Even in the age of blockbuster digital hits like World of Warcraft and Civilization: Beyond Earth, there are still plenty of gamers who like playing role-playing and strategy games the old-fashioned way: gathered around the table with friends, food, and drink.
Still, friends move away, and gamers can find themselves living far from anyone who shares their hobby for Dungeons & Dragons or Settlers of Catan, says Nolan T. Jones, one of the creators of Roll20, an app that lets gamers play their favorite tabletop games remotely by video chatting, moving game tokens, and rolling virtual dice through their web browsers. Since it launched in 2012, it’s signed up more than 700,000 players.
“I think a large part of our success was this was a program made for necessity–it wasn’t a business,” Jones says.
Jones and his two cofounders started building the in-browser app in 2012 to play with each other and with friends who were living in different cities, then decided to raise funds on Kickstarter and develop it into a commercial product. Visitors can play dozens of different games, with various editions of Dungeons and Dragons and the related game Pathfinder among the most popular. Most play for free, it relies on donations and some paid subscriptions, allow users extra features and additional storage space. There’s a bustling community forum and even scripting functions, which, coupled with an API, allows players to track games and program their next moves.
Next, the Kansas-based company plans to reemphasize the analog gaming experience, with a tablet app for iOS and Android that will bring some of the advantages of its online platform back to gamers who are playing in person. The app, expected in early 2015, will help players by handling the mechanics of tracking character stats and running numbers while they enjoy the social experience of sitting around a table with friends face-to-face.
Some players are already loading the web-based app on tablets to do just that, Jones says.
“Currently it’s the web application being used on the tablet,” he says. “It works, and I’ve definitely used it myself in that way, but why not make it better with as many people as are starting to use us in this way?”
The existing app initially focused just on replacing the table in a traditional gaming session, letting game masters design tiled maps for their friends to explore and providing video and chat interfaces to replace yelling across the room or whispering in an allied player’s ear. When it launched, the site was a clean, streamlined, accessible update on the virtual tabletop software that a number of websites have offered over the years, some of which started in the early days of the web.
Roll20’s creators planned to keep things simple, leaving most of the game mechanics to traditional pen-and-paper calculations. They wanted to create an easy, simple way to play tabletop games remotely, not a video game engine, says Jones.
“Character sheets were actually something for a long time that we said we weren’t going to do,” Jones says, referring to the sometimes pages-long tables of statistics that define role-playing characters’ strengths, weaknesses, and magical abilities. “A character sheet isn’t part of the actual table experience.”
But as the program evolved, its creators realized it would be useful to offload some of that complex accounting to the computer. In role-playing games where figuring out the results of combat or other activities often comes down to keeping track of scores or a long series of dice rolls, automating those tasks can improve the gameplay experience.
“It runs a little smoother when you have the speedy tabulation of a computer behind it,” Jones says.
Some common visual effects can work better with a computer’s help, too, they’ve found: With traditional tabletop gaming, players walking their characters through a dimly lit dungeon might hear the game master announce what fearsome thing they stumble upon in the dark. With Roll20, game masters can effectively preprogram those kinds of lighting effects, having tokens for monsters automatically pop up on the shared map as players draw near.
“It’s a really simple interface to do that sort of shadows or lighting,” Jones says. “With all the things that we lose from not having the tactile in-person experience, here’s something we can gain.”
And, he says, players gaming online don’t have to worry about swapping out paper maps, keeping spoilers hidden as players navigate from area to area, or storing maps and tokens between gaming sessions.
“If I’m playing a game at a table, I’ve got to pick up the table and walk away, or throw a tablecloth over it so nobody wrecks where we were,” Jones says.
“We have 85 different creators that are providing elements for sale that we’re distributing,” he says.
Players can choose from a number of paid subscription plans that unlock access to additional features, or stick with free ad-supported access to the app. Jones says the company aims to keep the free plans powerful enough to be useful and make sure that paid subscribers and free users can participate in the same games, similar to how tabletop role-playing groups historically would have only needed to buy one copy of a rule book or set of miniatures.
And for those not sure they want to hand over their dice, Roll20 offers a compromise: Its uses a server-side quantum mechanical random number generator, and players can track a bar graph of dice rolls that it’s generated over time to verify that the system is fair. Or, if they prefer, they can close the stats page and watch a set of virtual dice roll to a stop onscreen.
“Of course, you can also roll your own physical dice in person,” according to the Roll20 blog. “It’s whatever works best for your group.”