Last Updated: May 27, 2022
In this episode of the RPGBOT.News, we talk to Andrew Searles and Pat Backman of the Artificer’s Portal podcast. We discuss the past, present, and future of digital tools for tabletop RPGs, and we talk to Andrew and Pat about their unique insights into the development of these evolving tools.
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Materials Referenced in this Episode
- The Artificer’s Portal
- Other Stuff
- D&D Beyond
- D&D 3.5 and 4e
- D&D 5e SRD
- DMs’ Guild (affiliate link)
- DriveThruRPG (affiliate link)
- dScryb (affiliate link)
- Fantasy Grounds
Welcome to the RPGBOT dot News. I’m Randall James and with me is Tyler Kamstra.
And Ashl Ely.
Ash Ely 00:06
Hey, how’s it going?
Awesome. And tonight we have special guest with us, Andrew.
Andrew Searles 00:10
Hey, how’s it going?
Pretty good. Pretty good. And Pat.
Patrick Backmann 00:13
Hey, nice to meet y’all.
Absolutely. Glad to have you here. All right, Tyler, what is happening?
Well, today we are going to talk about digital tools in tabletop RPGs. And we’re going to talk to our friends here from The Artificer’s Portal podcast. So Artificer’s Portal talks to creators in the tabletop RPG space who are creating digital solutions to tabletop challenges. So we brought in some subject matter experts to talk about digital tools in tabletop RPGs, both past, present and future.
And so you say you’re doing a podcast to talk to folks about tabletop tools? You know something about it, right?
Andrew Searles 00:49
Well, I think we do. Pat and I are both product managers on D&D Beyond. And we absolutely love our jobs. It’s basically our job to talk about how we build digital tools, why we build them, and how we could build them better. And we like talking about it so much that we thought that we would probably do a podcast so we could have an excuse to keep doing it.
Well, I’m on board. So far, the podcast has been really interesting. You guys have talked to some really cool guests, including our friend David Schulman from dScryb who’s been on our podcast as well. And yeah, we absolutely love dScryb here. So I’m excited to see you guys talk to you in the future.
Patrick Backmann 01:27
So you’re one of our 57 followers then.
It all starts that way.
Andrew Searles 01:38
We joke that we are trying a very specific niche audience that is people that play role playing games, and build and care about technology. That’s it’s a, it’s a pretty small little audience there. We’re okay with that. Mostly because we love talking to these people. So any excuse to continue to having that conversation is a good one for us.
Although I will say I feel like the audience for this is maybe larger than you would think initially. Like if you look at the Discord channels for some of for Tabula Sono, you know, we have those folks on at one point, they’re heavily populated. Like there’s a lot of people very invested in seeing the virtual tabletop solutions, seeing the digital tools, solutions, like work and work well. I think a lot of those folks are actually gonna be really excited to hear the direction the community’s going, listening to your podcast.
Ash Ely 02:26
Patrick Backmann 02:27
I think you’re right there. The whole Foundry VTT, being a technologist, I’m not very technical. And for having me to have to spin up my own servers or clients to do things with Foundry VTT is a little bit of a stretch, but that’s a big audience of people there that are making it happen with one of the best virtual tabletops that’s out there today.
Ash Ely 02:47
Yeah, speaking as a person who is always looking for inspiration for things. I think a lot of the online tools are very helpful for DMs, especially, you know, inexperienced DMs. In fact, I didn’t know about dScryb until I listened to your guys’s podcast, I was like, This is amazing. I need to use this because I struggle with this exact problem. Now, you actually mentioned Foundry I am curious, do you prefer Foundry over Roll 20?
Patrick Backmann 03:12
I will tell you, I will say this with all honesty, I prefer to be a player in Foundry to Fungeon master or Game Master in Roll 20, if I had to use a virtual tabletop for mapping.
Ash Ely 03:27
Yeah, I get that I get that.
So let’s jump a little further back into the past. First, we’re going to come back to virtual tabletops. Because that is fertile ground for discussion. Jumping way back in our time machines going way, way back to the the era of CD ROMs. The 90s dial up modems, downloading JPEGs on the internet over over your landline, you know all those good things that we remember about the 90s. At some point in that era, we saw what may be the first digital tool for tabletop RPGs. And it was a it was the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules on CD ROM. It was published as an assistive tool for people playing Dungeons and Dragons. And that’s kind of just been lost to the sands of time unless you’re looking in books about the history of games. So like I learned about this from Art and Arcana just last year, and we’ll have links to Art and Arcana on the show notes. It’s great, but that may have started a long and interesting history of digital tools in the space.
Okay, wait, wait. So what was actually on the CD ROM? Because at that point, like did we actually have PDFs yet?
I don’t think you could call it a PDF at that time. It was PDF like from the screenshots that I’ve seen, like I’d stick the CD ROM in, you’d run the program on the disk it would bring up like, here’s the text of the rules on like stat blocks and like crude scans of the monster art but you know, CRTs in the 90s there was only so good.
Ash Ely 04:54
So I think that sounds familiar. It sounds like some of the old CD ROM games that they would have they would have digital manuals on the CD ROM, it was kind of rare because usually it was packaged on my [garbled]. So you’ll have to excuse me, my nostalgia is blowing up. They have like, boxes with the actual physical manuals that they don’t do that anymore. But I do remember at some point, they started putting manuals as digital.
Yeah, I remember those days fondly. Well, no, not what’s the other word? Things have obviously progressed since then, for one thing, most people don’t own CD ROMs anymore.
Patrick Backmann 05:29
Yeah. I hope not. As a matter of fact, I’m looking down at this beast of a computer that I bought from work, and no, there’s nothing on there. You know, you had mentioned manuals, the last CD ROM I received was in 2003. And it came with my bicycle. I bought a Ghost mountain bike, and a CD ROM came with it as the owner’s manual. And it wasn’t even a PDF, it was more like this weird, inner cockpit owner’s manual that’s inside of a car. So if you if you have a newer car that has a screen, and you’ll sit there and dial and stuff, it’ll be like, Okay, what’s my tire pressure? How do I you know, change a tire? Or what are my oil? What kind of oil does it take? I think that’s what this, this, this horrible thing I need to say more, because I’m literally reading the wiki that you all sent us. And it’s, it’s not nice. Under the reception column of it.
There’s a there’s a theme here.
Patrick Backmann 06:36
The reception paragraph is twice or three times the size of the contents paragraph. It’s really very, very tricky. But…
Imagine if back in the day they had product managers. That’s the story. I want to tell tonight. Software development teams out there running with no product management, no program management, there’s a better way.
Patrick Backmann 07:06
Ash Ely 07:08
You know what it sounds like? It sounds like one of those old, old, this is a deep cut but an old like training program that they would have for like, you know, retail stores or something where it’s like a box that comes up with this. Really out of proportion text, really terrible graphic design. Just hit next, next, next.
That feels about right. Well…
Patrick Backmann 07:32
That Flash Media relevant today.
It’s dead now champ, it’s fine. It’s always like some guy with like, 1980s George Clooney hair like leaning nonchalantly over your desk. And then he notices you there and he pops up like, Hey, welcome to Nordstroms I’m glad you’re here.
Ash Ely 07:57
But then things got better, right? Like that was the only mistake that was ever made.
Ah, well, let me, let me disappoint you some more. No. So things did change. I’m going to use the word improve kind of loosely here. So ADnD ended. TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast. Wizards of the Coast publishes D&D Third Edition, things happen, the open gaming license comes out and with the open gaming license comes a flurry of new tools supported by the Open Gaming License, and the SRD. Among those were a collection of prominent character builders, for some reason constructed in Excel of all things. So if you’ve been playing tabletop RPG since the early 2000s. At some point, you may have run into these especially for D&D and Pathfinder. D&D didn’t publish its entire rule set under the open gaming license, though, so the vast majority of these involve a ton of piracy. So if you go and dig up those tools, they’re probably full of things that you’re not allowed to have. If you’re playing Pathfinder, though, there are some great options like yet another Pathfinder character generator, one of my longtime favorites, despite it being an Excel spreadsheet. It’s free because Pathfinder is published entirely under the open gaming license, so the entire thing is free, but because it’s an Excel, and Excel is not designed to be a robust software development engine, these things are very, very slow and they will hurt your computer. If I load up yet another Pathfinder character generator on my, my crazy gaming rig, still runs kind of slow. So you know, if you’re digging back into the archives for these tools, you’re going to be a little bit sad and you’re going to have to be a little bit patient. But things again, improved from there. Eventually, three five was was ended and we got fourth edition and with fourth edition, Wizards of the Coast started pushing really, really hard their own digital toolset called D&D Insider. Now, if you were paying attention to D&D at the launch of fourth edition, this was a really big deal. I can grab my fourth edition Player’s Handbook off the shelf right now. And the back page is an ad for D&D Insider. And it was this whole tool suite, it had a character creator, it would eventually have a virtual tabletop in theory, but we’ll get into that.
Okay, wait, I gotta pause for a second before he continues to kick anything were either of you involved in that trailer takeaway? Go ahead.
So, so the fourth edition character creator, in as part of D&D Insider was actually hugely popular. So it was originally built in Microsoft Silverlight, which was built to be a Flash competitor, and it didn’t go super well, it died. And then Flash died like a year later. So that was a thing anyway, built in Silverlight. If you go back and look at screenshots of it, the character creator looks startlingly similar to like, custom miniature builder tools do today. So if you like load up in a browser, like you’re on that one website, or the one other website that lets you build custom miniatures, you know, the, the graphics aren’t super detailed, it looks like you’re gonna stick this thing on a one inch tall model. But at the time, that was pretty good, even by video games standards, and you could build really detailed characters, you had all of the fourth edition rules built in, like this was a surprisingly robust tool for the time. And they had a subscription model that made it kind of pricey, but people liked it anyway.
Ash Ely 11:34
So fourth edition, the main thing that I’ve heard from people who’ve talked about I personally have never played it, is that one of the big hurdles to fourth edition was character creation, because it was kind of a mess. And it was, not that that’s a bad thing, because a lot of people liked it. But it was just if you didn’t build your character, in a very specific way to be optimized, you were going to make a really weak, useless character. And for new players, it was kind of overwhelming. So like, the fourth edition character creation tool was kind of seen as like a necessity for a lot of people.
Yeah, it definitely was, and when, when the DND Insider program was eventually killed, so they kind of put it out to pasture very slowly and said, We will no longer be accepting new subscriptions. But we will continue to support it for people who have a subscription. And they did that for a couple more years. So for people who are still very actively playing fourth edition, like it got to limp along for a couple more years as fifth edition ramped up, and then eventually what killed the the D&D Insider program was actually the death of Silverlight because Microsoft was no longer supporting it with security patches. So they couldn’t support the tool anymore,
What’s the security patch between friends.
So they did also have a very primitive virtual tabletop at the time. And this was, I think, my first exposure to virtual tabletops. At the time, like your options were super limited. There were basically three, it was Fantasy Grounds, if I remember the timeline correctly, the DND virtual table, which never quite got off the ground, the story about how that ended, actually involve some real world tragedy that we’re not going to go into. And then there was this thing called Screen Monkey that Random has referenced previously on the podcast, and we lamented at length, imagine roll 20. But you also have to do port forwarding.
Ash Ely 13:30
Yeah. And also none of the things that make roll 20 good. So I guess really, it’s just kind of a crude virtual tabletop with a text chat. This was also in a time where video call tools were very, very primitive, like, like Skype was just figuring that stuff out, playing a game with a bunch of people, like you would today, basically impossible.
Was it even video chat at that point? Or was it just Voice over IP?
That is a great question, easy.
Ash Ely 13:57
When did Screen Monkey come out, because I can, I can probably give you a good estimate of what was available at the time.
We… I don’t know when Screen Monkey came out. I discovered it by accident. But to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t changed since I used it last. Anyway, we will have links to all that in the show notes. That is the history. And now we are in the wonderful, wonderful present, where we have all of these wonderful web based tools. Most of the software you’re going to use for tabletop RPG is no longer runs on your desktop, though. There are some exceptions. Fantasy Grounds is still around. I think, well, I don’t use foundry. Yeah, Tabletop Simulator, all great options. But we also have all of these wonderful things online such as D&D Beyond.
Which I do want to say it’s absolute magic, so I use the I use it oh, what’s the what’s the plugin called? So I’ve got my roll 20 up. I’ve got D&D Beyond… is Beyond 20.
Andrew Searles 14:55
Awesome. Yeah. So being able to, no kidding, like I’ve got my character sheet sitting here. I built it using the rules. I know it’s built, right? It’s probably not broken, maybe not. Being able to look at that and being like, well, I click a button here and my rule appears over here. Like that’s, that’s magic. That’s all we ever wanted.
Right? Kinda, yeah. And I mean that that has been a long time dream, like having all your tools work together like that.
Patrick Backmann 15:19
You think that’s all you ever wanted, until you build it. And then once you build it, you find out there’s a bunch of other stuff that people want.
Like, like they say, if it isn’t broken, it doesn’t have enough features.
Andrew Searles 15:36
They want all those things to work together. Right? That’s the other the big thing is, is trying to piece all of those different things, working them all together.
Yeah. So eventually, like the list of requested features in the backlog is longer than what has actually been implemented so far. And you’re just sitting here like here’s what I want. All I’ve ever wanted is I want to log on. I want to have a VTT with the integration from the ruleset so I can have my character sheet there and I want the whole thing to mine Bitcoin in the background. Why can’t you just do that for me?
Andrew Searles 16:13
If I optimize my Wizard hard enough, can I wish for Bitcoin?
Andrew Searles 16:22
Yeah, potentially it would. It probably wouldn’t come out as Bitcoin it probably be like, bit Electrum or something like that.
Oh, God, the worst currency.
Also, literally, and Tyler no kidding. Me personally, Tyler can never cast wish again. No, thank you.
Ah, all right. That’s fine. D&D Beyond is a wonderful answer to a brief but storied history of other online solutions for tabletop role playing games. Later in three five’s timespan PDFs of the rulebook started being pirated widely. And that kind of created a market for what eventually became drive thru RPG and then we got D&D Classics, which was all of the PDF copies of pre fifth edition D&D rule books and then that eventually changed names to DM Guild. We had PDFs for a while. Pathfinder was published entirely under the open gaming license. So the entire rule set is available for free and free to distribute as you please. So we got SRD websites D-20. PFSRD, the big one Archives of Nethys. Since D&D isn’t entirely published under the open gaming license, D&D Beyond happened. And that became like the go to place for all of your fifth edition rules in digital format.
Real quick. You said SRD. So SRD is system reference document?
Yes, System Reference Document. So that is like, the core heart of the rules that you need to make third party content. So that includes like all of the most simple examples of character options so that third party publishers can create compatible content that works with the rules. Without the SRD and the like. Like, here’s the core of this class. We couldn’t have things like Kobold press publishing a book of character options for fighters, or something like that wouldn’t be allowed.
Tome of Heroes comes out this year. It’s gonna be great. Yeah, we’re excited.
Ash Ely 18:18
Oh, that’s gonna great.
Andrew Searles 18:19
Gonna be very exciting. Yes.
I’m super stoked. Cool, cool. Cool.
So in in this brave new future, we’ve got all the cool new virtual tabletops. We’ve got roll 20. We’ve got Foundry we’ve got D&D Beyond. Demiplane just launched pretty recently. So Pat, and Andrew, we wanted to bring you guys on to talk about the current and future state of tools in tabletop roll playing games. You’ve already talked to a few people. We mentioned David Schulman from dScryb, who are some of your other guests who you’ve talked to recently?
Andrew Searles 18:53
So we recently just teased in our we’ll be releasing an episode on Friday this week with Mike Shea or Sly Flourish, where we talk about DM prep, and how technology can help or should technology help, which is a very valid question. I think that we should all ask that all the time. Is we can we do it? Sure, should we? Maybe not. And that’s I think, you know, an interesting point of clarification for the past, in the present and in the future of how does technology change and grow? Making sure that we should is a really good question that I think personally, technologists don’t ask themselves a lot of times. Should just do it?
Spend so much time thinking if you could you never stop to ask if you should. Yeah, I’m sure I just butchered that quote, but you got it.
Ash Ely 19:46
Patrick Backmann 19:48
One of our other guests was Devin Chulik. From Start Playing, and he kind of gets into the industry of charging money to be a DM which oh we can’t charge money to be a DM. But you know what? Devon’s built a business model about charging money to be a DM. And it works. So it’s kind of funny how some of these faux pas, or what we thought were gaming standards are falling away, as people are starting to explore in that cool, lean startup world of the internet and to go, Hey, let’s try this. Did it work? Yep. Let’s try it a little more, did it work? Yep. Keep going.
Yeah, I think 100%. That makes sense to me, though, right? How many folks do you talk to who are like, I’m really into the idea of D&D or I’m really into the idea of tabletop gaming, but I don’t know how to run a game and I don’t have time to figure it out. Or I’m afraid I’m going to do it badly. Unless you are lucky enough to be able to bring somebody in to run that game for you. The idea of like, okay, wait a second. I was gonna blow $200 this weekend going out to the bars. And you’re telling me for like, I chip in 50 bucks, my buddy chips and 50 bucks everybody chips in? We can have a professional DM, run a game of Dungeons and Dragons for us. Absolutely. I’ll bring the vodka.
Patrick Backmann 21:05
Yeah, and what what you’re what you’re saying there is what Andrew and I like to talk about, probably more than anything is what problem are you trying to solve for the people that we absolutely adore. And the people who we actually are, both of us being rabid Dungeons and Dragons, fans, and players and Dungeon masters, we have problems when we play these games, and there’s times when the play lulls or slows, or you’re like, Oh, I forgot that thing. And now, Emeryth just got waxed by a couple of party members that shouldn’t have killed her that fast cuz she’s an ancient dragon for crying out loud. And then when you build these tools use, you start to see how the problem gets solved. And then once the problem solved, you start to see the other problems perfectly that weren’t ever there before. But you discover because of the technology…
Because you made them.
Andrew Searles 22:01
I think if you want to really dissect our show outline, you’ll see that it really lives around problems, like Pat’s talking about it is digging into problems. And that’s the that’s the work of a product manager. And honestly, when we’re talking about past versus present, and then potentially into the future, is what sets us apart now, because the tools of today aren’t that different than they were from yesterday. But they’re vastly different for a lot of different reasons. One is climate that we’re in the propensity to use technology is completely different than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. But also, the way we think about technology is vastly different. It might not seem like it is but it really is. And a lot of times we talk about this as a one degree difference in a problem. You might say, Okay, it’s easy to determine one problem from another when they’re vastly different. Should we tackle this one? Or should we tackle that problem? Well, yeah, they’re completely different things. And one is better than the other. But when it is minutely different, is when it starts to get really meaningful, because then you start making choices that most people don’t see, that can only affect you three miles down the road. And that example is and I think that this is what is starting to permeate a lot of the VTT space today is VTT’s are not just a map. What is the problem that a VTT really starts to try to solve… that is I need to know where my character is at in space, so that I can make decisions about what I want to do on my turn. And everything branches off of that. That is the problem. So once you can solve that problem, you can start looking at the next little problem, I need to know where I’m at in 3d space. Because 3d matters, like somebody that’s 100 feet up in the air on a 2d map looks like they’re similar. That’s a problem, right?
Patrick Backmann 22:01
Ash Ely 23:53
Andrew Searles 23:53
And I did a ton of talking with like DMs around this very issue that really rolls up into what DMs called, like a rolling recap, every single turn. I’m finding myself having to say, Okay, you are in this area, your friends are in these areas, and they’re next to these people. And this person just did this thing, what do you want to do? Okay, next person. Right, every single turn and having to recreate that imaginary picture. That’s what the problem that we’re trying to solve, nothing more, nothing less. And once we can start really aiming at it, then we can start really creating a solution that’s simple, easy to use, and is highly valuable.
And you talk about like the technology creating the problems that you then have to go solve, right. So what if I just want dynamic lighting? That’s all right, because like, you know, it’s a dark… it’s a dark cave and I’m in this room. I’m not in that room, so I shouldn’t be able to see what’s over there, right? Oh, but I pulled on a torch so light it up for me. And oh, okay. Well, do I have line of sight over there? Well, then why can I see it? If I don’t have line of sight? Why aren’t you rendering an individual view for everybody in the party? Yeah, and like, on and on and on and on, and eventually, you know, we’re, we’re just gonna be playing Halo, it’s gonna be great.
Andrew Searles 25:06
Really, and I would even say to your right, there is second and third order problems, whenever you solve a problem, you create more problems, two or more. And what your, your job really is, is to identify what that problem is. And then ask yourself, Do I want the other problems that come after it? Like, is it worth it to, to solve that problem, and then have to solve all the other ones after it. For example, one that’s not often thought of with dynamic lighting is a problem that I hate. And that is, as a player who is not, it’s not my turn, and I can’t see the action, I completely tune out, because I can’t see it. And when you can see it, and the DM can see it, they use language that’s specific to what they see. So for example, the DM might say, you walk in and you see this, and it is hanging five feet from the ceiling, the top of the room, and you see a staircase over here. And then I as a player would say, okay, great, I’m gonna go up the staircase over here. And then I’m going to shoot my arrow just to the right of the person over to the other side. It’s not like it’s completely zoned out. They’re not playing anymore. They don’t know what’s happening, they can’t see what’s happening. They are completely gone from that interaction. And that’s the problem that dynamic lighting happens with it is it singles out other people so that now you’re playing one on one with five different people in a turn order combat?
Ash Ely 26:31
Well, I think that is a very good point. I do think, like you said, technology can fix solutions that you have problems with, like dynamic lighting on a tabletop is hard to represent, like we use in my home game like these blankets, or towels or something. And that’s not a perfect solution. But that comes with the added detriment of creating this kind of problem. I do think, though, that there are workarounds, there are solutions to that problem. Like for instance, in roll 20, one of the ways that I’ve figured out how to solve that problem is by giving people control of everyone’s characters. Now that can be abused as well, that leads into a different problem. So you know, these solutions that you have for these solutions, now everybody can see, but then someone could move someone else’s character and stuff like that.
Andrew Searles 27:16
And arguably, then you start ask yourself, why did I do all this work? When everybody can just see everything anyway? Right? Why did I draw all the walls and then give everybody a certain amount of light that they can then generate? And like, what have I done all this for? If all of it’s for nothing, anyway. And that’s ultimately where we are at right is, is figuring out what is the right amount of work to get the right amount of value, no more, no less.
Patrick Backmann 27:42
One of the things that we also look at is trying to stay out of the social responsibility of the group. So that to your to your point, if you gave everybody power to see what everybody else sees, and then they go running around, and they’re then making decisions out of character, if you will, that’s not the VTTs fault. That’s not the tool’s fault. So it’s better to be permissive when building these tools than to be restricted. Because when you restrict stuff, the problems become greater than if you permit stuff and let the people do what they’re supposed to be doing having this really cool social storytelling interaction.
Yeah, and let’s define what our goal really is. If our goal in building a VTT is to recreate the home table game. How often does your DM say like, Okay, everybody else leaves the room. So I can reveal a little bit of the map to the one person who just entered the room. That’s not what you do, right? You roll back the curtain. I’m like, Hey, everybody, you know, the wizards in idiot, he walked in first, let me show you what waits for you. And everybody’s like, Oh, okay, well, he’s dead. Let’s go into start rolling another character. Is that what a VTT should be trying to recreate?
Patrick Backmann 28:48
I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t know. The cool thing about it is we played this game, that is half hybrid movie, I want to see all the things happening, half hybrid, choose your own adventure, half hybrid authoring. And it’s all of these weird things that don’t exist. And I try, I try to find the thing that makes a perfect match to RPGs, specifically TRPGs. And the only thing that I can ever come close to that comes close to that experience is is life. Because you can’t get it by watching TV or a movie, it’s coming at you. You can’t get it by reading a book because it’s next page. Next page. Next page. You can’t get it by playing a full on video game because you run into the invisible wall or can’t decide that you’re just going to sit down and wait for time to pass until a squirrel walked by and then grab him by the neck because that just isn’t going to happen in the video game unless somebody programmed it. So life or TRPG’s and they’re the problem solving is very similar. When technology comes to hand.
Yeah, I do tend to make my kids roll a D20 before they talk to me to see how the conversation is gonna go. So I’m 100%.
Ash Ely 30:04
Oh, okay, you know what, why don’t you just go upstairs, we’ll try this again.
Ash Ely 30:12
I do want to go back to Randall’s point about, you know, trying to replicate the stuff at the table. Like if that is ultimately the goal of, you know, these online role playing games, I don’t I don’t know if it should be. I think that it is definitely like, I think that virtual tabletops help solve a problem, which is, you know, helping to communicate with each other over vast distances. Because, you know, for instance, I have friends that I play with that are in different parts of the state or in different parts of the country. And there’s some things that are better on virtual tabletop than are on the home game. But I don’t think you can ever really replicate the feeling of being around a table with your friends. And I think that that’s a losing battle to try and emulate that.
Andrew Searles 30:57
Yeah. And I would, I would take that one step further as well. What’s the goal of putting a map on a table in a physical space, right? Everything is a product, everything is a thing that we hired to do a job for us, technology or otherwise, pen and paper is the same way. What are they trying to accomplish? What are they trying to do. And ultimately, what is a map on a table in the physical space is trying to do the exact same thing as a virtual table. And that’s really trying to help you understand where you are at in space, so you can make decisions on your turn, I want to cast a fireball that I’m going to hit all these people, I don’t want to do that I’m going to cast this, it helps me make that decision faster, and involve less people and having to recap less. Ultimately, the perfect tool, regardless of whether it’s going to be technology or in person or whatever, is going to help you make that choice the fastest you possibly can make it without as many bells and whistles. And then once you have that a good solution there, then you start looking at second and third order problems.
Patrick Backmann 31:59
So we had this conversation with Wolfgang a while back and I had asked Wolfgang I said hey, do you still have a Rand McNally map in your car. And he’s like, you know, Wolfgang, it’s just so easy to talk to he’s like, No. So, you know, these, these tools are being replaced. This tool like Andrew’s talking about the map is being replaced by the digital screen is being replaced by a heads up display. But at some point, what we do and TRPG’s part of the game is part of that struggle, because you have this call and response. And you’ll see that a lot with trpg solutions, where, hey, if I do the thing, and I pick the thing, and I cast the thing, and these people are affected, it all happens automatically. And now those people then and so on and so forth. And that you can really get to a point where you’re not really even talking to each other. And one of the wonderful things about Dungeons and Dragons is it’s a gated dialogue that allows you to do call, response, adjudicate, call, response, adjudicate. And that’s a social interaction that regardless if it’s done uncomfortably, or comfortably as two human beings having this conversation, which then builds up these, these neural connectivities between people, and that’s where it becomes addictive. That’s what makes it addictive. Because you got to have this experience of dying, but not really dying and your friends watching you die, but not really watching you die. I mean, listen to people tell their Dungeons and Dragons stories. Some of them to you, you’re listening to him, you’re like, This is might be the most boring thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Because it’s like, it’s like the best thing ever. And that’s because it was with those people that you don’t get to see at the time. And when it happened in context.
Andrew Searles 33:56
Yeah, I mean, Pat and I talked about this all the time. So of course, I’m gonna agree with everything that he says. But I think ultimately, the tool that we’re looking at improving or not replacing, but improving upon is our imagination. That’s the thing that we start to try to give it extra things so that we can imagine better. So as we’re starting to make new tools, we make virtual tabletops we make digital tool sets, we’re trying to help our imaginations be better, so that we can have a better experience, and ultimately expand that out into even other genres. That’s what movies tried to do. That’s what video games are trying to do. They do it differently. And their formula is different, movies are immediate. And without a whole lot of interaction. Video games have a lot of interaction, but not a whole lot of story. Role playing games have a ton of story, but they’re not immediate. It’s hard to get into them. It’s hard to schedule that moment with your friends and how do we start looking at making that moment easier and easier and easier? without compromising on the quality of the experience.
Patrick Backmann 35:03
And those are the kinds of things that these present tool sets have successfully done, which makes them successful businesses. D&D Beyond the classic example of giving you digital content that has a searchable, functional tool tipping and easy build character creation like TurboTax. Right, you just literally clicky clicky clicky done. You have a character, which used to take you an hour, at least right to do it to do it, right. And then you have things like Demiplane, trying to connect people, right, because that’s one of the barriers to entry to, I need some friends, I need have a time, I have a group, I need to be able to do this. So I can see their faces, because nothing’s worse than not seeing their faces when I do something cool. And they all everybody waits. Yeah, wait for John to come back from the bathroom before I say the thing after you open up the door, because his face when he you want to take you to the bathroom with him. We’ve had that happen before, but…
Andrew Searles 36:03
We promise not to talk about that.
Patrick Backmann 36:04
As we go forward into this, you charge forward into technology. I think solving the barriers to entry problem, bar none probably one of the most important things to do. And then to solve problems that help you get the game to fade, not the game, to get the tool that fades into the back. So that the interaction, that thing that I was talking about, about your friend dying, and you’re getting to experience it, and they’re getting experience, it feels more visceral and real movie, like… improv like… and the tools are just there in the background lingering at your fingertips to tell to help you tell that story?
Andrew Searles 36:52
Yeah, fade into the background is such a great metaphor for exactly what tool set should do. And usability in general, which is again, another difference between past and future. As as we have grown in the internet, in general at building all kinds of tools for all kinds of industries. User Experience has has really changed the way we see things and role playing games, digital tool sets for role playing games, is no different. User experiences is changing the way we think about those things. The thing that I would suggest to people that are starting to think about their own digital tool set is, is think about, am I going to force my users to play this game while I play D&D. There are so many VTTs that I’ve seen, where it feels like the past and even present, where it feels like I have to learn that system. And then that system then plays D&D for me. And I don’t want to play that VTT. I want to play D&D, helping you play D&D, not your system.
Ash Ely 37:56
So the question that I would pose to you guys, because I think I’m starting to get a sense of where you lean. But what would be the ideal solution for these virtual tabletops for you? Are you trying to use the virtual tabletops as a method to communicate your stories better, but just as sort of like a tool? Or is it more of like, I want it to be more immersive, sort of, like, I want 3d models or something to sort of really make people visualize the space? Or do you just want it to just be? No, I just want something to track so people are aware of the space and use the rest for their mind,
Patrick Backmann 38:31
I think the way I would answer that is probably not going to be satisfying to you. Because I don’t mean any one way I what I want to happen is I want the person who wants to print their character sheet out and use a pencil and scotch tape. So they can erase very easy to have their thing while the other person has their cell phone, while another person has real dice while another person has Bluetooth enabled dice while another person is rolling digital dice while they’re watching the intro to the brand new module just published by Wizards of the Coast on their PlayStation. And then also they have two friends who are in Sweden. It’s just a blend. That’s what this immersive blend to allow you to pick the tools you need to be in the collaborative space that you need to be. And hopefully those tools get out of your way. Or you just love to have them so much like a pen and paper that that it’s not in your way. It’s part of the experience.
Ash Ely 39:25
So you see it as additive, rather than just like the thing that we’re basing this off of like, this is the thing we’re going to use. Everybody’s using it. It’s more of like a pick and choose sort of thing.
Patrick Backmann 39:36
I would say we’re a pick and choose community. Yeah, for sure. For sure. Bar none. You know, hey, what race do you want to play? It literally starts out with pick and choose and then as soon as you say hey, you only have the choice of this many races and that’s the SRD. I need the Player’s Handbook because I want more. I need the Monster’s Manual because I want more.
Andrew Searles 39:59
If we’re talking about solutions that I’m going to pick and choose, you’re, you’re, you’re picking those as a player, or as a DM, I’m picking those things based off of the value that they give me, not because I really liked the people that build it, or I really liked the way it looks, or that’s a really cool environment. I’m picking it because it solves my problem. When we start building these tools, we need to start really thinking about what is that problem? You mentioned 3d character modeling, on top of like, VTT, and things like that. The interesting thing is, so this Hero Forge is by and far right now a great source of places where you can go and build your own character, the problem that they’re trying to solve, well, they were trying to create a 3d Mini, but why do you want a 3d Mini? Why does somebody want a customized 3d mini of their character… because they want to be able to visualize what their character looks like. And they want others to be able to see what their character looks like. So that way, when we’re role playing with that, that character, you can see who they are, you can see the ears that they have, and you remember, Oh, they’re an elf, you can see the bow on their back. And you remember, they’re an archer, you can see that they’re shorter than all the rest. So you, when you when you start RPing around it, you’re like, Oh, I swing over their head, right? All of those things help you better visualize in your imagination, what that character is, as you’re playing, it solves a problem for you. It’s not just a hey, that’s a really cool little thing. It literally solves your problem.
Patrick Backmann 41:31
Yeah, because, you know, Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket just isn’t Rocket unless, of course, he’s that goofy little raccoon thing, right? If Rocket was just a human, it wouldn’t be as good. Same goes for like Jabba the Hutt. And remember, the original Jabba the Hut, the cutscene that they removed, and then they had to put them back in for the first movie.
In the vest.
Patrick Backmann 41:53
It’s like, that’s not Jabba.
Ash Ely 41:56
Not intimidating at all.
Andrew Searles 41:57
That’s, it’s that’s exactly what happens. I mean, think about all the times that you’ve been role playing, and you lose the description of the person you’re talking to. And you would have said something completely different, you would have entered it very differently, you would have interacted with them very differently. Had you known their nose was the size of their face, right? Like some, some sort of physical characteristic of them, influences the way you would roleplay and we need we need that visual cue, then that’s, that’s what the problem they’re trying to solve.
Okay. Has everybody heard? The original fella who voiced Darth Vader? Yes. Peter, Peter, something. Yeah, very nasal voice bring me that for people. You know. It’s, like you saying that makes me imagine like, all of the, everybody else. Everybody else. Everyone else recorded their lines against Darth Vader, listening to that voice. And then who did the who did the voice that we all know? I can’t think of
Ash Ely 42:51
James Earl Jones.
Perfect. Everybody else knew I couldn’t think of it in my head. Right. But then you bring in James Earl Jones with a booming deep voice and it’s like, how did you not just piss yourself like?
Patrick Backmann 43:03
Yeah, yeah, I mean, I still get scared when I listen to Arby’s commercials.
They will never sponsor this podcast.
I’m pretty sure they’re into it. Honestly. Ther knew what they were doing. They knew what they were doing,
Ash Ely 43:24
They like making fun of themselves, I’m sure. But I think I think there’s something to that, that we as humans need visual and auditory representations. It’s why like, I tried to do voices for my players, because someone who talks like this is gonna get a different response than someone who talks like this, you know, how you talk to Bilbo Baggins is gonna be different to how you talk to, you know, Asmodius, Prince of Darkness.
Andrew Searles 43:52
And when we, we had I played a game recently polymorph which is a game from let me look…
Polymorph, which is a rules argument called a spell.
Andrew Searles 44:04
Engine is I have to give you give you the thing afterward, maybe I’ll rerecord it or something.
Andrew Searles 44:13
Anyway, we played a game recently that the DM as he was going through, when we hit the big, big, bad, evil guy at the end, we were all playing on Zoom. And he switched his his camera over to a face meshed version of that, that character that melded to his face. And then he augmented his voice and instantly became the bad guy. And he was acting out and it was, it was amazing, right? Because I could see it. I could see that person standing there. I could interact with them. They were then it was it was it was a visceral experience. And I would say if we’re, if we’re trying to instead of trying to recreate those things in like a virtual tabletop all the time, instead of just trying to recreate a tabletop in a virtual world. Let’s start thinking about how we can help our imaginations grasp the stories that we’re trying to tell.
Patrick Backmann 45:09
Right. And I’ve… You never told me that story, I find it absolutely amazing. And I think that’s the kind of way technology is going. I think one of our biggest problems is Zoom calls. Because the audio is not perfect. The visuals not perfect, I can’t talk over my friend or talking to my friend sitting next to me while the Dungeon Master is talking and say, Hey, I’m going to kick him in the shin when he comes out of the door. That kind of stuff. And then to Andrews point, you know, putting on these virtual masks with what’s that can’t remember the app, snap something, snap cam or something like that. Or having these virtual voices to help Dungeon Masters who aren’t as comfortable at improv is the Matt Mercer’s in the world, right. So these are those kinds of tools that I’m talking about, they fade into the background, they’re easy click easy access, and they get out of your way, as soon as you don’t need them there. And everybody has to get up to go to bathroom and get a Diet Coke. And it’s not like okay, I have to unplug, and come out of virtual space, and my eyes are darting back and forth, because I’m still in the virtual space.
So I’m gonna put everybody on the spot. We’ve talked about virtual tabletops a few times, we’ve named a few, I’m just gonna rattle off some names. And then we’re gonna play a super quick game afterwards. So the options that run on your desktop, you’ve got Fantasy Grounds, Foundry, Screen Monkey, but let’s not count that one. There’s virtual tabletops, which run your browser. So you’ve got roll 20, Tabula Sono, Tale Spire. I’m sure I’m I’m sure I’m missing a bunch that I haven’t learned about but I want to. There are a couple of options that work in augmented reality or virtual reality. So you’ve got ARKane, Tabletop Simulator. I think I’ve seen another one. But I can’t remember the name. So imagine a world where all of these virtual tabletops are put into some kind of battle royale scenario one comes out the victor. Which is it going to be?
Ash Ely 47:05
Tough, tough choice.
Patrick Backmann 47:08
In all of my match, I’m going to answer first, in all of my magical worlds, there’s magic, right. And I think that I think there’s gonna be a collision. And I think that collision is gonna reside somewhere between ARKane, and maybe like a roll 20 or Tail Spires mash up, that will pop out the other end as the victor. That’s if they have to battle and I have to choose only from that group.
Ash Ely 47:32
I think roll 20 is probably gonna at least be a finalist. If not the winner. It’s by far probably the and this is a bias of mine. So I couldn’t be wrong about this. But I think it’s by and large, the most used one. That being said, it does have a lot of issues with it. I do like some of the stuff that Foundry does, I haven’t gotten the chance to really deep dive into it. It’s hard to convince your party like a group of friends to switch simulators, everybody’s got their favorite. And it’s usually the first one that they play. That being said, like roll 20 has a lot of good integration with and partnership with Wizards of the Coast. And with you guys. And it just it makes it easy to sort of pop that stuff in. But the thing that people argue about with Foundry is that it supports a lot of third party stuff. So homebrew it’s really customizable. The dynamic lighting is more customizable, although I think rule 20 is getting better with the dynamic lighting. So that is that is good.
Who knew this will be such an important feature?
Andrew Searles 48:38
I won’t be able to answer this question. Mostly because I know most of those people, those things, so I can’t, I can’t hope to choose one or the other. But I will say that I do think that I’ll say this to the next person that thinks, hey, I could build VTT, because there are tons of them out there. I would say, Let’s maybe figure out a different problem to solve. Let’s maybe let those people like kind of solve that problem. And let’s try to find a different one. Because there are lots of other problems out there. You know, a VTT, I think, is this sort of shining MacGuffin that everybody’s trying to get to, but there are so many other things out there that are just as juicy. And just as big a problems that can make our game so much better out there. That’s what I would say.
Ash Ely 48:38
I know, right?
Perfect. So I think that leads perfectly into the question that I want to ask, as part of the Artificer’s Portal as well as in your role with D&D beyond. You kind of have a wide view, you see what’s happening out there. What do you think is coming next? What do you think is the next great feature that everybody’s going to be using in their virtual table that we’re gonna look at 10 years from now we’re gonna say, Well, of course, we’re gonna have, you know, a virtual tabletop with a grid. Of course, we’re gonna have AR support for the games that we play. What’s coming next?
4d virtual tabletops your desk chair shakes when someone casts earthquake.
Ash Ely 50:02
Full virtual reality tabletop.
What are the movie theaters that do that were like they missed you with like scents and stuff like this
Yes, 4d movie theaters Yeah. Please don’t actually make that.
Patrick Backmann 50:17
I don’t want D&D smell games. I’ve spent a lot of time at jolt and I don’t want to smell it.
Ash Ely 50:26
It’s funny that you should mention that because there’s actually a store here that me and my friends found. It has these candles that is specifically targeted at D&D players that has like these different scents that you like. So like, you they have one that’s like, dank dungeon smell, they have one that’s like that it’s really cool idea and actually, it does add something to the experience.
Okay, the DMS, lighting the tank touch and smell like something smells like dragons. Watch out!
Andrew Searles 50:57
It’s the new roll for initiative. It’s DMS, lighting the combat candle.
My wife brought one of those home from GaryCon this year. The scent is called brothel. And I know what does that smell like? It smells like passionfruit. Actually kind of nice. Okay, but you feel like there’s a play on words there.
Okay. I don’t think that’s right.
Ash Ely 51:22
You’re missing a few scents there.
Andrew Searles 51:27
What, what tool will rise above them all? Or? Or?
Like, what feature or capability? Or do you think is coming next? And I’ll even say, I feel like you’ve already given a fantastic answer in what you were offering earlier of like, I just want to be able to augment my face and voice like, I want to be like Benedictine Cumberbund on playing Smaug for my players.
Andrew Searles 51:49
Ash Ely 51:51
You didn’t even try to get that right did you Randall?
D4 Cucumber patch?
Here’s the deal. I’ve heard it both ways. Right. Right, like that idea of like offering that to your players. That’s awesome.
Andrew Searles 52:15
I do think that that is one not because it’s not because it’s cool, not because it’s super flashy. But because it starts to solve a problem. And that I think, is is what, you know, the what if I’m going to sit… Pat and I talked about this quite a bit. I believe the biggest problem in playing a role playing game, like if I think I’m gonna sit down. I’ve not played a role playing game before. And I have heard a lot about it. And I want to play. Getting to that euphoric moment in gameplay. And I know that because I’ve hit it a couple of times in my life, right. And it’s not every session, I will say that it’s not every session, it’s it’s there are certain sessions where you just like, This is what drives me to play RPGs again, and again and again. And to continue to get that high, right. The biggest problem, I think that lies in that vast, trying to get to that euphoric moment, is finding the right people to play with… the right people to play with. Because it’s such a hit or miss. It’s such a, a lot of people experienced that, trying to find a group that plays the way you want to play, that you know who they are, and you feel comfortable with them, that is willing to meet when you want to meet that can go as frequently as you want to want to play. There are so many things there for the people that get that it is a rare thing and cherish it, but for the people that don’t, man, that’s a problem worth solving. Right there.
Ash Ely 53:45
I think I think that is a good, that is a problem we’re solving, I think it is a hard problem to completely solve. Like, I know that roll 20 tries to solve this with like, you know, posts for groups. And the problem is, is that no algorithm or technology, at least not that we can conceive of right now is able to sort of take… expedite the process of feeling people out and seeing if you can make a connection. That just takes time and experience I think.
I feel like those folks from the match group doing, you know, Match.com that sort of thing. They probably can take a swing at this and do okay.
Patrick Backmann 54:21
Yeah, I totally believe that Match.com could put together a D&D thing and then probably get six or seven people that enjoy each other enough to do this. You know, one of there’s, there’s this one phrase that’s used, it’s pretty negative, but chasing the dragon. It’s associated with a much more nefarious world than Dungeons and Dragons. But boy it fits really good talking about what Andrew was talking about. That buzz of feeling good with your friends playing this game, having that laugh and that common framework memory. And then the next thing you do is you go and chase the dragon again, and you spend hours and hours and hours, weeks and weeks until you try to find it again, maybe with the same friend group. I think the tools that we’re going to see that will impact D&D, or RPGs, more than anything are going to be highly volatile communication tools, when the internet figures out how to do video chatting, where it really feels like my friends are here. And I can whisper with one because of location sound, it’s going to make a difference. I really think location sound is going to make a difference with really good video chatting and being able to see people’s faces because that’s why we do it.
Andrew Searles 55:40
So this will be my last one that I think will be for those entrepreneurs that are listening in. Here’s a hot tip. One thing that is true the day RPGs were founded till today, and that is content is king. Content is king. We’ve got a lot of VTTs out there, we’ve got a lot of digital tools. But without content, without the the meat of the game that helps us play that, without the the ideas and the rules and the extra packs and the new world. Without those things that spur our imagination, again, another tool that improves our imagination. Without those things, we don’t really have role playing games I, I believe that a tool that can take those adventures, those campaign settings, those worlds, and start making it more tangible to you. So you don’t have to read it in a book, you can just run with it are going to be the runaway success. So any one of those VTTs out there that is like trying to build those, those tools. When you start thinking about the user journey of… I buy a book, I find people to play this adventure with me. I started with my first session. And it has already got all the encounters ready for me to go. It’s got the sessions kind of lined up for me, it’s got pre canned text for me to be able to read through it. It’s got a map that I can easily dungeon crawl through, it’s got to now all this content is basically out of the box, that’s going to be a winning combination. Because then people are going to be like, I don’t need to buy a book. I just buy this content pack. And it just runs it itself. That’s that’s a winning combination.
All right. Well, Andrew, thank you so much for being with us today. How can folks find you?
Andrew Searles 57:37
Yeah, well, you can find the Artificer’s Portal on Twitter @TheArtificerPortal. But Pat and I are trying not to create a lot of work for ourselves. So it’s probably best to just follow me @ACSearles on Twitter, because I just put all my stuff there. And I don’t worry about Artificer Portal too much. My wife just told me to get the thing so nobody else would. So it’s a it’s a it’s a dead Twitter. But yeah, that’s where you can find that we post new shows there every other Friday.
Awesome. And we will have links in the show notes to all this. So if you’re wanting to find it, go look at the show notes, you’ll be able to find it directly. Pat, thanks for being with us.
Patrick Backmann 58:14
You go to @ACSearles on Twitter, somewhere inside that.
Perfect. Alright, if you’ve enjoyed the show, please rate and review us on Apple podcasts and rate us on Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. It’s a quick free way to support the podcast and helps us to reach new listeners. You can find links in the show notes. You’ll find affiliate links for source books and other materials linked in the show notes as well as on RPGBOT.net. Following these links helps us to make the show happen every week. So we were talking about Excel earlier. And like all you know, oh, they built a character generator out of it. So in my high school astrophysics class, we had a woman in the class who built a model for estimating the period of a variable star with macros in Excel because we had to do a programming assignment and out of stubbornness was like no, I’m doing it in Excel. And it was great. Like it worked as well as like my C program did. And I’m like that’s a really cool story. I might tell it and then I remembered, yeah, how it ended. She wound up marrying the teacher after high school. So…
Andrew Searles 59:20
Oh, yeah. That’s a really good choice.