Rise of the Digital World (and no, this is not Digimon)
I remember when I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons over a decade ago, I was still in high school (which says alot about my age since it’s 2016 now) and while I had played dozens of roleplaying video games I never experienced a tabletop version. The friend who introduced me to D&D started with a PC game called Balder’s Gate, you may have heard of it, it’s quite infamous. Subsequently, this friend introduced me to the Eliminster novel series by the Forgotten Realms’ creator, Ed Greenwood – I became obsessed instantly. Honestly, this period was when I really entered into the fantasy literature space, all thanks to Ed Greenwood no less. I would later play another D&D PC game, this one was crafted by the prestigious Bioware studio, which was Neverwinter Nights and its sequel. Even when the Neverwinter Nights MMO came, I was already trying to relive my glory days in the famous city lodged in the Sword Coast.
While D&D 4th Edition was running as the lead Wizards of the Coast product line, there was a growing trend developing that some people may not have notice but basically led to this wonderful game into the mainstream light.
Podcasts & Online/video recordings of D&D games.
If anyone has had the opportunity to watch Acquisitions Incorporated, it first started out as a Podcast of a celebrity run D&D game with the Lead R&D for D&D, Chris Perkins as the Dungeon Master. The Penny Arcade crew would become now regarded Omin Dran, Binwin Bronzebuttom, and Jim Darkmagic. Along the tenure of their adventures, various celebrity guests (acting as interns) have joined the trio for varying lengths of time, most notably Wil Wheaton (played Aeofel and Patrick Rothfuss (who plays Viari).
During this time, various D&D activeplay Podcasts developed, with some running for nearly 5 or more years. What many people call the “Twitch Phenomenon” (brief article here) but before Twitch really hit it off. If you were to look in iTunes nowadays for a D&D podcast, you have several dozen to choose from, seriously look on Twitter for a D&D podcast account, it’s exponentially growing. Keep in mind, even if these podcasts play and record their games, their listeners are equally playing as well in their own games. If anything, D&D Podcasts are just another great way to share the adventures between playgroups, something that used to be limited or difficult to convey.
In the modern age, we also have this wonderful connectivity through the Internet now with the advent of Skype, Google Chat, and Facebook Chat (I know people who use Facetime even) which has allowed players far and wide to play Dungeons & Dragons together. In fact, there are now growing communities of players that use online forums to establish playgroups and use the Internet to do remote play. I mean even Wizards of the Coast has their own stream for live play on Twitch!
With the rise of remote play, systems like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds were developed to give a shared tabletop experience through the Internet.
There are dozens of mobile apps designed to help players and GMs (not just with Dungeons & Dragons) for various roleplaying games, from spell lists, to digital character sheets, easy-access to rules and mechanics.
This is my honest opinion, but I personally think it’s true: “It’s a great time to be a tabletop roleplayer”. Honestly. There is so much support for players and GMs now compared to the days when I first started and played on Play-by-Post online forums (which are still around). For new players it can be daunting at times, there are rising technologies every few weeks on Kickstarter now for roleplayers and GMs, hopefully I can demystify some of that.
If you haven’t already, you should totally read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the setting takes place in the not-so distant future where we finally reached full virtual immersion, there are tons of 80’s tropes and D&D references. It’s like a nerd culture love-letter if I ever did see one. The point is that we are not far from that sort of future and I cannot wait to see where we go in the next decade with tabletop roleplaying games.
So I’ll go over a list of tools (mostly online or digital) that may help the players or GMs.
- Roll20/Fantasy Grounds – Great systems to run games in real-time with your groups, Roll20 allows for video feed for chat and roleplaying purposes while Fantasy Grounds has the traditional text chat box system. Roll20 can be run using a free account for the GM & the players, it’s extremely system agnostic and lets the GM customize the experience but there is a bit of a learning curve. Roll20 offers a monthly subscription for additional features and mobility. Fantasy Grounds carries the D&D franchises, Pathfinder, and a few others integrated into their system, to run a game, at least one person needs to purchase a packaged system. You will need an internet connection to utilize the maximum benefits of Roll20 (it’s a browser-based system) and for non-local gameplay with Fantasy Grounds.
- Skype/Google Chat/Facebook Chat/Facetime – There are a myriad of online telecommunication services nowadays, each offering the ability to add video along with audio. There may need to be an equipment investment for good microphones and even cameras, I have personally done this for a few of my friends who wanted to play a few session remotely. There is a greater reliance on technology working harmoniously and without error (but life isn’t always so simple). All these services are largely free but obviously requires Internet connection (or if you’re truly insane, data connectivity).
- Mobile Apps – There are dozens of mobile & tablet apps for D&D and some roleplaying games, most of them are player and GM aids or character sheets. There are plenty of free ones on the Google Play store, they are a dime a dozen there. For the Apple Store, there a few free ones but may require add-ons or import of files to make it properly work. Between all storefronts, there are plenty of free random dice roller apps.
- PDFs of Your Books – Many of the roleplaying publishing companies (including Wizards, finally) have digitized many of their source books and sold them online for players and GMs to use. Not only has this boosted product sales but for players, it’s a big win for everyone. For some roleplaying systems, especially ones like D&D, Whitewolf, the Cypher System, there are dozens of books that exist as supplements. Granted a GM can restrict what books are deemed ‘cannon’ for their games, but the fact that they exist can be rather troublesome for GMs and players if they have to bring them to games often. Digital books make it painlessly easy, and if they are formatted well, can have useful search features that really streamline the overall experience. The use of laptops, computers, and mobile devices give players less to carry and more opportunities to play. There are some drawbacks but personally I think they outweigh them.
- Digital Character Sheets – There are dozens of official form-fillable PDFs for the various roleplaying systems out there on the Internet. There are also fanmade ones that equally as popular depending on the system you are playing. Trust me, just Google it. The only problem is that no all mobile devices support form-filling capabilities and often times require the players & GM to have it accessible via a laptop or computer. There are some mobile apps that provide digital character sheets but limit the ability to either import or export the data across different interfaces.
- Cloud Services (Google Drive, Windows Onedrive, etc) – Living in a modern age of digital power, sometimes as players and GMs, they are notes that you may wish to keep track whether they be NPCs, quest details, items, or places and features. The point is that there is a lot of material, sometimes you may lose papers, and cloud services provide players and GMs a means to keep things and not lose them on say a laptop or mobile device and run the risk of losing it forever. The only real drawback is that to use these services, an internet or data connection is required. Granted you can set certain files to be accessible offline but that takes up valuable memory space on your devices. Personally, it’s still better than the alternative of losing character sheets or campaign notes.
Kickstarter has become a wonderful creative breeding ground for not just board games (which has taken caused a board game renaissance recently too) but there are also plenty of video games and software that has been developed through crowdfunding. Roll20 was originally a crowdfunded idea that came to life and reality through the help of nearly 1600 backers.
- Infinitas DM (CAMPAIGN IS OVER) – Designed by Atom Switch, Inc. as a centralized app for cartography, lore, and battlemaps; this app attracted me for the fact that it gave DMs a means to create battlemaps and project them for the players with fogs of war, making it easy to create maps, even organizing notes for your campaign. It is basically an app that does the most core thing that all DMs and players need, a single app to hold all the information and none of the backwards and forwards between app-switching. The entire system is design primarily as a DM/Player view using the mobile device and connecting it to a large screen/projector setup. It does not replace the experience, it is designed to enhance the experience and require less setup during gameplay. The development team has stated they wish to implement a “share campaign” feature in the future, which would be very fun way to involve the community. The app is still currently in development, with almost weekly updates from the development crew. The initial monetary investment using this system stems from the app and another future add-ons or supplements. But since is a 2nd screen sort of experience, there will be a need for adequate equipment so that may still prove to be damper. There does not seem to be any online-connectivity from what I could tell so this app is restricted primarily to local playgroups.
- Wildside Gaming System – the Free RPG Tabletop App (CAMPAIGN IS ACTIVE) – Unlike some tabletop apps, many of them are fan-made or created by small budget teams, granted they are still well made but often times they have glitches or bugs. Leigh Grossman has teamed up with a few developers to create a more professional app that was system’s agnostic. What do I mean by that? That it does not matter what roleplaying system you choose you play, it will work with it. The campaign presently has the app using Leigh’s Wildside Roleplaying System which is largely a skilled-based character system (hint: we may review it in the future). The kickstarter is primarily for the new app but it also coincides with the release of the systems’s new 2nd edition as well. The lowest tier, which is just the app itself, will cost you $5 to fund. $15 for the DM upgrade, you get access to VIP features for 3 months, in-store credit (up to $25 worth), the ability to customize a campaign with the app. According the kickstarter, only one person needs the GM upgrade to establish a campaign. The implementation is good in regards to monetary investment for the playgroup since only 1 person needs to pay for the GM option, while the players simply need the app. The app supports a group chat system that will handle individual messages as well, which means this app will most certainly need Internet or wi-fi connectivity. Definitely worth a look and even just a small backing will not break the bank.
While we have moved into a larger and more connected experience with our tabletop roleplaying games, the spirit of the game continues to spread into the lives of people who once might have deemed it impossible. There are so many support systems in place to help players and GMs connect and play now more than in the last 5 years, it will continue to grow as the data demand from players continue to grow. The community continues to advance and grow, Wizards will do what it can to keep up with their customers but now that we have the DMsGuild and the fact they have 3rd parties handling the software aspects for the D&D product line, goes to show the speed of consumer growth since the release of D&D 5th Edition.
So help the community out, share and support everyone with their endeavors. Crowdfunding is a powerful tool for us roleplayers, as many of them are players just like us and see the need for some of their ideas. Most importantly: Have fun and play more games! Thanks again and we’ll see you next time!
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I use Roll20 myself. It’s a bit clumsy and far from perfect, but it has all the important bits and works well enough at the end of the day.
I’ve used Roll20, I haven’t mastered it as much as I want to but it’s a good system still. I always recommend it when people don’t want to spend a whole lot of money for an online means to play. Fantasy Grounds has a bit of a upfront charge but has many advantageous especially when running adventure modules since the material can be acquired as packs which contains all the minis, maps, monster info, and even the details for the adventure.