I was a tabletop cyborg: Digital tools around the table

Last year one of our most enthusiastic newbie players in the Refuge campaign had to leave, returning to his homeland in New England. We sent him off with a climactic battle against a legion of scarecrows, in which remembering what the hell that “Horse with a horn” was called became a turning point. Our departing hero got to land the killing blow on their elusive nemesis (an incubus they themselves had unleashed much earlier) and all was merry, aside from his having to leave us.

Since he left, we’ve toyed with the idea of skyping him in for a guest star appearance or two. It got me thinking about the intersection between digital and tabletop/”meatspace” play. I’ve participated in and run multiple campaigns, using Roll20 for the most part. The things that killed those campaigns are the same things that kill in-person campaigns–scheduling, burnout, distractions, etc–but it always feels somewhat worse, like more wasted effort.

Digital campaign tools are incredibly powerful–I can load the whole map, with line of sight and encounters pre-loaded, in advance. I can prepare handouts, scene transitions, custom enemies and more. It’s much easier to do detailed prepwork, but that’s become a trap of sorts for me. Sometimes it’s better for me to wing it and just go with whatever I have prepared instead of fretting over my insuffiicent prep, and something about having people sitting around a table makes it easier to improv.

Maybe its a perfectionist thing. The fact that I CAN do so much meticulous preparation makes me feel that failing to do so means I’m inadequately prepared. I’m only involved in one online campaign right now (Down from four at my peak!) with the Ri0tPit/NRE gang. However, one thing that’s got me interested now is using digital tools around the table. Using Roll20 as a DM screen makes map prep easier (even though we’ve been using all the badass terrain we’ve built IRL), since I can put the stats and positions of enemies ahead of time without fiddling with line-of-sight and other “show-ready” polish items.

Roll20’s dynamic character sheet system is pretty handy too. It takes some getting used to and has some idiosyncrasies, but the fact that multiple people around the table can use both it and the compendium has been huge. Since we’re using real dice, we implement all spells as spell cards instead of attacks. Any spell card that gets clicked or tapped is pasted to the group chat, so everyone can reference it. It’s enough that any digital tools I implement going forward I want to be shared amongst my party.

We’re not at the projector-built-into-the-table phase yet, but we’ll see.

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