I’ve been gaming for a long time. In the early 80s, my childhood friends and I devoured Dungeons & Dragons. If I wasn’t playing, I was creating maps and dungeons and encounters, most of which never saw the light of day. It was a different age. There was no Internet. Video games were crude by contemporary standards. Nobody I knew owned a cell phone; they were clunky and outrageously expensive then. Heck, even HBO hadn’t started broadcasting 24 hours a day yet. D&D captured our fertile imaginations in a way that nothing before it could. It changed our lives.
Through the years, I have witnessed roleplaying games go through many changes. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and crew planted a seed that germinated into many multi-million dollar industries. Every MMO, every computer RPG, every fantasy film, every pen-and-paper roleplaying game, and many board games and novels owe some homage to what is surely one of the greatest games in all of human history: Dungeons & Dragons.
More recently, how we play D&D (or any other tabletop roleplaying game, for that matter) has been evolving rapidly. Inexpensive, mobile computers and tablets are everywhere, and it’s difficult to find a gamer who doesn’t own one or the other or both. This has spawned a blossoming method of disseminating roleplaying materials in PDF and other other digital formats. When I was a kid, the gym bag or backpack filled to bursting with heavy hardcover gaming books was the norm. Today, a gamer can carry many times that amount of material in one hand with a tablet or laptop. GMs and players frequently have an electronic device of some kind at hand to store character sheets and to run other utilities, such as combat trackers, encounter generators, etc.
Has all of that made roleplaying more or less personal? Anecdotally, for me it has made it less personal. As a serial offender of growing older, however, I’m willing to admit that some of my attitudes and opinions in this area have been informed by the mostly non-digital trajectory of my gaming life. In other words, affordable, portal computing devices are a relatively new arrival in the gaming scene, and those of us who have been gaming since the 70s and 80s established our habits long before their arrival. So for me, as a long-time, active D&D Dungeon Master, looking out over a table full of players with their faces buried in tablets and cell phones and laptops made for a less personal experience.
So, you can imagine, I avoided virtual tabletops like the proverbial plague. If the mere presence of electronic game aids at my gaming table was enough to depersonalize the experience, surely the virtual tabletop was orders of magnitude worse. Besides, I was (and still am) lucky enough to have an active gaming group locally. Our Wednesday D&D 4th edition game is at our maximum capacity of a DM and six players. Most of the gamers of my generation that used VTTs did so out of necessity because of a lack of local gamers, unpredictable schedules, family obligations, etc. As far as I was concerned, it was the last resort of desperate gamers. There but for the grace of God, etc.
My first direct exposure to a VTT environment was actually to facilitate something locally: a video surface for displaying maps at the gaming table. From there, it was just a small step to using the VTT software for more than just displaying a map. What about managing virtual figures? Keeping track of combat? Once I was exposed to these pieces, my mind raced with all of the possibilities.
And then the day came when I did the unthinkable: I participated in a virtual D&D game over the Internet…over the freakin’ Internet! It still feels mildly shameful. The platform I used (and still use) was the amazing Fantasy Grounds. Here is the short of it: I was quite simply not prepared for all of the things about online virtual tabletop play that I would come to love. It hit me totally by surprise. I had no idea how smitten I would become by it.
Fog of war? Built in and easy to manage. Books? All of them (for D&D 5th edition) available and a snap to open and utilize. Character management? A dream. Combat tracking? So much better than a tabletop full of markers and beads. Hidden or invisible enemies? Taken care of.
So, okay, there were many little fussy parts of tabletop gaming that were automated or semi-automated by Fantasy Grounds. But handling minor issues does not a D&D game make. What about storytelling and narrative and character development and socialization? Surely in these critical categories there is no equal to in-person tabletop gaming! Wrong again, Jamie! Here is what I found: When you are sitting in your own space, in an environment of comfort, you feel so much freer to let your hair down and get into the game. I found my NPCs came alive, they “popped.” I found my players roleplayed, used voices, and encouraged other players to get into their characters. From the safety of our computer stations, we felt like we could do anything. And we did.
Currently, I am involved in two regular weekly games. On Wednesdays, I’m a player in a D&D 4th edition game. On Fridays, I run an online D&D 5th edition game using Fantasy Grounds. There are pros and cons to both ways of playing, but here is the lightning strike from on high: I look forward to my Friday game with relish. I practice my NPCs voices when I’m driving. I think about ways to encourage my players to sink into their characters. We occasionally have sessions where not a single initiative or attack roll is made.
Look, I’m never going to give up this lifelong hobby of mine. I’ll be reading my D&D 10th edition books in the nursing home. From ages 12 to 112, this is my jam. It’s my bag, baby. And I’m here to say, if you haven’t checked out virtual tabletop play because you thought it’s not real roleplaying, I encourage you to try it out. I can’t speak for the many fine VTT software packages out there, but Fantasy Grounds offers a free trial version and a money-back guarantee. So you have nothing to lose. (Note: I am not an agent of Fantasy Grounds in any way, shape, or form. Just by simple chance, it ended up being the VTT package that I tried out and stuck with. I like it a lot, but I’m not trying to push any one VTT over another.)
Thanks for reading. And game on!