The Pros and Cons of Playing on a Virtual Tabletop

A virtual tabletop such as Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, Astral Tabletop, etc. is a modern-day solution to a modern day problem. That problem is, of course, “no one plays RPGs where I live”.

I’ve ran and been a part of quite a few long-running D&D campaigns and this is all because of the existence of virtual tabletops, specifically Roll20. Sure there are other reasons, but everyone I play with lives between 1-9 hours away. It’s not feasible to meet in person on a weekly basis.

Since I’ve been using virtual tabletops for around 4 years now I’ve grown to really enjoy using them. There are some great features included in many of the popular virtual tabletops that significantly enhance RPGs.

Of course, there are also plenty of reasons why, if I had my choice, I’d love to run a game in person again. As with anything, there are pros and cons to both options.

So let’s talk about my experience with Roll20 and other virtual tabletops. I hope that by doing so I can provide some insight for those of you that are on the fence about playing an RPG using one!

roll 20 map for my shadow of the demon lord campaign
We were at maybe 2 session into our Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign before I fully bought into the premise.

Pros

Flexible Scheduling

One of the perks about being able to GM or play an RPG from the comfort of your home is in fact that you can play from the comfort of your home.

Shocker, I know.

But seriously, never having to leave your home to play with your group is an enormous benefit. Especially if you’re like me and have friends that live far away from you. By playing online you no longer all have to pick a reasonable meeting spot, or suffer through driving long distances to play your game.

I love my friends, but I don’t want to have to drive 45-60 min each way to play an RPG for ~3 hrs. Especially now that I have to commute for work. Sure, we could probably find a location somewhat in the middle, but it’s still a bit of an annoyance.

You can also with your group any time if you use a virtual tabletop to play your RPGs. This is a great option for those of us with abnormal work schedules, or for groups where members live in different time zones from each other.

Using a virtual tabletop to play RPGs allows you to play with pretty much anyone in the world, provided that you can make your schedules work. Distance and time is no longer a restraint.

No one has to compromise. Everyone agrees on a time to play and hops on their computer. It’s as easy as that!

Create Impressive Looking Battlemaps For Cheap

Using intricate and impressive looking battlemaps for an in-person game using minis can call for a huge investment. You’ll need miniatures and scenery galore, and the cost of both of those can add up quickly.

Of course you can mitigate this cost by spending a bit of time and artistic talent to make your own scenery and battlemaps, but not all of us are so gifted.

Another option is to use the same methods to create a battlemap and then print it out for your in-person game, but printing something of that size (and in color) can be expensive.

Battlemaps are optional anyway, but for many groups having a battlemap is a crucial feature for their combat encounters. Personally, I’ve found it easier and less costly to make great looking battlemaps by uploading them to Roll20.

Upload a picture of your character, upload some pictures of the creatures, and upload a map you found or created to your virtual tabletop of choice and you’ve got a great looking encounter for a relatively low time and money investment.

Premade Content

Another cool thing that virtual tabletops can provide are premade adventures and sourcebooks for tons of different RPGs. By premade content I mean adventures that already have battlemaps, creatures, and handouts can be purchased and ran immediately.

For example, Roll20 has a whole marketplace full of content for D&D 5e, Pathfinder, and other RPGs. And if Roll20 isn’t your jam, keep in mind that other virtual tabletops have similar offerings as well, like how Astral Tabletop has integrated DriveThruRPG offerings with their virtual tabletop.

A huge time sink for playing with a virtual tabletop as opposed to in person is entering all the data you need for your game such as creature and player statistics and attributes. By purchasing an adventure for your virtual tabletop you can skip this part of your prep and save yourself a ton of time.

I still think you should spend some time prepping for your games, but purchasing adventures that have all of the dirty work done for you can save you oodles of prep time.

Roll20 marketplace
Roll20 has tons of premade content for you to purchase. The more popular the platform, the more content you have to choose from! Credit: Roll20.

Cons

Unable to “Read the Room”

I’ve spent a lot of time online. I’ve worked with people from around the globe and I’ve played games with people I’ve never even met before. I’m used to voice chat with people online.

But playing RPGs online was a very different experience for me. Even with people I’ve literally lived with for years.

This is chiefly because playing with my friends online means that I can’t read their body language. We play over Discord so we only use voice communication to talk during the session. Honestly, it’s a very different dynamic.

Sure, you can use webcams to help with this lack of body language, but honestly it doesn’t feel like a great substitute for playing with people in person. I don’t have the background to explain it, but even webcams can’t make up for an in-person session. I feel like I can read the room way better when everyone is in my physical presence.

Body language tells you a lot about a person. Even if you’re subconsciously recognizing a person’s body language. For example, you can tell if someone is enjoying or engaged with a particular part of your game. You can tell if someone isn’t as well.

I’ve also noticed that conversations are very different in online games compared to in-person games. Generally, conversations are one-on-one between a player and a DM. For some reason, people are less likely to interject or interrupt in an online conversations.

Personally, I think it’s because we can’t see everyone’s body language. We’re worried about interacting in a conversation because no one can tell the difference between us being a jerk and us just wanting to add to the moment. Body language is, in my opinion, the defining factor between coming off as an attention hog or a participant.

Body language is huge. Online games miss out on this important factor that in-person games can really capitalize on.

More Potential Distractions

It can be hard to focus when you have literally the entire internet at your fingertips. So many interesting and engaging things are going on in the world, it’s hard to keep everyone’s undivided attention for an entire session. People are going to browse social media or the web and get distracted.

Even if you genuinely feel that your campaign is more interesting and engaging than whatever you’re doing on the internet, you can still be lulled into surfing the web in the middle of an online session of your campaign.

Sure, with smartphones being widely available we have this access literally anywhere and anytime. However, for in-person groups this isn’t usually as much of an issue since we can literally see if a player or GM is just staring at their phone during the game. This is still a social faux pas, so it’s not difficult to call-out a player that is just staring at their phone the whole session.

We can limit distractions for in-person games, but it’s really, really hard to police games run on a virtual tabletop.

It’s easier for us to play mindless games or browse social media when the rest of the group has no way to monitor our activity. You and your players will need to resist the temptation and focus on your campaign, even in the lull periods of your sessions.

May Require More Prep

Life is a constant balance between spending your time or spending your money. Virtual tabletops are no exception. You can spend tons of time entering creature statistics, updating your character sheets, and setting up dynamic lighting, or you can pay for a premade adventure and have it all done for you.

So for example, if your group wants to run a premade D&D 5e adventure you have an option of saving some money and manually inputting the info from your book into your virtual tabletop, or you can purchase the adventure from something like the Roll20 Marketplace and have all of the monotonous prepwork done for you.

You can at least make this decision if you are running official adventures for your RPG of choice. Well, assuming it’s available on your virtual tabletop of choice.

White Plume Mountain adventure screenshot
A moment’s respite for weary adventurers in White Plume Mountain.

Now, what about for those of us that wan to run a homebrew campaign? Sure, some of the more popular virtual tabletops offer sourcebooks and creature compendiums to help lessen the prep burden, but there’s still going to be a ton of prep required for a homebrew game.

From my experience, running a homebrew campaign on a virtual tabletop will require more prep than if you were to run it in-person. There are services and content you can you can purchase to reduce this prep time, but you’ll still wind up having to input any homebrew content by hand into your virtual tabletop.

Conclusions

I’ve found over the years that I really enjoy and sometimes prefer using a virtual tabletop for my RPG campaigns.

One of my favorite parts about D&D 5e that my group tends to run are the tactical combat encounters. Roll20 has allowed me to upload and use intricate battlemaps that would be difficult to translate into an in-person play environment without spending quite a bit of cash or time.

Of course, keep in mind that I don’t particularly have much of a choice about how I play my RPGs. I’ve ran games in-person before and have had an absolute blast doing so.

There’s objectively a lot of social interaction that my friends and I miss out on by not meeting in-person to play our RPG campaigns. Social cues in games aside, just being around people is beneficial for your well-being.

Deciding between playing in-person or via a virtual tabletop is a decision your group needs to make early on in your D&D campaign. Does your group value the convenience of a virtual tabletop, or would the prefer a more intimate, in-person game? Or maybe even a mix of both!

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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