Once upon a time, I was at a company-wide meeting listening to a presentation about a mysterious acronym: D&DI. It promised to revolutionize D&D as we know it. Game with groups from all corners of the globe! Run players through a customized online dungeon! Bring your game to life with an interactive game table! Slice through a tin can, get out tough stains, and shape your buns and thighs in just three minutes a day!
But wait, there's more?
This was all very exciting, even for someone who can just shout an invitation over a cubicle wall anytime she wants to play D&D. My interest was piqued, however, the second I heard the words "character" and "visualizer." By this time I was fully involved with Astrid, who was a piece of paper and a plastic mini. The character visualizer promised a new level of character immersion -- your character in 3D. I could change her hair color (if she needs to go incognito) and her wardrobe (no white robes after Labor Day). I could pose her in front of different backdrops as if she was a high school senior at the prom. I had visions of a serene blue sky. Or maybe a rustic farm with bales of hay and a wagon wheel. Perhaps a billowing American flag. Oh yes, I was definitely interested in this little offering.
I saw myself hunched over my laptop. "At last!" I would shout, rubbing my hands frantically over the keyboard. "Astrid's alive!"
(Cue lightning and maniacal laughter.)
Perhaps my coworkers pictured it too; I heard several whispers of, "Oh no, she's gonna really lose it now" and "Is she weeping? I think those are tears!"
Much of the following months was spent eavesdropping on Scott's phone conversations. (Inadvertently, I might add, because he's only one cubicle away. He hears me talking to my mom about how to roast asparagus, and I hear him talking to R&D about top-secret digital advances.)
"So, how's that character thing going?" I'd ask, all feigned disinterest. "Need a playtester?"
"Cool your jets, Dr. Frankenstein," he'd say. "It's going, okay?"
And going it went, secretly moving along. I kept hearing whispers of "It's so cool!" from coworkers privy to the magic and many more shouts of "Just leave us alone and let us work!" from others, until the (unfinished) internal alpha version was finally unleashed in all its digital glory.
(Cue more lightning and maniacal laughter.)
I still love Astrid, but I already see her every day staring back from the cover of Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress. (And for those not yet disappointed -- that's Astrid on the cover, not me. Sorry.) But Tabitha -- she was just a figment of my imagination and some basic stats on a character sheet. Eager to digitize her, I tugged on the shirtsleeves of New DM like a toddler at the Sweet Factory: "I want the alpha version, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease!"
He obliged -- sort of -- granting me a supervised visit with the Character Visualizer. I could use it on his computer while he watched me. "Think of it as your learner permit," he said. "You can create characters as long as there's someone more mentally stable than you in the passenger seat. And no creating characters after dusk!"
On a Friday afternoon, New DM and I sat down at his desk to take a stab at bringing Tabby the tiefling to life. I could barely contain myself. Is this what the families left behind on Extreme Makeover feel like before the grand reveal of their loved one? Maybe. Only the families aren't told, "Sorry, your daughter isn't ready yet, so we're going to show you someone else's!"
"You can create a male tiefling wizard or a female human wizard," New DM explains. "But not a female tiefling wizard -- yet. She'll be ready for launch."
I resist the urge to revert back to the sleeve-tugging toddler and throw a hissy fit, since I know New DM is already doing me a favor and could revoke my permit. Well, that and I'm just too excited to wait any longer.
Ever see those TV shows like Made or Make Me a (insert very unlikely career here). No? Well, you're a better person than I am. I don't actually watch those shows, but I have skimmed by them. You take a regular human and turn them into their favorite celebrity. That's what we'll do here with the celebrity being Tabitha.
"It's either that or I do a male tiefling in drag," I tell New DM. (And really, is there a higher compliment?)
New DM resolutely refuses to take part in putting a male tiefling in a dress.
"I'll get beat up in the parking lot," he says. "In fact, I'd beat myself up."
New DM clicks on the female human, and we both snap backward and gasp like grandmas at a Snoop Dog concert. "Nice . . . orbs," I say.
"This is the alpha version, don't forget," he says. "Soon we'll have a bust slider. That way, men will be able to depict the female characters they want, and women will be able to depict the female characters they want."
"This girl needs a visit to Dr. 90210 before she does a face-plant onto your keyboard."
New DM turns every shade on the top row in a Crayola 64-pack, and honestly, I'm also uncomfortable with him seeing human Tabitha like this.
"They're fake," I tell New DM. "You know that, right?"
"Whatever you say," he says. "Can we move on?"
Of course, but before we do, I ask him to show me one more thing: male humans.
The male counterpart is a brawny, statuesque Armani model who looks as if he'd be just as comfortable poaching goblins as he would be oiled and shirtless, tangled in a pair of satin sheets on the set of Days of Our Lives. That works.
After I have selected my race, I select a customized background. The dwarves are depicted before majestic peaks and a mountain fortress. The dragonborn are set amid their ancient ruins. My faux Tabitha teeters on a barren mountaintop looking across the vast ocean to volcanic ranges. It's quite beautiful. But there will probably be a Wal-Mart here the next time I visit.
I can adjust my height and weight using a sliding scale. If only life were that easy. The height option lets you squish your character like a marshmallow or stretch them like taffy. And no, you can't be a 6-foot-3 halfling. Each race is preprogrammed with a realistic range.
The Portrait feature is my favorite. Here you can customize the look of your characters with everything from the chisel of their cheekbones to the arch of their eyebrows to the color of their skin. With so many distinguishing details at your fingertips, you can't help but feel like the head lifeguard overseeing a gigantic gene pool. I'm especially fond of the glow option, instantly giving your alter ego the radiant shimmer only promised by the hundreds of dollars worth of lotions under my bathroom sink.
We give the human Tabitha a reddish skin tone, attempting to give her a demon-from-another-plane look. She kind of resembles me after spending nine hours in a swimming pool on a vacation in Orlando, minus the blisters and eyes swollen shut. My mom still insists I was old enough to apply my own "damn sunscreen." I was six. But I digress.
No offense to tieflings, but this human is too pretty to pass as Tabitha. We fix that soon enough by morphing her face into hardened, square-jawed toughness: "I went through hell just on my way to the coffeemaker this morning, and I ain't afraid of going back for more." We give her a green-eyed glower with glowing black pupils, which follow us around New DM's cubicle. (Yes, I know tieflings don't have pupils, but this looked really, really cool. So, she wears contacts.)
What are you looking at, punk?
"Yikes," New DM says. "What's her problem?"
"Not sure," I say. "Considering you're probably the first guy to notice she has a face, you'd think she'd be thrilled."
We complete the look by choosing her hair color and style. I opt for the dark, blunt-banged bob because . . . well . . . okay. It's just a coincidence.
You can dress her up and take her out when she's loaded up on weapon choices. As a wizard, she can choose from any of the wizard implements: orb, staff, or wand. One for each hand! I give her an iridescent orb for her left and an ornately designed wand for the right. New DM geeks out a little when he then shows off one of the coolest features the visualizer has to offer. You can have your character make a fist so she can adjust her grip by opening and closing her hand. (Okay, I geek out a bit too.) We spend the next fifteen minutes making the digital Tabitha open and close her fist as if she's trying out a new "now you see it, now you don't" trick. If she were alive, she'd make us both disappear.
Finally we get to the important stuff: wardrobe. Any adventurer worth her rations wouldn't be caught unconscious tromping through town in those starter clothes. Please! You couldn't fend off fog in those duds.
New DM and I scroll through the clothing choices. I feel like I'm one of the hosts on What Not to Wear Adventuring.
Miniskirt and crop top?
Not appropriate for anyone over the age of 140.
Lara Croft catsuit? Too confining and way too unforgiving.
"Whoa!" New DM says, fumbling with the mouse.
"Put some clothes on, young lady!" I shout. "You are not going adventuring like that!" My mom wouldn't even let me go out wearing dangly earrings.
Tabs gets comfy in a pair of skinny jeans, a T-shirt, and a pair of knee-high boots. And you can choose the colors for every item. New DM suggests we give her pants a glow, but I decline. What message would that send?
Something's missing. Oh yes -- accessories. I choose a pair of bracers for her forearms taking her outfit from day to evening. She also gets a pouch to strap onto her belt loop for all those pesky incidentals like house keys, ID, and scrolls.
"It's not a fanny pack!" I argue. "It's a practical piece of adventuring gear."
"Maybe she'd like a pair of hot pink leggings and a T-shirt with a basket full of kittens on it."
Being a poser is never a compliment, but it is another cool feature. Sure, miniatures are a great visual for a game around the table, but I find it amusing how they are usually posed for a fight even when they are supposedly meditating or kicking back in a pub. With the visualizer, you not only get to create your physical character, your character can get physical. Stand them battle-ready like a goalie posing for a hockey card, or give them a pensive warrior pose (which set against the scenic human landscape looks like someone's Hawaiian honeymoon photo). If you switch between the poses fast enough, they look like a flipbook.
With her wand brandished above her head and her orb driven in front of her, Tabitha is ready for action. She's a force to be reckoned with, an accomplished wizard. She's crouching Tabitha, hidden dragon. We do a 360-degree view before I'm satisfied. New DM takes a snapshot of Miss Tabitha -- another feature the visualizer has to offer.
One of the best features for someone obsessive -- I mean, creative -- is the multiple save slots you get per character. That's multiple versions of your character in different poses, with different backgrounds, and with a variety of wardrobe options (or if you want, multiple characters). Better yet, you can save every image and turn them into a slideshow screensaver -- I mean, if you were fanatical enough to do something like that.
Seeing Tabitha all armored up and pissed off, knowing she wears that scowl because of the backstory I created, makes me even more excited for Tuesdays, when I play her. I carry around human Tabitha's snapshots and show them around the office.
"Look at my character!" I insist. "Isn't she pretty?"
And when the rest of my group creates their characters, we can sit around the conference room table showing off pictures, like new parents at a Gymboree class.
"Oh, Marty," I'll say. "He has your eyes!"
"Oh, Shelly," he'll say. "She has your haircut."
Best of all, when Scott calls her a cream puff, I can tell him to say it to her face.