Choosing the Right Virtual Table Top for Your Game

From John Large

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0663

A Brief Word From Johnn

RPT Returns July 27

Hey, what did the kraken say when he hit a wooden wall?


As you can tell from that brilliant humour, it’s time for a break. I’m taking a summer rest from the newsletter. I’m hoping to turn my pale, translucent skin bright pink.

While on break I’ll be mulling over ideas for the adventure I’m writing. I’ll also be putting some ideas together for a sci-fi game I’m thinking of spinning up. I’ve been on a science fiction craze of late, and have just purchased the Fading Suns and Traveller setting books for inspiration. I’ve never GM’d a sci-fi game, and it’s been on my bucket list for ages.

So we’ll see you again in a couple of short weeks. I’m behind on a few things, so I’d best get kraken!



Choosing the Right Virtual Table Top for Your Game

A virtual table top (or VTT) allows people to play RPGs that would traditionally take place face-to-face around a table. Using a computer, and usually video and audio, players and GM connect to the VTT and get their game on. The experience is rich enough these days to be a viable option for remote players, gamers without local groups, or even standard gaming. However, given the amount of VTTs available, it can be challenging to find one that suits you and your group.

In today’s article I’ll summarise five popular VTTs to help you narrow down your choices so you can get online and start gaming.

NameFreeBrowser BasedTactical MappingVideo ConferencingApp SupportVerdict
Fantasy GroundsNNYNYReliable software if you can afford it, but not a cheap solution.
Google+ HangoutsYYN (unless combined with Roll20)YYVersatile solution for those who don’t require tactical mapping, although reliability can be frustrating.
MapToolYNYNYVersatile software that supports tactical mapping but can be difficult to master.
Roll20YYYYYFree, powerful and easy to use, especially when run from within a G+ Hangout, combining the features of both programs.
SkypeYNNYNGreat solution for those running lower spec machines, however support for apps is minimal and additional software will be required to record sessions.

You can find a more expansive list of VTT solutions at Summary of number of VTTs.

Fantasy Grounds

Fantasy Grounds II is the latest version of this software and provides a comprehensive set of differing rules and solutions for different game systems, some licensed and others unofficial fan-made versions. These alternate skins make a great difference to how the product runs, almost making it feel like an entirely different product depending on which game you are running.

Fantasy Grounds extra rulesets range from $10-$28, and adventures and licensed materials can expand total cost to $100+. The program is stable and offers an excellent selection of tools for running a campaign. It’s a high quality product. The learning curve of the product can be a little steep, though there are good tutorials available online.

[Comment from Johnn: I’ve played games using FGII and enjoyed the software. Out of all options John reviews here, FGII has the most stylized and thematic interface. I really enjoyed the dice rolling, character sheets, chat window, handouts feature, and overall aesthetic.

I disliked the lack of audio and video integration. We used Teamspeak at first, then Google Hangouts, so it’s not a big obstacle, just a preference. The software was stable for us, but in the end I decided not to GM using it because each of my players would need to buy their own copy. A group can buy the one-time/lifetime Ultimate license for US$149 that allows everyone to play, however.]

Google+ Hangouts

Google+ Hangouts is one of the simplest software solutions for running games online. It effectively consists of a video conferencing facility that can be used (if you’ve linked your Google+ and Youtube accounts) to directly stream hangouts to your YT channel, recording sessions as you play.

There is a wide variety of apps available for G+ Hangouts including dice rollers. Tactical mapping, however, is not supported by default (although this can be got around by running Roll20 in a Hangout as discussed later). Google Hangouts is free, requiring only a G+ account to get up and running. Reliability can be a bit of an issue with it.

[Comment from Johnn: I’ve used Google Hangouts a lot recently. It’s an evolving product. Players with low bandwidth and poor connectivity will struggle because Hangouts is all about video and audio. FGII, for example, just wants enough data from connected players to roll dice, perform character sheet and map updates, and handle chat. That’s a lot less bandwidth needed than constant streaming video.

However, I feel Hangouts does a good job keeping people online and connected by reducing video and audio quality until a low threshold is reached, and that threshold is achievable by most. The players who suffer most are ones with intermittent internet, such as those using dial-up or wifi and experience momentary lost connections. Those players will struggle with any online VTT, though. Good news is Hangouts and FGII are persistent, so players can resume without issue most of the time after a dropped connection.]


MapTools is a VTT designed to mimic and recreate the experience of using tactical maps, incorporating such advanced elements as fog of war, lighting, and other features. If your group enjoys use of battlemats and minis, MapTools does a good job making this a good experience online.

The trade-off for this is MapTools and the other RPtools associated with this VTT have a steep learning curve if you want to start messing around with macros and customising your content. However, there is a large amount of documentation online and a vibrant online community offering support.

[Comment from Johnn: MapTools was the first VTT I played around with. It’s a well-supported VTT with a free price tag, though you need to be willing to dig for information and sometimes work through some trial and error if you get stuck. There’s a wiki and robust community for support, as John mentions. I enjoyed using MapTools. Until Roll20 came along, it was my VTT of choice.]


Roll20 is similar to MapTools in that it attempts to simulate a tactical mapping solution for RPGs. However, the initial user interface of Roll20 is a little easier to master without having to wade into coding macros (although the option is available if you wish). Roll20 runs using HTML5, meaning it runs straight in your web browser and is therefore pretty much system independent, although this also means you won’t be using it to make notes and such-like whilst you are offline, and any browser problems will affect the performance of the software.

Roll20 offers a free version for those who do not wish to pay. The free version has various advanced features disabled, but is perfectly usable and should satisfy the majority of RPing needs.

Once a campaign has been created in Roll20 it can be opened from within a Google+ Hangout, allowing a group to take advantage of the features of both programs. Note that G+ does not allow third party applications to be recorded in Hangouts streamed to YouTube, so any recorded videos will not show your VTT. This might seem like a bit of an annoyance at first, however it does mean you won’t get into trouble if you play copyrighted music as a soundtrack during your session since it won’t be on the final video. Speaking of music, Roll20 has a basic playlist feature that allows you to locate music on Soundcloud and play it during a session on loop and at various volumes. This is great for adding atmosphere to a game.

[Comment from Johnn: I have played using Roll20 + Google Hangouts. I enjoyed the experience. There’s a learning curve with Roll20, so be sure to run through the tutorials. Why I like Roll20 & G+ best is you have player video streams added to the virtual tabletop. You can see their faces (unless they’ve chosen audio only) and it’s integrated into one experience in your browser. Players can see your face as well, which makes GMing a lot easier. You can get this experience with another VTT app plus Skype/Hangouts/Conferencing App, but the integration jives well for me. Seeing people makes the whole experience human, which is an important part of GMing for me.]


Skype is a baseline, no-frills solution when it comes to VTTs. It’s is basic video conferencing software. However, its simplicity is its strength. People with fairly low spec computers can use it. And gamers who are not computer savvy will find it easy to use. Any applications (dice rollers, mappers) will have to be used separately from another source (since Skype does not incorporate them like G+ Hangouts). Skype does not support recording of video/audio footage by default, although there are a number of freely available programs that allow a GM to record Skype conference calls.

[Comment from Johnn: I use Skype regularly for business. You can do video, audio, text chat, and any combo thereof. It’s free and quick to setup. Group calls support up to 25 people, though sometimes group coordination is tricky. FGII, Roll20, and Hangouts offer a persistent link for late players to join with, and with Skype it’s a little bit trickier. Skype is a great solution if you and your group are not sure about this online VTT thing, and just want to do a basic tech check and experience test.]

Which VTT is right for me?

Use the ten questions below to help you explore and assess what VTT is best for you and your group. As your explore each VTT’s website and features, use the questions to prompt discussion and decisions.

  • What is the technical proficiency level of your group?
  • Are you willing to pay for the software? If so, what’s your budget?
  • Do you have the time and inclination to master a more complex VTT?
  • Do you and all your players have the necessary computer equipment to run the VTT?
  • Are you planning to use tactical maps and miniatures in your games?
  • Are you looking for a VTT that includes video conferencing features?
  • Are you looking for a VTT that allows you to show graphic overlays and player handouts?
  • Do you require the use of macros or other such advanced functions?
  • Do you want your VTT to have built-in dice rollers? What other features do you want it to have?
  • Are you planning to record your online sessions?


The day of online gaming has arrived. VTTs make the tabletop experience come alive and allow players to connect and play worldwide. New VTTs come out each year. The technology advances. We’ve reviewed five major options today. Several have Looking For Group forums or channels where you can find demo and one-shot games to get your feet wet. This is a great way to try out the different software options. Don’t let lack of players stop you from GMing. Try out a VTT today.

GM Tip Exchange

Tips shared by your fellow readers to help your GMing. Have a tip to share? Just hit reply. Thanks!

Encourage Non-Combat Encounter Resolution

From Mark of the Pixie

re: RPT#662 Combat Parley: It’s All in the Delivery

What tips do you have on how to narrate and deliver option-rich encounter narratives in your games? What do you do to draw your party in and get them thinking about multiple ways to “win” each encounter?

I have looked at lots of ways to do this. First, make it explicit that “kill things and take their stuff” is not the game style you are going for. I have completely divorced XP from combat (it is by adventure), and so the incentive to “just kill everything” is greatly reduced.

Make it explicit each encounter has a viable non-combat option. As a GM make a note of this. The guard can be bribed, snuck around, etc. Mindless undead are possibly exempt from this, but even wild animals should be able to be “defeated” via skill or knowledge, as well as brute combat. If you do not have explicit non-combat ways around all foes, then the problem is not with the players.

Let them practice. Don’t start with confrontations with the big-bad with the kingdom on the line. Start small. Diffusing a bar fight between brothers having a simple disagreement is a better place to start. Or convincing a guard to let a beggar you befriended off with a warning. Little things where combat is not the obvious start.

Another way is to have foes who cannot be beaten in combat. Make it explicit out of game that combat will not work. A bit heavy-handed and obvious, but it does work.

A related but less heavy-handed way is to have foes who are tough in combat but have another known weakness. For example, defeating the temple’s guardian Minotaur in combat will be hard, but he is competitive and a lousy chess player. Once the players know this, they will inevitably try to goad him into a chess game rather than a fight.

Don’t try to make combat more deadly as I have found this makes people strike first and strike hard, which actually ends up making combat more common.

Give PCs a position of strength. This makes bargaining easier. If they have the book the evil mage wants, then negotiating rather than combat seems much more of a workable option.

I have enforced “Heroic Escalation Rules”, which says heroes can’t escalate a fight. If the foe is unarmed, the PC must fight unarmed. If they have a knife, the PCs can use knives (or similar). Only if the foes use guns can the PCs use guns/explosives/etc. If the foe is talking, then the PCs should try talking too. PCs can break these rules, but it should be exceptional circumstances (lives in the balance).

My system has the same rules for social attacks as physical ones, which has meant I have had dramatic confrontations on roof tops where the heroes have talked down the bad guy rather than beating him up.

Have legal consequences for killing. This is a simple but often overlooked tactic that makes combat less appealing. In its extreme, having a PC charged with assault might help curb the “combat first” approach.

Have non-combat options actually work. In one game I had players try to be diplomatic, but failed. They never tried again. They had learned it just didn’t work in this game and used combat every time after that.

Another option is to start with people they care about. A confrontation with the character’s beloved father or sister is not one where most PCs will immediately resort to violence. But what if your beloved father is the leader of the bandits? Talking first seems a much better idea now.

Be careful with all these tips: if you use them too much you can actually find yourself stuck looking for sensible ways to start a fight.

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Tying Adventure Backgrounds To Encounters

From Scott

Long time RPT, Faster Combat, and Adventure Workshop subscriber here. I’d like to ask a couple questions about the ‘Background’ adventure checklist item from RPT#661. From your description, it sounds like you’d normally expect the adventure background to affect player choices during encounters.

Does this mean you normally narrate some background flavor text to your players at the start of an adventure, or transmit the essentials via NPC dialogue, or some other method? I’m not entirely clear on how the players would know the kind of deep background information that would tend to impact their encounter decisions.

Johnn: Hey Scott!

I will typically change an adventure’s background to incorporate PC histories.

For example, module backgrounds almost always have a villain or evil faction. I just pull a villain/faction from one of the PC’s backgrounds and use it for the adventure instead.

A caveat is if the PC details make the adventure illogical. In that case, I’ll try another PC’s background to find a better fit, if possible.

Ditto allies and locations. I’ll pull those from the current campaign and PC histories to integrate things together.

Now, if I get lucky and I have an adventure before I start a campaign, then I’ll do the opposite. I’ll include adventure details in the PC backgrounds as players make the characters. But that rarely happens for me.

A quick shortcut is to go over the adventure background with a highlighter and mark every pronoun. Then substitute a pronoun from PC backgrounds for each.

Also, I tend to prepare at least one adventure in advance. I sometimes will also have a bunch of adventures pulled from my shelf at the start of the campaign and skim over those between sessions. If an adventure suddenly seems like it would be a good candidate for upcoming gameplay, I’ll start prepping it in earnest.

Either way, I’ll seed gameplay in advance with hooks and background items from future adventures. This goes for adventures I’m making up, as well. I’ll introduce important NPCs in advance, hint at treasures and locations, and start giving PCs reasons to be curious and interested in what’s coming up. Many adventures also have a hooks section, and I’ll start changing those to suit my needs and dropping them in at opportune times.

For example, in my Riddleport campaign for Pathfinder, I had set aside the classic module S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth for potential use. I dropped hints about a mysterious smuggling operation that had people stumped about where it was based and how they got goods into the city. I placed this operation into the caverns. I also introduced two NPCs with important hooks connected to the adventure that also connected to the party. During the campaign, I also found two other ways to make the adventure and its background part of the milieu, and changed the adventure’s background to suit PC backgrounds and plot developments accordingly.

So, the background of The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth was introduced through a combination of roleplay, ongoing campaign design, retroactive PC tie-ins, and Loopy Planning opportunities to connect things together.

Does that make sense?


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Handling Crazy Player Ideas

From Sean S.

At the Adventuring Note blog, Gary talks about the saving grace of 33%. I really like this concept:

“When situation arises that requires a decision, and where there could be a sensible, logical outcome but where you have an idea for something a bit left field. Roll a d6 (or percentile) and if the chosen 33% comes up, go with the odd.

“I don’t have a particular situation prepared for this one, but I want to keep the concept in mind for when the players have a weird idea. I won’t want to run with their idea all the time but I reckon that 33% will help to keep them all entertained and engaged.”

But to further develop it, let’s pull advantage/disadvantage from D&D 5E.

So, have the player roll a D6 when they want to do something crazy. If it helps the story, you mentally give them advantage of 66% success. If it would be a wild idea that doesn’t directly affect the story, give them disadvantage of 33% success rate.

This lets you freely allow those crazy ideas, without being too unfair about it.

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Fast And Easy Ruined City Maps

From Jordan Schroeder

I have a D&D 4e campaign set in a large city that has been sacked, burned, and in ruins, and is still being occupied by the invading force. I want to give my players the ability to move around the city by using the side streets (the main streets will be filled with the occupying army), but I want to represent the damage of the city and the randomness of the paths that presents. I do not have time to generate a lot of small maps to stitch together, so I need something that can be done in-game.

The idea I worked out is to roll a d4 to represent the number of ‘exits’ to the current area (N,E,S,W) then dumping a bunch of white and yellow Lego on the battle mat to represent the rubble/damage in the area. The yellow Lego pieces must stay on the map, but the white ones are removed in such a way that it opens a path to the exits. I use two colours of blocks to create more spreadout patterns of the desired blocks.

The remaining pieces are nudged to fit the grid and to ensure a path. Big Lego pieces represent rubble that blocks line of sight. Small pieces provide partial cover. Flat pieces are difficult or hazardous terrain. I then use a dry erase marker to draw around the pieces and the exits. This creates the map of the current small area (a ‘cell’).

I roll to determine what the party encounters in this cell. I find that even a couple low level enemies creates a challenge, because the path creates a bit of a gauntlet for the party to survive.

When the players pass through the area, I mark down that ‘cell’ of the map (with exit points) and slowly build the path through that area of the city until they reach a major landmark or a main road. That path persists in case the party wants to reuse that path in the future, or, in the case of a loop or a path taking an undesired direction, a way to backtrack and take another exit at a mid-point.

Player feedback has been good. The resulting terrain is more complex and interesting than I can produce using map tiles, and I can produce a fairly large map in under a minute. As I remove and adjust the blocks, the players are working out their approach and strategy, so there is no feeling of wasted time as I finish the map.

This approach also leaves me open to create even more interesting terrain, like crumbling areas and spreading fire, to craft interesting encounters multiple times a session in less than 60 seconds per encounter.

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Play D&D Solo

From Joel BoardgameRpger

I made a tutorial and scheme for creating and running solo dungeons.

D&D Gaming Solo – How To

I’ve gotten positive responses on it.

I did this tutorial using B/X basic expert. But it’s good for any version of D&D.

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Adding FATE Aspects To D&D

From Tim Colwill

I found your post about the Flashback System super interesting. It’s similar to something I’ve been experimenting with myself for a few campaigns now, only much faster and easier I think. Regardless, I’ll share what I’ve learned so far in case of it’s interest to your readers!

If you’ve ever read something like FATE or the Dresden Files RPG, you’ll know about the Aspect System. I was inspired by this system and the potential it offered to get people roleplaying and to help people develop connections between their characters they can leverage for even better roleplaying.

Using what I’d read, I created something I call the Bolt-On Aspect System. I took the Aspect System and tried to make it a bit more simple and system-agnostic, so you could essentially ‘bolt it on’ to any other system and have it sit over the top as a fun way to get the roleplaying flowing. We are playing a Pathfinder game, so it’s largely geared towards that, but you could make it fit any system by just changing some wording.

Here’s where I documented my progress and the rules I’m using.

Something where the Flashback System works much better than this is it doesn’t rely on the GM to constantly come up with reasons to call upon a character’s Aspect. That’s something I’m quite bad at doing but I’m getting better. If I run another game I might try the Flashback System instead! We’ll see.

Thanks for all that you do for the RP community!

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My GM Screen

From Dennis Desroches

Hilarious story about your old DM screen. I have a Frankensteinian concatenation of clips, cardboard, glue, tape, and bad fantasy art — that I can’t see over — going right now. Can never find a damn thing on it either. Might be a fun thing for RPT to do a survey of the kind of screens people use, if at all. One fine day maybe.

Here are two pics (front and back) — it looks a fair bit more dilapidated in real life. I included my dice (original to my first basic set circa 1978 — I will roll nothing else!), a typical module — in this case using your 5-room dungeon technique, my world map, and a weird booklet of Hvoc Lore “written” by Embedlam the Sane, my amanuensis (the wacky sage of Hvoc; text aged with tea and then set on fire. Too much fun!). The art on the front is pretty cheesy, but isn’t bad for all that.