As I’ve talked about before, over the years I have played a lot of games with players completely new to roleplaying games in general, and I’ve played all of those games online. I’m a software developer by trade, and a tinkerer at heart, so it was a given that I would play around with and get under the hood of Virtual Tabletops. As I played with my friends online, I was working on various tools to help speed up gameplay, and make it easier for my friends who had never played an RPG to jump into a game with me. There are lots of things that VTTs can do to help new players learn how to play an unfamiliar game, easing them into the game without buying them in rulebooks.
First and foremost, macros and token properties allow you to reduce dice rolls, complete with character statistics and bonuses, into a single button click. Want to make an attack roll? Click to have the tool roll a d20, automatically adding in your Base Attack Bonus and Strength. GM call for a Fortitude save? Click one button, and your class bonuses and Constitution modifier already accounted for. Combat break out? The GM can select all the PCs and NPCs and mash the initiative macro to have everybody roll at once, and auto-sort the list. It can take a while to get all the macros up and running, but using a pre-existing macro framework can save you that trouble.
Having a solid framework like this also allows players to learn as they go. They can mash the attack macro and contribute to the fight before they fully understand what a Base Attack Bonus is. The rolls in various VTTs can be expanded, to breakdown the formula and dice roll, allowing users to see what went into their rolls without complicating the output for everyone else. When the player is ready, they can investigate exactly where their 19 to hit that goblin came from, but until then they can just focus on decapitating it.
Similarly, VTTs with frameworks can often be configured to show important information in various ways, my favorite of which is a small summary that appears when you hover over a character’s token. You have to be careful not to overdo it, because too much information will overwhelm people and make things hard to find, but having important statistics available so readily helps to keep players in the moment when they have to look something up. This is especially helpful when playing online with PDF or spreadsheet character sheets in another window, as moving between the VTT and a character sheet can be a little cumbersome for those without a second monitor. Putting the most important bits of information in an easy to find spot within the VTT greatly speeds things up when you need to look something up in the middle of an encounter: Just hover over the token to see!
Finally, nearly every VTT I’ve used has had an easy to use grid system, and the better ones generally come with measurement and template tools to help new players understand how far they can move, how far away the enemies are, and what their area of effect spells look like. Our group has always played fairly crunchy combat encounters where positioning is very important, and VTT features like these help new users get a good handle on it all. In between their turns, they can use the measurement tool to see how far away enemies are, and determine if they could reach them with a charge. When a player wants to cast Entangle or Burning Hands, they can play around with the template tools to draw their bursts or cones and see exactly who they can hit with their spells before they cast them. Over time, the shapes and distances become second nature.
All in all, I’ve found that virtual tabletops can help new players by simplifying things and reducing the most common rolls to a single click, presenting useful data in meaningful ways, and providing a good deal of structure to an otherwise abstract system.
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