As someone who lives in a country where tabletop games aren't terribly popular, I can empathize with people who are itching to get into the hobby, but have too few people interested in getting a campaign jumpstarted. But fear not!
Through the internet, you are more likely to find like-minded people to join your game. This article written by Patrick Allan shows how you can still play a tabletop game with your friends through the internet!
Sitting around a table with good friends is the best way to play tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, but that’s not always an option. If your friends have moved away, live overseas or don’t want to brave the traffic, there’s plenty of ways to make game night happen no matter where your group is located.
As a game master (GM), your job is to build an adventure, manage it as it unfolds and help your players have a good time. To do that, you need the right set of tools, like books, character sheets and miniatures. But if you’re playing with friends over the internet, you’ll need a set of virtual tools to get the job done.
Step One: Pick the Right ‘Virtual Tabletop’ for Your Group
A virtual tabletop is the software you’ll actually used to do all the planning for your digital campaign, as well as where you’ll gather to roll, play and role play. When it comes to virtual tabletops, there are four major players to consider: Roll20, D20Pro, Fantasy Grounds and Tabletop Simulator.
Out of the virtual tabletops available, Roll20 is the most popular. It’s been around for a while, it’s easy to work with (there’s a ton of info on how to run games) and it’s free to use. All you need is Firefox or Chrome on a Windows, Mac or Linux machine. And there are free apps for both Android and the iPad. It has built-in text, voice and video chat — including support for Google Hangouts — and digital character sheets for RPGs like D&D, FATE and Shadowrun. With the tabletop designer, you can create complicated battle maps with either square or hex grids (or no grid), use artwork tiles and you can hide obstacles and objects from PCs until they get in range. Roll20 also has a bunch of other useful tools built-in, like dice rolling macros, initiative trackers, support for custom cards and dice, a “Find a Group” function for those who don’t have others to play with and a media player you can use to play sound effects and background music.
Using Roll20 is free for the most part, but if you want great looking world maps, battle map tiles or creature and character tokens, you’ll need to buy them from the Roll20 Marketplace. You can buy pre-made campaign modules there as well, including official D&D adventures like Lost Mine of Phandelver ($US19.99 [$26]). There are other places you can find decent art assets, however. Some people post their own collections online, and many collections are quite extensive. Roll20 has a sizeable, active community that will answer questions or share tips, and you can run almost any game with it. If you’re looking for something that’s cheap, easy for GMs and players to use and will cover most of your bases, it’s a solid choice for GMs and players alike.
D20Pro is mainly designed to run Open Game License 3.5 (basically D&D 3.5),D&D 4E, and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, but if you’re planning to run one of those games, this virtual tabletop is definitely worth a shot. You can build complicated battle maps with hidden areas and fog of war, automate initiative and combat rolls and effects, and you have access to an extensive library of maps, creatures, characters, and items.
D20Pro is similar to Roll20 in function and visual style, but differs in a few major ways. D20Pro is a dedicated application you need to install on a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine (no mobile apps), it doesn’t have as many game rulesets built-in, and it’s not free. There’s a 30-day free trial period, but a Player license is $10 and a Full GM license is $30. They also have amarketplace where you can buy game modules and art assets, as well as tons of how-to guides to help get you started. If you know your group will be playing Pathfinder, OGL 3.5, D&D 4E, or plan to stick with d20-based games in general, D20Pro is the way to go. That said, it has a steeper learning curve than Roll20, especially for GMs. But if you’re willing to buckle down and learn its ins and outs, it can be a really powerful app.
Like D20Pro, Fantasy Grounds is a standalone client for Windows, Mac, and Linux (also available on Steam). It supports a ton of officially licensed systems, including Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, and Mutants and Masterminds. And because each system is officially licensed, there are great add-ons you can buy, like an easy-to-reference D&D player’s handbook, monster manual, or dungeon master’s guide built right into the application. It also features neat 3D dice that roll out on the virtual table in front of you, battle maps you can build super fast, automated combat, and a token library.
Fantasy Grounds also lets you export the modules you create so other users can play through your campaigns, or just pull some of the best parts and stick them in their own creations. There’s a demo you can try for free, but for complete access you’ll need to pay one of two ways. You can subscribe for the Standard or Ultimate editions ($3.99 per month or $9.99 per month), or buy it all outright at $39 for the Standard edition and $149 for the Ultimate edition. The Ultimate edition lets you host games for demo players (Standard edition can only host Standard and Ultimate players), so it’s basically a way to pay for everyone in your group. Not a bad approach if you’re trying to convince some friends or family to play with you.
Last but not least, Tabletop Simulator gives a more realistic virtual tabletop experience if that’s what you’re after. It lets you play almost any game in a 3D environment with realistic tables and physics (including VR support), so you can throw pieces across the room if you like. It doesn’t come with any RPG systems built in and ready to play, but the game is available on Steam so it has access to the Steam Workshop, where tons of modders have already started to add game systems like D&D, Android: Netrunner, and even the Star Wars: X-Wingminiatures game.
It also comes with a bunch of classic board games, like chess, checkers, and backgammon. If you’re looking for an application that’s more suited for a wide variety of tabletop game types—like miniatures and board games, not just RPGs—Tabletop Simulator is a great choice. It has voice and text chat built in, supports up to 10 players, and allows 360° panoramic backgrounds you can use to change up the lighting and atmosphere. It’s available on Windows and Mac for $19.99.
As someone who is currently on part of an online Pokemon Tabletop United game, I'd like to add that potential timezone differences can pose a challenge, and so can different schedules can often clash as many players who choose this method of tabletop gaming come from many different walks of life. Just be sure you're all on the same page!