Tabletop games are a precursor to the video games that have now become such a massive mainstream market. Using paper, books, and your imagination, these games delighted a generation of gamers before it went all digital.
You’d think fans of tabletop gaming would be against bringing computer technology to their analog gaming tradition. It turns out this isn’t true at all. In fact, computer-aided tabletop RPG games were a thing back when computers were big, noisy beige things. Now that we all have smartphones and tablet computers, things have really taken off.
The idea behind these apps is to help reduce the manual labor involved in managing or playing a tabletop RPG. Whether you are a game master or just someone who loves to play, there’s an app for that.
Obsidian Portal is a web-based tool for game masters that allows them to craft their custom campaigns. The site provides everything you need to design manage your Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
Unfortunately, the tool isn’t free. The good news is that only the actual game master needs a paid account. All your players can register and join for free. It’s not that expensive, either. If you pay monthly, it’s five bucks a month. If you pay for the whole year it works out to just over three bucks a month.
Game masters can really go all out with their campaigns. If you have some web design skill you can do custom CSS pages, but anyone can upload their own artwork to use as backgrounds. If you’re a GM who wants to bring D&D into the 21st century, this is a site you have to check out.
While Obsidian Portal provides one of the most-loved D&D tools out there, it’s limited to just that particular game system. If you want to expand beyond D&D then you’ll have to look at something like Fantasy Grounds.
This program is a complete virtual tabletop that isn’t tied to any one game system. Yes, you can literally bring any tabletop game to the party and build a campaign for it using this tool. That being said, there are ten popular game systems that are officially supported, with pre-made content. This means that if your game uses one of these ten systems you’ll be up and running much more quickly than you would be otherwise.
They are: D&D, Savage Worlds, Call of Cthulu, Pathfinder, Rolemaster, Dead Lands, Castle Crusades, Starfinder, W.O.I.N and Mutants & Masterminds. There’s more content beyond this, but it’s better to check out the site for all the details.
You can draw maps, share images, manage battles, roll dice. Basically, everything you would do on a real tabletop you can do here. If you’re flush with cash you can skip the subscription option and pay a once-off $150 fee; then the software is yours for life.
Roll20 is the biggest direct competition to Fantasy Grounds. These are the Coke and Pepsi of the online campaign tool world. Roll20 describes itself as a suite of tools for pen-and-paper gameplay. They also officially support D&D along with “hundreds” of other games. This is a browser-based HTML5 tool that includes a virtual tabletop, a character builder, a compendium for the GM’s reference, and more.
Roll20 deliberately tries to dial down the automation so as to not lose what makes tabletop RPGs special. They even let you put mood music into the campaign. It has live video chat built in too, so GMs can still do their thing. Since it’s web-based it will run on any system with a modern browser. There’s also a very nice graphics rendering system with dynamic lighting, so players only see what you want them to as they explore the map. There are dedicated iOS and Android apps, since using browsers for this would be a little awkward. One of the neatest things about Roll20 is that they use an analog source of randomness to make sure their dice rolls are fair. They use the power fluctuations of a split beam of light; that’s just a meta-level of nerdiness.
I’m not actually sure that Tabletop Simulator is going to “help” your tabletop game be any better than it would be normally, but it’s such a cool idea that I have to include it here on this list.
This is nothing like either Fantasy Grounds or Roll20. Instead, it’s a physics-based simulator that lets you do whatever the hell you want. If you want to get as close as possible to a real tabletop experience, but in the virtual world, Tabletop Simulator is where it’s at.
Setting up something like D&D using this software is a little complicated, but you’ll find plenty of guides on the net that will let you do it. Once you have it set up, you can get friends from all over the world to come sit around your virtual table and play as if they were really there. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a fascinating take on computer-aided tabletop gaming.
One of the things game masters spend the most time on is the act of drawing maps. In the old days this meant developing your latent artistic skills – if you had any. Otherwise, there were plenty of paper-based aids and tools to help you craft something that’s at least workable. Those days are over, thanks to programs such as Campaign Cartographer. Complete campaign managers also tend to come with map drawing tools, but CC is dedicated to one thing only – drawing beautiful maps with ease.
The program is currently at version 3.0 and has evolved to be used for real-world mapping uses too. The developers claim it’s the fastest mapping software for gaming. It doesn’t matter what genre you want to create a map for, you can do it with CC3. Be sure to check out the other software packages by ProFantasy as well. They have authoring tools for just about every element you can imagine.
Creating your character by using a character sheet is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of tabletop RPGs. This is the first time you get to author some part of the narrative that the GM has created, and your character is the lens through which you’ll enjoy the story. Unless you’re a skilled artist and love rolling a million dice, the practicalities of character creation are actually a bit of a drag.
Sheet Yourself (very funny guys) is a mobile app that makes it much easier to create kick-ass characters for just about every game system you can imagine. It also helps you efficiently organize and track all your characters in terms of every possible aspect. It costs a few bucks, but for the serious tabletop gamer it’s heaven.
Wizards of the Coast Dice Roller
Wizards of the Coast is a legendary tabletop gaming company that has also brought out plenty of great digital versions of its games. This simple web-based dice roller is a free tool you can use to simulate the results of any dice roll used in Dungeons and Dragons. Of course it doesn’t have to be D&D; if you just want to roll a D20 then it will work for anything. The page is a little old now, having last been updated in 2005, but it’s a lifesaver if you suddenly find some of your real dice are lost.
Named rather cheekily for the flesh-bound necronomicon book from dark fantasy, the Dicenomicon is an powerful virtual dice engine that you can access through iOS. You can simulate a full collection of polyhedral dice. All the standard dice designs are there, but you can also create custom dice if you need them.
Few things are as important to a good tabletop RPG session as atmosphere. The best game masters will pull their players into the world of the game fully with props, a bit of voice acting, and various theatrics. The easiest way to instantly create atmosphere is with a great soundtrack. Now, at some point this might have meant playing a mixtape on your boombox, but we’re out of the 1980s basement dungeon now. We have software like Syrinscape, which can dynamically play a soundtrack for your campaign.
The software doesn’t use pre-recorded music, but is actually a digital music engine – the sort of dynamic music system you’ll find in modern video games. There are soundscapes for every environment, for battles, and for specific game franchises. It really is an ingenious system.
But Wait, There’s more!
There are a lot of apps, websites, and other digital resources that can make your life as a GM so much easier. It’s amazing what’s possible with a little technological help. There nothing wrong with digitizing tabletop games if it helps the core experience be better. It’s especially important that you make it convenient enough for players so that people actually participate in the sessions. Keep that in mind and you’ll find plenty to love in your local app store.