Towards a requirements analysis for virtual tabletops

I really have a simple set of use cases for what I want in a virtual tabletop (VTT), even if I’m using a map, and none of them involve the character sheet or an online dice roller. Those things feel like a solution in search of a problem. Technology excels at generating small random integers and tracking the profiles of (fictional) personas, and many tools already exist for this. Instead, we need better ways to represent aesthetics and potentially an obscured world state. To date, technology has not done these things very well – certainly not in a widespread, usable way.

Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this stuff:

(c) 2014 Wizards of the Coast
Cogwork Librarian by Dan Scott

Applying some of my professional skills to this topic, let’s think about the roles involved in online D&D or similar RPGs (system-neutral solutions).

Game Master: Responsible for manipulating and presenting the world state, including characters not controlled by a Player.
Player: Participant in the game with full (and exclusive?) control over a single character.
Audience: Non-participants who observe the game but have no control over any occurrence within it.

What do they want to do? Here’s an extremely rough stab at some high level user stories:

  1. As a Game Master, I can display a specific background for narrative scenes so that I can communicate an aesthetic to the Players and Audience.
  2. As a Game Master, I can display a partially obscured map and reveal selected portions of the map during play so that I can communicate a world state to the Players and Audience.
  3. As a Game Master or Player, I can represent characters in abstract combat so that I can track momentary state changes (such as relative positioning) that are not reflected in character sheets.
  4. As an Audience, we can see the current world state as revealed by the Game Master so that we can experience the game as entertainment.

Roll20 does some of these things extremely well, especially the first three. However, it often feels far heavier as a solution than the problem really requires, because it fulfills many, many other types of uses, including dice rolling and character sheets (as alluded to above). And it really doesn’t handle #4 very well, as every GM who’s tried to manage the map positioning while streaming to Twitch has learned.

In my research, I’ve found a Comparison of Alternatives to Roll20 that I’d like to evaluate based on the above, but maybe Roll20 will itself become a bit more dynamic and hide away the advanced functionality to improve the user experience for new players.

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