Roleplaying in the Digital Age: The Best Apps for Pen and Paper Games

The RPG has gone digital with virtual tabletops and character sheet apps

Role-playing games have come a long way since the days when we gathered around a table with character sheets scribbled on notepaper. Back then, the most technologically advanced gaming aids consisted of different sided dice, a cardboard screen to allow the game leader some privacy, and perhaps a calculator.

Group of people using laptops and wearing fantasy costumes around a table
Lifewire / Lara Antal

Pen and paper RPGs engage the most powerful creative device known to mind—the human brain. Still, it doesn't hurt to have a few apps and websites that help with the process. Here are some of the best digital aids available for your next tabletop gaming session.

01
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Fantasy Grounds

The Fantasy Grounds virtual table top
What We Like
  • Supports a variety of games.

  • Automates much of the ruleset.

  • Offers a free demo.

What We Don't Like
  • The website is slow to respond.

  • There's a learning curve.

  • A clunky interface.

Perhaps the ultimate virtual tabletop, Fantasy Grounds lets the game leader automate much of a campaign's ruleset. It also lets them set up the map and encounters in advance, while players can store their character sheets. This means the roll of the dice can take into account a player's bonuses and the creature's armor class to help determine the battle's outcome. This includes tracking damage, making saving throws, and many of the other pieces of information that come up during a session.

Fantasy Grounds can be purchased outright or through a monthly subscription. It's available as standalone software for Windows, Mac, and Linux. A demo lets you check out a set of limited features for free. The Ultimate version hosts games for players on the free demo version; this way, only one player in the group has to pay.

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02
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Roll20

A Pathfinder gaming session hosted on Roll20

The Orr Group

What We Like
  • It's web-based.

  • Mobile apps are available.

  • Marketplace offers pre-made adventures.

What We Don't Like
  • The mobile app has several issues.

  • Joining a gaming session can be tough.

The other big name in virtual tabletops, Roll20 nearly matches Fantasy Grounds' feature set. It covers the basics that any roleplaying group needs, including access to maps, creating custom maps, and keeping track of character sheets.

Roll20 is web-based, so you can use it on any PC. There are also apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. It's available as a subscription with month-to-month and year-to-year options. It also has a free version.

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03
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Game Master by Lion's Den

A goblin encounter in the Game Master app

Lion's Den

What We Like
  • Makes combat easier by tracking many stats.

  • Encounter builder lets you create encounters quickly.

  • Campaign manager lets you juggle multiple campaigns.

What We Don't Like
  • The free version is limited to one adventure with three encounters.

  • Manually entering info can get tedious.

  • Stability issues.

Is managing combat getting you down? One of the most tedious aspects of being a game leader is keeping track of all the numbers during combat. That's where Game Master comes into play. This awesome app by Lion's Den lets you set up encounters, keep track of initiative by automatically rolling for the monster side and inputting the player rolls, and keep track of the health of all players and creatures. It also sets up to-hit and damage rolls for the monster. The encounters can be saved to a campaign, and you can have multiple campaigns saved.

Game Master is available on iOS, iPadOS, and Android. It supports 5th, 4th, and 3.5 editions for Dungeons & Dragons as well as Pathfinder.

The free versions of the app are limited to one campaign with three encounters. In-app purchases are available if you want more.

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04
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Realm Works

Realm Works
What We Like
  • Good for managing your campaign's setting.

  • Import and pin maps.

  • Fog of war encourages exploration.

What We Don't Like
  • No mobile version.

  • It seems to be abandoned by the developers.

While Game Master does a great job of managing combat encounters, Realm Works is more about managing your campaign and your world as a whole. The software allows you to keep track of your NPCs, world locations, plot lines, and more. While it doesn't include any map making, you can import maps made in other software and place pins on important areas such as encounters and traps. It also helps facilitate the fog of war, so you can let your players explore through the map.

Realm Works is compatible with almost any RPG and is available for Windows. It comes in two varieties: the game leader version (about $60) and the player version (about $5).

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05
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Campaign Cartographer

A building in Campaign Cartographer

Pro Fantasy Software

What We Like
  • Great for mapping your game world.

  • Huge selection of mapping symbols, styles, and types.

  • Friendly community.

What We Don't Like
  • No mobile versions.

  • Software and modules can get pricey.

While it's possible to do mapping in image editing software like PhotoShop, Paint.Net, and GIMP, dedicated mapping software can save time and energy. Campaign Cartographer by Pro Fantasy is for the serious game leader that wants to map out an entire world and fill it in with castles, towers, dungeons, and other objects.

The basic pack (about $23) gives you the ability to draw out the campaign world. With some add-on packs, you can create dungeons, caves, and other adventuring areas.

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06
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Battle Map 2

Example of a dungeon in Battle Map 2

Razeware

What We Like
  • Works across multiple iOS devices using iCloud support.

  • Display your maps using Airplay.

  • Import your artwork.

What We Don't Like
  • Hasn't been updated since 2015.

  • Online features may no longer work.

Battle Map 2 (about $10) is a handy tool for iOS devices that lets you create battle maps or small areas, fill them up with monsters, and let your players explore. You can add hidden traps and openable doors, along with objects taken from a default library or your artwork. Battle Map 2 also has a dice roller built-in, so you don't need to switch back and forth between your favorite dice roller. Plus, it includes iCloud and Airplay support.

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07
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Syrinscape Fantasy Player

Enhance your D&D sessions with Syrinscape's audio tools

Syrinscape

What We Like
  • Movie-like soundtracks for tabletop gaming sessions.

  • Uses adaptable libraries of sound files to improvise soundscapes.

  • It's free.

What We Don't Like
  • No significant updates since 2018.

  • Doesn't run in the background, so it can't be used with other iOS apps.

  • Sound library could use some filters.

Syrinscape is more of a game enhancement than a game leader aid. This software produces sounds ranging from a fire-breathing dragon attacking a town to the background of a forest. These sounds are multi-layered, so you can control the screams of the peasants as the dragon swoops down or the grumble of an orc hiding behind the trees, which is sure to make your next gaming session extra immersive.

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08
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Fight Club 5th Edition

Fight Club
What We Like
  • Keeps track of character stats.

  • Built-in spellbook with a large list of fully detailed spells.

  • Built-in dice roller.

What We Don't Like
  • The free version is limited to one character only.

  • The free version contains ads.

Developed by the same people behind Game Master, the Fight Club series of apps keep track of all your stats. You can also do automatic dice rolls for combat, ability checks, and saving throws. Best of all, it includes inventory management and a spellbook to view known spells and manage memorized incantations.

Fight Club supports the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as Pathfinder. The free app is limited to one character with ads. Upgrades require an in-app purchase.

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09
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Fifth Edition Character Sheet

A rogue D&D character in Fifth Edition Character Sheet

Walter Kammerer

What We Like
  • Cuts down on character creation time.

  • It's free (with ads).

  • The premium version includes auto-leveling.

What We Don't Like
  • You can't copy a character.

Creating a character can easily take a half-hour or more. However, with the Fifth Edition Character Sheet app, this task can take a minute or two. The rolling of the dice and the racial and class adjustments only take a few seconds. As you progress, the app helps keep track of your changing armor class, hit points, damage, skill proficiencies, spells, and lets you take notes.

The free version contains ads, but the ads aren't too obtrusive. The premium upgrade removes ads and includes an auto-leveling feature, which is nice but not a necessity.

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10
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Sheet Yourself

Sheet Yourself works with a variety of tabletop games

SparkNET Interactive

What We Like
  • Works with a variety of tabletop games.

  • Can save dozens of characters.

  • Built-in dice rolling.

What We Don't Like
  • Dropbox syncing isn't great.

  • Some bugs.

If you want to go beyond D&D and Pathfinder, check out Sheet Yourself (paid version only). This app has many of the same features as the other character sheet apps, but it works with a larger range of RPGs, including Call of Cthulu, Magic: The Gathering, Vampire: The Masquerade, Dungeon World, and various d20 games.

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11
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d20 Calculator

RPG Dice Calculator
What We Like
  • Save and label frequently used rolls.

  • Various themes are available.

  • It's free (with ads).

What We Don't Like
  • Frequent crashes.

  • No support for the iPadOS split screen.

You might be surprised by the lack of really good 3D dice rollers on the Apple App Store, but you don't need anything more than d20 Calculator. This app doesn't have the thrills of a 3D roller. However, it does allow you to create a complex formula with multiple dice, including dice of different sizes. You can also add in various bonuses to the roll. In-app purchases include the option to remove ads.

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12
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DiceShaker D&D

Dice Shaker makes you feel like you're really shaking dice

Pallosalama

What We Like
  • Simple to use.

  • Can roll multiple styles of dice.

  • Realistic sounds and physics.

What We Don't Like
  • Only available on Amazon.

  • Can't roll multiple dice at once.

  • Can't add bonuses to the rolls.

There are a few negatives to DiceShaker. First, you cannot roll multiple dice at the same time beyond rolling two ten-sided dice to get a 1-100 roll. You also cannot add bonuses to the roll. While many dice rollers are free, you pay $3 for this one. But if you want a dice roller that feels like you are rolling dice, $3 isn't that much to pay. And DiceShaker feels like you are rolling the dice.

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13
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Wizards of the Coast Dice Roller

Wizards of the Coast Dice Roller is bare-bones, but it's free

Wizards of the Coast

What We Like
  • It's free.

  • It's web-based.

What We Don't Like
  • It's pretty bare-bones.

Who needs a fancy app when Wizards of the Coast provides one for us? There's nothing fancy here. It's a spreadsheet-style dice roller that lets you choose the number, sides, and modifiers. It also tracks multiple rolls in the notes field. Best of all, it's free.