January 29, 2023

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Why Video Is the New Frontier for Tabletop Role-Playing Games

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Tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) can be incredibly engrossing, but they aren’t beginner-friendly. Finding a system that’s right for you and people to play with, and then figuring out the rules behind dice rolls, learning new terminology, and navigating the logistics of in-person and remote play can seem daunting. Add in the unfortunate fact that many Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and TTRPG spaces are plagued by gatekeeping, and it’s no wonder many potential players quit before they even start.

But it doesn’t have to be that way—not according to Elle Dwight, CEO and co-founder of Role(Opens in a new window), a free and inclusive digital role-playing platform that focuses on video-based play and easy content creation.

Founded in 2020 by Dwight and her childhood friend and Role CTO Ian Hirschfeld, Role lets anyone get to playing pen-and-paper RPGs as quickly as possible. Combining high-definition video chat, built-in quick-start options for creating characters for popular systems such as D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and Masks: A New Generation, as well as space for sharing files and the ability for users to display their preferred pronouns, the platform has many excellent features that allow for quick turnaround time and inclusive play. That last point is especially important to Role, with the majority of the Role team being POC and/or LGBTQ+, and Dwight and Hirschfeld identifying as a trans woman and BIMPOC Filipino man, respectively.

Role UI


A game on Role in progress
(Role)

We sat down with Dwight to discuss the development of Role, the impact remote play options have had on TTRPGs, and their subsequent impact on popular culture, the importance of inclusive play, and upcoming features Role users can look forward to. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PCMag: You founded Role with your childhood friendhow did that come about?
Dwight:
So Ian, the CTO and co-founder, we’ve known each other since we were like 12 or 13 years old, which is well over 20-something years now. So it’s been a long time (laughs). And for us, our friendship was and has always been strongly defined by the things we could create together. When we were kids, we made movies together, we made games together, both physical tabletop and homebrew games, but also things like a Starcraft editor, computer game mods, and that kind of stuff.

This is our second company together; we ran a company back in 2015, it was an agency out of San Francisco that specialized in the intersection between storytelling, technology, and play. And in that company, we were bringing our expertise in that to a bunch of non-gaming companies. Notably, we worked with Google and Facebook, and we worked on a really cool slew of VR projects at the time. But then after about five years…we took a bit of a break, and then came back together around the backend of 2019.

We came together around a project that we had done back in 2015 that was originally a fun, little Hack Jam project that was put together around our passion for role-playing games. We made a mobile app back in 2015 called Role. And it was originally just based on a very simple abstraction of role-playing, down to a simple rule set that you could just play on your phone with friends, something you could just do over your lunch break. And we were looking at that, and we were looking at all the really exciting and explosive growth and changes happening in role-playing games online today. And we thought, you know, this is a really amazingly cool thing that almost for us, it kind of feels like coming home.


We decided to build a platform with a different approach from what you’d typically see in the virtual tabletop market, one that we’d call more of a people-first social narrative play platform

So we decided to build a platform with a different approach from what you’d typically see in the virtual tabletop market, one that we’d call more of a people-first, social narrative play platform. And so that was back at the very beginning of 2020, and we’ve been running now for a few years and steadily growing.

When everything started going remote, we imagine that with the nature of tabletop role-playing games and the challenges in meeting virtually, the timing must have impacted you positively. Well, as positively as a pandemic can impact anyone.
I would say yes. People going online, and having that be the primary way that we socialize over the last few years, has certainly had a growth impact not just on our company but on the entire role-playing space in general, the whole role-playing industry. It is interesting and notable because even before the pandemic, video as a primary social mechanism was already becoming this really rapidly growing thing, right? You know, Discord, Zoom, and whatnot. Obviously, those got huge spikes due to the pandemic, but also even before that.

And something that we’ve always said as we were looking at how we were going to design and build and plan our platform, is that with each wave of technology and each wave of social adoption of technology, the first thing people always look for is how to play. This fundamental human language transcends all cultures, all ages, all everything. It is something that all human beings try to do. It is part of how we communicate and how we learn. And a good example would be a little over a decade ago, when we were all first coming online with our smartphones, the huge rise of mobile gaming and social gaming around that and around those paradigms.

Elle Dwight


Elle Dwight
(Role)

And I think something similar has happened in the last few years. The pandemic certainly accelerated it, but I think it was already beginning before that happened, where, due to the global adoption of video, as more and more of a dominant social mechanism, we were looking as a culture for ways to play. And the answer was kind of sitting in front of us the whole time with role-playing games.

Role-playing games are the perfect thing to play on video because they are a game as a conversation, right? The game lives in the people, the game lives in the interaction, like the conversation you and I are having right now. So to us, it was like, “Of course, D&D and games like it would become this big thing in the age of Discord, Zoom, Twitch, and YouTube, because they translate so well to video and because they are such a deeply people-centric experience.” And so with Role, we built the platform around that.

A key aspect of D&D and TTRPGs is the actual role-playing, which over digital mediums can be limited. Role mitigates some of that difficulty with video. What else would you say Role does to help players lean into the experience?
Yeah, so the video chat thing is very important. That is a big distinguisher. For us as a platform, we do not like to call ourselves a VTT or virtual tabletop; we don’t consider ourselves to be in that product category, like the same as Roll20(Opens in a new window) or Fantasy Grounds(Opens in a new window). We consider ourselves to be an adjacent type of experience, a social narrative play platform. And so you know, the video aspect was very much paramount. But it’s not just enough to have that.


We also really wanted to make sure that all of the gameplay tools, the things that you would need to run a game, were always right at your fingertips in the most easy-to-understand and learnable and fast access way possible.

We also really wanted to make sure that all of the gameplay tools, the things that you would need to run a game, were always right at your fingertips in the most easy-to-understand, learnable, and fast-access way possible. One of the big complaints that people always have…is there’s this perceived sort of learning curve, there’s an opacity to it of, “Oh, I want to get into D&D, but it seems like so much, there are so many dice and materials and things I have to keep track of.”

So for us, when we designed Role, our golden rule when we were first doing early platform designs was once you’ve played one game on Role, you should be able to play any game on Role, because the user experience is built out of a standardized, easy-to-understand library of game components that every game can pull from.

One of the features that we’re most proud of is we built a suite of tools that are always expanding. In a digital form, you can think of it as Squarespace for role-playing games. We give you the tools using a standard library of elements that we provide to you, all drag-and-drop, code-free, super intuitive, and super easy. You can create sheets and templates and fully interactive linked game mechanics for any game you want. So we have a community of people who have made literally thousands of templates for pretty much every game under the sun.

One feature that caught our attention was the variety of quickstart options that let you create characters for popular systems. However, we noticed there isn’t an option to buy sourcebooks at this time. Is that something you are planning on implementing in the future?
Very, very, very soon! Without revealing too much, we have a number of initiatives coming this summer that we’re very excited about.

The first one that we have announced is that search is coming to Role in the next few weeks. And what that’s going to do is every single custom gameplay template, every single custom sheet, every piece of custom material that people have created and published to help support the thousands of games you can play on Role will now be much easier to find and access via a database search. And that gives us a foundation that we’re building off of to eventually get to full game distribution.

So without kind of tipping my hand a little bit too much, just know that we are actually in the middle of a significant platform focus right now towards full game distribution that people should expect to be able to see this year.

Role Game Builder UI on mobile


Role Game Builder UI on mobile
(Role)

So regarding the quickstart options, we only have a few [games] so far that people love. When we chose what rooms are gonna be in the quick start, we basically looked at the data we have of what people play and what people like to play. And we just kind of, we just picked our most popular games and we just threw ’em up there. We’re working towards a place where instead of there just being a quick start bar with like five games on it, we will have a full database with the ability to find Quickstart materials for every game, every game on the platform. And eventually, the ability for game creators, publishers, indies, and everybody to publish and sell their content on the platform as well.

As you’ve mentioned, there has been astronomic growth in the D&D and TTRPG space, and that is in no small part due to the success of shows such as Critical Role and Dimension 20. How do you hope that Role will fit into this sort of exploding nexus of content creation around D&D?
I’m really glad you asked that. So this is a huge focus for us, and not just in the sense of looking at, interacting with, and engaging with. We have our own sponsored shows coming, actual plays that we produce. And there are multiple layers as to why that’s exciting. This is a very exciting time for role-playing games. One of the things that we’ve observed and we noticed is that [actual plays] are not just becoming a thing that existing role-playing fans watch. Critical Role is the most popular stream on Twitch! People watch more Critical Role than they watch people play Fortnite.

And there’s no way every one of those viewers is also an expert in D&D, which means these shows, Critical Role, Dimension 20, and Transplanar, are often also the onboarding experience for new people in the role-playing games. The more you watch it, the more you start to get into the structure…the more you start to understand the stats of the characters. So you can kind of anticipate the risks they’re taking, but you’re also hooked into the social experience and the dynamics of the table and the humor and the friendship.

And one of the things that we think about with this is for the modern role-playing fan, especially new people coming into the medium, watching these shows is modeling for them. It’s how they expect these games to be played. So we built our experience around that, which is again, how do we get you face-to-face with people as quickly as possible? How do we make the gameplay experience as easy and intuitive as possible, so you can quickly move through the systems and not get so caught up in the crunch?

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So we look to those things heavily as influences, because I think they are indicators of where role-playing is going to go. As games continue to evolve and new systems get designed, we’re moving more and more in a direction of it being this kind of social, game-as-a-conversation experience.

You’ve also made it a point to mention the intersection between TTRPGs and marginalized communities on social media.
What I would say in regards to this, which is also, I think, extremely important to our values as a company, is the rise of role-playing games has given and empowered many marginalized audiences to tell their own stories.

When I play Mass Effect, which is one of my favorite video games, it’s a role-playing video game. I can create a character that feels like me, maybe. I can create someone who kind of looks like me, feels like me as a trans person. That actually has been a huge part of my journey in life, making video game characters that feel like the woman I want to be. But there’s always a ceiling on how much the story can represent me and my experiences and my community and my culture. I think that is true for all marginalized people of all different communities.


It is not a coincidence that the role-playing medium, especially as it exists today, has become such a hotbed for diverse and marginalized creators.

The wonderful thing about role-playing games, the tabletop role-playing game style, is that the book is a suggestion. The game is a suggestion. You can make it whatever you want. People take what they want, discard what they don’t, change things, and come up with their own stories. It is not a coincidence that the role-playing medium, especially as it exists today, has become such a hotbed for diverse and marginalized creators. Some of the best and most interesting innovation in storytelling and gaming is happening in role-playing right now because all these people who don’t see themselves represented in other forms of gaming are flocking here.

And then it also then cascades out too. Like Transplanar, that’s an awesome actual play series, and it’s run by trans people while also heavily featuring people of color. These are opportunities where through these games, people can then create entire media universes and stories where they really see themselves represented, and then their community can see themselves represented. And it creates this really beautiful feedback loop where you watch shows where you finally see yourself in the story where you may not see yourself in other forms of media. Then you’re inspired to play these games. And through playing those games, you create your own stories.

As I said, we sponsor our own shows and we are very proud that our shows are all from marginalized creators, exclusively. Our shows are all POC, queer, trans, all sorts of intersecting identities across the, across the great, I don’t know, cosmos of humanity (laughs). I think it’s a very exciting thing to be in because I’ve worked in and around gaming my whole life, my whole career. And this feels like a vehicle for change for people.

In the same vein, role-playing sometimes can be triggering or can lead to the crossing of boundaries. Have you thought about incorporating player safety tools, like the X-Card, lines and veils, and things of that nature into your software?
It was actually one of the very first things that we did and continue to do. We’ve worked with Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk, the curators of the TTRPG Safety Toolkit. They helped us create systems to help people with safety tools…Just like everything else, we want things to be super intuitive and easy. So we created a ping system in our chat logs where anyone can anonymously hit this button and it sends a sound and visual that goes in front of the video display. We have an entire guide that was written and curated by the two of them that links you out to every popular safety tool you can find and different ways to use them.

One of the things that we didn’t want to do was dictate to you what type of safety tool to use. So we tried to just create to the best of our ability, a set of digital interactive tools that you can easily use like safety sheet templates and a Stars and Wishes template. It was important to us that we put the thought into that right at the beginning, because for a lot of companies and software, safety tools often become a thing that you end up doing after. And it’s much harder to bend your software in that direction than it is to think about it at the start.

Chrome


Chrome
(Role)

Finally, we’d love to hear about your original cyber-noir game, Chrome, and how it integrates into the Role platform.
Chrome is our pitch to the world of what a role-playing game can become. Our first thought was, “What if we have the ability to move away from PDFs?” Obviously, we’re not the only company out there that’s done that. But we tried to use our platform expertise and design Role as a completely native digital experience that is meant to be as intuitive and quick and easy to navigate as possible, similar to how our platform works. So, you know, certain basic functionality that people would expect from a digital tool, like a really robust search functionality, clickable glossary terms that navigate you quickly through the app, and so on.

So for Chrome, our idea was you should never need to memorize this rule book. You should be able to just familiarize yourself with it, skim it, read the basic rules, and read the sections that interest you and that are most relevant to the game you’re running or…relevant to what you need to run as a player. And then you should be able to just have the app open, and within a matter of seconds, snap to the information you need. We want to make it so that the gap between your intention to find information and then having that information is really short.

You can just go to www.playchrome.com(Opens in a new window) and read [the system] if you want to just enjoy it that way. But if you want to play it on Role, which we definitely consider to be the best experience, we have a Chrome starter room in our dashboard. That room is fully built with a bunch of pre-generated characters, and it has themed skin to look like Chrome. It also has a selectable starter adventure and templates for creating encounters and monsters. It has everything you need as a GM. You could literally just open that room and do zero prep and you’re ready.

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