It can be hard to keep a gaming group together over the years as people get different jobs, move and have differing schedules. As a result, gamers have been looking for ways to play online for many years. Our group has tried several times to use different technologies to allow us to play with varying degrees of success. Over the last couple of years we have mostly used Map Tool and Skype which works fairly well. Once all of the information is entered into the application play for the players is fairly easy. Each player can move their token around the map, use their abilities and manage hit points and conditions.
The real problem I had as a DM using MapTool was the sheer volume of time and work required by me just to run a single session. In order to play a single three-hour session I would sometimes require as much as four hours of prep time in MapTool importing characters, setting up weapons/armor/items, drawing out the map and importing monsters and NPCs. Add to that the amount of time I would need to spend just preparing the adventure and it would normally take me five hours to get a session ready, longer if there were multiple encounters that session. As a result I eventually burned out on all of the prep work and we took a hiatus from playing.
Recently we decided to give the new Virtual Table from Wizards of the Coast a shot since it has been in beta now for about a year and (we hoped) should now be fairly mature and easy to use.
The controls on the map are simple and easy to use. The hardest thing for both myself and the players to remember is that you can right-click on most things on the map to manipulate them. This is very handy but for some reason it just doesn’t seem obvious and from time to time we get frustrated trying to do something on the map because we forget we can right-click on it. For example, any player can draw areas on the map but the only way (that we’ve found) to delete one of these areas is to right click on it and select ‘Delete’ from the context menu. This is easy enough once we discovered it but before that we just left the areas on the map the entire session.
For a DM, this is the absolute best part of the virtual table. Players can import their own PCs that they created using the character builder and you as the DM don’t have to do anything at all. It’s wonderful to let your players take over some of the responsibility for setting up a game for play. This is even better when you compare it to the other tools we used in the past where it would take me upwards of thirty minutes per PC to import them.
Any existing monster are imported and all of the abilities of the creature are listed immediately for you. This helps make setup very quick, especially if you are using standard monsters that have been published by Wizards. The big plus side here is that you can edit existing monsters, or even create whole new monsters and import those custom creatures into the table. Monsters can be created using the Monster Builder tool also available to D&D Insiders and once saved there they are available within the virtual table just like any other creature.
Actual play so far has been pretty good. We have had a few technical difficulties but by and large play has been straight forward and fun. Somewhere during our second or third encounter using the virtual table the tool began to feel very natural and we were able to stop thinking about the application and just think about playing the game, which is exactly what you want in any game of D&D or any other role-playing game. There are a few things that we all agree would be nice, being able to import your own images for tokens being at the top of the list, but hopefully that functionality will be out soon and until it is we are able to play just fine with the limited set of tokens now available.
If you are a DM with a limited amount of time to prepare and you want to run a game with your group online then the Virtual Table is a great option. It does require an Insider account, but if you play a couple of times per month then you are definitely getting your money’s worth. The suite of tools Wizards is building out online is becoming very powerful and I’m sure they will only get better as time goes on. I recommend anyone wanting to play 4E give this setup a try.