Tabletop roleplaying games are a great way to bring people together, they’re the spirit of the stories we tell with our friends so we can traverse lands as immersive as our own imaginations. However, over the coming months of self-isolation, you might find yourself without the ability to see the people you normally campaign with, or feel deprived of many other activities that would be within the realms of ‘normal’ for our everyday lives. Our freedom to go outside is set aside to help flatten the curve, protecting those most vulnerable in our society during this global pandemic. While we may not be able to contribute directly to the front line like our health care workers can for example, we can help ease the strain on our country’s human and financial resources from the comfort of our own homes. What a time to be alive!
Necessity is the mother of invention and in this moment of need, new ways to play our beloved tabletop roleplaying games are being forged and really taking hold. The RPG community is migrating online to continue their campaigns and discovering tools for remote play that not only enhance aspects of communication and gameplay, but also keep things like social distancing in mind as well.
These tools give us the ability to work with our party members even if they aren’t in the same room (or country!), as well as resolving common gameplay issues like information sharing and reducing metagaming too. Not to mention the rise of augmented reality in gaming and how accessible it can be to players in 2020!
So how do you go from sitting around a table with friends, rule books, pencil & paper, dice, miniatures, and maps, to something just as immersive, engaging, and fun, but online?
We’ll assume you’ve already got the friends, but if not, tabletop roleplaying groups on Facebook and Reddit also often have callouts for new online players.
To connect with your friends for a game, the most straight forward option is to just give them a call. Online options for video chats, or even just open audio channels, include Skype (50 participants), Google Hangouts (15 participants), Facebook Group Video Chat (6 participants), and Facetime (32 participants). Zoom (100 participants) also provides great quality connections, but requires a paid account for calls longer than 40 minutes.
Message based collaboration platforms like Discord and Slack are also a great way to manage players. This is done through a series of categories and channels designed to house the information, from locations explored, to channels for sheets and dice rolling through bots like Dice Maiden, to notes left for the players, or reminders to self for the GM.
Rule Books as PDF
For the game rules, there are many free starter guides available that you and your (old or new) friends can download as PDFs, and full guides and adventures available to purchase at DriveThruRPG. In the fantasy genre, there are Chaosium’s RuneQuest, Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons, and Paizo’s Pathfinder. If you’d like something more horror-themed, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu is definitely worth trying out. There are also science fiction RPGs, modern-day settings with Vampire, Werewolves, Angels, and many more. We’ve added a list of some of our favourites below. These usually have enough rules to get everyone started, both players and the game master, and also a sample adventure to play.
Pencil, Paper and Dice Apps
These are used for the players’ character sheets and actions, and perfectly fine to keep using the physical versions. If you’d like there are digital and online options available, both for managing your characters
D&D Beyond (web based, for D&D)
Reroll (iOS & Android)
Cthulhu RPG (Android, for Call of Cthulhu)
and for rolling dice:
Dungeon Dice (iOS)
RPG Simple Dice (Android)
Some of the virtual tabletop systems, which we’ll get to in the section on Maps, also have support for shared sheets and rolls.
Miniatures in Augmented Reality
The centerpiece of tabletop roleplaying games is the world in which the characters explore and enact their adventures. Models of creatures, scenery, characters, and props can make a story really come alive in the minds of the players.
Augmented reality has made access to such miniature models truly affordable, thanks to the amazing capabilities of our mobile phones and tablets.
AR miniatures also go beyond physical miniatures, because it allows for the models to be animated, such as fire breathing dragons and dramatic death animations, and for scenery to have special effects like explosions, storms, and traps. And because augmented reality models are viewed separately by each player, the game master can show every player specifically what only their character would see. So the Rogue sees the amulet, but only the Warlock sees that it is cursed. No more having to make believe that you didn’t hear the GM tell another player about something you shouldn’t know!
There is really only one augmented reality app for tabletop RPGs on the market currently. Ardent Roleplay uses Android and iOS devices as the augmented reality viewer, and cards as markers that the miniatures appear on. Apart from adding animated settings, creatures, characters, NPCs and interactable objects to any campaign, other in-app features were designed to enhance general gameplay too. Managing secrets and personalised information to players is easy when using this tool – it also saves the GM preparation time and helps those who might struggle with Theatre of the Mind .
The $15USD GM subscription with a 30 day free trial gives the GM access to literally hundreds of miniatures, with more added every month. The desktop Creation Kit app lets you tune every model for your campaign, and assign these to cards as needed for each session, so don’t worry about having to keep getting new ones. There are also free Print and Play cards available to download or view on another device, and if you only have the one device and no printer, players can still use the 3D viewer to explore what they’re shown. With Ardent Roleplay the GM and players don’t need to be in the same location, so everyone can get the miniatures on the table experience, even when you’re playing remotely.
Maps on Virtual Tabletops
For visualising where everyone’s character is in relation to the models, the way we do with battle maps or miniature terrain and models, virtual tabletop systems can be used. The main ones are Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and Astral TT, and these generally have a retro 80s 2D top-down computer game feel. They often also have GM/Player text chat logs, and audio or video links, although the quality of these can be mixed and a lot of players end up using an open channel on one of the dedicated video conferencing apps instead.
If you’re using Ardent Roleplay for remote play with AR miniatures, you can also go old school and use something like a battlemap or standard chess board to let the GM and players share where everything is located.
Rogue: I move to C2.
GM: Kraken creature card to D4. Check it out adventurers! <cue maniacal laugh>
Bonus GM Sound Effects
Some Game Masters enjoy being the jack of all trades at the table but rest assured for those who don’t enjoy being sound effects guy too, you can opt out with audio from our friends at Syrinscape. Currently in Beta, Syrinscape Online lets users choose from a huge range of effects and tracks to across any distance – simply Download and start a game with your players!
Adding audio to your tabletop experience, especially when playing online, is a great way to keep the party captivated and to really show off as a GM! Let your players focus on the story instead of how something is being described, or other cues that get lost on lively tables.
Tabletop Gaming in the Future
While the future remains uncertain at this point and the threat of COVID-19 continues to loom, it’s crucial to stay as connected to each other as we can, simultaneously prioritizing our own mental health in the meantime.
We are fortunate that in the last decade technology and the way we’ve evolved to play games has made it not only feasible to move more online, but through these tools allows us to grow as both storytellers and players.
At the crux of every RPG campaign is the desire to immerse yourself in a world you’ve created with your friends and with technology today it’s never been more accessible. It gives us a way to play the games we enjoy with the people we care about, and ultimately creates more possibilities in how we choose to enjoy RPGs.
And one day we’ll all get together in person again, and bring some of these, and other, technologies to the table.