Here be dragons: A look at virtual game tables

I got my first Dungeons & Dragons box set when I was about ten, and it wasn’t long before I had co-opted family and friends alike into letting me run a session of the role-playing game. But the older I got, the harder it was to assemble a group of like-minded individuals who were geographically close enough to actually sit down and play.

Fortunately, we live in an era where marvelous things are possible; someone like me, for example, can reside in an entirely different state from my employer and still eke out a (mostly) honest living. So, in this age of telecommunication, it shouldn’t be much of a challenge to provide a way for disparate parties to engage in a little old-fashioned tabletop action.

There are, as it turns out, plenty of software options for those looking to gather a party of adventurers and set forth. So many, in fact, that it might be hard to determine which one is the best. As with a great many things in life, that depends on your needs. Here’s a rundown of some of the more significant players in the arena.

Roll20

How I roll: Roll20 may not be as featureful as some of its competitors, but it has a good degree of polish.

Like many of the newer tabletop environments, Roll20 is entirely browser-based. After you create a free account on the site, you make a campaign to which you can invite your friends (or strangers, if that’s the way you roll the polyhedral dice). As with most of these offerings, Roll20 provides you with the ability to create maps based on hexagonal or square grids; drop in tokens that represent players, non-player characters, monsters, and objects; and roll virtual dice.

Roll20 includes built-in voice and video chat, and can even be launched as part of a Google Hangout. That makes communicating with your fellow party members pretty easy, and doesn’t force you to fall back on another external option like Skype.

For a relatively new system, Roll20 has a surprising amount of polish. It lets you assign stats to tokens, and even allows the creation of auras (areas of effect that move along with a token). There’s a modest initiative-tracking system, and a built-in art library that provides a surprising amount of free tokens, maps, tiles, and portraits with which to flesh out your campaign. There’s even a music jukebox that lets you select appropriate thematic tracks to broadcast to your players, though I found most of the music more annoying than atmospheric, and there’s no way I could find to add your own tracks.

For all its virtues, Roll20 is still pretty new, so there are some rough edges. Its main drawback, though, is that it has fewer features than some of the more venerable software packages. Its macro support, in particular, is very basic, and it lacks the ability to store character stats in a fashion that can actually be accessed by macros.

But Roll20 remains impressive, especially given its nature as a Kickstarter project that was funded only as of May this year. Perhaps most interestingly, Roll20 is pretty much the only of the solutions that actually seems to be considering how to keep its service afloat: It includes a marketplace where artists can sell their own custom tiles, maps, and tokens. There’s also been discussion of what premium features users would be willing to pay for, while allowing most people to continue using the service for free.

Given all it’s accomplished so far, it seems likely that Roll20 will only continue to improve and become a more robust solution as time goes on.

Tabletop Forge

Forge ahead: While it has an ambitious roadmap, Tabletop Forge still needs a lot of work.

Another project that started as a Kickstarter, Tabletop Forge acquired its funding as of July 9 this year, and is currently in the process of building out its system. The group has laid out its plans for the future, envisioning a solution that’s able to accommodate any gaming system that users might want, and which includes features like dynamic character sheets, persistent Hangout data, and integration with Obsidian Portal, an online resource for developing RPG campaigns.

Like Roll20, Tabletop Forge works as part of a Google Hangout—but that’s the only option in this case; there’s no standalone method. The app offers a gridded map, the ability to add images and tokens, and a freeform drawing tool. There’s also integration with Google Images and your Google Drive, so you can drop in data or files that you’ve collected there, but those are still in testing, so they can be somewhat persnickety.

Unfortunately, that’s about par for the course. Despite achieving its funding last month, there appears to have been fairly little movement on Tabletop Forge’s development, and the tools are so unwieldy at present that it’s really not functional (or fun) to use them for a real game. It’s not worth investing the time to learn the system when it’s not ready for the big leagues, but with its ambitious feature list, you wouldn’t go amiss to cast an eye from time to time to see how progress is faring.

MapTool

Treasure map: MapTool is by far the most powerful of these options, but it has a high degree of complexity and a not-so-great interface.

Not only is MapTool indisputably the most powerful of the options here, but it’s arguably the godfather of online tabletop tools. Dating back several years, MapTool has even spawned additional tools for characters, initiative, and creating tokens. It’s about as full-featured a suite of tools as you’ll find.

Unlike the systems above, MapTool is an actual application that runs on your computer and operates on a client/server model. One player, usually the game master (GM), hosts a server and other players join. Since the application is based on Java, it’ll run on any desktop platform out there, and because it’s open-source, it won’t cost you a dime. There’s also a hearty community of users and developers alike, many of whom are exceptionally helpful to users just getting started.

For a GM, MapTool provides just about every tool one could want. Multiple maps, robust drawing tools, an immensely powerful macro system, variable lighting, fog of war visibility controls, token states and conditions, and much, much more. Indeed, with the help of some user-developed frameworks (sets of macros), it’s almost possible to turn gaming into an entirely automated experience. Of course, where would the fun be in that?

As you might expect from an open-source project, MapTool’s considerable power isn’t without cost. The program has a steep learning curve—after years of using it to run and play in campaigns, I often still feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of what it’s capable of.

More than that, so much energy is focused on the power and functionality of MapTool that it often feels like the interface and friendliness has suffered. Checkboxes upon checkboxes govern arcane features, and key configuration options are squirreled away deep inside dialog boxes. Macros are powerful, yes, but also take a dedication to studying the technical-but-occasionally-spotty documentation and extensive trial and error. And if I could tell you the number of hours I’ve whiled away helping a GM friend correctly configure port forwarding, well, you would likely break down and cry—very much as I nearly have.

Other options

Of course, these are hardly the only three options for running your campaign online. From the ultra-simple make-do-with-a-Google Hangout to systems that require you to install and configure a particular programming language, there’s something out there for every intrepid gamer. All you need to bring is your sense of adventure and, of course, some friends.

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