Tabletop Simulator

The biggest issue with board gaming has always been finding other players. Even when you do track down some potential opponents, pinning them to an agreed time and place can still be tricky. 

As a result, there have been services to co-ordinate online play since the earliest days of the internet. Nowadays they’ve proliferated and become much more polished and usable. If there’s a game you want to play, you’re almost certain to find some software that lets you, often free or for a pittance. 

Here are five of our favourites.

Tabletop Simulator

Tabletop Simulator 

Best for: Real-time games on the internet

Speed: Real-time only

Rules: Not enforced

Top Titles: Star Wars Destiny, Cosmic Encounter

This looks more like a physics engine than a board game client. Your view shows a game table, and you use the mouse to manipulate game components, draw cards, roll dice. It feels odd at first, but it's a stroke of genius. It allows the client to simulate pretty much any tabletop game. Throw in text and voice chat, a busy community and a dazzling cascade of fan-made modules and you've got the world's current favourite game client. It's even got VR support.

You pay upfront for the software then, in theory, you pay for premium game modules, of which there are currently 34 on Steam. In practice there are a huge number of homemade ones in the Steam Workshop. Many are a bit rough and ready, but they work well enough. You’ll need your own copy of the rules, though. 

Of course, while it's useful for trying out a new game you might be interested in picking up, using a free module means the original game creator isn't getting paid. 



Best for: Hotseat play around one screen

Speed: Real-time only

Rules: Not enforced

Top Titles: Santorini, Race to the Rhine

Following in the footsteps of TTS, this is another physics-based platform with a smaller library and a bit more polish than its competitor. It's free to download, and gives you access to a limited library of solid titles. If you want the full range to play, you'll have to stump up on a subscription-based model.

Almost everything that's good or bad about Tabletopia runs off that subscription model. On the plus side, the interface on most games is slick and professional. And, of course, paying a subscription means game creators get paid. On the downside, subscribers are scarce, so finding opponents for premium-only games can take a long time.

It is, however, great for hotseat play where all the players sit round the same screen. Not least because you can play a lot of otherwise premium titles this way. That's not a great way to play games with hidden information. But for everything else, Tabletopia offers a pleasing and accessible package.



Best for: Dedicated gamers who want a lot of options

Speed: Real-time and play by email

Rules: Not enforced

Top Titles: Mage Knight, X-Wing

Want access to a colossal library of tabletop games, many of which aren't available on any other digital platform? You can get it through Vassal, but you'll need to put in some work. It's Java-based, for starters, so you'll find the Vassal installer adds that you your PC if it's not already there. You'll have to download and configure the modules you want to play. It's all a bit of a faff, frankly, but it's worth it in the end.

What Vassal costs in effort it makes up for in flexibility. Its library of games is huge. They're all free, but you're asked to only download and use ones for games you own. You can play live, although there's no real lobby system, so it’s wiser to arrange games with friends or on forums. But you can also play games by email, sending log files back and forth.

Vassal's original purpose was to facilitate the play of monster wargames. The sort of things that have hundreds of counters and play-hours. There's still plenty of them among its modules library. Nowadays, however, users have created modules for all sorts of games. Plus, wargames themselves have become far more accessible. Try something like Commands & Colors: you might be pleasantly surprised.

Board Game Arena

Board Game Arena

Best for: Slow burning strategy by email

Speed: Real-time and asynchronous

Rules:  Enforced

Top Titles: Through the Ages, Hanabi

If you wander into BGA's website, you'll find it a barebones affair. Register and start playing, though, and you'll discover a service full of impressive features and boasting a big list of games. According to the site's creator, he has licences to offer all of them online. The majority are free, although there's a premium subscription service to unlock a few more and support the site. 

There are a lot of websites that let you play games online, but BGA is unusual in offering real-time play alongside asynchronous games. Action unfolds as you watch in your browser, and icons keep everyone informed of each other’s status. You choose which mode you want before selecting or starting a game.

The site even enforces the rules of the game you're playing, although the quality of the interface varies a lot. It can be hard to work out what's going on in some of the more complex games. As you might imagine for a free service that works in your browser, BGA has a solid user base, making it easy to find opponents.



Best for: Long term players who like ranks and stats

Speed: Asynchronous only

Rules:  Enforced

Top Titles: A Few Acres of Snow, Jaipur

There are plenty of places to play asynchronous board games. What distinguishes this German site is the range of games and features on offer. There are over 100 titles to play, a ranking system, and a replay feature you can use to study strategies. Chrome users even have a browser plugin available to track their games.

Playing games by email can take a long time: potentially months depending on the speed of your opponents. On the plus side, it does give you plenty of time to think about your moves. And there are some gems among the games on offer, including out-of-print and hard-to-find titles unavailable elsewhere.

Yucata started out purely as a hobby project. It’s still free to use and free of adverts, and is supported entirely through player donations.

Honourable mentions 

While those five are the top picks for online play, there are plenty of other competitors to consider. The best known is probably BrettSpielWelt, a German community that offers free real-time play via its Java client. It's old, though, and it shows. And it can be hard for English speakers to get to grips with the interface and to communicate in game.

Another venerable program is Cyberboard, which lets you record log files for play by email games. It's free and doesn't need any third-party software. But its user base and range of available modules is small. ZunTzu and newcomer BattleGrounds Games clients are also worth checking out.

Other websites worth checking out for browser play includes SpielByWeb, Boite a Jeux and For Whom The Web Rocks. ACTS is a limited-feature site that tracks card decks and dice rolls for multi-player games. 

Finally, some publishers make their own online versions. Days of Wonder lets you play some of its games via browser. And many games have dedicated PC versions, too. 

Tabletop Simulator

The granddaddy of all space-empire sims, Twilight Imperium retails for over $100 and is delivered to your house in a cardboard coffin. It is huge, meticulous, stocked to the gills with itty bitty rules, and it takes a solid eight hours to finish a single game. Twilight Imperium sessions begin when you invite your friends over for breakfast, and end when you've ordered pizza for the second time. Nothing in the tabletop games industry is more unreasonable, and nothing is more fun. If you think board games are boring, you've never watched in horror as a former mate gleefully goes back on their word then conquers and colonizes your home planet. This happens in hour number six, and you react by swearing vengeance til the day you die.

Shattered Ascension was originally a set of house rules invented by a Twilight Imperium fan named PsiComa. He loved the game, but identified some nagging imbalances in the design, and started work on a remix. Soon enough, PsiComa's pet project emerged as a full-time hobby: he Photoshopped new cards, theorycrafted new mechanics, and dreamed up a brand new rulebook. His variant (originally called Ascendency) proved popular, and he found a small contingency of adherents who were similarly disillusioned with the base game. Together they continued to work out the kinks of PsiComa's design, and by 2011 they had a fully working module.

The problem with Shattered Ascension is that it was difficult to play. Sure, it used a ton of the components packed in with the Twilight Imperium box, but as a homebrew variant you also had to print out reams of PsiComa's updated components on cardstock. Tabletop Simulator was a godsend. The moddable board game physics sandbox meant that the Shattered Ascension playset could be available to anyone with a PC.

"How cool would it to be play the game seamlessly with friends, and perhaps more importantly with the online community that had discussed and theorycrafted the game for so many years?" PsiComa says over Discord. "How cool would it be to have a definitive, fully updated digital version anybody could play, without spending dozens of hours cutting and gluing new replacement Shattered Ascension components?"

Shattered Ascension has its own unique look to go with its updated rules, which PsioComa believes distinguishes his product as its own unique entity.

PsiComa and the rest of the Shattered Ascension community had to import literally hundreds of assets into the Tabletop Simulator infrastructure. Some of that was fairly straightforward—he already had high-quality jpegs of the custom cards, which scanned into the game with ease—but the other stuff, like the plastic miniature ships, required a defter touch. That didn't matter, because PsiComa was dedicated. He learned the 3D modeling application Blender, and spent endless weekends prototyping his spaceships. The results were beautiful. He managed to render a suite of miniatures that were even crisper than what you find in the physical game. 

PsiComa ran into a similar issue with the planetary tiles that make up the Twilight Imperium board. Originally, he planned on importing them with a high-quality scanner, but he couldn't quite get it to work without annoying pixel interference patterns. So PsiComa resolved to build his own tiles from scratch. Decisions like that are what he thrives on: rather than recreating the art from the base game faithfully, he took inspiration from the flavor text associated with each of the planets and created in his own take on the existing fiction.

"I wanted to make each of the planets unique and distinct, with enough details to capture the concept described on each planet card," says PsiComa. "The redux tile project felt like a task with no end to it—working night after night making a few more tiles, and looking back at it now, I can hardly believe I managed to find the time and energy to pull it off."

This also helps with any potential questions of copyright infringement. Shattered Ascension has its own unique look to go with its updated rules, which PsiComa believes distinguishes his product as its own unique entity. 

Shattered Ascension will always be PsiComa's baby, but there have been plenty of quality-of-life improvements thanks to the community at large. One of the programmers, who calls himself Cyrusa, tells me that the project comes equipped with 1,100 lines of custom code, including DNA for automatic dice rollers, pre-set map generators, and a specialized script that cuts through Twilight Imperium's set-up phase with ease. 

"The hardest part about developing the scripts, besides the technical aspects, is that due to the way it is designed, Tabletop Simulator itself knows essentially nothing about what happens from the point of view of the game," he explains. "For example, it knows that object number 123456 was moved to position one, two, or three, while what really happened is that the Sol player activated his Home System. This makes it challenging to design scripts to assist the players."

Any worthwhile aspect of fourth edition will be considered and potentially incorporated into Shattered Ascension in some way, shape or form


One of the key perks to playing Shattered Ascension on a PC is the fact that you don't have to dedicate an entire day to playing a single game. Tabletop Simulator allows players to effectively freeze their board states in carbonite, which means you and a group of friends could play for two hours a night over the course of a month without being forced to leave the game unpacked on some kitchen table. 

Honestly, even the most dedicated Twilight Imperium fans usually only get in one or two plays a year, because it's difficult to conquer a galaxy while remaining gainfully employed. That's different now. The Shattered Ascension Discord is home to multiple sessions every week, with newcomers stopping by all the time. In 2018, you can play the world's heaviest board game casually, and that's a genuine revolution for this hobby.

You can learn more about Twilight Imperium by watching SU&SD's great documentary on it.

"This mod has definitely given legs to the community by attracting newcomers to the scene and allowing members to play the game with old and new contenders with no hassle to it." says PsiComa. "It made the game easy and accessible. Because of this it has indeed made the Twilight Imperium scene flourish, and we hope for it to become even bigger in time."  

Last year, Fantasy Flight released the fourth edition of Twilight Imperium, which introduced some smart refinements to their 20-year-old design. PsiComa tells me that right now, the community doesn't have any plans to adapt the company's new concepts to Tabletop Simulator, though he won't rule it out. "Any worthwhile aspect of fourth edition will be considered and potentially incorporated into Shattered Ascension in some way, shape or form," he says.

After all, the work is never finished. Shattered Ascension was amorphous and modular back in 2007 when it was a series of verbose PDFs on a lonely homespun website, and as a mod it's evolving faster than ever thanks to the steady pulse of the Discord channel. The obsession necessary to get knee-deep in a homemade rule-set for a classic board game is being rewarded by technology, and the creation of a cult of print 'n play fanatics has found a second life.

Tabletop Simulator

Unlike movies so bad they’re good such as The Room or Trolls 2, you have to interact with a bad game. We can look away from Tommy Wiseau's bare ass or a particularly corny sex scene and the movies keeps trucking along, ready for us when we are. A bad game laughs at you while you struggle with its controls or wade through slow, tedious design. You have to push it along and bear the full weight of its flaws, rarely leaving enough energy left to laugh back. But a few games manage to stay just playable enough, or revel in their badness so much, that they’re still possible to appreciate. 

If you’re the type that can see beyond hideous graphics or nonsensical dialogue and still find something to love in a messy game, then we have a few suggestions for your playlist. 

Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair 

EDF thrives on badness. This dead simple game is about blowing up as many alien bugs as you can with comically overpowered weapons, and it's full-tilt ridiculous at all times. But the great part is that its story pretends to take itself seriously, with melodramatic voiceover and dialogue playing out over every mission while you blast giant ants with a rocket launcher. Ugly, simplistic graphics are its most noticeable quality, but those graphics allow EDF to pack hundreds of enemies on screen. That scale is pivotal to how fun and frantic the sandbox combat ends up being.

The bad English VO is really what does it for me, though. It's either delightfully cliche or brilliantly self-aware, but either way, I love love love the clunky voice command system that lets players sing, line-by-line, the EDF anthem. What a game. —Wes Fenlon

Layers of Fear 

Some people will tell you Layers of Fear is a horror masterpiece. I’d guess those people don’t watch much horror. If you don’t know, it’s a first person haunted house game where you play as a tortured artist slowly losing their mind. If anything, I’m less scared of having a psychological breakdown now because I know what to expect: animated baby dolls, hallways that change when you look away, and plenty of messages left on the wall in something that looks like blood. But through its parade of horror cliches, Layers of Fear transcends. 

Once you realize everything can be predicted and that the scares are lined up one after another, each subsequent attempt comes closer to feeling like you’re watching a hooded teen showing you the scary magic they learned online. You’ve seen these tricks hundreds of times over, but the earnesty and enthusiasm with which they’re thrown at you is endearing enough to hang around. Sometimes it will be hard not to laugh (especially when one of the baby dolls sprints down the hall and bonks their head on a dresser), but don’t feel bad. It’s effective horror, just not in the way it was meant to be. —James Davenport

Deadly Premonition 

I’ll start by saying I don’t think Deadly Premonition is bad by any measure, but I’m in the minority. Many are resistant to its sparse, janky-looking PS2-era open world, not to mention the stiffness of its characters. But I love these things: they contribute to the uncanny, edge-of-reality atmosphere this game is so adept at conveying. The sleepy town of Greenvale, Washington is as dream-like and unreliable as its bumbling, goofy characters, and the way protagonist York brushes through these oddities with the calm, authoritative smarts of Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper (a very obvious inspiration) is hilarious but also, offputting. 

Everything is offputting about Deadly Premonition: the weird repetition of its enemies’ groans, the way they’re too high in the audio mix, make this game feel like outsider art more than a piece of designed mass market entertainment. It’s the closest a game has come to capturing the mood of, yes, Twin Peaks, but also a Franz Kafka novel. It’s a masterpiece the way it is, should never ever be fixed, and if you advocate for the latter then please stay away from this very bad but also perfect video game.  —Shaun Prescott

Tabletop Simulator  

Try hopping into an open D&D server in Tabletop Simulator. It's hilarious, and you will definitely never play D&D. First, the DM will struggle to help everyone manage the custom, editable character sheets. How do you edit your class field? Click on it, which pops a Go piece into existence, then right click on the piece and edit its description in a tiny field that you can't see if you clicked it too near the bottom of the screen. Do that for all the fields. Now find your feature and spell cards in a stack that takes ages to load, but as you're doing that, accidentally drop your character sheet into one of 10 nearby bags and boxes. As the host looks for your sheet, watch their ping skyrocket as they get DDOSed and everyone disconnects. It's D&D, baby!

But Tabletop Simulator is great. For all its many flaws, get a group of friends into a room and you really can play D&D (I doubt it'd be fun to play with strangers anyway). Or you can play any other tabletop game you can think of, so long as you take the effort to make the custom boards, cards, or pieces you need. It's one of the best multiplayer 'sandbox' games on Steam, and it's infinitely customizable. Just be prepared for when someone picks up an unlocked bowl full of dice and it decides to eject all of them like popcorn for some reason.  —Tyler Wilde

Amazing Frog?

Amazing Frog knows what kind of game it’s trying to be—some wacky, unpredictable physics playground for ragdoll frog puppets—but the menus and interactions are so difficult to decrypt that it even fails to be a goofy toy in the way of Goat Simulator. But Amazing Frog somehow works despite itself. Play long enough and you'll eventually get lost in the menus or layers deep into the exploration of its many massive landscapes. Soon, it starts to feel like you’re playing one of the games you see depicted on shitty criminal investigation series. 

Amazing Frog is a videogame that looks and plays like the perfect psychic replica of what my dad things videogames might look and play like. It’s a squeaky toy that weighs 1000 pounds and actively hates you. It’s a jungle gym designed only to be observed. It's an lucid dream at the supermarket. It’s pretty bad, and I like it.  —James Davenport 

Goat Simulator 

Goat Simulator's viral popularity ruined it for a lot of people—it got a reputation as just another dumb game for loud men to be loud at on YouTube. And it is a dumb game, but it's a profoundly, wonderfully dumb game. It takes the part of open-world games people actually like—mindless destruction—and makes that the whole thing. No characters, no cutscenes, no driving to the place where the mission intro happens so you can drive from there to the place where the mission actually starts. Goat Simulator is Grand Theft Auto minus the time-wasting guff. Let's go one better: Goat Simulator is Grand Theft Auto, only with a likeable protagonist.

The thing that made Goat Simulator go viral, the performative aspect of it, is significant too. You don't have to be a streamer to realize it's fun to watch. Get a friend who hasn't played it, sit them down with Goat Simulator, and you'll be laughing together in no time. It's a bit sad that simple pleasure is alien to good games and instead has to come to us via this deliberately bad one made as a joke.  —Jody Macgregor

Resident Evil 6 

I should arguably save this one for a 'games that are so bad they're actually bad' list, but I do have genuine affection for Resident Evil 6. Of its four bloated campaigns, about one-and-a-half are good, and the rest is punctuated by noisy action that doesn't always see the series at its best—the Chris campaign is a particular low point. With some careful editing, Capcom could've had a more refined, balanced action/horror game that cut between the different characters and only kept the best set pieces.

Indeed, the controls in Resident Evil 6 allow for a lot more self-expression and mastery for the player than any previous games. You can slide around, crawl on your back, use deadly melee moves (while keeping a stamina meter in check), perform quick counter shots. It's bad, but it's also good, then. If you've got it in your Steam library, consider giving it a second chance and checking out the Mercenaries mode.  —Samuel Roberts


Most people don’t even know Ricochet, Valve’s failed multiplayer experiment, exists. A first person disc-thrower set on a series of platforms suspended in an infinite void, Ricochet looks like baby’s first Quake, but with colored jumpsuits and much less variation. At the edge of each platform are a few arrows that shunt you to the next one, or pinball you up to the second level. There’s little room to maneuver on each, which means to take your opponents out you either need to knock them out of the air or ping them off their platform with a disc or two. 

But because Ricochet is so simple, nearly anyone can jump in and start affecting the match. The small play space almost ensures chaos, which is always amusing to watch. Layered over with some lo-fi sound work (and the best death cry in any game ever, maybe), Ricochet may not be much fun to play as a purely competitive FPS, but it sure is entertaining to be a part of, like a loose bolt among a dozen others in a cheap pinball machine.  —James Davenport 

Tabletop Simulator

D&D and other tabletop games are best played sprawled across a dining room table, but I wondered how close we could get to that in-person roleplaying experience without spending 10 grand flying PC Gamer's remote staff to my house. I didn't want to just find the most efficient way to play D&D online (see our guide to services like and Fantasy Grounds for that), but to really emulate a tabletop session. So I gathered a few PC Gamer editors from around the US, Canada, and Australia for a little experiment: D&D 5e in Tabletop Simulator. And it worked! Surprisingly well, even. 

Tabletop Simulator is just what it sounds like, a virtual table where game boards, playing cards, dice, figurines, and other objects can be picked up, dealt, rolled, and chucked around. There are built-in rulesets for common games, but everything down to the lighting and individual object physics can be customized. It's powerful—and frustratingly janky, which is why I worried the whole thing might be a bust. If you instinctively hit Ctrl-Z to undo a line you drew, for example, the whole table reloads, and dropping items near boxes sucks them in nearly instantaneously, making all containers dangerous black holes. My players also had atrocious pings, especially our poor indie editor, Jody, who was connecting to me from Australia.

Players will never have to go searching for a D12, because you can copy and paste 50 of them into a pile if you want.

Yet despite a couple disconnects, the session went at about the pace of any in-person D&D session I've played. Tabletop Simulator has some advantages over a real table, too. Players will never have to go searching for a D12, because you can copy and paste 50 of them into a pile if you want. You can quickly upload prepared battle maps, and cover the table with character sheets, DM cheat sheets (which can be hidden from players), and even 'tablets' open to Google Docs or D&D Beyond if you need to look up a spell or monster stats or pass notes to the players.

Above: I quickly made this battle map with Dungeon Painter Studio and Photoshop, along with Tabletop Simulator's hex grid overlay.

Our biggest issue didn't have much to do with Tabletop Simulator itself: it was getting over the awkwardness of roleplaying over voice chat. As our heroes began their journey—each of them out of gold, stranded on a dirt road near a remote inn with a storm approaching—they hesitated to speak first to introduce themselves and make a plan. I quickly moved on to a few perception checks followed by a surprise attack to get everyone rolling and making decisions, and after that, the party met a mysterious dwarf and started to loosen up. If we'd gone for a couple more hours, I think the issue may have resolved itself.

Much of the fault for our hesitant start rests on my inexperience as a DM, but the weirdness of the players being disembodied didn't help. In a typical D&D session, they'd be able to make eye contact with the DM before asking questions, or with each other to indicate they're about to speak. We also jumped right into the game without the socializing and feet dragging that typically precedes an in-person game. Next time, I may mix in video chat—it doesn't totally solve the problem, but could help—and make time for chit-chat as I set up the table, so that the players can discuss their characters and get into the right mindset. And rather than the cold open I attempted, I'd have them metagame a little and introduce their characters to each other as players, so that they can more comfortably assume their roles.

Above: While it looks mostly illegible from here, you can zoom in super close to imported images to read them.

The pros and cons of using Tabletop Simulator is the cheaper, more practical solution for remote D&D. is the cheaper, more practical solution for remote D&D: a clean mapping interface, easy access to official reference material, built-in video chat, and quick dice rolls. More serious players will probably prefer it, and Tabletop Simulator leaves much to be desired despite its frequent patches. Though the Steam Workshop provides a bounty, I'm surprised by how few high-quality fantasy figurines, backgrounds, and table styles are included by default. Clicking links in the tablets sometimes stops working, and the browser is just about featureless: no tabs, no history, no bookmarks. It's also terrible at handling editable text.

So why use Tabletop Simulator? Primarily, to approximate the feeling of being around a real table, with all the goofing off that goes with it: players ignoring the DM and stacking dice, flicking downed monsters off the table, arguing about whether a dice roll was really a roll. And secondarily, because you love spending hours creatively setting up your play space, which I do.

Above: I made this board using the Divinity: Original Sin 2 mod tools. Because you can't quite get a perfect topdown view, it didn't really work, but it was a fun experiment.

The best thing about Tabletop Simulator is that only the host has to have any Workshop or custom assets used in the game—it's all uploaded to the Steam Cloud and shared with the other players. At the moment, I'm building a multi-layered battle map using hovering boards and a 3D ladder model I imported, and recently, I had some players take on a trio of half-orcs in a game of 'harky,' making them roll d20s to pass and shoot a 'puck' I made by resizing a checkers piece. I'm arguably making it harder for myself by using 3D models and not just a digital pencil, a 2D grid, and a bit of imagination, but the 'physical' space of Tabletop Simulator has only encouraged my creativity, not hampered it. I'm not always going to use maps, but they're useful for keeping track of my more complicated ideas.

As part of the experiment, I also wanted to have as much of my reference material as possible in the game (you can't alt-tab out of a dining room table, and that was the experience I was trying to replicate). So rather than having a physical DM screen cheat sheet awkwardly balanced behind my monitor, or the Monster Manual open in my lap, I put everything I thought I'd need into my Tabletop Simulator setup, including a tablet open to my campaign notes. If you use high-res PNGs as the custom art on in-game 'tiles,' and hold Alt to view them as flat images, or zoom way in, they're perfectly legible. I recently bought the D&D 5e Humble RPG Book Bundle, for instance, created PNGs out of four pages pages of the Kobold Press Book of Lairs, and then created custom tiles in Tabletop Simulator for myself to reference.

Above: Be sure to grab the mod that's just a framed photo of Nicolas Cage.

It worked just fine, though I wouldn't do it exactly the same way again, as it's much easier to just have a browser window open with my notes. A second monitor (or lots of notes on real paper) is definitely the best friend a Tabletop Simulator DM can have, as running it in a small window or alt-tabbing constantly starts to defeat the purpose, barely differentiating it from easier-to-use browser-based solutions. 

If the simpler route sounds more appealing to you, do try out, as accounts there are free, while Tabletop Simulator is $20 on Steam. But if you've made your decision and you've got a DM and some willing but geographically-restricted players, below is a quick guide to getting started playing remote D&D in Tabletop Simulator, as well as links to some of the tools I've used.

Starting a game of D&D 5e in Tabletop Simulator 

1. Have your players make characters with D&D Beyond's step-by-step character creator. If they don't own the digital Player's Handbook, their options will be restricted as they level up, but it's a good way for newcomers to get started. If they're experienced, they can make their characters manually and send you the details.

2. Both the DM and the players will need to reference the character sheets while playing, and there's lots of ways to make this possible. You can upload a PDF of the sheet to Google Drive, share it publicly for anyone with the link, and then open it in an in-game tablet. You can convert the PDFs to PNGs and create custom 'tiles,' then use Tabletop Simulator's counter tools to keep track of gold pieces, HP, and spell slots. You can transfer the information to these editable character sheets from the Steam Workshop. Or you can just print them out, or open them in another window or monitor.

3. Customize your board in a singleplayer session, making sure to check the option to upload any custom images to the Steam Cloud so that all players will see them (unless they're only for you, the DM). I recommend trying out some the pre-made D&D 5e tables from the Steam Workshop and starting there (I used ffrogman's), as the default tables are too small, and many mods already have a hidden DM area set up with tools like a calculator, dice trays, initiative tracker, and note cards. Note that if you click the vertical '...' in the upper right corner of a Workshop mod, you can 'Expand' it to pull the elements you want into your game rather than loading the whole thing.

4. Save your custom table as a 'game' and load it up when you start your multiplayer session. Make sure to password protect your server, as there's apparently been a wave of DDOSing going around. (On that note, I don't recommend trying to play D&D with strangers in a public server. I tried and it went very poorly.) Be sure to save the board state when you're done, so that everything is preserved for the next session. Make lots of backups and save often while you work, too—it is painfully easy to accidentally load a mod instead of expanding it, losing whatever progress you made.

5. Tips for starting your session:

  • Give your players a little time to just hang out and chat. It can take a minute to get into the right mindset.
  • Consider letting your players introduce their characters out-of-character. It may help break the ice—which is a little harder to break when disembodied—if they're allowed to set expectations about who they're roleplaying as.
  • Set clear rules about what constitutes a dice roll (chucking it on the table, right-clicking and selecting 'roll,' placing it in a dice tower). I have players call their roll before they do it, because otherwise I might interpret a die being dropped on the table as a roll.
  • If you're using figurines, name your players' figures (either their name, or the name of their character). Otherwise you'll all have to constantly zoom in to figure out who's who.

Above: If your players can flip the table, they'll flip the table.

Useful tools

Dungeon Painter: Not the best interface, but useful for quickly designing maps that you can export as PNGs and import into Tabletop Simulator. I used the Steam version, plus Photoshop, to make some of my maps.

Inkarnate: A fantastic, free way to quickly create a world map—just sign up for the beta. I imported my world map onto a tile, locked it, and then used the Gizmo tool to prop it up in a corner. Drop a token labled 'You Are Here' on it if you want.

Donjon's fantasy generators: Part of being a DM is thinking on your feet, but when your players really catch you off guard, a little creative assistance can be needed. Donjon offers a great selection of random fantasy and D&D generators. I'll probably get a lot of use out of its random inn generator especially.

RPG Tinker's NPC generator: Need to quickly create an NPC for your players to meet, or generate stats for one you didn't think they were going to fight? RPG Tinker can instantly generate stats and attack abilities for an opponent or ally of any challenge rating.

PC Gamer

When people learn I didn't play a proper pen-and-paper game of Dungeons & Dragons until my mid-20s, they usually think my rural Texas upbringing had something to do with it—that my parents feared calling myself Crunchytacos the Horseback Wizard for a few hours at a time might lead to the damnation of my immortal soul. There was a (tiny) bit of that, sure, but the truth is I simply never managed to find anyone else who could imagine high adventure in masses of calculated sums on scratch paper.

How I wish I d had something then like Fantasy Grounds, Roll20, or any one of a number of the "virtual tables" now available that simulate the classic D&D tabletop environment on the PC. The best ones handle much of D&D's busywork, leaving the fun stuff like embarking on fully custom adventures with friends as strong as ever. Better yet, their Internet connectivity means no longer having to hunt down enough people to play with, or losing great D&D friends to distance and circumstance.

Recently, instead of trying to find D&D friends on Craigslist in a part of the US where more people know about bovine palpation than rolling for initiative, I went on a quest to find the best PC tools for running or improving a D&D campaign. Here s what I discovered.

Fantasy Grounds

What it's best at: Authentic D&D campaigns with licensed modules; extensive customization, if you develop the programming skills necessary to write your own rulesets and character sheets.Website: Fantasy Grounds | Price: $40 per license, or $150 for an Ultimate license that can run the game for multiple players.

Fantasy Grounds comes highly recommended among D&D players—including Jordan Thomas, the creative director for BioShock 2 and senior writer for Bioshock Infinite. Several times a month, he uses it to play D&D with other professional writers who've worked on games like Halo and Borderlands.

He especially admires it because it offers official D&D modules from Wizards of the Coast. The robust virtual tabletop snagged the license back in 2014, and since then the developers have embraced the concept as giddily as a gelatinous cube sweeps up tunnels. It's all right here, down to automatic calculations for resists from the 5th edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and even licensed modules for other RPGs like Call of Cthulhu and Castles & Crusades. And the best part? As Thomas says, "All I really have to do is plug them in."

The game files are stored on your computer, so you don't have to worry about fiddly things like server crashes and online storage space for tokens. It's also available on Steam, and while it doesn't offer any kind of in-game Looking for Group tool, Fantasy Grounds' forums buzz with helpful Dungeon Masters advertising games familiar and obscure. It's a shame there's no built-in webcam support, but most groups do fine using a third-party service like Skype or, in Thomas' case, GoToMeeting.

Fantasy Grounds offers official D&D modules from Wizards of the Coast.

Yet if you plan on playing Dungeon Master and taking advantage of Fantasy Grounds' huge range of options, dig in your heels and brace yourself for a decent learning curve. Sure, it allows you to make house rules and character sheets, but only if you know programming like Steph Curry knows basketball. Even as a player, I found it still took hours to feel my way around. Fortunately, Fantasy Grounds boasts a ton of video tutorials in its wiki.

The catch? It costs a dragon's hoard. The single license costs $40, but you'll end up paying $120 if you want to buy four more licenses for other friends to play with you. The price goes up further when you tack on the D&D modules themselves, which start at $20 for some campaigns and jump to $50 each for class and monster packs.

It's not as bad as it sounds in practice, as much of this works out to similar costs as the printed materials from Wizards of the Coast. In fact, many serious DMs are like Thomas, who opted the $149 Ultimate License (also available monthly for $9.99), which lets any and all invited players join the fun, even if they've only downloaded the free demo client.


What it's best at: Can run virtual campaigns or augment pen-and-paper ones. A dynamic lighting system tracks player vision and integrated video/voice chat simplifies online play.Website: Roll20 | Price: Free, or $5 per month for a premium account that supports up to 1GB of uploadable assets for customization.

If all that talk of money frightens you, take heart: Roll20 is free and fun. It may not have official Dungeons & Dragons modules, but it does have user-made D&D projects as well as native support for webcams, freehand drawing, Google Hangouts, and a "3D Quantum Roll" that (get this) grants true randomness "based on the power fluctuations of a split beam of light." It boasts a "jukebox" that lets you yank music and ambient sounds from SoundCloud's full library (although it won't let you upload your own music), and it allows a dizzying range of customization for maps, tokens, and more. Its menus are a bit drab, but they're intuitive almost to the point of genius, and the package is especially celebrated for its fantastic line-of-sight dynamic lighting system.

Its menus are a bit drab, but intuitive almost to the point of genius.

Small wonder that over a million players reportedly use Roll20 regularly. The forums are full of helpful players happily answering even the most noobie questions, and it has a built-in tool that easily lets players find open games of their choosing. Importing is a breeze.

That's a pretty big list of pluses, but Roll20 isn't without a few drawbacks. For one, it's browser based, which means your gameplay's subject to the vagaries of the server. It may cost nothing up front, but the free version restricts you to 100 MB for uploadable assets; to get 1GB, you'll need to fork over $4.99 a month or $49 per year. You also can't use the dynamic lighting functions unless you pay the sub, although you'll still have a fog of war option if you choose not to pay.

But these are hardly deal killers. And if you're relatively new to D&D and want a friendly place to hop in, Roll20's probably the best place to do it outside of a dining room table with friends.

Tabletop Simulator

What it's best at: Fully simulating the tabletop experience, including the table. Extensive mod support allows for playing a variety of games, from D&D to chess.Website: Tabletop Simulator | Price: $20

Tabletop Simulator let me play a brief session of D&D in Skyrim's Jorrvaskr longhall with a Steam Workshop mod, and I'm tempted to call it the best based on that experience alone. It's certainly the most literal of the virtual tables: upon booting it up after forking out $20, I found myself standing around what looked like a real, physical (if slightly pixelated) table. When I found I could scoop up the dice and throw them across a huge range of customizable 3D boards with satisfying tumbles, I briefly ceased to care about how little it offered in the way of automation.

It doesn't hurt that the whole business is beautifully moddable, allowing the creation of room-sized tables complete with rulesets lining the board. When I tried to import a map I'd sketched out on paper and uploaded to Imgur, I found I only needed to link the file's URL in a little menu for it to show up on the playing surface.

Too bad that these pretty boards and their huge files and multiple pieces sometimes hobble the pace on weaker machines. Tabletop Simulator just isn't that friendly to pen-and-paper RPGs in general, in fact, as much of the work still has to take place on actual paper. It's got cool animated figures like trolls and goblins in its RPG set, but preparing the areas take a load of time and creating effects like a fog of war require an extra bit of GM interaction. It's definitely a looker, but probably best used for D&D as a dice roller at best.

It does offer one huge advantage, though: if you're sick of how a session is going, you can flip the table and send the pieces flying into the virtual wind.


What it's best at: Extensively customizable, but you'll need real programming knowledge to get much out of it. Also, free.Website: MapTool | Price: Free

It only takes one second to understand why the free Java-based MapTool calls itself "the Millennium Falcon" of RPG software. I mean, God, look at it. It's like a relic from the days when Geocities was bigger than Kanye West, and it sometimes plays like it, too.

Though it's improved in recent years, it's still subject to a frightful number of disconnects and Java issues, which can leave players throwing up their hands and refusing to play until everyone switches over to Roll20.

But yes, it'll get you where you want to go. Just don't expect record-breaking Kessel Runs. It's powerful, offering both dynamic lightning and automatic calculations as well as a pile of other features, but if you want to use it for anything more intensive than a virtual map, you're going to have to know how to code and spend a lot of time doing it.

The good news is that its strong open-source community has already handled most of the tough stuff (and provided links for it), but it's still comparatively rough territory for novice DMs. There's also a new app based on MapTool's open-source code called Mote, and while it offers many some improvements, it's still very much a work in progress

Quest on

Keep in mind that all this says little about the wealth of tutorials sprawling across YouTube and on the official forums for each service, and it excludes a host of lesser known virtual tables like d20Pro, OpenRPG, the Gametable Project, and Battlegrounds: RPG Edition, all of which have their own unique appeal.

None of these fully supplant the magic of playing with a classic table group, not even AltspaceVR, which brings virtual tabletops to virtual reality. But they solve problems that were unsolvable just 20 years ago, and they ease the journey in for newcomers. Happy hunting.

PC Gamer

Gwent is a collectible card game playable within The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The odds are good that you've heard of it; it's enormously popular as these things go, and in fact a couple of Witcher 3 developers released a brief Gwent tutorial video earlier this week. At the end of that post, I suggested that it would be awfully nice if CD Projekt released a standalone version of Gwent, so we could keep on Gwenting after the Witchering was over. And it hasn't—but someone else has.

Back in May we drew your attention the looming launch of Tabletop Simulator, a simulator of a table atop which you can play "real" games: card games, dice games, chess, or whatever floats your boat. It came out of Early Access earlier this month, and now, thanks to the efforts of Steam user [MeoW] Mr.RiZZaH , you can get your Gwent on as well, by way of his unofficial T-Sim mod.

It's a two-player mod, so you can't pass a few idle minutes playing against the computer, and as it's unofficial, there will likely be some technical issues that pop up now and then. The creator also had to come up with his own rules for deck building, since it's not possible to import them from the game or collect them from the bodies of people you kill in the real world. On the other hand, the comments, while few in number, are very positive.

And it's free! So why not, right? Especially if you already own Tabletop Simulator. Otherwise, it's currently marked down to $13/ 10 as part of the Steam Summer Sale, which is now underway.

PC Gamer

Tabletop Simulator is just what it sounds like: A simulated table, atop which you can play virtual versions of real-world games. It comes with 15 classics, like chess, poker, and dominoes, as well as an RPG kit with animated figurines, and players can create and share their own games via the Steam Workshop. There's even an option, as demonstrated by extremely popular YouTuber Tyler Wilde, to flip the table.

Tabletop Simulator hit Steam Early Access in April of 2014—we took a look at it not long after it went live—and yesterday the developers at Berserk Games announced that it will go into full release on June 5. But that won't mean the end of development, as the studio still plans to implement VR support, a Space Theme Pack, a mobile version, and other features and fixes that will inevitably prove necessary.

The studio also announced a deal to develop Superfight, a card game about battles between fictional superheroes created by Robert Kirkman's Skybound Entertainment, into official Tabletop Simulator DLC. "The entire Skybound team is thrilled to expand the universe of Superfight with Tabletop Simulator," Skybound Interactive President Dan Murray said. "We look forward to seeing Superfight live in the digital world for years to come."

Tabletop Simulator is still available on Early Access for $15/ 11, but will bounce to $20/ 15 at launch. The Superfight DLC will sell for $10/ 7, and will also be available on June 5.


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