Bits and bytes and dice.
For this post, Virtual Table Tops are websites or apps that let you play RPG sessions online with other players. This is part one in this VTT series, I'll talk about the promise and range of VTTs and some hurdles.
Rollforyourparty is VTT simplicity, but ugly. It has dice, the ability to load images, some labels, and some safety tools. It's free, though free ain't always where it's at. These are the basics. I've run Sorcerer, Liminal, and Champions Now using RollForYYourParty. It's quirky, but you can get used to it. Something like Owlbear.rodeo is a couple of shifts up from RollForYourParty. You get avatars, tokens, and map features. This worked great for a Forbiddenlands series I ran. Let's call these Core VTTs, it is the baseline.
At the Shift-X side of the spectrum are VTTs like Roll20 and Foundry VTT. They have dice and dice macros, tokens, avatars, maps, light FX, character sheets, journals, music, and, and, and. There is a learning curve to use these VTTS, but not too steep. There's a one-time fee for Foundry VTT and Roll20 is subscription-based. I'll call these Smart VTTs. They have strong quality-of-life features. My Twilight: 2000 sessions in Foundry tracks weight, ammo via drag-and-dropping items and making combat checks and tracking character stats. These come at a cost of configurations and permission settings which can be....aggravating.
Core VTTs don't "know" about your game system. They know dice, dice annotations, and images. Owlbear.rodeo is a solid VTT but it won't handle your character sheet stuff. You'll need another tool for that. This isn't a good or bad thing, Smart VTTs sing when there are strong implementations for the game you want to play. Let me unpack that. Free League had Twilight: 2000 built and supported for Foundry VTT. The implementation was strong enough to play this RPG with only a little knowledge of the mechanics and a learn-as-you-go approach because the Smart VTT handled most of the mechanics through buttons, drag-and-drops, rollable tables, quality automation. This is the promise of Smart VTTs. Again, my Saturday morning Twilight: 2000 sessions are amazing. I look forward to prepping, playing, and reviewing this campaign. NPCs templates are available and these are non-trivial NPCs with ready-to-play stats, gear, agendas if need be. There are implementations of other games where you just don't know if it's complete, did they get the mechanics right, the UI is hinkey...
And if it doesn't support your RPG...
The hard talk.
If your game is not implemented in your VTT of choice, you have some coding to do. Whether it is drag-and-drop of elements in Role and linking them together or some old janky
const roll = roll_dem_bones( COMBAT_DIE, str_mod); This is some effort, even if you sling code for a living. I’m working on an implementation for Legacy 2e in Foundry VTT, but my 8+ session game wraps on Sunday. 🤷🏾♂️
Think of Core VTTs as reliable, workhorses. Sometimes that's all you need, and this is important. Sometimes a Smart VTT is too much for the game experience I want. Sometimes I want just dice and images. YMMV. There are plenty of folks out there enjoying games just using macro-loaded Google sheets!
Smart VTTs though… man, the allure, that promise. VTTs with RPG mechanics and the UI done right are an incredible experience -indubitably. A click of the button brings up planet data for the system the players just zoomed off to, or generate that fixer in low-town a player’s dice test just says they have. GM prep supported by automated tables, charts, maps, history. Indubitably! My go-to's in fallback order are Foundry VTT, Role, Owlbear, Rollwithme.xyz. I'll cover more about my "fallback order", my VTT picks and other VTTs in part II of my VTT series.