Virtual Tabletops are More Than Maps

Posted in EpicTable Blog on March 27, 2008 at 12:02 am

Armored man fighting a giant troll Virtual tabletops—my own EpicTable included—tend to put the spotlight on maps. Most (probably all) virtual tabletops provide a lot more than maps. There’s chat, character sheets, rules automation, and various kinds of media that a GM can send to the players…but still, a lot of the focus is on maps.

I’ve said to myself all along that there are other aspects of the gaming experience that are important—especially to the more story-oriented crowd, and I’ve imagined EpicTable following the roleplay vector more than the wargame vector over the next several years. Don’t get me wrong—I think maps are important, and I’m a long-time D&D player, so I’m not throwing away my battlemat anytime soon…but I had an interesting couple of experiences this week that put virtual tabletops into a little bit different perspective for me.

Big Troll, Tiny Bridge

I run a face-to-face D&D game every week or two, and my last session underscored the value of physical, three-dimensional maps and miniatures. There was a mountain troll crossing a narrow bridge over a cavern abyss. (Silly troll.) Take a good look at the difference in size between the troll and the valiant characters striving to hold him back. This guy made a huge impression at the game table. The players were aghast as this thing emerged from the darkness on the far side of the bridge and started across to join the fray. Ultimately, the troll got dumped into the chasm through a series of clever tactics on the part of the players. As he fell, he made one last attempt to grab the paladin and pull him down with him. You could feel the tension in the room as the dice clattered across the table, and the exultation at the natural 1 that came up.

As I was cleaning up after the session, I thought about what made that encounter so great. Without a doubt, the GM had masterfully orchestrated a tension-filled scenario ;). And the natural 1 didn’t hurt. But what really sold it, what really pulled the players in, was seeing that ginormous troll plunked down on the battlmat. I don’t think I could have pulled that off on a virtual tabletop. It’s just not the same seeing a token drawn on the map.

Darker Than Real Life

My second illuminating experience was the next evening, when I played “My Life With Master” with some folks from the Four Ugly Monsters forum. At the opposite end of the spectrum, this game didn’t involve a map or minis at all. The action took place entirely in our imaginations and the shared narrative of the session. The virtual tabletop served only as a mechanism to share dice rolls and character sheets, and for the GM to display images of our villianous Master and the creepy old castle in which our characters served her.

While success of the the troll encounter was based on the physical size of the monster’s representation at the tabletop, the success of the encounters in the My Life with Master session was just the opposite. It was based on the imagination and narrative talents of the GM and players (and Phil, the GM, doing a great job of adjusting the lighting effects and displaying the right picture at the right time). Had we tried to put the encounters on a map, the game would have failed utterly.

What does this mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean that I’ve deleted all the mapping code written for EpicTable. Obviously, maps play an important role in many games, and I still believe that virtual tabletops have some clear advantages when it comes to mapping. On the other hand, this does reinforce what I thought I already knew about roleplaying in a virtual environment—that images are important, atmosphere is important, and ease-of-use is important. All roleplaying games take place, first and foremost, in the imagination. The virtual tabletop can help by streamlining encounters, by allowing the GM to share images without fumbling through papers and books, by creating enough distance that players drop their inhibitions and roleplay more. But ultimately, the virtual tabletop’s job is to get out of the way, to let you do what you need to do so naturally that the machinery fades into the background.

I knew all this…or thought I did. But thanks to a giant troll and an evil master, I know it a lot more vicerally than I did before.

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