Table games are in the midst of a historic boom, despite recent COVID restrictions on in-person gatherings. The tools adopted by game masters and casual gamers for remote gaming are powerful, but not always the easiest to use or adopt. Role hopes to change that with a super-accessible video platform focused on the social aspect of role-playing games, and it’s raised a $2.75 million funding round to do just that.
It’s hard to say what has fueled the incredible growth of the tabletop gaming space, which just a few years ago was seen as a sleepy kingdom of nerds living in the basement, a niche within a niche. But it was a different kind of sleeping giant, one that proved hugely diverse, valuable, and surprisingly tenacious in the face of the pandemic.
Some platforms, like Roll20 and Fantastic lands, have taken this opportunity to provide online video collaboration platforms to play games like D&D, strategy titles and many more of the general tabletop type.
But Logan Dwight and Ian Hirschfeld, co-founders of Role, felt that these approaches tended to emphasize mechanics rather than what they saw as a more important aspect of RPGs.
“We wondered why people, when they have all these options, choose to play D&D on the Internet? And what we figured out is that it’s the people,” Dwight said. “Gaming lives in people’s minds, a shared social experience. It’s about conversation, face-to-face interactions.
It’s the start of something new, they said – and something big. As an analog, they referenced the explosion of social gaming a decade ago.
“People always find a way to play. Because we had social media platforms and cellphones then, we socialized on those – so naturally we looked for ways to play on them,” they said. “We’re now at another one of those inflection points with the explosion of online video and the in-game creator economy. Video has become so good and so ubiquitous that it’s becoming the dominant way to socialize people – and what naturally happens is that we’re looking for a way to play. And it turns out the answer was right under our noses, and it’s been there since the 70s: it’s a game of role, a game that takes the form of a conversation.
Role was designed from the ground up to smooth and simplify the implementation of the complex mechanics of these games, placing players visually and cognitively at the forefront. After all, when you’re playing D&D or any other game around the table, you spend most of your time looking at each other, not at the game board — because it’s a game and you’re having fun with each other. with others, right?
Sure, it’s easy to say that face-to-face interactions should be front and center, but the truth is that these games are mechanically complicated and involve sheets, dice, cards, rules, and the like. Dwight said the issue here isn’t so much keeping them in view, but making them easy and intuitive to access and engage them in gameplay.
Grab a character sheet with some associated attributes and bonuses, and a standard combat encounter. Depending on the GM’s preparation, dice rolls may need to be added manually and the results manually compared to the defending monster’s sheet. But if the monster’s bonuses, dice, and stats are all aware of each other, you know if you’re hitting as soon as the die is rolled.
This can be done in many games, but it’s not always easy and gets much harder the further you get from the official canon rules. House rules are quite common, but nowadays there are whole variants of game types built from open license rulebooks that don’t have “official” support from a major game company like Wizards. Preparing a game to play online can take weeks of relatively technically demanding work.
Some GMs and creators appreciate the complexity of these systems, but as Dwight pointed out, the expanding community means that more and more people are coming from non-gaming and tech backgrounds.
“The core skill that people bring to this is that they’re a writer or something. So the ability to create together has to be really easy and really powerful,” they said. “We want to give people like… a Squarespace for tabletop RPGs. It’s a WYSIWYG editor, the RPG equivalent of a LEGO box. You can create a whole bunch of templates for whatever game you want to run, modify sheets, create animations, all without having to touch code, and you can share it easily.”
The platform has already seen significant growth in campaigns and user-created variants for games designed to be developed, such as Mörk Borg and Lancer, with thousands of shares.
The role first raised money through Kickstarter (although the idea dates back to 2015) and then through angel funding, but this round brings in their first real venture capital money. The $2.75 million round is co-led by Konvoy and London Venture Partners, with whom Dwight said they were delighted to find willing partners who fully understood the opportunity. That’s quite an achievement, considering the skyrocketing value and diversity of tabletops that have surprised even industry veterans.
The money is used to apply the lessons the company learned from its early adopters, with a focus on ease of use, accessibility and extensibility. As for making money, the company intends to do so through a games and scenarios marketplace, and for premium features such as additional online storage, etc. But for regular users who just want to play with friends, Role is free to register for and use now.