IT’S FAIR TO say that the virtualization of our lives has become one of the standout frontiers of the 21st century, which the metaverse stands to accelerate. One of the hottest testbeds for this market will likely be the augmentation of realities we associate with our desks and tables for work and play, as well as any other spare pieces of furniture we have lying around. Mirrorscape, an AR platform bringing augmented reality to tabletop gaming, is one of many companies eager to jump in and apply AR technologies to a space they feel makes sense for consumers.
But first, when was the last time you played a tabletop game at an actual table?
For most of us, the communal influence of friends and allies joined around the table in pursuit of adventure has become harder and harder to organize, as modern life drags us further apart.
While we’ve been saved from the doom of a lockdown without roleplaying by services like Roll20 and D&D Beyond, they’re both part of an ongoing digital transition turning Dungeons & Dragons and games like it into PDF-juggling, tab-switching, Discord-channeling screen-fests, which can feel vastly removed from tabletop gaming.
As is often the case, what technology complicates, yet more technology aims to simplify. Mirrorscape is a new augmented reality tabletop platform, mapmaker, and toolset seeking to bring people back to the table, by conjuring a dungeon onto it to quest through with your friends around the world. With an iOS or Android phone or tablet, or even augmented reality glasses, you’ll be able to see tabletop gaming come alive in your living room.
The platform joins Ardent Roleplay, Tilt Five, and Spatial, the latter two Kickstarters from 2019 that both hinged upon the purchase of hefty peripherals, and Ardent being an app like Mirrorscape that is compatible with phones. While all advertise the ability to simulate tabletop roleplaying experiences, only Ardent resembles a holistic, functioning platform for D&D to rival Mirrorscape.
A widely compatible AR tabletop platform that can simulate anything from chess to Horus’ Siege of Terra—handling all the background math and centering dynamic graphics—has been the fervent hope of many a TTRPG fan ever since the Minecraft HoloLens demo at E3 in 2015.
WIRED spoke to the Mirrorscape team to understand how the service works. “We wanted to keep the best parts of D&D, getting together with your fellow players, in concert with the technical innovations revolutionizing the game,” Grant Anderson, Mirrorscape’s CEO, tells WIRED. “The company already boasts partnerships with HeroForge, Fat Dragon, and Dwarven Forge, who are just some of the model manufacturers interested in bringing their art to the augmented table. We’re integrating Fifth Edition, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Cthulhu, and many more, including Games Workshop franchises, but we’re also building that functionality with customization in mind.”
“This is the perfect hybrid,” adds Eric McIntire, the company’s brand manager. “No one gets left out because of distance or technology, and it’s all through one versatile platform that makes sense of every player’s circumstance.”
Even Joe Manganiello, who is Mirrorscape's creative director as well as star of True Blood and Magic Mike, agrees. “I am both excited and invigorated to be a part of the Mirrorscape team,” he explains. “Through their technology I have seen the future of gaming and entertainment and I am incredibly passionate about getting it into the hands of the public.”
After discussing and demoing the system, it became clear to me that the developers had certainly thought of everything, but in the process had set themselves an incredible standard to meet. With the myriad demands of the tabletop gaming community, they were pulling themselves in many different directions with a technology that's still quite alien to consumers.
At present, Mirrorscape offers a 3D tabletop map builder and interface the company says is fully compatible with augmented reality technology, online lobbies, editable assets, and compatibility with various devices. In the future, the interface will sport animated character models and monsters, sparkling spell effects, and complex environments. The devs also expressed interest in integrating complex gesture controls, facial tracking, haptic feedback, and advanced geolocation tools.
“We intend to grow in tandem with the emerging technologies of simulated reality,” Anderson explains. “Something else we’re excited to include is Unity-based puzzles created by the community and using 3D assets that you can manipulate with your hands, or perhaps using geolocation tools to move the adventure outside into nature, like Pokémon Go did so famously.”
But the system isn’t just for private games; it’s built for streamers too. In addition to watching a D&D stream, viewers can load up an AR projection of the game onto their own coffee table (or any device for that matter), allowing them to watch the action from any angle as it unfolds.
Ardent Roleplay has a similar model, though they make use of physical cards, which their app recognizes and renders animated 3D models on top of, and are only experimenting with table-wide dungeon projection. Like Mirrorscape, their offering is still growing, currently leaning on a variety of outsourced systems to handle the ins and outs of a play session, but they’ve had a head start in the market, granting them a certain player base as well as connections with streamers with whom they’re actively playing with.
While AR and VR technologies are notoriously cost-prohibitive today, that may not always be the case. As tech giants ominously augment reality around us, we could find the technology become rapidly more accessible, as we did with smartphones.
Breaking down cost and technical barriers to the game, as well as organization hurdles, throws open the doors for entire demographics of new players, even subverting certain physical requirements that make the game prohibitive for disabled people.
Ambitiously, Mirrorscape also intends to serve as a springboard for creators too, by integrating the tools to create and share custom content. Players can already share their maps on the prototype, which will one day be able to showcase custom stat blocks, rulesets, character options, environment art, and special effects.
“We want to democratize this process,” Anderson insists, “with low costs of entry, making it affordable and cooperative, supporting creators who want to build something special, and accommodating the infrastructure to get them paid for their time.”
“It’s hard to remember,” McIntire adds, “but before YouTube, independent filmmakers and content creators didn’t really have a flagship platform to go to. It wasn’t really a job as we understand it today before the 2010s. I think homebrewers, tabletop artists, and freelance DMs are still in that position. We want to answer that demand with a platform and social network for tabletop creators and indie game makers, that lets them do sustainable business.”
Mirrorscape isn’t the first virtualized tech project to put developing power in the hands of its early adopters. From Oculus to Tilt Five, developers have shipped dev kits to early adopters, almost as if they’re reliant on the free labor they’re tempting customers into. But Mirrorscape does appear unique in its stance on expanding the homebrew economy and the creative license owed to the fandom.
Anyone reading the news would think ours were a time of franchise owners doubling down on IP protection. As recently as mid-2021. Games Workshop clamped down on nonprofit fan animations, perhaps galled by the success of Syama Pedersen’s Astartes Project.
“We’re not a company that thinks we have all the answers,” concludes Don Bland, COO at Mirrorscape, “we think that our audience does. Enabling and empowering that audience will create the proving ground to build out the future of play on the tabletop.”
This, combined with their collaborate-to-compete strategy, sounds encouraging.
The crucial part of visualizing in-depth roleplaying on the table is one of cinematography, something few virtualized entertainment projects have made themselves known for. Naturally, the bar for setting the scene in roleplay is high, having been long defined by the limitless capacity of nerd imagination. With an entirely unproven technology, augmented reality is ill-placed to deliver to such a standard, making this a stumbling block for any developer.
“We’re still working out how to make this a real cinematic experience,” Don Bland admits, “that accommodates the many, many ways this game can be played and enjoyed.”
It’s easy to get excited about the augmented tabletop, for how it might further revitalize tabletop gaming, galvanizing the momentum Dungeons & Dragons has trailblazed in the 2010s, and bringing the alarmingly cool worlds of Games Workshop to life for the first time.
As Joe Manganiello beautifully summed up, “Our success in creative fields was forged out of putting in our 10,000 hours as kids sitting around tables with graph paper and lead pencils developing characters and stories. We were the generation dreaming of this day decades ago and now here we are finally bringing it to the masses.”