RPGs: The Virtual Tabletop

I promised to write about this subject in an earlier post, and I do try to keep my promises about such things.

So. What’s a virtual tabletop? you ask. (I’ll wait…ah, thank you, there in the back.) A virtual tabletop (VTT) is a piece of software intended to simulate the experience of playing with others face to face. At a minimum, it needs space in which to show graphics: the background of the space in which an encounter takes plus, along with markers for the players’ characters, their opponents, and other features of the scene like furnishings, giant statues ready to be pushed over, and so on. It also needs the ability to take input from participants about what sorts of rolls they’re making on behalf of their characters and show the outcomes of those rolls. It may also have a lot of other bells and whistles.

I’ve been running Dungeons & Dragons in its new 4th edition flavor lately, and using VTT programs. I have two groups, one with players ranging from here on the West Coast way over to the Atlantic seaboard, and the other ranging from the middle of the US west as far as China. We wouldn’t be gathering face-to-face regularly. But we do have sessions almost every week.

The popular favorite of the moment is Maptool, an actively developed Java application that seems to run reasonably well on just about all the computers my players and I use for the game. It can be a little hard to describe some of the features of Maptool (and other VTTs) with just text, so I’ll point to the screenshot gallery for Maptool to help illustrate some points. We started off using the also-often-recommended Gametable, which has a great suite of features but is much less well documented or supported than Maptool. In a separate post, I’ll round up some other worthies.

The first thing that struck me is how spiffy an encounter can look, thanks to graphics created by others. For instance, Wizards of the Coast has dozens of tiles intended for use with the D&D miniatures game which also work great in VTT. Classic dungeon rooms and recurring elements are here for the picking. Then there are fan forums like the one at GM’s Apprentice, with the mind-boggling CSUAC archive of hundreds of elements, from sci-fi engine components to various kinds of mossy ground cover, with ruins, campfires, dropped weapons and clothing, locomotives, horse tracks, and a whole lot more in between. The experience of assembling a map with these is, for me at least, really very much like using terrain counters and such on a real tabletop, except that I don’t have to shoo the cat off or worry about spills.

To use these in play, one person sets up the VTT in host or server mode, and the others connect. Some VTTs rely on fixed hosting sites while others run independently, but the effect is much the same in play either way: one participant says “come here” and the others say “on our way.”

VTTs let the game master set up layered graphics. The graphic for a big fiery brazier, for instance, might be set as background that the characters move around and don’t otherwise interact with, or it might be an object that can be moved, pushed, and otherwise brought into the action. It’s possible to change these assignments on the fly, too. Furthermore, the GM can put down hidden elements like traps and ambushers to be revealed only when the characters detect them. It’s also possible to get quite a bit fancier, in at least some VTTs, with features like fog of war and detailed line-of-sight indicators. I, being but an egg, haven’t yet messed with such things, though I hope to soon.

One doesn’t have to rely on the graphical kindness of strangers, either. VTTs incorporate enough drawing tools to set down lines and curves, polygons of different sorts, and so on —the stuff you’d find in any good basic program. So the cybercartographer can mix and match original work with homemade and others’ images imported for the purpose. My players are busily creating tokens for their characters out of artwork done by other players, swiped from IMDB publicity photos, or otherwise harvested, and also custom overlays to indicate the use of character powers.

It’s my impression that a lot of players use voice-over-IP software like Teamspeak and Skype with their play. My groups don’t, mostly because we prefer the freedom of opportunity that comes from text-only interactions. The light-hearted adventurous warrior maiden is easier to suspend disbelief for (for us, anyway) when she doesn’t sound like the light-hearted but very masculine player behind her, and ditto with the strapping young paladin and his player, the slightly-built Asian-American woman. If there’s interest, I’ll try a supplemental post about voice-using play some other time. In any event, VTTs do come with basic built-in chat features, allowing participants to type as themselves and using aliases for characters, to send private whispers back and forth, and to roll the dice, and to set up macros for easy generation of more complex output. They also generate log files; the ones I’ve used all put the chat history in convenient HTML form for our later reference.

Maptool adds wonderful goodies like an initiative tracker. At the start of an encounter, all the participants roll dice to determine the order in which characters act. In Maptool, we can add a note about the initiative for each character, and then in a side window I as GM get a sortable list of all the people and things involved and click a Next button to cycle on through. Whenever initiative passes to a player’s character, it’s announced in chat too, so not only is the order correct, but the software nudges players on my behalf. D&D 4th edition involves a lot of multi-participant fights, characters often up against several times their own number of enemies, and having all this tracked is more of a blessing than I can properly describe. It’s precisely the sort of thing I get muddled and/or slow on if I have to do it myself, and frees me to focus on better fun like more vivid descriptions of efforts and outcomes.

The real question is, is it a worthy addition to or replacement for actual face-to-face play? The answer is, as usual with questions of that sort in my posts, “It depends.”

For me and my players, the answer’s a big yes. We never would have face-to-face play, not being globetrotters. Furthermore, given my chronic health problems, it’s often feasible for me to manage typing and clicking at times I couldn’t safely deal with people up close and personal. I like the opportunity to convey personas far from my own and to grant them a level of reality all their own. So do some of my players for reasons that encompass shyness, physical deformity, English as a second language, and a lot more.

For others, no, not at all. They have opportunity for face-to-face play, they like it, they’re bugged by the inevitably slower pace of interaction—on a good day, I figure that one of my three-hour sessions accomplishes about what 90-120 minutes would in person, and accept that as part of the price of it happening at all—and so on. All I ask is that if you’re one of these, and you want to comment, please don’t waste my time telling me how my choice is inferior, it all sucks except the way you do it, or any of that junk that always seems to come up in discussions of this sort. (Am I irritable? Yes. Being lectured about how I shouldn’t want to or try to have fun the way I am gets old.)

I will say: it works very well for some people, and it is worth a look. The rest is up to you, your oversoul, and the inclinations of the cosmos. It’s let me get in more gaming the last couple months than I did all of last year, with the prospect of more coming, and I hope that it may be fun for some of you wishing for gaming you haven’t been getting.


[Photo by Flickr user fyuryu, CC-licensed for commercial use.]

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