Maybe you've always wanted to try out tabletop roleplaying, but you don't have any local friends that are interested. Or perhaps you had a gaming group in the past, but geography has since become a barrier to regularly getting together. Fortunately, we live in an age in which online solutions are not only able to come very close to capturing the feeling of a face-to-face session, but they are also capable of enhancing that experience.
Here's how you can play your favorite tabletop RPG online, from the most barebones and simplistic of solutions to some requiring numerous software applications and specialized computer knowledge. Either way, these are the basics to get you started.
You've gotten your group together. Where do you start? The bare minimum requirement you'll need to play a tabletop RPG online is the ability to type messages that your fellow players can read. Instant messaging clients, chat rooms, forums, email, or even a multiplayer game like Minecraft can serve as a venue, so long as multiple participants can be involved in the conversation. Even groups that use voice chat should ideally have the ability to communicate via text, to emulate the instances in which a DM may want to pass a secret note to a player - or vice versa.
You're roleplaying your first tavern romp, and you want to relieve a drunkard of some coin by picking his pockets. How do you roll dice to determine your success? If you have no other option, you can let the DM handle all rolls on his end and trust that he isn't lying about the results, but alternatives do exist in the form of "multiplayer" dice rollers, be they in the form of chat rooms with dice rolling commands or services that will email players roll results.
You've successfully pilfered a few gold coins from the oblivious tavern patron, but where do you record your newfound loot? While you can keep a record of your character sheet as notes in your text chat of choice, far more elegant solutions exist, particularly on play-by-post RPG forums such as Myth-Weavers and RPG Crossing. These online character sheets will look like real character sheets, calculate the math for you, and are intuitive and easy to reference. Better still, the forums have built-in dice rolling commands, allowing you to communicate, roll dice, and keep your character record, all in one venue.
You've slipped the drunkard's coins into your pocket - but his buddy spotted you, and he is ready for a good ol' fashioned tavern brawl. The DM calls for the rolling of initiative. How do you establish battle positions?
Not every RPG system requires a battle grid - if you have to, you can get by with simply describing positions, but when multiple participants are involved or if positioning is important, than having a grid to visualize the action is invaluable. The DM can use MS Paint or other graphics software to generate a map for each round, but this can be cumbersome and time consuming. Again, more elegant solutions exist.
A virtual tabletop is an application that emulates a physical tabletop and often includes all the functionality we've already outlined. You can move tokens around a fantasy map, roll attacks, and record damage, all in one piece of software. Some even include features that can't be replicated by a physical tabletop, such as dynamic "fog of war" that reveals to the players only the portions of a map that the characters can see, based on line of sight and lighting conditions.
There are a large number of virtual tabletops out there, and which one you choose will depend on your needs and desires - namely, what system does it need to run, and are you willing to pay? MapTool is a robust, free application that can run a large number of RPG systems, but is not particularly user-friendly and has a steep learning curve if you wish to take advantage of its advanced features. Roll20 is very user-friendly and runs in your web browser with no software to install, but advanced features require a subscription fee. Fantasy Grounds does a great job capturing the feel of playing at an actual tabletop, but it is neither free nor inexpensive. Before settling on any one virtual tabletop, explore your options and try out a few - there is no "best" solution and what works for one group may not work for another.
While we presently have everything we need to play a tabletop RPG online, here are some add-ons that can further enhance the experience. Some virtual tabletops include these features; we'll explain how you can add them to your game even if your virtual tabletop of choice does not support it.
Voice Chat: Being able to voice chat with your group is an essential step to re-creating the social atmosphere of sitting around a table with friends. Skype is one of the most user-friendly options, but Mumble, Ventrilo, and TeamSpeak are great alternatives for more advanced users and have the benefit of being able to employ "push-to-talk" and "voice activation" functionalities.
Push-to-talk will keep your mic muted unless you are holding down a designated key, while voice activation will detect when you are speaking and mute your mic when you are silent. Both these functions help reduce the background noise generated by computer fans, subpar mics, and environmental distractions, which can become irritating when compounded across multiple participants.
TeamSpeak and Ventrilo introduce a small degree of latency that makes communication not quite instantaneous - you may find yourself frequently running into, "no, you go first" situations. While Mumble delivers the zero-latency experience of Skype, it is more complicated to set up.
Video: Being able to see your fellow players will finalize recreating the tabletop experience as closely as possible. Google Hangouts offers free, multi-user audio and video conferencing, whereas this is a paid feature on Skype. Google Hangouts also offer the nice feature of built-in text chat and background noise muting, but sometimes have connectivity troubles.
Music and Sound Effects: Whether you want to play ambient music or sound effects to enhance your game, you can do so through your voice chat application of choice, though the process is rarely simple and may involve running a second instance of the application and configuring additional audio codecs. An alternative would be to stream music through a Winamp Shoutcast radio server and have your players connect to it. Both of these solutions are only recommended for advanced users.