I'm tossing around the idea of putting together a group to play for a few hours every week. Since we all live some ways off, however, I figured it might be better to try and do it online, but I'm not sure as to the best direction to go with it.
I'm assuming that some of you have probably built successful online groups, and I'd like to hear about what you did. Specifically, what software you used, how you handled locations and maps, and if you had any relevant hardware (webcams, etc) that made doing it easier. I'm also curious to know what problems you might have run into in doing it.
I'm looking for an option that is pretty simple and cheap. There are a lot of threads out there, so if there is one you found useful, please refer it to me as well. Thanks in advance for your help.
Probably the simplest and cheapest to use for common play is Roll20. You can use it for tokens, character sheets, and dice rolling, and while it doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, it's browser based (Chrome, Firefox, Linux, or Mac) and doesn't require a download.
Basic usage is free, and you can pay monthly to upgrade to some more complexity with maps, etc. Most, if not all, the rules adjucating will need to be done by the GM, as Roll20 has little to no rules automation.
Next, there's Openrpg or Traipse This is also freeware, and although it's a download for everyone and quite a bit more complex, does quite a bit of automation with the ruleset and can be very useful once you get the hang of it. I have experienced quite a bit of lag and drops with the software and have not used it in years, but it is a significant boost in rule automation from Roll20.
D20Pro has very good automation and less frequent drops than I experienced with Openrpg. It is not a free program, costing $50 for a GM and 2 Players, and $10 per player after that, but it does have a free 30 day trial. It has some nice bells and whistles and is pretty quick to pick up on.
Fantasy Grounds has, imo, the best rules automation for Pathfinder, with full support for conditions, easy drag and drop linking between stories, encounters, maps, notes, etc, a really easy to use fillable character sheet, etc. It has probably the highest learning curve of all the four I've mentioned (or maybe about equal to Openrpg) but that is because it is capable of handling just about anything Pathfinder can throw at it. It has a cost of $10 a month for a GM with no limit to the number of players, or, if you prefer, you can pay a one time fee of $149 and have lifetime unlimited access for the GM and all players. Alternatively, each player and the GM can pay $3.99 a month or $39 for lifetime licenses. Fantasy Grounds has recently released Officially Licensed Pathfinder Materials (Core Rule Book, Advanced Player's Guide, Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition, and 3/6 of Kingmaker) with plans to release more. If you already own pdfs of these through Paizo, there is a discount; if not, you get the pdf included in the price.
Most of the games I've been involved with have used Skype for voice and/or video chat. Some GMs prefer TeamSpeak, Vimeo, or Discord (with Discord being the rising star I think.) Some just use the chatscreens in any of the VTT programs listed above to enable logging instead.
For someone looking for easy and cheap, my recommendation would be Roll20. Once you get into more complicated VTTs, my recommendation has to go to either Openrpg (if cheap/free is a requirement) or Fantasy Grounds (which is my go-to VTT for Pathfinder.)
For free vtts roll20 is easiest to use, and Maptool is the most extensible. Openrpg is mostly abandonware though back in the rocking 00s it was the go-to software.
One thing I highly suggest is using a Skype call or some other voice chat during the session. Being at your computer it is so easy to back burner the actual game, having voice in place keeps things together.
Welcome to the world of distance gaming.
I've been playing and running games on Roll20 for close to 4 years now (and have been a paid subscriber for 3 years). The big advantage, as others have mentioned, is its free, but setting up characters, maps, tokens, etc can be time-consuming. It has gotten easier in recent years with built-in character sheets and PRD/SRD access.
We use either Skype or Google Hangouts for voice/video chat (based on GM preference). Roll20 has its own built-in voice/video chat, but it's been incredibly buggy since their recent upgrade and I would not recommend it.
I use a Google Drive for storing character sheets, house rules, handouts, game world information, etc though one of the GMs I play with just does everything within Roll20.
Another nice thing about Roll20, since it's browser-based rather than client/server, is your players can jump in to your campaign at any time to work on their character or re-read handouts, etc rather than having to wait until you're hosting the session.
Each campaign in Roll20 also has its own private forum, which my group uses for posting session recaps and doing between-session RP stuff.