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Using Virtual Tabletops in Hybrid and In-Person Games

Mark Orr

Virtual tabletops (VTTs) have become a fact of life in the tabletop gaming community during the global pandemic of 2020-2021. If you’re like me, the prospect of games returning to the real-life tabletop is exciting! As it became safe for my gaming group to meet in person again, I got excited as I dusted off my minis, unfolded my battle mats, and rolled my favorite d20s once again. Yet there was so much I learned about VTTs before and during the pandemic, and I would hate for all of that to go to waste. I’d like to tell you about my journey with VTTs, and why they will continue to be a tool in my GM toolbox.

My first steps into remote gaming were primitive by today’s standards. I have friends who live across the country, and our first steps to try to game together involved using Skype with a laptop camera pointed at a physical map. It worked okay, and we had a lot of fun with those early remote games, but the introduction of VTTs made remote gaming feel much more like gaming in person. 

As my experience with using, a virtual tabletop website, grew, it occurred to me that I could also use this tool in my in-person games. At the time, I was running Pathfinder’s Giantslayer Adventure Path, which unsurprisingly had some huge maps! My table was not large enough to draw these maps to scale. I remembered running TSR’s Against the Giants when I was a kid, and I thought about how I used theater of the mind to describe those combats, and I was sure that would work just fine. I saw an opportunity, however, to tell this story visually using this new technology, so I created a map representing a giant’s hall the size of a football field. Everyone brought their laptops, and we played a thrilling session in which the players felt absolutely tiny in this huge space with fearsome giants. This was when I fell in love with VTTs as a storytelling tool. 

When virtual games became mandatory in 2020, my group already had some experience playing this way, so we made the switch without missing a session. During 2020, I attended virtual conventions across the country, and learned tips and tricks for using different VTTs. I went from dabbling into VTTs to becoming comfortable creating engaging virtual games. I started thinking about their potential to tell different kinds of stories–to be able to create puzzles, social encounters, chases, and complex skill challenges using the visual aspects of this storytelling tool.

As I move back into in-person and hybrid games, there are four ways I plan on continuing to use virtual tabletops:

1. Handouts

One of my favorite features of VTTs are handouts. While I love a tangible handout I can place in the player’s hands, I don’t always find it necessary to print handouts that will just be tossed later. With virtual handouts, you can include visuals and player-facing information, while attaching hidden GM notes. Once they unlock the secrets of a message, character, or item that you’ve made the handout for, you can simply copy and paste them into the player information section.

2. Large battle maps

As I learned in my Giantslayer campaign, some maps are too large for most tables. Let’s say you want to play on a map of a ruined village, giant encampment, dragon’s cave, or chase across city rooftops. VTTs can do a nice job of conveying the scale of epic battles.

3. City and world maps

City and world maps are useful tools in any game, but VTTs can take your large area maps to a whole new level. With some VTT knowledge and a little bit of time, you can create an interactive city map, regional or world map. You can use tokens on the map to make clickable locations that have player-facing options and hidden notes. You can hide locations that have not yet been explored, and reveal them as players discover them. You can set the scale of the maps in the settings page, and then use the measuring tool to calculate the distance it takes to travel between locations. Virtual maps can be a great tool for setting up a sandbox-style campaign with well-organized notes.

4. Adding virtual players

Getting people together in physical space can be a challenge, even when there’s not a pandemic. Giving players the option of joining the game virtually can add more flexibility to your gaming schedule. If a player gets sick or is out of town but would still like to play, they can join virtually. If a player gets transferred to another city or even across the world, the campaign doesn’t have to end for them.

 If you have some players who are virtual and others in person, I suggest everyone at the in-person table except for one person mutes their microphone, and you set up a speaker and table mic that everyone can use to communicate with virtual players. I’ve gotten excellent results from suspending my 40-dollar USB condenser mic from a cup hook in the ceiling over the table, or using a simple mic stand that is out of the way of the battle map.

Some people may not like VTTs, and if you are one of them, I am glad you may have the option of ditching them in the near future, because I think everyone should be able to play the kind of game they want to play. For me, they will be a tool I will continue to use sometimes. I’ve always had the option of using a battle map or using theater of the mind. VTTs give me a third option, and when I’m collaborating with my friends to tell a story, I like to have as many tools to convey that story as possible.

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