In the last few years I rarely spend any time as a player, only as a GM. There simply aren´t that many gamers around where I live and I have played with the same group since 93 as a GM. Due to growing older, work and starting families game time is a precious commodity. On average we play maybe every other month. Because of this I started to look into Virtual Tabletops
I am still relatively new to Virtual Table Top gaming. So far I had some demo games and I am now playing in an ongoing Deadlands campaign. All in all 7 sessions. As I only have experience with Fantasy Grounds II my insight into the other available VTTs is only second-hand and from reading, not experience. I will try to keep this as system neutral as possible. Playing in virtual space as opposed to the table has some unique advantages and problems that I want to show in this article.
One thing you realize in your very first few minutes of a game online: Gaming virtually is a lot slower than at the table. Patience is a virtue as you wait for your turn. This is due to more time needed to explain things. Naturally most people type slower than they speak. You can ease this time sink a bit by using voice chat, however it is not a perfect solution. Considering the players come from all over the world it is sometimes hard to understand who speaks and what he says. I have played in games with or without voice chat and they where all equally fun. In my experience so far the best option is to use the chat interface for all the character interaction and task resolution while keeping voice chat as the backup for questions about rules or situations and for the GM to explain scenes. Chat is very helpful to keep in the loop and reread what is going on.
You should have a bit more discipline then in face to face gaming too. You are all sitting at the PC, it is easy to get distracted. The Internet at your fingertips is also an asset of course. It is really simple to look up rules or background information without having to interrupt the game.
Virtual RPG requires more effort from the GM too. While you may get away with winging it at the table, that is much harder to do in a coded environment . Whipping up a monster on the fly is not always easy to do. Some systems need a lot of work beforehand to get all the data in while others let you enter data on the fly. On the other hand you usually have the rulebook at your fingertips, searchable and hyperlinked directly in the game’s engine. For some VTTs you can buy full rule sets containing everything that is also in the printed book. Other VTTs rely on their community to create and share rule sets between themselves.
A Battlemap for fights is a must in my opinion, but I wager that is the same discussion as pro vs contra miniatures at the table! Without Maps you might simply use a simple Chat system though. VTTs usually have some great features for maps build in that would be pretty hard to emulate at the table. Very common is a Fog of War type feature where the map is completely concealed at the beginning. The GM reveals it step by step depending on what the characters can see. Some tools even calculate the correct line of sight and viewable distances based on available light sources, spells and natural abilities light darkvision! That makes for some really exciting dungeon crawls.
On a pure plus side there are a lot tracking tools in place, like magic points or ammunition counters. Depending on the system in use these functions are very rudimentary or really complex where everything from initiative order, task resolution to damage tracking is fully automated.
A lot of people actually use a VTT at their gaming table with a beamer or a screen to take advantage of the Map and tracking features.
Something I hear often is that VTT gaming would be really combat centric with far less character interaction. I have not found a difference in games about the time spent in combat or character / NPC interaction between face to face games and the virtual table. It all depends on the players and the GM. Interaction or conversation is often a bit tougher to do and more time-consuming but equally rewarding. As you do not necessarily hear others speak your imagination can take over. For example I played in a game where one of the characters did not talk. The player simply emoted in chat. Reading what he character would do was different then hearing it described. It felt much more direct to me then having a player talk to you to explain what is happening. Another example would be cross gender characters, where a male plays a female or vice versa.
In closing, VTT´s like Fantasy Grounds 2 give me an easy way to extend my gaming possibilities beyond my immediate surroundings. Having played with the same guys since 93 it is absolutely awesome to now play with people from all over the World. I have a weekly game again too! So for me that has been a great improvement. But is RPG through a virtual table top a true alternative to Face to Face gaming? It depends of course. If you mostly play because you are friends with your players and just want to have a good time together, shooting the breeze, making fun, drink beer and make jokes then of course no virtual table can replace that. But if you want to game then it is a very viable alternative. I would compare it to convention like play in the beginning. It is much more focused though and you should have more patience. But in the end it is fun, rewarding and you have experienced a great adventure! And after all these are some of the reasons why we are playing.
If you want to find out what Virtual Tabletops are out there head on over to the RPG Virtual Table Top WIKI. What about you? Are you using a Virtual Table Top? What is your favorite tool and why? Let me know in the comments!
Read you soon.