How to Play VTTs Like a Boss

Virtual tabletops (VTTs) are on the rise thanks to many gamers sequestered at home. I collected advice from all the major publishers on how to make the most of playing virtually.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

One of the major benefits of virtual tabletop sessions is that they're easy to schedule.
"The nice thing about virtual table games is that time and such are really a matter of preference and availability," said Tobias Drewry, CEO at Mesa Mundi and the lead developer for D20PRO. "My own personal games are happening at the same time as our face-to-face games would have run with the added exception that we meet about 15 minutes earlier to make sure we've got any technical issues sorted -- microphones, cameras, etc."

There are a dizzying variety of features available for virtual tabletops, from maps and tokens to dynamic lighting and multimedia integration. But those aren't necessary to play, and some gamers are content with just using video.
"Astral is a full-featured VTT and we offer a lot of cool features but most aren't required to have a great online tabletop session," said Tom Lackemann, found of Astral TableTop. "All you need is a decent way to hear one another and the rest is extra. Of course, a nice map and immersive fx certainly help with storytelling but none of it is really required if you're just getting started with playing tabletop roleplaying games online. Find what your party needs and adopt what tools you use from there."
The simplicity extends to rules too. Joe Lesko, creator of Fabletop, explains:
"Online gaming often has more distractions than playing in-person. GM's should be willing to handwave the rules more often, in order to keep the game moving so the players stay engaged. Players should be focused on the game at hand, rather than, for example, flipping to their browser when it isn't their turn."
John Lammers, the creator of EpicTable, explains how most VTTs are system-agnostic:
"As far as system goes, it doesn't really matter to EpicTable, since it's not trying to replace the GM--it's just replacing your physical tabletop: your battlemat, tokens, dice, etc. What you do with it is up to you. Because EpicTable doesn't automate rules, it doesn't matter if you want to play a velociraptor monk or a gelantinous cube bard. That's what the GM is for. Same goes for the battlemat: when your wizard decides to change the map by blasting through a wall, you're not scrambling to make that okay, because it's you the GM who's in control of what the players can see. We GMs are used to solving problems at the physical tabletop--we need the virtual tabletop to provide that shared space we're missing, but then it needs to stay out of the way and let us do our thing."
Use Technology to the Fullest

That said, there are benefits to maximizing the use of technology. Doug Davison, President of SmiteWorks USA LLC, (publisher of Fantasy Grounds), recommends pairing a VTT with a video or voice chat system such as Discord, Google Hangouts, or Skype.
"If you have a second monitor you can plug into your laptop or PC, we highly recommend this. Have the video up on a 2nd monitor and then stretch your VTT interface across the other monitor space. For in person games, it is very easy to see when someone else is about to talk. You have to pay special attention to this in online games and plan breaks and pauses in your dialog to allow for other people to jump in and participate."
John agrees:
"To me, video is really important--unless you know each other really well, I think you need video to know if people are excited, quiet but engaged, or drifting away. My groups usually use Google Hangouts for audio and video, but there are a lot of alternatives out there. That's why, by the way, EpicTable doesn't have integrated audio and video--there are just too many good options out there for people, and they change; it doesn't lend itself to a one-size fits all solution."
Not Too Crowded

Doug recommends no more than six players but no less than four.
"It allows for someone to not make it one day and still continue. Within Fantasy Grounds, the character sheets are all stored within the GM's system, so if a player has to step away, the GM can free up that PC for another player to take over and run in their absence. Talk it over in advance with your players to see if they feel comfortable with this or if the PC should simply disappear and reappear at a later date. If you expect to be out for a game and want other players to run your character in your absence, think about writing a few notes on how to run your character in a basic arrangement. Other players won't run your character as efficiently as you, so keep it as simple as possible. Remember, they also have to run their own character."
John cautions about keeping the number of players manageable:
"In terms of number of players, virtual is very similar to a face-to-face game--it depends on what you as a GM can handle and how fluidly your players share the spotlight. Ultimately, it's about giving every player a chance to do something cool, or a couple somethings cool, and that's not really a technology issue."
Mind the Introverts

Much advice for in-person games applies to virtual tabletops too: listen to your players, discern what's fun to them, ask what they want to see in the game, and give their characters a chance to shine. But non-verbal cues are missing in virtual interactions, so Doug emphasized that it's important to check in with them from time to time to ensure they get a chance to participate. John agrees:
"'s necessary to check-in explicitly and see whether they're having fun, whether the game is going the direction they want, whether they feel like their characters are getting a chance to do cool things. This can be 1-on-1 outside the game and/or with the group. It might be a little uncomfortable the first time, but it's important to do. Otherwise, you risk losing a player or at least not maximizing fun for everyone."
Take Care of Yourself

Doug sums it up best:
"Take care of your mental health by maintaining some form of social interaction. Tools like Fantasy Grounds and other VTTs may help maintain some sanity during these stressful times, but don't overextend yourself financially. While Fantasy Grounds offers preloaded content for many different game systems, you can easily get by with just the basics or a monthly subscription and then spend some time entering your own data from the books instead of buying everything prepackaged. You could buy a module with everything you need to level your character up to level 20, but if you are only a 4th level character, you only really need to enter in the first 4 levels worth of content for your class. Pick and choose what makes the most sense for you and your family."
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Kobold Enthusiast
There is a lot of good advise here. Playing online can be a huge jump for people who aren't used to it. And silent clues when players are having trouble can be hard to pick up on in person let alone online.

I understand the whole part about being careful about spending too. It feels like you have to have everything to play, but honestly, you don't. Keep that collecting habit away from your online account and you'll be able to afford what you really want when you really need it.


Limit Break Dancing
All three of our gaming groups have switched over to Roll20.

The first group, in which my wife is the DM and I'm one of seven players, tried to use FantasyGrounds. Unfortunately, not everyone in our gaming group could meet the software requirements, or they were using work laptops and didn't have permission to install the software, or they were behind a firewall and couldn't connect, or they were using a Chromebook or a Mac, or, or. There was always a work-around for the tech issues, but those always took time to troubleshoot and diagnose and I'm the only one with any kind of background in IT.

We ended up using Roll20, since it was the one VTT platform that everyone could access reliably (and even then, it wasn't perfect.) Tomorrow night we are running our second VTT game, and my wife is really excited about the sets of assets she purchased.

The second group, in which I'm one of five players and all of us have a background in IT, is playing our fourth VTT game tonight. We did a test run of Roll20 back in late February, where one of our buddies put together a Call of Cthulhu one-shot and ran us through it. A couple weeks later we shifted back to our regular 5E game (we are in the late chapters of "Storm King's Thunder"), and it was a pretty rocky transition. We have a lot of house-rules and some custom character features, so it wasn't as simple as "clicking and dragging" as the online tutorials imply. It took us several days to just get our 13th level characters imported into Roll20, and some of us are still missing some elements of the game.

But three weeks later, we are doing pretty good. There are still the occasional tech issues (lagging, glitchy lighting, loss of camera or sound), but they pass after a minute or two. And being able to play D&D literally from the comfort of our own homes is very nice. I suspect we will permanently move this campaign to VTT even after the pandemic.

My third gaming group, in which I'm the DM and I have five other players, will play its third game this weekend on Roll20. It's a "couples D&D" game, where my wife and I play every Sunday with two other couples...a Sunday Brunch Game, we call it. So the whole point of this campaign was to hang out face-to-face with our married friends, drink some wine, eat some quiche or whatever, and roll some dice. I worried that the VTT would really mess up that formula for us.

Since my wife and I already had the Roll20 thing going for her gaming group, I pitched it to the others and we got it set up. I don't run a published campaign setting and I really enjoy the creative side of being a DM, so there was a huge learning curve. The fun part of being a DM is drawing my own maps, inventing my own monsters and magic items, and writing interesting NPCs...I've been doing it for years, and I have a certain way that I like to do them. So having to re-learn how to work digitally has taken a lot of time and practice. (And just when I thought I had the hang of it, they go and change Dynamic Lighting! Aaargh!)


Anyway. That's how we are rocking the VTT in my gaming groups. Roll20 has been great for us, but it isn't the magical solution that some folks say it is. It's difficult to master, and puts a lot on the shoulders of the DM. It also uses a lot of bandwidth, especially if you are using the built-in audio and video.

And FantasyGrounds looks amazing, but it requires a level of hardware and expertise that some of us didn't have. I can't say much more about it, because we never successfully ran a game with it.


That's my dog, Walter
My Travaller group moved to roll20 through all of this. This has been a stable group of gamers since the late 80s. Nothing was going to stop them. I have always had issues retaining players or having a stable game going that start out in Roll20. Constant commitment issues. Pretty frustrating.


In my experience, Roll20 offers the best bang for your buck. DMs on a budget can use the free account options. Once you've used all of your storage, it's only $4.99 a month for a paid account which enables dynamic lighting! Highly recommended, but don't use the built in chat/video. It's too buggy. Stick to Discord or Skype for voice chatting.


Rotten DM
Sorry OP. You are always late to game. Your DPR is substandard. Your role playing is average. And your work space is messy. YOUR ARE FIRED!

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