Welcome to the Virtual Tabletop

Finally, there’s a good way to play Dungeons & Dragons online.

Brandon Stanley, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Micheal Adams Exeter, New Hampshire; and Kristi and Peter Ladvienka, Kenosha, Wisconsin, join gamers who play Wizards of the Coast's Dungeons and Dragons game during the 40th annual Gen Con game convention at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, August 16, 2007.
Dungeons & Dragons, IRL, in 2007 in Indianapolis.

Ray Stubblebine/Reuters

Early in Netflix’s Stranger Things, a group of children gather to play Dungeons & Dragons. They respond with panic to the arrival of Demogorgon—a terrifying demon prince who has been a part of the game since 1976—worrying over which spells to cast as they frantically roll dice. It’s a scene reminiscent of one in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 E.T., a prominent inspiration for the series, but it’s also immediately resonant for anyone who grew up with tabletop role-playing games in the ’80s and ’90s. Watching the show reminded me of how my friends and I once came together to battle imaginary monsters while searching for lost treasures.

It’s difficult to re-create that experience today. That’s partly a question of practicality: Adult life offers fewer opportunities to gather with friends. For a year or two after the release of D&D’s widely praised fifth edition, I ran a regular game every Tuesday, serving as the dungeon master who narrated the story as my friends’ band of adventurers explored caves and puzzled over supernatural mysteries. Our gatherings were fun while they lasted, but they grew ever less frequent—work kept me from crafting the kind of stories my players wanted (and deserved), and my friends vanished into their busy schedules. Soon, two key participants moved away, and we stopped for good.

Though the game remains popular—indeed, the Washington Post has profiled grown-up players (including one from my old game)—there are other modern barriers to entry, even for those who escape the stigmas once attached to it. As Michael Witwer has argued in Slate, Dungeons & Dragons’ influence runs throughout today’s pop culture, contributing to everything from the mechanics of first-person shooters to the popularity of shows such as Game of Thrones. To some extent, however, the works D&D inspired may have pushed it out of the cultural spotlight, offering a host of alternatives—few of which furnish the opportunities for congenial connection that made the original special.

But if technological developments partly supplanted D&D’s appeal, they may yet also contribute to its recent resurgence. The leader here may be Roll20, a web-based system that attempts to re-create the experience of classic pen-and-paper gaming—not just for Dungeons & Dragons, but for other titles as well. The sophisticated application creates a shared platform for many of the game’s fundamental elements, allowing users to simulate dice rolls and move character and monster tokens around maps (drawn by the game master or imported from the community-generated library).

Though it’s not quite the same as sharing a pizza in someone’s basement while fumbling for your lucky 20-sided die, it comes surprisingly close. Log in and you’ll be given the opportunity to create a new game or join one in progress. Take the former option, and an array of tools in the sidebar will allow you to draw maps, place monsters, and otherwise prepare things for your players. It’s simple enough to draw a crude map on one of the graphing paper–like templates, but members of Roll20’s community also create and distribute more sophisticated art resources through the site’s marketplace. A shareable URL lets others join the game. Once they do, their faces will pop up in video streaming boxes in the lower third of the screen, offering something like face-to-face interaction.

There have, of course, been attempts to make multiplayer Dungeons & Dragons work in the past. In the early days of America Online’s ’90s walled-garden internet service, users could adventure together in Neverwinter Nights, a game built around a modified version of Strategic Simulations Inc.’s D&D-inspired Gold Box gaming engine. Years later, BioWare would release its own take on Neverwinter Nights for PC, folding in features that allowed small groups to play together under the direction of a dungeon master. While those programs—and others such as the World of Warcraft–inspired Dungeons & Dragons Online—drew on tabletop conventions to varying degrees, they could never fully re-create the experience that Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and their fellow players had pioneered decades before.

Roll20 arose out of a 2012 Kickstarter campaign that raised almost $40,000 against a $5,000 goal. Roll20’s Suzanne Wallace told me that Dungeons & Dragons had inspired the company’s team to create the product, but “our goal has always been to keep our platform system agnostic.” In practice, that means it accommodates a wide array of role-playing games from a range of companies and designers—including the post-apocalyptic Gamma World, the cyberpunk fantasy Shadowrun, and the cultish sci-fi classic Traveler.

In a smart move, Roll20 recently partnered with Wizards of the Coast, which owns the D&D franchise, to release a series of prepackaged adventures using the game’s fifth edition rule set. In addition to fully realized narratives, these campaigns include elaborately illustrated maps, as well as monster and player character tokens, making it far easier to dive into the action without advance planning. Clicking on a character’s skill or weapon automatically rolls the relevant dice, giving a quick glimpse of the success or failure of the relevant action—and helping players quickly interpret the consequences. Though Roll20 is selling these each of these packages for a one-time fee (the first is going for $19.99, and the forthcoming second outing with Wizards of the Coast will be available for $49.95), other advance features—such as dynamic lighting that obscures map areas players haven’t explored yet—are also available to the service’s subscribers, who pay around $5 to $10 a month.

Roll20’s first, newly available outing with Wizards of the Coast, Lost Mine of Phandelver, suggests that the company may succeed where others failed. Lost Mine occupies a special place in my own gaming pantheon. Lost Mines occupies a special place in my own gaming pantheon. The company closely adapted it from an adventure of the same name that Wizards of the Coast released beside the fifth edition of D&D in 2014, and I played through it at the time with my own group in its more traditional pen-and-paper format. Though it doesn’t tell an especially compelling story, the adventure—written by veteran designers Rich Baker and Chris Perkins, with contributions from others—pulls players through an elaborately constructed set of encounters that both nicely demonstrate the game’s rules and force the players to work in concert if they hope to thrive.

Eager to get the old gang back together, I invited a few friends—two of whom had been part of my original Lost Mines group—to join me for a test. Our experience wasn’t always seamless at first: The array of information available to dungeon masters is so overwhelming that our session sometimes ground to a halt as I futzed through menus in search of the right document. Windows containing descriptions of caverns and enemy statistics often cluttered the screen. All of this data also taxed my computer’s resources, crashing my browser outright on at least one occasion. Overwhelmed by information, I occasionally lost track of where we were in the story, inspiring one of my veteran players to gently remind me that his teammate’s actions were technically impossible.

In time, I overcame most of those hurdles, however, partly because Lost Mines has been so well implemented here. Kristin Carlson, who handled the conversion for Roll20, seems to have brought many of Baker and Perkins’ insights to the transition, using the new version to show off features of Roll20’s system. My own second test of the adventure’s introductory section—this time with some Slate colleagues—went far more smoothly than the first, though they were less familiar with the scenario or the rules that make it work.

Though working through it still requires care and preparation—much as its predigital version would—there’s more than enough in the virtual package to while away hours with your fellow gamers, however far away they may be. More than any other virtual gaming system I’ve played with, Roll20’s Lost Mines captured what it’s like to delve into dungeons (and eventually fight dragons). For me, though, the most telling review came from my friend Dave, who I haven’t spent much time with since he moved to Detroit months ago. “That was fun!” he wrote with uncommon enthusiasm after we had signed off.

Though I’ll never stop missing the evenings we spent around Dave’s dining room table, I’m inclined to agree.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.