In a role-playing game (RPG), players assume the role of a specific character within a fictional setting, interacting with one another to create a collaborative story. The roots of modern RPGs date back to the 1970s with Dungeons & Dragons. However, the art of role-playing goes back as far as 16th century Europe with traveling improvisational theatre groups.
Since inception, RPGs have thrived across a number of platforms, including tabletop, live-action, and most recently (and arguably the most popular) video games. And, like so many other forms of entertainment, RPGs continue to evolve.
Within the last few years, RPGs have moved to a new digital platform where players can simulate tabletop RPG interaction from the comfort of their desktop, laptop, or even tablet. It’s not a video game—at least not in the traditional sense—it’s called virtual tabletop.
Expanding, Connecting, and Enhancing
Virtual tabletop is an online platform that enables players to participate in traditional tabletop games on their computer or, in some cases, portable device. And while not a replacement for traditional tabletop RPGs, virtual tabletop is an effective tool for easily expanding your gaming community, playing RPGs with favorite gaming groups across long distances, or simply enhancing a traditional RPG experience.
Virtual tabletop platforms are a great way to connect with other gaming groups, play in a variety of different campaigns, and meet new players. Almost all the platforms we’ve looked at support well-trafficked online forums, and a few provide tools for directly finding new players or joining new groups.
These platforms are also ideal for helping you stay connected with long-time gaming groups. Inevitably, life-changing events require players to move away; whether that’s due to a job opportunity, school, or personal obligation. Virtual tabletop platforms are the only good option for continuing to play with the same gaming group. A few platforms even support play on tablets, making it easy to join/check in while traveling.
Lastly, virtual tabletop platforms are a great way to enhance your existing tabletop gaming experience. Digital mapping makes it easy for game masters (GMs) to plan ahead and ensure seamless transition between maps. GMs can secretly mark traps or hidden items/enemies, revealing them with the simple click of a button. Some platforms offer access to music players and track lists for those groups who like to complement their adventures with background music.
There are a number of virtual tabletop platforms to choose from, many of which were created by developers who recognized a need for the software because it was something they desired. A short list of providers with a sizeable user base can be found here. It’s worth doing your own research and choosing the platform that works best for you.
How We Roll
Having need for a virtual tabletop platform a few years ago, I did extensive research into my available options and decided to go with Roll20. My decision largely hinged on the fact that I am both cheap and not incredibly tech savvy. Roll20 provides a user-friendly design and a base-level subscription that is 100% free.
Created by Riley Dutton, Richard Zayas, and Nolan T. Jones as a means of keeping in touch via long-distance gaming, Roll20 launched as a Kickstarter in April of 2012. “Since our launch, Roll20 has attracted more than 1.5 million users,” said Suzanne Wallace, brand manager at Roll20. “We quickly discovered there was a huge audience out there looking to satisfy pen-and-paper gaming with an easy-to-use, online tabletop experience.”
Roll20 runs directly in your web browser with nothing to download or install. Don’t let the name fool you: from Pathfinder to Shadowrun, Roll20 is compatible with a wide variety of RPG and dice systems. I’ve had success playing well-known games like Star Wars as well as somewhat obscure titles like Atomic Highway.
Whether you need basic dice rolls, advanced macros, turn trackers, or simple markers, Roll20 is suitable for any tabletop RPG. “It works well with all gaming systems,” said C.J. Mann, a long-time gamer who’s been using Roll20 for the past three years. “Once you familiarize yourself with the system, it’s easy to get the dice to do what you need. You can configure everything to a simple, single button.”
And Roll20 is consistently making enhancements and working to improve their platform. “Coming up next will be an update to the art library management system,” said Wallace, “so users can better organize their tokens, maps, and other content.”
What You Can Expect to Pay
“Subscribers can choose one of three levels,” said Wallace. “The base subscription is free, while Plus and Pro are paid subscription levels. Roll20 is incredibly user-friendly and a great option, even at the base level; especially for players.”
The free, base-level subscription features everything you need to get started, including an available library of maps and tokens, 3D die rolling, voice and video chat, and the ability to create comprehensive macros.
For Plus and Pro subscriptions, users benefit from enhanced features like additional storage for maps, tokens, and characters; dynamic lighting, which allows the GM to control what players see as they move around the map; custom scripts; and tablet compatibility. “Our paid subscriptions…essentially create more opportunities for GMs to make immersive, visual gameplay for their campaigns,” said Wallace. The Plus subscription costs $4.99/month or $49.99/year while the price for the Pro account is $9.99/month or $99.99/year.
Joining the Adventure
With so many aspects of our lives making a digital transition, there’s no reason to think tabletop RPGs would be any different. The virtual tabletop is the next RPG evolution. Whether you’re looking at expanding your community, playing long distance, or enhancing a traditional experience, it’s worth checking out.
“There are a lot of systems out there like Roll20,” said Mann. “Some are free, some are paid, but of all the ones I’ve tried, Roll20 is the best and the Plus account is definitely worth its value.” Good products speak for themselves, but do your research and choose the platform that works best for you.