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

The RPG has gone digital with virtual table tops and character sheet apps

Roleplaying has come a long way since the days when we would gather around a table with character sheets scribbled on notepaper. Back then the most technologically advanced gaming aids we had consisted of different sided dice, a cardboard screen to allow the game master some privacy, and perhaps a calculator.

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

While roleplaying games have always been centered on engaging the most powerful creative device known to mind—the human brain—it doesn't hurt to have a few apps and websites that help with the process, which is why roleplaying in the 21st century is now centered on RPG apps and digital aids like dice rollers, mapping software, digital character sheets, and virtual table tops.

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Fantasy Grounds

A screen shot of the Fantasy Grounds virtual table top

Perhaps the ultimate virtual tabletop, Fantasy Grounds not only allows the game master to set up the map and encounters in advance and players to store their character sheets, but it also automates a lot of the ruleset. This means the roll of the dice can take into account the player's bonuses and the creature's armor class to help determine the outcome of the battle, and 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 and is available as standalone software for Windows, Mac, and Linux. There is a demo available to check out a set of limited features for free.

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The other big name in virtual tabletops, Roll20 doesn't have quite the deep feature set as Fantasy Grounds, but it is also much easier to use. It covers the basics of what any roleplaying group will need, including access to maps, creating custom maps, keeping track of character sheets, etc.

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

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Game Master by Lion's Den

Is managing combat getting you down? By far one of the most tedious aspects of the game master is keeping track of all of the numbers during combat. That's where Game Master comes into play. This awesome app by Lion's Den will let you set up encounters, keep track of initiative by automatically rolling for the monster side and letting you input the player rolls, and keep track of the health of all players and creatures. It will even set 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 for the iPhone and iPad, and it supports 5th, 4th and 3.5 editions for Dungeons and Dragons as well as Pathfinder.

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Realm Works

A screenshot of Realm Works

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, locations in the world, plot lines, etc. 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 on Windows. It comes in two varieties: the game master version and the player version.

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Campaign Cartographer

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

The basic pack gives you the ability to draw out the campaign world, and with some add-on packs, you can create dungeons, caves and other adventuring areas.

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Battle Map 2

On the iPhone and iPad side of things, Battle Map 2 is a handy tool for creating battle maps or small areas. You can also fill up the area with monsters and allow your players to explore the area with the fog of war being unveiled through the line of sight. Battle Map 2 also has a dice roller built in, so you won't need to switch back and forth between your favorite dice roller.

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Syrinscape isn't so much of a game master aid as it is a game enhancement. This software will produce sounds ranging from a fire-breathing dragon attacking a town to the simple background of a forest. The 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.

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Fight Club 5th Edition

Screen shot of Fight Club

Developed by the same people as Game Master, the Fight Club series of apps keep track of all of your stats from hit points to armor class to strength to defenses. You can also do automatic dice rolls for combat, ability checks and saving throws. Best of all, it includes inventory management and a spell book to view known spells and manage memorized incantations.

Fight Club supports 5th, 4th and 3.5 editions for Dungeons and Dragons, as well as Pathfinder.

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Fifth Edition Character Sheet

The mere act of creating a character can easily take a half hour or more, but with the Fifth Edition Character Sheet, this task can take mere seconds. OK, perhaps a minute or two, but the rolling of the dice and the racial and class adjustments only take a few seconds. As you progress, the app will help keep track of your changing armor class, hit points, damage, skill proficiencies, spells and even let you take notes. 

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Sheet Yourself

If you are looking to go beyond just D&D and Pathfinder, check out Sheet Yourself. This app has many of the same features as the other character sheet apps, but it works against 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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d20 Calculator

Screen shot of RPG Dice Calculator

You might be surprised by the lack of really good 3D dice rollers on Apple's App Store, but you really don't need anything more than d20 Calculator. This app doesn't have the thrills of a 3D roller, but 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.

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DiceShaker D&D

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 in bonuses to the roll. And while many dice rollers are free, you'll pay (currently) $3 for this one.

But if you want a dice roller that actually 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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Wizards of the Coast Dice Roller

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