The Critical Role that Role Plays

Millions of tabletop gamers have transitioned from the dining room table to online, thanks to the growth of virtual tabletop tools like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. Richie Shoemaker spoke to Elle Dwight, the co-creator of Role, which aims to make online tabletop gaming as intuitive, inclusive and painless as possible.

Virtual tabletops (VTTs) have been a growing part of online gaming for some years now, as players have increasingly sought to play traditional pen and paper RPGs with distant or locked down friends. Where once a rag-tag party of heroes might connect via Skype and track their progress through Google Docs, a number of dedicated applications have increasingly taken over the administrative and comms elements of running an online tabletop game; providing ready access to rules and tables, updating stats and maps and, of course, rolling the bones.

Alongside relative newcomers like Foundry, Astral and TaleSpire, the most established VTT tools are Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, both of which officially support dozens of roleplaying systems (D&D, Pathfinder, Vampire and Call of Cthulhu among others) and sell thousands of rulebooks, modules, tokens and maps within their own market spaces (2,368 DLCs and counting in the case of Fantasy Grounds), while claiming to service millions of distanced tabletop gaming fans.


The problem with many virtual tabletop solutions is that they have evolved much like computer role-playing games have, by focusing on automating the process of playing rather than making it easier to connect people and have them create and tell dynamic stories. At least that’s how Elle Dwight sees it, having co-founded Role Inc with childhood friend Ian Hirschfeld early in 2019, with the aim to create a tool for online role players and storytellers that was, first and foremost, intuitive and welcoming.

“It is a pretty populous and diverse market right now” admits Dwight. “With what we do at Role, we do not consider ourselves to be a virtual tabletop. We are a different type of software product to service a different and evolving format of online roleplay. We are much more invested in the person to person experience. When we looked at what makes role playing games really joyful, fun and engaging, we really wanted it to be about putting the people first, getting you on a high quality, high resolution stable video call with people so that you can look them in the eye. We really believe that role playing games are at their best when they are a game as conversation or a conversation as a game and so we really tried to design Role to be that.”

Role is essentially a video conferencing app then, with all the gameplay elements kept out of sight until needed, or as Dwight puts it, “intuitively tucked into the margins.” It means for those that like to stare at rulebooks and tables rather than connect more directly with other players, Role might not be for them. “There are other platforms that may have more complex systems than us for things like simulating a miniatures battle. That’s great. That’s excellent. They excel at that. We really have taken a very different stance. We strive to be the easiest place to run a game.”


So if Dwight is hesitant to call Role a VTT, what does she liken it to? Or to put it another way, if Fantasy Grounds, with all its evolved complexities and DLC is the Crusader Kings of virtual tabletops, what is Role?

“We are Roblox,” says Dwight emphatically. “A big piece of it for us is content creation. The way that I like to think about it is that role playing games are the most accessible form of game design, because the only thing you need to know how to do is write. Playing a role playing game is a live act of content creation and there’s an entire experience around that that is really joyful for people where they will create content in anticipation of play, they will create content while they play, they will create content in the wake of playing. And when we look at the growth of the role playing market, it’s primarily driven by community content creation.”

Dwight cites the success of Wizards of the Coast’s DM’s Guild, which gives creators license to create and share custom D&D content, to the tune of more than 100,000 fan-made supplements. “Creating content needs to require as few additional skills as possible beyond an ability to write and design game content. And so we built the world’s first – and I think, still only – really good drag-and-drop game creation and content creation tools for role playing games. It’s like Squarespace for role playing games. We have an entire suite of gameplay elements and standard elements that you can use to create custom sheets and templates for your favourite games. In the wake of that, we have seen our community launch literally thousands and thousands of custom games on Role through custom sheets and template creation. And so that’s really another part where the Roblox metaphor comes in: we don’t aspire to be a virtual tabletop. We do not aspire to be a place that simulates the tabletop experience. What we aspire to be is a social video play experience, and then a really easy and accessible but powerful content creation tool for role players to create their own content, publish it, and share it with their friends and with the world.”


The problem for Role, by pitching itself as an alternative to VTTs, is that it naturally is compared to all of them. Search for the best VTTs online and Role will be on the list, which means for those that place an imposing feature list above approachability, Role might appear to be an underwhelming option.

“What we often find is that the second somebody actually sees our software, like when they really can see it being used on a video or on a stream, or can play around with it themselves, that evaporates very quickly, because there’s a very short understanding gap that people get over, of realising that we are a completely different experience. You can run your first game very easily and once you’ve played one game on Role, you can run almost anything. And so [it’s about] getting past that understanding gap of helping people see that we really are not asking you to learn another complex VTT.”

What about the other side of that coin – that online role playing fans might soon have too many VTTs to choose from to the point that Role is lost among them? “The huge growth in role playing games is leading to a massive growth in online tool usage,” says Dwight. “If you break down the market globally, the majority of play is now happening online. If you looked at it in the early ’00s and ‘10s, this type of gaming was mostly happening in person with maybe some digital tools to augment the play. That is now fully inverted. There are some countries where people almost exclusively play online, like Japan and Korea. There are huge role playing demographics there where the TTRPG acronym doesn’t even stand for ‘tabletop RPG’, it actually stands for ‘table talk RPG’. And they’re meant as conversation games and almost exclusively played only online.”

Dwight says that while it’s true that the pandemic has boosted the growth of VTT gaming, the trend was established by the widespread adoption of video conferencing. It’s a technology that has allowed a genre once tied to pen and paper to thrive like never before. “When you look at some of the more long running products, like Roll20, they have over ten million active users and growing. They’re seeing exponential growth every year. Wizards as a company is seeing exponential content growth, and a lot of that growth is almost exclusively digital. For a company like ours, being around now for nearly three years, we see very rapid growth across our player base and platform. Just last month alone we saw a 200% increase in D&D play alone.”


What isn’t entirely clear is how Role intends to make money. During an early access period last year there was a small $10 charge to gain access, but right now Role is entirely free to access without restriction. Other VTT’s (if we’re assuming Role is one of them) typically offer tiered subscriptions, with the more established among them featuring a marketplace that sells a mixture of official rulebooks and player-created content such as map tiles and player tokens. As well as increasing interest in D&D (Role now unofficially supports Wizards’ companion service D&D Beyond), that wealth of player content, it seems, is what Role may be hitching its long-term future on. “Content is changing. It isn’t just that people are playing D&D. There’s a lot of custom creation and a larger library of games available to play. You have a lot of people who exclusively publish their games only digitally. They might publish smaller scale games that are more like a zine, something with simpler rules. And they publish them just as PDFs or whatnot. We’re seeing a huge growth in the market there and we aim to grow into a distribution platform for game publishers, game studios and independent content creators worldwide. “

According to Dwight, Role is fast becoming the go-to solution for game prototyping, especially among indie developers, which Role Inc will be capitalising on towards the autumn with the first release of a marketplace, where eventually content creators will be able to distribute their creative efforts.

“Because we want to make sure we stress test properly, it’s going to be on an invite-only basis to sell,” says Dwight. “But the goal is, in the not-too distant future, to eventually have this be a completely open self service offering, where people can create and share content. They can share that content for free if they would like, but they could also price that content. We really want Role to grow into this intersectional place where people are playing, creating and distributing their creative works back and forth to one another.”


While being intuitive and convenient is part of Role’s USP, something that has been a mission drive from the very beginning has been to provide a safe space for role players to enjoy their passion. This is especially important for a platform that differentiate itself by way of its connectivity and live video features. It has achieved success by incorporating a full range of safety features, from making sure that all game instances are private, to allowing players to flag inappropriate content and report conversations that might feel threatening or become unsafe.

“What we’re finding is people who are much less inclined to put themselves forward in other online gaming spaces feel much safer and more encouraged here,” says Dwight. “I’ve very rarely enjoyed playing competitive online video games with strangers, because there’s a lot of safety concerns, harassment concerns, that kind of stuff. But I’ve always enjoyed the multiplayer experience of role playing games because it’s with people I trust, it’s face to face, there’s something very intimate about it.”

Also very personal to Dwight is her and Role’s mission to not just promote diversity and inclusion, but to actively build working and business partnerships that directly benefit marginalised individuals and communities “Our team is majority POC and majority LGBTQIA+ and our founders, myself and Ian, both fall into various marginalised identities. I’m transgender and Ian is Filipino and we have always been very public about our belief that role playing games are a really strong vertical for change in gaming and entertainment, in spaces where people of marginalised identities have not felt safe playing, not felt represented and not felt like the content represents them per se.

“One of the things we’ve always loved about role playing games is that because it is such a creator-centric medium, people are always creating games, stories and content that represents them, that makes them feel seen. And also, because of the very fundamentally different format of play, you’re much more likely to play in environments where you feel safe. And so with Role it isn’t just about servicing people playing Dungeons & Dragons – which is great. It really is about servicing the next generation of gaming content creators from diverse audiences and giving them a platform for their play experiences to really, really shine. That’s a big thing for us.”

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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