How To Move Your RPG Campaign Online: Tools

RPT Patron Andy F asks:

Hey Johnn, hope you’re well and safe in these times.

I’m considering that it may be prudent to move my in-person campaign online, but neither I nor any of my players have done an on-line game. 

We have 8 players and will be running a combat with a map and models this session (Sunday).

Any advice either directly or in the form of links?

Thanks for the timely question, Andy!

This is a big topic. Today, I’ll discuss tools, which is your biggest concern. Choose the wrong tool and you could waste time, have frustrating experiences, and decide virtual gaming is not for you.

This was actually my experience in 2017. I swore off virtual gaming because I picked tools that hampered my GMing and gameplay to such a degree I decided to only play face-to-face.

Fortunately, a kind RPT GM, Mark Sim, offered to run an online Savage Worlds one-shot using Fantasy Grounds, and it was such a great experience that I decided to give virtual RPGs another shot. (Thanks again, Mark!)

I’m not seasoned veteran with online tabletop gaming, but here’s what I’ve learned over the past 11 months of doing this.

For the best technical experience possible, it comes down to four key decisions.

Key Decision #1: VTT

Before you pick a Virtual Tabletop App (VTT), decide how important having tabletop simulation is for you.

I ask this because I was gung-ho for the full virtual experience when I started my Terror in the Badlands campaign last summer. I dove first into Fantasy Grounds and then Roll20.

But I’ve come to realize I only need a good voice channel and simple mapping.

I don’t need software to run my campaign like a video game. I can handle the rules and calculations just like I do in face-to-face games.

I don’t need all the optional extras.

Because there’s a significant learning curve associated with many VTT apps.

I found Fantasy Grounds easier to get into, but it’s not compatible with the latest Catalina Mac OS version. So we switched to Roll20.

Roll20 works, and experienced users will have few issues.

I struggle with Roll20 a lot. Even trying to keep things simple means pausing the game often to find settings.

Settings affect where you find stuff, what stuff can be seen by whom and when, who can mess with what on the screen, and so on.

In Roll20, there are settings within settings. There’s settings in your profile, in your game setup, in each of the several tabs, in the layers, in the character sheets, and in the tokens.

End rant.

Simple or Expert?

So one decision to make: are you going to be a heavy or light user?

A heavy user can dig into more complex apps and master them through frequent use.

A light user, like me, who uses the app once a month, will probably want a simpler solution.

The big thing here is your players. You might become an expert in your app of choice, but that means you’ll be primary technical support.

If any of your players are already an expert with  an app, you could start there and ask them to be the Help Desk for your group.

So first, be aware of your goals:

  • Full virtual gaming experience, something just for maps and tokens, or something in between?
  • Budget: free or $XX?
  • Budget: GM only pays, or are players willing to pay?
  • Is anyone in your group already experienced with a specific app?

Here’s a fantastic resource for checking out Virtual Tabletops (VTTs).

(Andy, I’m making an assumption you want a real-time gaming experience. If you are ok with an asynchronous option, when people write out their moves and whatnot, then you can use a forum or Discord.

If anyone reading this needs a public forum to run an online forum game, I can give you a free one at my forum campaign-community.com. Hit reply and I’ll set you up.)

Key Decision #2: Voice & Video

A significant enhancement to your games is adding voice chat.

That’s much faster for real-time gaming than writing everything to each other.

Roll20’s video chat option is laggy. I recommend using an alternative.

We use Zoom. The free tier maxes out at 40 minutes, so you’d need to purchase the Pro tier, which is $20 CAD a month right now.

I also love Streamyard (aff.). I use it every week for business. It has cool features like greenscreen, tickers, and streaming. You can try the free tier — it’s more generous than Zoom’s, but I’ve only ever used the Pro level.

Discord offers a free solution. Set up your own “server” and invite your players.

Discord has a learning curve as well, whereas Zoom and Streamyard need two minutes of instruction and you’re set (computer technical issues aside).

If voice makes sessions 100x faster than text chat, then video offers 10x better experience than voice-only.

Encourage players to turn on their cams. This not only speeds up communication further, but it helps fix some of the encumbrances of online gaming.

Seeing facial expressions and body language lets you read the table. Voice-only, not so much.

People tend to interrupt, talk over, and start talking at the same table a lot in virtual. The slight lag and missing cues we’re accustomed to when in-person messes a bit with our timing.

Seeing everyone helps mitigate this problem. (So does putting the worst interrupters on mute until called upon.)

My main tip here is you do not need to use audio and video packaged with a VTT, which is likely to be poorer than dedicated video conferencing apps.

Also, use video whenever possible to streamline communications.

Key Decision #3: Character Sheets

All my campaigns right now are D&D. So I purchased a D&D Beyond account and the books.

This had made a huge difference.

Not only can I view all the character sheets, but players can manage their characters with health and status tracking, and use the app to quickly level up.

When I GM a non-D&D game I’ll likely ask players to send me a photo of their character sheet.

Some VTTs let you manage characters, as well. Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds support a lot of systems.

To start, though, go simple. Have players make characters as they normally would, and then send you a copy via photo or document.

Key Decision #4: Dice

Do you want to see player rolls?

For my three groups, I’d be fine with players rolling at home. One player in my Roll20 campaign does roll physical dice and just yells out the result.

If someone doesn’t have dice, google “dice roller” and Google offers one inline as the first result.

There are other online dice rollers too.

And Campaign Logger has a fantastic dice roller that’s fully customizable (though, some systems like Genesys with pictograph die won’t work) for GMs.

I do not know of any online dice rollers that all players and GM can see. If you know of one, please shoot me a link.

My Recommendations

VTT

There are many fantastic VTTs out there now.

Roll20 is on my naughty list because it’s disrupted my last couple of sessions with tech and usability issues.

However, Roll20 is free to use and it’s got a deep feature set. I’d give it a try.

Fantasy Grounds was a better experience, but the Catalina Mac OS limitation knocks it out of contention for me.

Other users I’ve asked have recommended these VTT apps:

  • DungeonFog => looks delicious
  • MapTool => One of the first VTTs and a happy and active fanbase
  • D20Pro => Looks slick, not sure about non-d20 system support
  • Astral => a new VTT that’s offer Pro free for as month as of March 2020

I quest right now for the simplest solution.

But if you cast Suggestion on me and said “Choose!” I’d pick Roll20 and watch a tutorial like this one. Especially if you want minis and battlemaps.

If you use theatre of the mind combats, I’d skip using a VTT altogether and run with audio and video only, and post image links in text chat.

Once you get your dice wet with a simple approach, you can experiment with VTTs. But if you want a full tabletop experience, then consider Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds.

Audio & Video

I love Zoom and Streamyard. They are simple and reliable.

However, while still under the Suggestion spell, I’d advise Discord for GMs new to online gaming.

I found it had a bit of a learning curve. But long-term, with time invested, it’s the most flexible choice.

It offers privacy, audio, video, and text chat.

It’s free.

And the advanced features are very cool.

For example, you can invite Bots (or make your own bot if you code) to handle dice rolls, randomly generate names, and other cool things.

There are also a metric ton of Discord groups out there to chat RPG and gaming, as well.

I’ve found Discord not the best for video. But when you logout and log back in, most problems get fixed. With Discord being free, it’s a great starting option.

Character Sheets

Go as lo-fi as possible to start.

If you have funds and are playing D&D 5E, then D&D Beyond is a boon.

Else, ask players to make characters in whatever medium they choose and send you a photo, copy, doc, or link.

Dice Rollers

The Discord bot Avrae is great.

VTTs usually have an inline dice roller.

If you trust your players, let them roll at home and tell you the results.

Otherwise, I’m still questing for an online dice roller that lets multiple people see each others’ rolls.

* * *

I hope this helps, Andy.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention that I believe my app, Campaign Logger, is a fantastic virtual assistant for online campaign.

It helps you take notes fast and find them during the hectic pace of gameplay.

This is especially true for online tabletop because I’ve found switching back and forth between computer and books a pain.

As much as I love my physical books, it’s been much better for me as GM to have everything on the computer.

Keep your Campaign Logger app open in a different window, and ALT-TAB for instant switching between CL and other apps. 

If you have multiple monitors, or a big monitor like me, then you can arrange browser windows so Campaign Logger and Zoom and Roll20 are all visible at the same time.

It’s quite effective, in my experience.

Stay safe and good luck with your online gaming!

(And thanks to Jeremy, David, Jared, Ian, Simon, and Mark for being patient as I flail around with all this tech. I’ll see you online tonight to finally face Belak!)

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