There has recently been an explosion of websites and programs which allow for players to play their favorite tabletop role-playing games over the internet. For those of you who many not be aware, these services, such as Fantasy Grounds, Roll20, and Fabletop, use webcams and software to mimic a tabletop gaming experience, down to rolling dice, map grid, and miniatures. They also can add a variety of other features using the magic of computers, such as dynamic lighting and automated stats. I recently wrapped up a campaign on Roll20, which was my first experience using an online tabletop platform. Here are a few of my impressions:
1. Easy to use-
The game interface is simple enough to get playing right away. And why shouldn’t it? Online role-playing can be accomplished with just a random number generator and a webcam. Even without any knowledge of how to use any fancy features which are included, you can still effectively participate. Many of the features (e.g. integrated character sheets, miniatures) are intuitive enough that it doesn’t take a computer genius to figure out how to use them. Once everything is set up correctly, playing the game becomes a breeze; no longer will you ever need to search multiple pages of a character sheet to determine roll bonuses, as all of them can be automatically applied at the push of a button.
2. Hard to master-
The software used in these programs is very robust and can be used to create a customized experience for the player. That being said, it might take a computer genius to get the most out of these features. There is a fairly steep learning curve to master some of the more complex features in these platforms, such as creating macros for taking specific actions, integrating conditional statements, and troubleshooting the technical issues which inevitably will arise with the user’s hardware (best solution: turn your computer off and back on again). Being the GM in an online campaign requires additional knowledge of the programs’ capabilities; however, as I was but a player in my game, I cannot speak to the GM’s experience.
3. No dress code-
You no longer have to worry about being decent to go to gaming. You can now role-play in your three-day old, dirty, inside out tidy-whities and no one will even bat an eye. However, care must be taken when you get up to go to the bathroom…
4. Linear conversation-
Unlike when a group is playing in person, there can only be one person talking at a time; it becomes impossible to understand multiple people talking through computer speakers at once. If your in-person group is anything like mine, there’s at least three conversations happening at all times, with the volume steadily rising to a dull roar before the GM calls for order. Limiting the chatter to a single conversation keeps everyone engaged in the story and the actions being taken by their fellow players. However, it also removes some of the fun that comes along with being able to have free-form conversations with fellow players.
5. Private conversations-
Even though only one person may be able to talk at a time, that’s not to say that you can’t be communicating. Typing may not be a particularly desirable way of communication, but it allows for characters to have private conversations with each other and the GM. The GM can assign characters confidential information not available to the whole party, characters can make secret plans unbeknownst to their fellow party members, and yes, you can still make snide comments about the GM privately with your friends. This sort of secrecy is difficult to obtain in-person, as typically the entire group knows when there has been secret information passed (even if they don’t know what that information is) as the GM has to pull someone aside or text them.
6. Sensory component-
I had assumed that the visual elements would distract from the gaming experience, but it was rather the opposite: having the map grid and miniatures take center screen aided in visualizing what was going on. Furthermore, there are a variety of features which enhance the effect, such as fog of war and dynamic lighting. Moving your character through a dark, incredibly detailed dungeon, being able to see no further than the light of your torch, combines some of the best aspects of video games (that edge-of-your-seat tension) with tabletop role-playing. Sound effects and music can also be easily integrated into the game, if desired.
7. No free snacks-
you can no longer mooch off of your friends’ food. You must provide any snacks or beverages for yourself, which is a real letdown.
The best thing about online tabletop platforms (and I would say their raison d'être) is that they allow you to play with people with which you otherwise wouldn’t be able. It has allowed me to stay connected with my previous role-playing group, despite moving down to Texas. That being said, the experience isn’t quite the same as playing in person; there’s something about the in-person interactions that webcam and typing alone can’t replicate.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the experience and some of the features which aren’t replicable in plain tabletop (especially private chat with the GM and dynamic visual effects). It offered a unique role-playing experience that didn’t lose much of the character of the tabletop gaming experience (I was concerned it would feel too much like a video game). For those of you who’ve never tried it before, I’d definitely suggest giving it a try. It’s a great way to stay connected with fellow gamers who may be far away. Or if you just don’t get enough role-playing with your in-person group, there are a multitude of gaming groups you can find around the interwebz; just be careful though, you never know how many of them are playing in their underwear.
- Jake is the least experienced and most underpaid writer at High Level Games. Living in Texas, he is also the southernmost contributor to the site.
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