Virtual tabletops – ups and downs #IntPiPoMo

Since 2018 I’ve been using Fantasy Grounds 2 to run tabletop roleplaying games for friends over the Internet, a so-called virtual tabletop. Back then it was a necessary evil to allow us to play at least some roleplaying sessions remotely because it had become so difficult to schedule even semi-regular meet-ups in person.

We’ve used the software for a number of different campaigns using different rule systems. Some rulesets offer more automation than others: you can use the system just to share maps and show locations of tokens, or you can layer on initiative order tracking, full digital character sheets or even combat roll adjudication and the automatic application of damage or status effects.

Fantasy Grounds can measure ranges for targets

I’ve read many different opinions on this: whether the software adds value or conversely takes away from the authentic “round the table” roleplay experience. On the one hand a VTT can take a lot of the heavy lifting of mental arithmatic and leafing through manuals for obscure rules references.On the other hand it can almost end up feeling like some quirky turn-based strategy game because so much is automated by the system.

A lot of dice rolls in a few clicks of the mouse

During the pandemic our VTT sessions became the only possible roleplay sessions. Whats more the one game and group became three different games with overlapping groups of players to suit different schedules. We collectively had more freetime, for a while at least, due to the complete absence of normal social activities.

Expanding virtual horizons

Fantasy Grounds was a bit of an unsung hero for me personally last year, as it also was the platform through which I could test the modules I have been writing since 2019. Getting real feedback from a trusted group has helped in bringing said modules to publication-ready status. Though there is of course a flipside to this – prepping my own modules by hand for running in the system is no simple feat.

A segment of one of my modules within FG

I still often feel like a complete newb with the software, and some of the systems I run. We played Starfinder again recently for the first time some months. Once again I was reminded of the double-edged nature of the heavy rules-automation. It allows us to play our campaign in the system without needing to know the rules that well, with items, spells and ability descriptions all hyper-linked for easy access. It automates a lot of the details of combat for us. But does that also mean we never really learn the system that well because we are so used to relying on the VTT’s support? Also a recent patch seems to have radically changed or added bugs to some features, which left us rather in the dark on how to access and play with those character-specific features (e.g. drones) – if you are dependent on automation and suddenly it is broken or missing, how do you play effectively?

Skill bonuses and rolls all at the click of a mouse

Like any software VTTs and the content that can be purchased for use within them needs updates and patches regularly to keep pace with both new releases and the need to fix issues. Sometimes it’s just a time to wait for an issue to get fixed, this has happened in the past (e.g. with the ‘RP’ bug in an earlier release of the Starfinder ruleset for FG), so hopefully the latest issue will get improved or fixed soon.

A buggy last session

I could wax lyrical about returning to pen and paper gaming of yore, but then that would be ignoring the time wasted trying to remember or find rules in the dozens of manuals I own. I personally do not miss drawing maps by hand on paper, and trying to track ammo, inventory and other resources on smudged character sheets or scraps of paper.

Drawing a circle for fireball, and then erasing it again, always messed up any map

This post is part of the IntPiPoMo 2021 event. Picture total posted so far this month 38/50.

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