Some argue that using any miniatures or terrain violates the “spirit of roleplaying.” Dungeons & Dragons originally came from the historical wargames Chainmail and Siege of Bodenburg. RPGs started with them, then consciously ditched them. “They are generally impractical for long and free-wheeling campaign play,” Gygax wrote in an interview with Enworld, “where the scene and opponents can vary wildly in the course of but an hour.”
The increasing presence of dioramas and setpieces in stores and on tables, however, suggests there’s a market here. The availability and variety of miniatures has exploded. Contrasts, speedpaints, and “slapchop” deliver decent, fast color. Crowdfunded studios like Great Grimoire or Miniature Underground provide dozens of 3D renders for their subscribers and their printers.
Furthermore, dungeon masters and miniature companies have forged a unique relationship. They’re gleaning store racks for both plastic and ideas. Like the props in improv, the minis themselves function like story prompts. That’s a relationship unique to this new generation of roleplayers.
For people enthusiastic about that aspect of modern TTRPGs, Mirrorscape’s store provides a welcome, familiar experience. Different assets can snap together like legos and Warlock tiles or combine to make new ones. Our DM, Eric McIntyre, revealed that a shrine I’d been admiring was really an ornate metal basin inserted into a stone altar. Models clipping into each other usually doesn’t count as a feature, but that sold me on it.
The app’s options were, at the time of writing, sparse, limited to under a dozen heroes and the more stock environments, but that objection will melt away overnight. Mirrorscape has access to producers like Dwarven Forge and Reaper. Most of the work’s been done for them. Soon, it’ll have at least enough content to match friendly local game stores and its price point will improve on the five dollar, two figurine blister pack.
Nine dollars purchases 800 units of Mirrorscape’s in-app currency, ARCoin, and most miniatures cost 240-320 ARCoin, which places the average around three to four dollars. Reuse of figures for throwaway roles (e.g. city guards) and discounted bundles will lower that cost even more.
That could trigger some resentment from veteran DMs who’ve sunk money and shelf space into their physical collection. It could also be an opportunity for a player at the DM’s table to seize the initiative and buy into this cheaper alternative. Mirrorscape’s potential could be bigger than dine ‘n dash convenience or a solution for groups torn apart by migration. It could lower the barrier of entry to dungeon mastering in the style newer gamers desire.
This ground is well trodden. Attempts to move RPGs into the virtual realm are almost as old as the personal computer itself. Unsurprising given that the Venn diagram of western RPG designers and D&D players is basically a circle.
The first Baldur’s Gate, whose amazing third installment dropped this year, is widely credited with preserving the entire genre from extinction. Set aside D&D Online and the countless Forgotten Realms games and you still have landmark titles like Ultima and The Elder Scrolls, which hatched, by their designers’ own admission, from homebrew D&D campaigns.
Neverwinter Nights (2002)* was the first big push to replace, replicate, or otherwise supplement the tabletop experience itself. The single player campaign included with the game feels flat and rudimentary. The presentation didn’t suggest that the same developer would release Knights of the Old Republic in two years and Jade Empire in four.
The somewhat lackluster assets and dialogue pop-up windows were byproducts of its real showcase: the Aurora Toolset, the developer kit.
Neverwinter Nights’ campaign was more of a manual, containing the narrative and technological formulae for aspiring dungeon masters. Simplicity and user friendliness were paramount; everything in the base game needed to be reproducible within the kit.
It succeeded to a certain extent. Neverwinter Nights generated a wealth of user content. It became a staple of introductory courses in game design. Other games in the same mold (Divinity: Original Sin II, for instance) include similar kits. It stirred the video game industry in a few significant ways.
Nevertheless, neither it nor its progeny touched the tabletop space. Not really. It furthered interest in computers, not the roleplaying books and dice which gave the software its rules.
Despite great distances and user-friendly tools, dedicated roleplayers prefer (in my experience) theater of the mind or lower tech options like Roll20. Animation and polygons may seem enticing, but they might be more distracting than helpful for players’ imaginations.
Dozens of two-bit Android and iOS apps exist for spellbooks, dice rolling, character creation, maps, and any other minor task. Fantasy Grounds Unity and other dungeon master accounting software set out to simplify preparation to mixed results. Mileage on how much all of this helps a DM varies so wildly that ten products exist to solve every task.
Consider D&D’s own attempt to capture this market. When Wizards of the Coast laid out their road map for 4th edition, they pitched a suite of products, including a Virtual Tabletop. That project suffered from its proximity to World of Warcraft at its peak and an unbelievable streak of bad luck, including an event so dark that I’m unwilling to share it here.
Bad luck aside, it tied all its tools to official content, cutting out third party support. Roleplaying’s the last place where you want Apple’s “closed ecosystem” because every group’s so different. Few tables use encumbrance, ask spellcasters to gather bat guano to cast Fireball, or demand that archers account for every arrow.
Then again, a five-level megadungeon could create tension by enforcing every single one of those rules, forcing its players to ration supplies. The less technology you use, the better your platform actually fits how D&D behaves in the wild.
D&D Insider: Virtual Tabletop
It’s better to leave those details to the players and treat these models as props. Mirrorscape recognizes the appeal of lower fidelity tech here, so why are they so keen on gadgets in their marketing?
They tout an AR function that gives you a first-person character view and can project the digital table onto a flat, real-life surface. Neat as the possibility of an escape room or a murder mystery quest may be, augmented reality and virtual headsets look like a darling they didn’t kill.
Its development cycle supports that conclusion. On Kickstarter, Mirrorscape launched as “ARCana” and planned to synchronize its release with Facebook’s Meta Quest 3 headset. Due to a pandemic and the predictable delays which affect hi-tech development, that fell through and they put more energy into a highly accessible tablet and phone experience. Personally, I think that’s paid off more than the Metaverse ever could.
As I mentioned before, roleplayers have changed to accommodate big setpieces in their storytelling hobby. They’re meeting Mirrorscape halfway and, for the most part, Mirrorscape has returned the favor. Others are trying to tell you how to play this genre. Mirrorscape’s trying to fit how you already play it.
It would be unfortunate to squander that on the latest widget. In this space, introducing technology fads and fascinations faces the past, not the future.
*Interestingly, Neverwinter Nights was rebuilt from the ground up after the untimely demise of Bioware’s publisher, Black Isle. It was initially a follow-up to Baldur’s Gate II, whose re-release by Beamdog in 2013 still touts that players can import their BGII characters into Nights. Snap to it, Beamdog! That’s a twenty year-old promise!
D&D Insider: Virtual Tabletop