I discovered tabletop games in the ninth grade. A friend of a friend was running a campaign of 1988’s excellent but obscure techno-RPG Cyberpunk 2020 (soon receiving a video game successor of its own) and needed someone to fill an extra slot. On that incidentally life-changing Wednesday night, we spent an hour creating our gang of gritty, cybernetically enhanced Edgerunners, then embarked on a bloody journey through the rain-slicked neon streets of Night City. Before that first session was over, I was hooked.
Fast-forward six years, and I’ve lorded over dozens of sessions as Game Master, played my own character in countless more, and learned multiple roleplaying systems in the process. As both a writer and a fan of games, the world of tabletop has been incredibly gratifying to explore, and an experience I’m always enthusiastic to share with new people. As I’ve gotten older, however, the obstacles involved with setting up and playing with a regular group has gotten much more difficult. As fun as it is to gather around a table in someone’s kitchen with character sheets and a set of dice, the transition my friends and I have made from high school to college and/or full-time work has made scheduling regular sessions and meeting up IRL impossible as we scattered across the country and our schedules began to fill up. This is where virtual solutions should have been an easy fix. With so many tools and programs out there, surely I could find something that would work well with the games I like and look good doing it, right? Well, yes and no. The problem with all of these applications is that none of them find a middle ground between functional and pretty. They all work, but if I’m going to leave behind the constraints of my living room, why settle for boring digital graph paper when I could use a full-on graphical interface that brings the dungeons and taverns of my stories to life? If I’m going to trade away the intimacy and fun of playing in person, rolling real dice, and the rest of it, shouldn’t I get something in return?
Unfortunately, the few games that have tried to streamline Tabletop and make it visually attractive (i.e. Sword Coast Legends, Tabletop Simulator) have always fallen short for one reason or another, by either not offering flexible rulesets and content creation tools, or simply being too clunky to compete with the experience of playing these games in real life or using web apps. Browser-based applications, on the other hand (Roll20, Fantasy Grounds), have the opposite problem, providing increased flexibility and allowing players to create their own custom content, but charging users a considerable amount of money for many of the nicer features. They also look extremely bland unless you want to shell out money for premade assets or happen to have some artistic talent (and a fair bit of time) to craft your own maps and creatures.
Enter Divinity: Original Sin 2: A full-blown game built around tabletop RPG mechanics, with fantastic combat and magic systems, handsome visuals, mod support, and most importantly, a full-fledged Game Master mode for designing, sharing, and running RPG campaigns.
I wasn’t particularly excited when I first heard Divinity was going to have its own take on dungeon-mastering. I’d been let down by lofty promises in similar games before, and despite Larian’s pedigree as makers of excellent CRPGs, I wasn’t confident they could deliver where so many others had failed. But when Original Sin 2 launched last year, I knew I had to at least give GM mode a shot, and I’m very happy to report that it’s just about everything I’ve ever wanted from a virtual tabletop experience. There are some rough edges and a couple of caveats, but overall Original Sin 2’s Game Master mode is powerful, easy to pick up, and most importantly, a damn good time.
Right out of the box, Divinity: Original Sin 2 gives campaign designers a lot to work with. Nearly 150 prefab environments are available to suit nearly every need, and hundreds of character and monster types (all of which can be heavily customized) provide ample material for NPCs, enemies, pets, and whatever else you desire. There’s also a colossal collection of props, traps, and loot that can be placed around scenes to reward players or give your setting some personality, and some excellent optional tools to add color to your sessions including on-the-fly adjustments to ambient noise and background music, dozens of weather and lighting effects, and the ability to prepare written vignettes that communicate plot points and allow players to vote on their next action. While there is a learning curve to placing these assets and navigating the surrounding menus, it’s a very small one. It took me under an hour to become proficient at using all of these tools effectively, and patient GMs interested in crafting a detailed experience for their players will want to spend hours playing around with everything and setting up dungeons and taverns so they’re just right for their story. All of these elements can quickly be dropped into a live game, too. If players decide to go somewhere other than where you expected, or attempt a creative solution to a problem you’d never even considered, you can rapidly adapt, and create whatever level, enemy, weather effect, or loot you might need without too much of a pause in the action. During sessions, the DM can also instantly freeze play in order to make adjustments, show story vignettes, or have players make dice rolls. Best of all, all math is done in the client automatically. Loot generation, managing enemy and player HP, skill checks, turn order, and most other elements that take precious time to manage in a real game are already taken care of, letting you focus solely roleplaying and combat, the reason you’re there in the first place.
The use of Divinity’s systems, rather than an established RPG ruleset, is perhaps the one place where the dedicated D&D and Pathfinder crowd will take issue, but I suspect that anyone outside of that minority won’t mind in the least (and besides, Roll20 already exists for those folks). Divinity is already so similar to existing tabletop RPGs (and in some ways better, with its complex elemental magic system and automated xp/buff/debuff tracking) that anyone with experience will pick it up instantly, and those without won’t need much time to learn. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Divinity’s GM mode will actually end up serving as a gateway drug for outsiders into the wider world of tabletop RPGs thanks to its simplicity and presence in an already popular game.
The other big downside to Divinity’s GM mode is that making custom content and building your own campaign is still just as time consuming as it is with other tools, if not moreso. Not only that, but even though Larian have included over 100 maps for use in campaigns, there are only a handful of variants on staples like taverns and villages, so if you rely solely on what’s included, campaigns will begin to retread old territory very quickly. This isn’t a big deal if you’re invested enough to spend hours learning how to use Larian’s free Divinity Engine tool to fabricate new maps from scratch (which I eventually did), but chances are you don’t want to invest that kind of time or energy. Thankfully, there is a solution, though it’s an imperfect one. Steam Workshop support allows for everything from brand new props and NPCs to maps and campaigns to be downloaded in seconds, all completely free. If you’re looking at DOSII as a quick-and-dirty alternative to Roll20 or real-world play, the ability to download packs of custom campaigns and maps in under a minute is fantastic, and makes Divinity the only tabletop tool in existence where this kind of content can be downloaded without having to pay a premium. Unsurprisingly however, the quality of this content varies greatly, and finding a map that fits the story and encounters you want your players to experience/a campaign you think your group will enjoy can be challenging given the limited number of options. There are certainly plenty of quality mods available right now, with more being added all the time, but as is always the case with tabletop games, if you really want things done right, you’re probably going to have to do them yourself.
So do I think DOSII is a Roll20 killer? Absolutely not. In its current state it’s still too inflexible for those who want to play according to existing rulebooks, it requires a halfway decent PC to run, and the creation suite, for the respectable amount it tries to include, would need heaps more content (and regular updates, which so far it has not received) in order to maintain a community for longer than a few months. But if you’ve been dreaming of a game that realizes the potential of “D&D, but playable in a game engine” for the better part of a decade like I have, this is the closest anyone’s ever gotten by a mile, and it’s a lot of fun. A map creation tool that’s a little more Mario Maker and a little less “actual development tool” and a few quality premade campaigns from the developers themselves would go a long way toward perfecting what Larian have started here, but if you’re already a tabletop player and think you’d like DOSII’s campaign anyway, I can’t recommend trying it out enough.