Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Old Man and the VTT

My Twilight: 2000 campaign has been going for a little over a year now. The characters, consisting largely of US soldiers caught behind enemy lines after the disastrous Battle of Kalisz (July 9–18, 2000), have recently been spending their time in the Free City of Kraków. There, they regrouped and plotted a course to head westward and into (presumably) NATO-held territory. In last night's session, they finally executed that plan and are now following the course of the Vistula River. hoping it will eventually lead them to the Baltic Sea and, from there, to friendlier places (there are rumors that the forces of the Free Polish Congress – an anti-Soviet government-in-exile – have a presence in the region). It will be interesting to see how the campaign unfolds in the months to come.

At the same time the new edition of Twilight: 2000 was released, Free League also released a virtual tabletop module for use with The Foundry. Because I was a supporter of the crowdfunding campaign for this edition, as part of my rewards I received a code that gave me access to the VTT module and I decided that, since this campaign would be online, I might as well make use of it. Or perhaps I should say attempt to make use of it, because it's been something of an uphill battle for me to try and do so with any facility. Indeed, more than a few of our weekly sessions have been spent trying to figure out how to use the VTT to handle this or that aspect of the game's rules.

Now, as readers undoubtedly know, my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, just a few months shy of its eighth anniversary, has been an entirely online campaign since its inception in March 2015. At the beginning, we made use of Google Hangouts (now called Google Meet, I believe) to communicate with one another during each session, though we eventually abandoned it in favor of Discord at some point. The House of Worms server has a dicebot for handling random rolls, though some players occasionally make use of real dice, which they roll and whose results they then report verbally. We also use of Jamboard to do quick sketches of things like maps when necessary. 

As you can see, the House of Worms campaign is rather technologically unsophisticated, particularly when you compare it to what's available to roleplayers today. However, it works very well for us and there's never been the slightest suggestion that we ought to adopt something more elaborate. I suspect the fact that we're playing a game as simple and straightforward as 1975 EPT probably has something to do with that, as does the fact that almost all of the players, myself included, are middle-aged men in our 50s who are very comfortable with "theater of the mind" roleplaying.

The new edition of Twilight: 2000 makes use of special dice and its hexcrawl through post-war Poland campaign frame means that having a map available to all the players is important. There's also the fact that many aspects of its rules, like combat or keeping track of supplies, demand a higher degree of attention than does EPT. Certainly, one could play Twillight: 2000 without recourse to electronic assistance; were my players seated around my dining room table rather than scattered across the globe, I would probably do so. Playing online, though, this is a bit more onerous, which is why I decided to take the plunge with the Foundry.

The experience, as I have already noted, has not been wholly salutary. Some of this is no doubt a consequence of my being unfamiliar with The Foundry and its byzantine intricacies. It's a fairly robust VTT, with lots of bells and whistles. That it would take some getting used to is inevitable. Likewise, even after a year of play, there are still elements of the game's rules, like combat, that we're still learning and that, too, probably contributes to our ongoing difficulties in using the VTT to its full potential – and there's a lot of potential there. The mere fact that character sheets are always available online is terrific, since no player can ever misplace his sheet and, should a player be absent, his character can still participate in the action if necessary. There are many other truly useful and timesaving benefits to The Foundry.

Consequently, I find myself wondering each week whether using a VTT is worth all the trouble I encounter attempting to use one. From what I gather, large numbers of roleplayers make use of them in their gaming, so many, in fact, that many game companies now devote resources to producing modules for their RPGs and adventures. For many roleplayers in their 20s and even 30s, the use of a virtual tabletop is increasingly de rigueur. Likewise, each new iteration of these VTTs and the modules used with them include more features and options, right down to the automation of many aspects of gameplay. Perhaps it's simply my age talking, but I don't much care for this. To my mind, this comes dangerously close to aping video games and I see little point in that.

I intend to keep soldiering on (no pun intended) with The Foundry in my Twilight: 2000 campaign, because I'd like to give it a fair shake before passing final judgment. And, as I said, there are a few elements of the VTT that even I, a cantankerous old Luddite, find worthwhile. For the moment, though, my judgment on the whole thing is mixed to negative and it will take a fair bit to convince me that the hobby is better because of this innovation. 


  1. While I'm a bit younger than you, I feel the same way. I mostly use Roll20 these days. But I don't use a lot of its features. Playing okd school D&D and d6 Star Wars, I don't need a lot of them. But having recently started playing face to face again, there are some things I miss. Not many, but there are a few conveniences to playing on a VTT.

  2. I'm also of that age that are used to the technological limitations of yesteryear. I find the VTT solutions so much work to use! As a player they can be quite nice, but I balk at the effort to either set them up, or learn to use all their intricacies.

    I thought it was a foible of mine to think the automations felt too much as video games, but happily I'm not the only one!

    The fact that roleplaying needs so little technology is clear by how easily we can use both hi-tech and just talking to each other via computers.

  3. There is so much non-verbal communication between players and DM going on around a tabletop that VTTs don't catch. I run both online and tabletop games at the moment, and while online/digital games have a lot of great automation features, there is no comparison to sitting around a table in terms of keeping player interest/attention, understanding what's going on, and communicating effectively.

  4. I got my online gaming started with Google Hangouts also, but within a session or two, we added Roll20 for VTT. After starting my RuneQuest campaign, I started to learn more Roll20. I regularly upload maps and adjust things so the grid lines up. I use Fog of War to hide the map. Recently I even uploaded some village and city maps that were just small scale maps, and fiddled things so I could overlay a VTT 1m hex grid and thus use a while village or a city neighborhood as a battle map.

    But I don't use the Roll20 character sheets, partly because none of the systems I run have character sheets (RuneQuest 1, Cold Iron) or the skill list isn't extensible (Classic Traveller - no way to add on the handful of skills I added for Supplement 4 characters).

    For RuneQuest I use a Google Sheet that has a tab per character that automatically calculates ability bonuses and tracks hit points and a few other handy things.

    For Cold Iron, I've gone high tech and have a Google Sheet that manages almost all of the math and makes for a pretty easy character sheet to use.

    One nice thing about Google Sheets for character sheets is everyone can see them, they don't depend on the VTT software, and lots of other benefits.

    Of course they then don't integrate with the VTT, but I suspect that would end up being troublesome at some point.

    But the map capabilities make use of Roll20 really worthwhile.

  5. I'm about your age, and I've been playing and running games on a VTT since 2011. It was a steep learning curve, but once I had the hang of it I found it really useful. Now even when we play at home I project a VTT on the TV.

    When it comes to automations, I only use the features that I find actually help me. But they *do* help me. I find, during combat especially, that having the computer calculate attacks and track initiative and conditions, allows me to devote more attention to running the NPCs and monsters *as characters*. They make better decisions, I am able to more easily improvise an order of battle for monsters in other rooms if the alert is sounded, and I can have team monster engage in chatter.

    So team monster gets to hear the players talk to each other, and react accordingly, but the players also get to hear team monster issuing orders and making plans. The whole environment has become much more dynamic.

  6. Foundry has two modules that have made campaign play much easier; Simple Calendar and SmallTime. Having the ability to set reminders in a calendar, and the time tracking hooks into it so the days automatically advance is much easier than relying on notes and trying to remember if it's been two or three days.

  7. I've started a similar campaign based on my old high school gang getting together and wanting to play again. At first, we were going to use classic Twilight 2000 or maybe the new edition, but quickly decided that, as half the group had not played gained in years, we'd figure out something less complex.

    I kitbashed a new system from RuneQuest/Hawkmoon and Twilight 2000 1E/2E that I call "Russians & Radiation." We had our initial session set up pretty much as with the classic T2000 opener, and it went well, but for two things -- first, no one wanted to slog through all the Polish and German names we were going to have to deal with, and two, nobody really felt motivated by the "We Lost, Let's Get Home" concept of the campaign.

    So, I reworked it. Instead of "Escape from Kalisz" now it is going to be "Escape from New York." I combined the histories of T2000 and the old boardgame "Fortress America." Now the characters are US military who were defending New York when it fell to the invading Euro-Socialist Pact (the EU-Soc or "You Sucks"). The Battle of New York was lost, and now they have to escape the cordon that the EU-Soc army is setting up around New York. As the war has raged for five years before the invasion, most of New York is in ruins (much like Armies of the Night).

    Once they escape, the plan is to bop around the country trying to start up the partisan resistance cells. There will also be some Mad Max/Survivalist/Guardians-style encounters. Eventually, they will fall into the group trying to rebuild the satellite network that is central to the defense of Fortress America...

    We play using Zoom. We use theater of the mind, plus Google maps. Not historical, but close enough. We used Google Maps with the initial Kalisz section, and every little blip in the road was useful as an encounter/event kernel. Really helped to build the adventure in an emergent fashion, much like a hexmap/sandbox.

  8. I ran a big chunk of Dwimmermount (thank you!) over the pandemic lockdowns using only Owlbear Rodeo and Google Meet; it went well. Post-lockdown, one of the players suggested switching to Foundry for a new campaign, and it got a very mixed response - the VTT provides a lot of automation during play, but it was a lot more work for me the DM to set up resources before play, and a lot of effort for everyone to learn the tools. We're playing face-to-face now, even though it means we've dropped back to every two weeks instead of every week, because "it's more like playing a bad videogame than playing D&D, having to hunt through the interface to find the right button to do the thing."

    On the other hand, my 20-year-old got a Foundry license as an early Christmas present and is quite happy DMing in it; they have the time & enthusiasm to invest in a heavyweight tool.

  9. Player facing foundry is nice. I don't think I'll ever have the patience to do the heavy lifting as a gm to set things up. I want to have the ability to show pictures and sketch maps. A dice roller is nice but not mandatory. Character sheets are nice....but not mandatory. Some systems need some trackers and those would be a must if I was playing them online. Based on this thread I'll probably take a closer look at Google docs.

  10. I've played in 1 T2k2 game over Roll20, with the intention of learning enough about that platform to take on GMing myself. It didn't take; I remain uninspired to take on GMing over any platform. So far....

  11. I hadn´t played AD&D for over a decade until two years ago when a friend of mine discovered roll20. I´ve been DMing ever since.

    I don't know most of the features but I find the use of maps, images and character tokens simple and I really enjoy it, back in the day we didn´t use maps or miniatures and it has been interesting.

    Still, I´d prefer sitting around a table.

  12. I wanted to comment on this but holidays got in the way. We have been using Roll20 for our D&D and Star Wars campaigns. Our group sees a totally different trend than yours. For one thing, the older guys (over 50) demand the detailed battle maps and do the precision measuring of everyone's moves. Especially double checking mine when I am the GM! 😁And it is the older guys (including me) that figure out the tech issues involved in using Roll20. The under 40 guys in our group generally are happy to play more "theatre of the mind" and have trouble with the technology. Maybe it's not an age thing but a right-brain/left-brain thing? Or a familiarity with technology?