When a new medium–a new mode of communicating, I mean–begins to enter widespread use, people often start off by treating it as a special case of an older medium, and not necessarily a better one. So movies started off being made like filmed stage-plays until cinematography developed its own technical idiom, early television resembled vaudeville, and even writing was suspect, at least to thinkers like Socrates, because in addition to potentially pernicious effects on memory, it mimicked the form of conversational dialogue without the same degree of responsiveness between speaker and listener. The new thing is easy to regard as an ersatz version of the old.
It’s not surprising to hear similar comments about using a virtual tabletop (VTT) to play an RPG. A VTT is one of those online applications intended to allow people to play tabletop games remotely, the way a teleconference takes the place of a face-to-face meeting. You can hear the other players, and maybe see them as well, and you can manipulate playing pieces you control on a game board displayed on your computer screen. The intent of these programs is to replicate the experience of playing on a tabletop with friends, as a 2012 post on a TRPG discussion forum by a creator of one of the first VTTs makes clear:
I didn't start playing D&D until 4E . . . Played for a couple years with friends until we scattered across the U.S. for employment reasons. After a few months we all started to crave a way to play together again, so we tried MapTools (with Ventrilo for voice chat) [and] while there are things I enjoy about the program . . . we never seemed to be able to get things how we wanted. So the game fizzled out. Fast forward a couple years [to when] one of the group's members realized a program he'd been building for simple image sharing and organization actually had everything we needed to play together. And what was better, it had none of the crap we didn't need. It was a space where people could gather and move around tokens. It was a long-distance table.
But a VTT, even one that’s a bespoke design rather than an ad hoc configuration of some combination of video conference, text chat, and presentation software, is simply not the same as being at the table together face-to-face with other people. Some of the scholars who study new media rely on terms like “bandwidth” and “immediacy” to describe what’s missing when you step away from face-to-face interaction. Those terms relate to complaints like those of the TRPG player on Reddit who reported that, in experimenting with VTT play, not only were there distracting bugs and glitches, but “theatre of the mind was useless,” because of how the images on the computer screen drew the players’ eyeballs and attention. It felt like a phone call with funny voices, said the redditor, and the upshot was that “we couldn’t experience the joy of D&D together.”
So there’s an apparent irony here. A tool that was created with the intention of replicating the creators’ D&D tabletop play presents itself as making it impossible for other players to “experience the joy of D&D together.” What’s going on here? It’s an interesting question, because VTTs saw a surge in popularity during the pandemic and now, even as mandates for social isolation ease, “it doesn’t look like this new interest in virtual tabletop gaming is going anywhere,” according to one industry analyst. For my part, I’ve been running classic Traveller (Game Designers Workshop, 1977) on Roll20 since the spring of 2021, and it’s gotten me thinking about the virtual tabletop as a digital environment.
On the Holodeck
In her book Hamlet on the Holodeck (Free Press, 1997), digital media scholar Janet Murray says that the “four essential properties of digital environments” are that they are (a) procedural, (b) participatory, (c) spatial, and (d) encyclopedic. I think that over the past few months, where I’ve succeeded most is where I’ve taken advantage of those properties. I just have enough room to sketch out a few examples, and then try to tell you what I think it means.
By procedural, Murray was talking about the computer’s “defining ability to execute a series of rules,” what others have called algorithmic culture. The VTT highlights the procedurality of TRPG play; as the VTT game’s game master, I am as much an operator engaging with a machine as I am a moderator facilitating a conversation.
Roll20 lets users create “macros,” little snippets of code that can be activated with the click of a button or a typed-in command. This is probably intended to reduce “handling time” for rules-intensive calculations, by grabbing numbers from character sheets and using them as inputs for die rolls. I thought it would be cool to embed that procedurality in the fiction itself.
For example, I created a macro I call “Argument.” When a player-character makes an assertion, request, demand, or suggestion to an NPC, and I wonder how they’ll respond, I can point at both characters and have the NPC reply to the PC with their answer in the game’s chat window. So when PC Frejo Pavlov tries to coax NPC culturemonger Bo Ito to allow him to accompany her on her next voyage, it’s an Argument. The routine produces an entry in the game’s chat window that looks like this:
Bo Ito: “Frejo Pavlov, I accept what you say, provisionally.”
I have to interpret this result in play, a prompt for role-playing the NPC. What does it mean? “‘You can come,’ she says,” I tell the player, “‘but you better not make any trouble, or we are through.’” Granted, the whole thing wouldn’t pass the Turing Test. For one thing, there are only six different responses, ranging from, “I completely disagree!” to “I enthusiastically endorse your position!” But sometimes the answer is perfect, and that lends the game a semblance of realness that it might otherwise lack, because not only does it make the NPC’s reaction seemingly independent of my involvement, it creates a legible record of that reaction, in the form of the game’s chat archive. We can go back and confirm that the NPC’s position was, indeed, complete disagreement with the PC’s offer, proposal, or plan.
The responsiveness of digital procedures to player inputs is the ghost in the machine; Murray points out that one of the pleasures of the old text-adventure game Zork was the way that the game seemed to be talking back to you in real-time–a feature that took advantage of how time-sharing changed the feel of computers from the long wait for batch-processed punch cards to run through the processor to a more immediate and seemingly customized interaction.
I feel some of that effect via the procedures I’ve adopted for space travel, which chain Roll20’s “rollable tables” to articulate a series of oracular pronouncements. The chaining of results and the participation of the players as well as myself as referee makes this feel like a cross between a random encounter table and a Mad Lib. A merchant ship called the Just Reward, run by the PCs, sets off into space. I roll for passage, letting the players see the result so that I can hear their reactions and speculations about what it means.
On this leg of the journey, Far Trader “Just Reward” experiences a fortunate development!
What’s the fortunate development? Another roll, this time on the “Fortunate Development” table.
Bill White (GM): This could be the opportunity of a lifetime.
What could this opportunity be? I don’t know right away, so I look for possible inspiration. Let me roll on a random events table. I want something big!
A Spacer Uprising has taken place on Benni/Xozeahiri (Mandala 0304)
“Benni? That’s not too far away. That’s where all those robots are–they have a lot of robots there,” I say, drawing upon information from the “lonely fun” of creating details for the region of space in which the characters are traveling. What kind of robot? There’s a robot table, so I roll on that.
rolling 1t[Robots] = (Servobot)
“It’s a robot uprising,” a player tells the rest of us. Yes! That’s exactly right. The opportunity comes from meeting a robot from this rebellion. A servobot? So, okay, there’s, um, a robot-piloted scout ship that’s jumped into the Just Reward’s vicinity, and it’s sending out a distress signal. Help the robot, or capture it, could be big. Got it. I tell the players there’s a ship nearby, sending out a distress signal. The robot pilot requests assistance. The Just Reward plots a course and approaches the scout. The captain gives orders.
[Randy Weaver (PC)]: Scan the ship
The PC pilot scans the distressed ship, successfully. What do you want to know? “Are they telling the truth about their drives?” the captain asks. “Typical pirate move to say ‘Mayday! Mayday!’ and then go ‘Hand it over!’” That’s a question, so I roll for answers.
The answer to Randy Weaver’s question is Yes, exactly so.
“We’ve got a ship here with no life signs. If there’s nobody on it, is it mine?” the captain asks. Another player says, “We could strip it for parts.”
The answer to Randy Weaver’s question is Yes, for the most part.
As long as it’s truly abandoned, sure. But the distressed ship’s pilot identifies itself as a robo-scout of the Benni Robot Freedom Navy, and requests help from the Just Reward. Another player wonders if the Imperium supports this robot rebellion. Good question! The answer:
The answer to Wardy Sa’ib’s question is Yes, and there’s more!
Yes, it does! In fact, the Imperial Court at the capital of this cluster has just released a pronouncement that all self-aware robots in the cluster have all the rights of personhood! Robots are free! “I guess the humans on Benni won’t be happy about that,” I say.
“Gotcha. So are you telling me that the leadership of Benni is now open to the right noble?” asks the player, whose character is himself a member of the nobility. Opportunity of a lifetime indeed!
The answer to Wardy Sa’ib’s question is No. Things are much worse than that.
Oh, well. No, in fact, the robots want to turn Benni into a robot planet, free of human interference. The players don’t blame them. “They were oppressed.”
Play continues, with the Just Reward rendering aid to the robo-scout before proceeding on their way. In gratitude, the robo-scout gives its rescuers a randomly generated piece of equipment.
You get a line on an interesting piece of equipment: Cyber-…Cooker
That of course becomes a skilled robot chef, making delicious meals for passengers and crew. Additionally, once I had the chance to sit down and create a rollable table of robot-chef reports and notifications, the robot could speak for itself in game. What is it trying to say?
CyberChef: Self-Diagnostic Report: This unit requires upgrade. This unit requires upgrade. This unit requires upgrade. Recommendation: Purchase reasonably priced CyberChef accoutrements from authorized dealer.
The graphical sophistication of VTTs can be daunting. “While I love the general ease and opportunity presented by virtual tabletop providers like Roll20,” said one TRPG forum poster recently, “I’m not sure that running a game with dynamic 3-D maps and player tokens and fancy graphics is my thing. Yet I feel like there’s indirect pressure to include all those elements on the site, otherwise your game is considered subpar.” The poster went on, “I’m just not sure I have all the resources, or the interest, to build these fantastic set pieces and run games that way. It’s just a little too ‘video game-ish’ for me.” Other posters echoed the original poster’s complaint. “I like to drop in a map and tokens and start playing,” said a Roll20 GM, but the players “seemed taken aback that I don’t use integrated character sheets–for me it’s easier to just remember my common mods like attack and damage. I did dynamic lighting once and it was cool but it took too long to set up; I’m not using it again unless I happen to get a map with it prebuilt.” Other participants recommended employing alternative technological configurations that were more in line with the OP’s style of gaming, but of course the concern voiced in the post was that games without such features would be judged as somehow inferior. Would potential players turn up their noses at games run on an ad hoc configuration of programs instead of an integrated package?
The decision on the part of VTT developers to make the virtual tabletop a realistic visual representation of the in-game setting, with lighting effects designed to mimic the torchlight and infravision of a dungeoneering party, is related to what game design scholars Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in their book Rules of Play call “the immersive fallacy.” They define this fallacy as “the idea that the pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality…so complete that ideally the frame falls away so that the player truly believes that he or she is part of an imaginary world.” It’s more practical, I think, to treat maps and tokens the same way we would on the analog tabletop: as icons that symbolize what’s in the game-world rather than as constructs embedded in a simulation of it.
To that end, I found a very effective technique for representing space iconically on the virtual tabletop is collage, pulling images from different places and placing them together in the context of play. A map of a planet that presents noteworthy locations with some science fiction art cribbed from the Internet provides a pretty strong sense of place for players, and any locations of which they are as yet unaware can be hidden from view to be brought to light at the right time. Admittedly, it’s the visual equivalent of music sampling, and bears the same cavalier regard for intellectual property regimes.
Game designers and game theorists have known for a long time that information and information management are key features of a game. No lesser authority than E. Gary Gygax told us that detailed records must be kept. For Murray, the huge data storage capacity of electronic media induces an “encyclopedic expectation” in us, their users. “We can now conceive,” she said–and remember this is 1997–“of a single comprehensive global library of paintings, films, books, newspapers, television programs, and databases…accessible from any point on the globe.” This “limitless expanse of gigabytes,” she adds, “presents itself to the storyteller as a vast tabula rasa crying out to be filled with all the matter of life.”
Ironically enough, “Encyclopedia Galactica” is what I call the conglomeration of rules and procedures, background details, NPC stats, and other fictional information about my Traveller universe that I can put in, access, and make available to players during the game. The name is of course an allusion to the civilization-saving project of the galactic Foundation in Isaac Asimov’s space opera series; were I more of a Traveller purist, I would call it Library Data, after the convention introduced in classic Traveller for presenting scenario details to characters: the computer tells them, drawing upon the prodigious data banks of the Imperium. Back in 1980, at the dawn of the era of personal computers, that capacity was literally mind-boggling; as a writer in a back issue of Dragon magazine observed, Traveller computer programs “casually imply an enormous capability [and] a frightening amount of expertise,” on the part of the computer. “Even a modest Library program,” the writer supposed, “seems to contain all the information” in the game’s setting supplement, as well as “all the library entries of published adventures, as well as all the information implied by those entries.” Today, that copiousness goes almost unnoticed, but it’s worth noting that the VTT’s encyclopedic character allows information about the setting to be made available to be “pulled” by players rather than pushed at the players by the referee.
More important, however, is the way that the digital environment makes the entire Internet a resource to be incorporated in the game. Work that others have done to support the game is readily accessible; I can draw upon character generators for creating NPCs, planet generators to flesh out the setting, deck plans and other maps to set up scenarios, and random name generators for the characters, worlds, ships, and places the PCs will encounter. It is the encyclopedic character of the Internet, and the permeability of the VTT to that character, that adds a kind of diegetic heft to the VTT game. The visit of a group of PCs to the Museum of Earth (the planet itself destroyed long ago) where they saw both the Mona Lisa wearing a space helmet and a “Pre-Space Era” diorama of a medieval knight holding the reins for a dinosaur-riding maiden scratches at the surface of the possibilities there: a big background is hinted at by mute artifacts.
What It Means
What I’ve been trying to trace out here is a style of play that leans into the affordances offered by the digital medium but preserves the core strength of the tabletop RPG. I have been in VTT games that I think went astray because the GMs thought those affordances were a deficiency to be borne rather than the key features of a new medium. But as we’ve seen, other VTT users have reported a tendency to buy into the immersive fallacy on the part of developers and users of the form. It’s a fine line we’re trying to walk. The question is how to set our course.
One answer comes from seminal media ecologist Marshall McLuhan, who argued that new media could be said to do four things. They (1) augment some human capability, (2) they provide a new context for their immediate predecessors, (3) they “retrieve” or evoke older forms, and (4) even when used exactly as intended, they “flip” into a dysfunctional form. I’ve written about this before, so in the interest of brevity, I will refer interested readers to that piece.
It’s clear what’s being augmented with VTTs; our ability to play TRPGs with others is extended beyond the people we can bring into the same room with us. But this recontextualizes what we mean when we refer to our “home gaming group,” as well as what it means to go to a gaming convention. Time, or timing, becomes more important than place, and the decision to play with others in the same location becomes a choice, with meanings that ramify outside the choice itself. McLuhan talked about this recontextualizing effect as “obsolescence,” but I won’t go that far. I just think that the existence of VTTs will increasingly put a new slant on what it means to join a gaming group or go to a convention.
What older forms a medium evokes is contingent upon one’s biographical perspective. Certainly my experience with game design has primed me to see the oracular as a key feature of the form, such that finding meaning in patterns of randomness is what one does during a game. This is the aspect of play (of fun!) that Roger Caillois (and following him, Levi Kornelsen) calls alea (literally, dice); it’s a willingness to be governed by sheer luck. So, for me, the VTT “retrieves” or highlights dice-as-fortune, an aspect of play that I enjoy in this context. Others with different experiences will certainly make different connections–identifying and leveraging those points of resonance in support of a given game or game-group can provide useful points of contact for players. The concept of bricolage applied to RPGs comes to mind. Additionally, the discussion surrounding the relative merits and flaws of different VTTs resembles the persistent debate about which gaming console is (or was) better.
But the way that VTTs can “flip” into dysfunctional form is as clear as what they augment. Even when the technology is working perfectly–everyone can see and hear each other, there is no lag or delay or other loss of fidelity in the signal, game-mechanical subsystems have been coded correctly, the volume of game-world data is properly catalogued and accessible at need–the sheer procedurality of VTT play can stifle the fluidity and spontaneity of the game’s interactions, essentially defeating the purpose of bringing a group of players together electronically. In my own game, that is a thing that I’ll look out for and try to dial back when I see it occur.
More generally, it means that conversation about the medium of play may need to become as regular a part of a game’s “social contract” as discussion about safety tools, “lines and veils,” genre preferences, and other questions about tone and style. In online discussions of VTT play, you already hear reports of how some groups have decided to eschew the VTT’s built-in tools for sharing voice and video in favor of other alternatives. Similarly, a shared vision of what we as a group are using the map and tokens for–are they for tactical movement, exploration, visual cues, scene dressing, some other purpose, or something else entirely?–may be worth developing or conveying in play. The same goes for the text chat channels–are we going to use one for all out-of-character communications and commentary, and a different one for in-character talk, or do we expect that a single text channel will be all that people can reliably pay attention to?
Otherwise, the development of VTTs may follow a line that closes off a variety of potential play styles and narrows down to a singular mode that makes them, ironically, less accessible and less useful to a broad audience of role-players. You can see a focus on modeling complex game-mechanical effects in tactical battle scenes bubbling to the surface as the standard for judging the quality of VTTs particularly among “power users” of the form, which gives short shrift to other kinds of adventures–investigation, intrigue, and so forth. The need for technical skill in coding, scripting, and other tasks required to automate game mechanics in VTTs technologically reinforces (one might say it encodes) GM-centered styles of play.
I have no doubt that right now there is experimentation and variation that explores the boundaries of what is possible in role-playing in an online environment. My only question is how will it be received by the different audiences it is trying to reach. And that depends upon the expectations that those audiences have built around their understanding of what it is they’re up to. To quote an American game designer in dialogue with a Swedish larpwright at an Italian gaming convention in 2010:
I think that there is a productive dynamic between saying I am making a better role-playing game and saying, no, I am making something different...Someone could have been trying to make a better role-playing game, and what they did opens up the door to something completely different, or someone could have said, “Oh, no, I am completely different, I am not making a role-playing game,” and what they do inspires someone to make a better role-playing game. We don’t know. We don’t know. Just let that be dynamic. Let that—relax about that.