up and watch, or they can switch to a new instance of the room to start another game. Altspace is celebrating the official opening of the tavern with two days' worth of VR gaming sessions, which are taking signups here.
Virtual reality social networks still aren't the easiest places to visit, especially if you have a subpar setup like mine. Between the Oculus development kit's blurriness and my Xbox controller's imprecise controls, moving a figurine became a calculated and daunting task, and that was before my finicky PC decided that it was done with all this VR business and crashed Altspace altogether. Few people are going to be able to take full advantage of the system, especially months before the launch of any high-end headset (Altspace isn't currently on Gear VR.)
But it's interesting to see virtual reality gaming that's focused so specifically on social, instead of fictional, immersion. It's also not every day you see a version of tabletop role-playing that's even nerdier than larping. The only thing that might be nerdier still is a fusion of the two: apparently the first thing players ask is whether they can shrink into the map and play as their avatars during turns.