With all the worldwide disruptions going on, there are a lot of tabletop gamers finding themselves separated from their usual groups or otherwise unable to play face-to-face. Because of that there has been a big surge in gamers looking for ways to play RPGs remotely online, so they can at least have the comfort of gaming back in their routine.
Even after all the time I’ve been interested in RPGing online I’m still a neophyte compared to many, but since so many people are currently looking into remote play using Virtual Tabletops (VTTs) or other methods, I’m happy to give my “not exactly a newbie but nowhere near an expert” perspective in hopes it can bring some lonely gamers a bit of relief.
There are a multitude of options out there, but I’ll concentrate mainly on the ones I’ve personally used. Though my go-to game is GURPS, any options mentioned here for GURPS will undoubtedly work for D&D (and many other systems) as well. Though I’ve found all these things to work great for me, you may have very different tastes or gaming priorities, but hopefully it can still give you someplace solid to start your own explorations. Links are included throughout.
I use three main options, depending on the kind of game I’m GMing.
Discord has become very popular among gamers as a way of communicating online. It’s free, cross-platform (browser window, phone app, desktop client for Windows), and supports chat through text, audio, and video as well as allowing file transfers (to share documents and images). You can create different channels for different purposes (maybe for in-character and out-of-character communication, etc.), and define permissions of which players can see and use which channels. I use it now for everything!
For “theater of the mind” games that aren’t using tokens (basically “virtual minis”) or maps, you don’t really need a specialized Virtual Tabletop app, especially if you’re playing with friends anyway and don’t mind them rolling physical dice at home the way they would face-to-face. If you’re not, there’s a multitude of also-free Discord bots that provide dice functions. Pseudobot was custom-built for GURPS, and is a fantastic help to GURPS GMs. Sidekick is another very popular dice bot, with more of a D&D/general focus (though it can certainly roll 3d6).
Even when using an actual VTT, I still use Discord for the group audio chat (and video, if we’re using that). If you and your group are looking to game online with a minimum of fuss, and you don’t use a map or tokens, just use Discord to get everyone “together” and play the way you always have.
Here are some YouTube actual plays of a GURPS game I GMed with Zoom.
Roll20 + Discord
For games that do use tokens or maps, Roll20 is a great VTT. I still use Discord for audio/video chat, as I find Roll20’s integrated version a bit less stable, but I believe Roll20 has the largest user base of any current VTT, and is cross-platform by running from a browser window. For me, it has “just enough” automation. In addition to tokens and maps it supports character sheets, handouts, streaming music, and more.
They offer a few different pricing plans, and many gamers find the free account more than enough for many years of gaming. They also have an active forum, including a subforum dedicated to looking for other players if you’re looking for more.
Like many VTTs, Roll20 has an online Marketplace where they sell maps, tokens, and rulesets to enhance your games. While these items are optional, they sure can save you a ton of time by providing pre-made assets (maps and monsters) or even officially licensed products for some of the most popular RPGs (5E, Pathfinder, Fate Core, Call of Cthulhu, etc). GURPS currently has no licensing deals with any VTTs, but if you play D&D 5E for example, you can purchase virtual copies of the Player’s Handbook or other books and use all that information instantly instead of having to manually enter it yourself as needed.
Here are a couple of YouTube actual plays of Roll20 being used to play GURPS.
Fantasy Grounds + Discord
While I am very fond of Roll20, Fantasy Grounds is actually my go-to VTT by a narrow margin (I still use Discord, as Fantasy Grounds doesn’t bother with integrated comms). It’s main drawback is that it is currently Windows only or 32-bit Mac (natively; it can be emulated on 64-bit Mac and Linux, I believe), but that will be changing sometime this year as a new product is released (Fantasy Grounds Unity) which is natively cross-platform. I find it preferable in all other respects. It does not run in a browser but is rather a stand-alone desktop app, and the automation available if you want it is deeper. It supports shareable maps, tokens, character sheets, handouts, etc, though not music (which I don’t use anyway, but obviously ymmv).
They offer a few different pricing plans — Standard or Ultimate, paid monthly or as a one-time purchase — as well as a free demo client (check the “downloads” from their homepage) which can connect to any Ultimate license holder (to connect to a GM with a Standard license, you as well will need a Standard license). Though it’s $150, I find the one-time purchase an amazing value, even more so since I bought it during a Steam sale. It’s “fire and forget” — you buy it once and you’re done, and any free demo client can connect to your games. It’s very convenient, and I plan to do the same when Fantasy Grounds Unity is released.
There is also an active forum with a subforum for finding other players.
Fantasy Grounds too has an online Marketplace, and similarly has licensed products for many popular RPGs (5E, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, etc.) Being able to purchase a virtual copy of, say, “Waterdeep: Dragon Heist” and use the adventure’s maps directly inside the framework is just awesome!
If you’re a GURPS player, the unofficial GURPS Ruleset is supremely helpful, and makes playing GURPS very smooth.
Here are some YouTube actual plays of Fantasy Grounds being used to play GURPS.
Hell to Pay (disclaimer: I GMed this one)
Olympus RPG Group (a lot of different campaigns here, some GMed by the author of the unofficial GURPS ruleset)
Playing RPGs online has had tremendous growth in the past few years, and there are a lot of other resources out there to help you as well. Here are just a few.
GURPS Discord (unofficial; the channels #looking-for-group and #vtts-map-making in particular)
VTT Comparison Chart from Battlegrounds RPG for a start
Other Virtual Tabletops
Here are a few other VTTs I know of but have no or limited firsthand experience with.
One type of online RPG play often forgotten (I did in the first draft of this post!) is play-by-post. It’s asynchronous, that is the GM and players don’t necessarily interact in real-time, so it’s particularly great for groups in radically different time zones. As they say themselves, “RPoL is one of the oldest play-by-post roleplaying communities on the web, providing free membership for anyone to host and participate in any game system or communal story line.” Check it out!
Using GURPS With…
As mentioned, GURPS doesn’t currently have any official VTT licensees, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of GURPS gamers out there playing all kind of games with the tools they have. Here are some starting points for using GURPS with some of most popular Virtual Tabletops.
Due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, both the Astral and Roll20 VTTs are running temporary deals to help players get started with online play! I’ll try to keep this section up-to-date if I notice any more.
I hope a lot of gamers finding who find themselves newly stranded from their groups, or anyone else looking to branch their RPGs into the online world, will find some of this useful in getting things started. I’ll try to help with questions as best I can in the comments. Good luck and happy gaming out there!
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