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Illustration - a computer monitor with an unmarked D20 on the screen. Illustration: Cass Marshall

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Tools to help play tabletop games online with the squad

From city streets to character sheets

Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Tabletop gaming is more accessible than ever, and there’s something delightful about crowding around a table with friends to hoot and holler over the fates of fictional elves, Lovecraftian detectives, or embattled Space Marines. There’s definitely a summer camp feel to the camaraderie and adventure, although the trials and tribulations of a pen-and-paper session tend to be a little more ambitious than roasting s’mores and singing songs around the campfire.

Running one of these games can be intimidating, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups have moved online. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach — it’s easier to rustle up a group, but harder to engage. Though with a few handy-dandy tools, it’s easier to set up an online tabletop group than you might think.

Platform of choice

There are a few ways to go about setting up your game, but Discord is a surprisingly adept organizational tool — and, depending on the game you’re playing and the systems it uses, it may be enough to host your game on its own with the addition of a dice-rolling bot and a little bit of prep.

If you’re looking for something a little more tangible, Tabletop Simulator is a popular choice for many games, as it offers the tactile feel of moving minis around a map or rolling a critical success. Need something a little more sophisticated for a dungeon crawl or elaborate campaign? Roll 20 and Foundry Virtual Tabletop offer a host of tools for both players and game masters and allow everything from setting up a soundtrack to tracking feats and fumbles. My husband and I are using Foundry Virtual Tabletop for a Savage Worlds campaign, and while it’s paid, the versatility and accessibility is worth it. If you’re not willing to drop the money, or you don’t need the finer features, Roll 20 is a perfectly good free alternative.

Tabletop Simulator - a selection of dice are arrayed on a clear glass table
Tabletop Simulator
Image: Berserk Games

Tools and tricks

A clever game master always has a few tricks up their sleeve, whether that’s a surprise villain waiting in the wings or a secret door leading to a treasure-filled dungeon. With digital games, the game master has a little more freedom in showing things off — it’s easier to pop an image into a Discord channel than pass it around the table, for instance.

If your players crack open a crypt, it can be super helpful to whip up a quick map. Dungeon Scrawl is a free web tool that creates maps that can then be imported into virtual tabletop programs or uploaded to an image host. Dungeon Scrawl isn’t too complicated, but for game masters who want a very simple process, Dungeon Map Doodler is an even more accessible and simple map maker.

Looking to go bigger, or need to establish an original setting? Townscaper, a tiny city builder game, is incredibly helpful for people who want to construct elaborate buildings and towns that look enticing to explore. Inkarnate is great for creating a larger geographic map that shows off a region or continent; it has a free setting.

Finally, AI tools like Artbreeder are fantastic for game masters because they don’t require artistic ability or practice. With Artbreeder’s portraits, users tweak the settings and “genes” of a photo, and it’s a reliable, relatively quick way to create unique, interesting character portraits.

Townscaper - An elaborate little port town created in the game of Townscaper
Image: Oskar Stålberg/Raw Fury

System shock

Dungeons & Dragons is the most famous tabletop game, followed by heavy hitters like Vampire: The Masquerade or Cyberpunk Red. But there are tons of smaller systems that might be exactly what your group needs. Experimenting and trying out different games is a great way to broaden your horizons and create a memorable one-shot adventure or chaotic campaign. Some suggestions include:

Fiasco, an improv-heavy game, sets up intriguing scenarios and then has everything go terribly wrong. If you want to play a game that can potentially end with one player stuck in a burning basement, wearing a fursuit, while their co-worker gleefully pours more gasoline on their lawn over a misunderstanding at work, Fiasco is for you. It’s also available on Roll 20, which is a nice bonus.

MÖRK BORG is a deeply dark apocalyptic RPG with highly lethal combat and little respite. The layout and formatting on MÖRK BORG’s sourcebooks is truly stunning, and while the setting offers little comfort, it’s metal as hell. For those who prefer a futuristic twist, spin-off CY_BORG is equally as stylish and even includes the most punk rule of all — you can never truly sympathize with the corps, even if you end up working for them in a pinch. Both systems are fantastic for blood-drenched one-shots and short campaigns.

Image: MORK BORG a skeleton stands with a simple shield against a stark yellow background
Image: Ockult Örtmästare Games/Stockholm Kartell

Quest is a cozy, welcoming on-ramp to tabletop RPGs. (Disclosure: Polygon editor-in-chief Chris Plante worked on Quest as an editor.) This accessible experience recently went free-to-play, so it’s a great way to give the experience a spin and see if it works for your group. Quest is also highly narrative-driven, so groups have a lot of freedom to experiment with characters and choices.

A final pro tip — be sure to follow the tabletop games section on, which has some inventive takes on the genre that might suit your friends better than a big, mainline game. Killer Ratings is a game where players play as the crew of a terrible paranormal show on the brink of cancellation, doing one last job that’s actually haunted. Fist is a Metal Gear Solid-inspired game about a squad of paranormal mercenaries taking on Cold War espionage gigs.

There are tons of ways to play online that give the full camp experience of settling down with friends and goofing off. There’s certainly a lot of merit to playing in-person games, or picking big mainline systems like Dungeons & Dragons for your weekly game. But a little bit of experimentation and clever use of online tools can make for an accessible experience. Online tabletop games are the way I keep in touch with my friends and family, and I hope you can carve out a little time this summer to give them a shot.

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