Zombie Murder Mystery

The Digital Divide

Written by Nicholas - Published on February 3, 2010

When the still absent Virtual Tabletop program was announced for 4e, there was a minor commotion in the community. There was some flaming, but also some really interesting conversations about what makes a proper D&D session. Can sitting at a computer screen ever stack up to all your friends sitting around a table? Well, I’ve been playing online using Skype and Map Tools for about 8 months now and I’m ready to weigh in.


Operating online is quite a boon to a non-artistic type like me. On a normal battle mat I can only manage some simple shapes and meandering lines. It is fast and easy to improvise, but far from pretty. I used to use dungeon tiles, but it takes a lot of prep time and more stuff to carry if the DM isn’t the host. With Map Tools, I can make really detailed and beautiful maps despite my lack of drawing skill.

On the con side, there is a steep learning curve at first. You need to find all the art assets you want to use in your maps and spend a lot of time learning a fairly complex software. After a few sessions I found that I can improvise up maps almost as fast as sketchy on paper, but getting to that point is a substantial.

An unexpected bonus on my maps is the software being able keep track of lighting conditions and line of sight, even including things like low light vision. It makes a big difference when players can only see what their characters can see. I recall a memorable combat where most of the party was fighting undead in a house, while the wizard was outside. He kept yelling about approaching zombies but the rest of the group could only go by his cries of fear.


In a lot of ways, combat is improved over the internet. I don’t need to worry about minis because I can turn any image into a digital token. Thanks to Google image search, I always have exact what I need for my monsters. It’s very easy to track all of the conditions through Map Tools. I easily set up 4e customized conditions for my game. When tokens have a red dot at the bottom right they are bloodied, blue triangle means they are slowed, and so on. It saves a lot of forgotten conditions in the heat of battle. Additionally we are able to easily draw and erase color coded areas for bursts, blasts and zones.

Roleplay and Story

Okay, this is where things suffer a bit. When I DM I tend to make faces, wild gestures and generally make a fool of myself to enhance the point I am trying to make. When I do this in my online game I’m just a mad man putting on a show for an uncaring screen. It is possible to set up webcams, but multiparty video is difficult to pull off even without the problem of having to switch between the video and map. Regardless, it is still very possible to get some great roleplaying going, but you miss out the visual element.

As a slight consolation, without being able to see me it is harder for players to see if I’m scrambling or going completely off the rails. I’ve managed to search the Monster Builder for participants in an unexpected combat, make tokens for them and run the whole encounter without my players knowing I was winging it.


D&D over the internet can still be D&D if you put the effort in to create the same experience. Given the choice I would gather all my friends around the table, but that’s just because I like seeing my friends, munching on snacks and all the traditional stuff. Gaming online does offer the advantages discussed above, but it’s not impossible to do around the table. Maybe in the future we’ll all have the best of both worlds with tabletop projection or D&D on the Microsoft Surface.

What is your medium of choice? What is better about it?

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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The Digital Divide, 4.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

12 Responses to “The Digital Divide”

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  1. Jay Maus Says:

    I just got an HDTV, and I’m considering using it in my weekly live game. My group usually plays in my living room, around a coffee table mostly covered by a whiteboard map, and half of my players use laptops that they have to awkwardly balance on their laps or a sofa arm.

    Freeing up the table by making the map vertical seems like a no-brainer; I already use the PC for SRD reference and spreadsheet awesomeness. I just want to make sure the players will adjust to the map being oriented vertically and that juggling another app won’t be too unwieldy.

  2. Jenny Snyder Says:

    I love all the digital tools available for DnD. I would never keep all this information straight otherwise. But I think the thing I like best about DnD is exactly what’s lost over an internet connection-face time with friends, the ability to use physical expression in the telling of the story, or simply being able to throw pencils at my husband when he’s being disruptive.

    I don’t know if I would try to continue a DnD game if my friends all moved away from me. But then, I also hope I never have to find out.

  3. Hawk Says:

    I’m in the process of learning Map Tools right now as a matter of fact, because although I already run a more or less traditional table game, there’s something missing.
    Actually four players are missing. And I want to play with those friends so badly that I am even willing to learn a new software – and I’m very very bad with computers!!
    I agree there’s quite a learning curve there, but it is possible even for the “technologically challenged” types.
    I do already play World of Warcraft – which in part features “roleplay” through chat – so that facet of D&D via MapTools is the least of my worries.
    I won’t have to worry about disruptive players very much either.

    In a perfect world I’d be able to play around the table with all my friends every week. But, let’s face it, this isn’t a perfect world. I for one am glad that there are things like MapTools out there, that give me hope of having D&D games even though my gaming group is two thousand miles away from me.

  4. Krys Says:

    We’re pretty much all-digital, now that I have a projector (thanks Daniel!) and a monitor (thanks again Daniel) and I understand maptools (thanks again Daniel) and I have someone who can set up the Yahoo chat (thanks Jennifer) during gameplay.
    The hardest adjustment for me has been with our online player. When he is hooked up through Yahoo, I find myself talking to my speakers (yes, I know I should be talking towards my mic) and making funny faces that he can’t even see. We’re moving our meeting place to help him meet with us in person more.


  5. Sturtus Says:

    I’ve been DM’ing with the same setup as Nicholas here, Skype plus MapTool, for about a year and a half now, and his analysis is pretty spot on. MapTool itself can be a deep experience involving macros and scripting, or it can be as simple as pushing virtual minis around a custom map, but as a tool to convey the battlemap, it is fantastic in both live and online play. We’ve found that roleplay is a little stilted at times, and it is definitely odd to be talking in character into a microphone (without hearing yourself half the time!).

    Some of the drawbacks are in dealing with the technical hurdles. Some players might not be savvy enough to get a java app running well on their systems. Maybe their computers are running Mac OS 10.3 whose version of Java isn’t supported by MapTool. Or maybe their mic is on a laptop and the sound of their typing is like thunder for the other players. The prep time for a VT (virtual tabletop) session is greater than it would be for a simple wet-erase mat session for me. In my case I’m using Campaign Cartographer (CC3) from ProFantasy through Parallels on my Mac, and it can be rather buggy. It took a long time to understand its idiosyncrasies well enough to knock out a map in decent time. Even then, maps made for VT’s are generally higher res than one would produce to print to allow for dungeon crawling as opposed to “encounter-only” battle maps, and CC3 chokes on higher res material taking longer to render a single map than it would for me to render 10 seconds of HD in After Effects with dozens of effects turned on (that’s 300 CC3 maps in half the time).

    So can you play D&D over Skype using MapTool as your VT? Totally. It’s a TON of fun. It opens up avenues for handouts, lighting effects, dungeon exploration, whisper chats, photo handouts, and all kinds of fun little gameplay tools. After a few sessions getting into the roleplay over a mic groove, we have an easy time staying in character and are even less distracted by non-game talk which is a trade-off (I like my friends for more than gaming after all).

    However, the tools to getting this done well are behind the times. MapTool is not optimized and uses far too many resources to do what it is doing. Some campaigns are using up 1GB (!!) of RAM. CC3 is years behind the current OS’s and hardware, but with a lot of practice both tools can make some great maps.

    Anybody play with Fantasy Grounds 2? They seem to be updating their product regularly and keeping up with current tech.

  6. wickedmurph Says:

    I’ve also been playing a monthly 4e game with Maptools and Skype. I’m gaming with my old college group again, which is great, and I’m having a very good time.

    There were some challenges, though. Technical issues have caused shortened or cancelled sessions, Maptools can take some time to get working properly, and there was definitely a learning curve (and I work with computers professionally!).

    But ultimately, it’s been great. We have a really good time, I can create really interesting, sprawling encounters – I call them “sandbox encounters” because the party can work a large area. It also frees me from some of the 4e encounter design constraints, in that I can put several thousand xp worth of monsters in an area, and let the party decide how they’re going to come at things. I like it quite a bit, and I suspect I would use it with a projector even if I was running a tabletop campaign.

    Plus, it’s all FREE. No mini’s, no dungeon tiles. I use my DDi subscription for most things, and I can set up a 4-hour gaming session in an hour or two, map building time included. I feel that it’s a tremendous way to play, and given that I have a baby, a job, a wife and major volunteer responsibilities (I’m a firefighter), this is about the only way I could play these days.

    I’m all about the digital – it’s let me play again, after years where I couldn’t manage it…

  7. Sturtus Says:

    Has anybody had experience with Fantasy Grounds?

  8. OregonPinkRose Says:

    Without digital, I wouldn’t be playing with my brother and sister, who live 3 hours away.
    They used to travel WEEKLY 70 miles each way, but when I moved even farther, it just wasn’t practical. (As if 70 miles was practical).
    We started with MapTool when 4e was just a mention. when they released the Keep on the Shadowfell, before the Player’s Handbook. March of ’08. Since then the product and the experience have grown exponentially and we’ve added and Skype and 3 other players, who are now what I would consider good friends even though I haven’t met them in Real Life.
    Without the RPTool VTT, I couldn’t kill my siblings on a regular basis. Now, who wouldn’t want that?

  9. MageMirin Says:

    Fantasy Grounds… sounds like a really awesome name for a internet cafe/game store… Mind if I use it? :)

  10. Steven Says:

    I love maptools and have been using it since 4e came out. Initially, I didn’t think I could give up the tactile feel of rolling a d20. But when a macro spits out your die roll with damage, flavor text and everything to look just like the power description in the book… well, there was no looking back at that point!
    Vision blocking layers, lighting and such is a huge plus of maptools. It makes it very easy to determine who has cover and what not when you can ‘see’ it.
    Maptools also tracks initiative as well, so that aspect is easier too.

    But after playing with Maptools and seeing the hyped up Wizards virtual table top I have to ask; Wouldn’t a 3-D VTT be confusing and more difficult? It would also raise the bar significantly for building your own dungeons, characters and npc’s…

  11. MadMAxJr Says:

    I’ve always used GameTable. It’s a little old, but it does the job just fine. Be sure to use the build from souceforge: http://sourceforge.net/projects/gametable/

    There’s an RC2 on the old website that is majorly outdated.

  12. Lance Says:

    d20Pro is actually really great, but it is set up for 3.5, not 4e. You can do some workarounds, but they aren’t perfect and increase the learning curve and the “fudge factor.” What I like about d20Pro, and therefore all online D&D solutions, is the ability to use an entire battlemat at one time, that’s prepped in advance, with the encounters all set up and everything. Then I just use FOW to keep the encounters concealed from my players until they are supposed to see them. I also really appreciate how d20Pro handles initiative (all auto and all placed in proper order, but you can manually modify if you desire) and combat: right click the target, choose your attack and it will roll both hit and damage, submit to the DM to make the final call — so you can still ‘cheat’ if you need to, and it not only subtracts it from the target, but has a creeping red line to show percent of damage on the icon and a death icon/noise when they are at 0HP. If you are running a ton of mobs — and in 4e with minions, who isn’t? — and worse, if you are running one or more NPCs or DMCs with the party, it makes all that admin work so much simpler and the turns/pace go so much faster. We can still roleplay using the chat windows, and I actually find people respond more in character with less stray table talk. So, if the table talk is what you love, you won’t like the experience, but if you’re more hardcore about people staying in character, the online game is better, imho. Lastly, the one thing I do miss with d20Pro is rolling real dice. What can I say, I’m a real d20 geek and I like my dice, man! Like most of you, I have hundreds, I can’t turn down a good looking set, and some of them cost a lot of money. So, I love the other aspects of online D&D, but I still sit around and fidget with dice like Captain Queeg in the Caine Mutiny.

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