How to Set Up a Virtual Tabletop Game
If you’re anything like me you’re going crazy right now, stuck in quarantine and away from most of your friends. For those of us that are unemployed the days can have a habit of blurring together, as we look for new activities to sink our efforts and time into. In my previous articles I’ve covered plenty of shows that are perfect to dive into right now, but right now a lot of people are looking for a sense of community that you just can’t find without other human beings! Well lucky for you all, because here I am with a solution: run a tabletop role-playing game with your friends. Now you can’t meet your friends around a real table, but it’s the 21st century! The internet is your table! In this article I’m going to be going over all the steps to get your brand-new virtual playgroup up and running, whether you’re a pen-and-paper veteran or you’ve never touched a d20 in your life.
Tabletop role-playing games (or TTRPGs for short) are unique from board or video games because all of the action and storytelling happens within the collective imagination of the players rather than on a board or screen. They can be played with three or more people (two if you’re daring), one of whom is usually the Game Master. The players play as unique characters either they or the GM created, and the GM plays as...everyone else! TTRPGs can be played in any genre or setting you’d like -- from space western to paranormal romance to high fantasy and beyond. There are hundreds of systems to play in, and many of them are free. Some examples of TTRPGs include Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, Pathfinder, GURPS, and the entire family of Powered by the Apocalypse games. The core components between all of these are role-playing as your character, rolling dice, and working together with your friends to go on epic adventures.
The fact that all the action happens in your heads is what makes TTRPGs perfect for playing virtually. The first thing you’ll need to get your virtual campaign up and running is a way to voice chat with each other. Here are three options, from least- to most-complicated:
Skype is a simple program that many people already own. All you need is a valid email address to create an account, and you can voice or video call with your whole group at once from your phone or computer. The upsides are that it’s easy to use and comes with video calling, the downsides are its lack of advanced features for gamers, and the fact that it doesn’t save chat logs.
Discord is an app I’ve been using a lot more of since I’ve been in quarantine, and not just for playing D&D. There are thousands of unique communities on the platform, and to run a game on Discord you’ll need to start a server of your own. Once you do though you can create different text/voice channels, upload lore documents and start running your game! My favorite feature Discord has is the ability to add bots to your text chats; for example, one that rolls dice or keeps track of player health. The downsides are that it’s a little more complicated to use, and only the Windows desktop app version includes video calling.
Roll20 is a unique platform designed specifically for playing tabletop games virtually. It has everything you could ask for as a player or a GM: voice and video calling, character creation tools, it can even do virtual tabletops! This is an important feature for more hardcore or combat-heavy playgroups who need to keep track of player and enemy positions in battle. (Because my group is more focused on storytelling and creative problem-solving than combat, we forego any kind of spatial map and let our GM make nitty-gritty decisions about positioning.) In addition, Roll20 also has a marketplace of game systems and prewritten adventures for purchase; these are especially useful if you feel overwhelmed with writing a campaign from scratch. The downsides to Roll20 are that most people probably haven’t used it before, and the sheer amount of features can feel overwhelming.
If you want to start a game of your own, I have some hard news for you: you probably won’t convince anyone else to be your GM. Running a game is a significant commitment of time and effort, and one that you’re going to have to make if you want to start a playgroup. Everyone is having some trouble gauging their capacity right now (I know I am), so make sure GMing is a responsibility you’re ready for before you go and get a bunch of people excited for a big campaign. You will need to read the game master’s guide and player’s handbook from whatever system you’re playing, cover-to-cover. Your players will expect you to know all of the rules. If a full campaign seems overwhelming at first, you can also start by playing a one-shot! These are pre-written, self-contained adventures that are designed to be played in one sitting. You can also find longer prewritten campaigns online, often sold as PDFs by the companies that made the game systems.I would also recommend checking out a real-play D&D podcast if you want to see how these games play. Personally, my favorites are The Adventure Zone, The Broadswords and Critical Role. I hope these tips help get you started, and with any luck you’ll be dodging traps and fighting dragons in no time!