Owlbear Rodeo is a straightforward virtual tabletop (VTT) for role-playing games. A low-frills alternative to VTTs like Roll20 and Foundry, the web application is designed to have you up and running in minutes.
A new version, Owlbear Rodeo 2.0, is currently in beta; for this review, we’re looking at the original application.
A Straightforward Virtual Tabletop
Unlike other virtual tabletops, where you upload files to a server, Owlbear Rodeo stores the assets (like a map) on your computer. It then streams them to your players from there. The tabletop is created on the service and access is controlled via a simple password. Tabletops last for 24 hours, after which time they must be recreated.
The application’s basic interface makes it easy to upload map. It also makes it easy to augment its simple fantasy-based tokens by adding your own custom tokens. You add the map to the tabletop, then add tokens. You can control the visibility and placement of those tokens, and those tokens persist on the map.
The tabletop itself only persists for 24 hours. Because of this, there’s no way to have an ongoing “campaign” site like you do in Roll20 or other VTTs. That’s a big limitation but the ability for maps to remember the tokens assigned to them helps – you can work on your maps before the group meets, adding tokens and getting things just right, then add them to a new weekly tabletop before each session.
Owlbear Rodeo’s tokens allow you to set a label and outline color, both of which are viewable by players. Unlike other virtual table tops which have arcane permissions related to who can move what, Owlbear Rodeo lets anyone accessing the tabletop move tokens. Game masters can hide tokens from players and lock tokens so they can’t be moved.
It includes a basic dice roller that lets you add and roll multiple dice (and multiple kinds of dice) but you can’t do formulas (e.g. 1d20+3) or macros (e.g. “Long Sword Attack – roll 1d20+3 to hit, then roll 1d8+3 for damage).
Finally, Owlbear Rodeo also supports fog of war. I don’t typically use fog of war in my games, but it’s good to know it’s an option.
Great for one shots. Not so great for campaigns.
We’ve used Owlbear Rodeo a few times for Lair of Secrets games, and as a player, I found it worked pretty well. The ease of setup means you can be up and running with almost any game in very little time. This makes it particularly good for trying out new games where you’re still learning the roles and mechanics – since there’s very little to set up, there’s very little to learn, so you can focus on the rules.
Recently, I jumped to the other side of the virtual screen and used Owlbear Rodeo to run Cyberpunk RED’s “Easy Mode” introductory adventure for my Sunday gaming group. Again, it went well – our group, which typically uses Roll20 for both map-based and theater-of-the-mind sessions – was up and running in Owlbear within 10 minutes. The interface was intuitive, aided in large part by what it couldn’t do. What you see is what you get, and once you accept that there’s no chat, no dice roll log, no formulas, and no macros, things go smoothly.
Stuff we liked about the platform:
- Ease of use: It took us about 10 minutes to be up and running with Owlbear Rodeo, and most of that was just the players messing around with the interface.
- On-screen options: The on-screen drawing tools, laser pointer, and sticky note functionality were great: easy to find, easy to use.
- Anyone can move anything: Permissions are simplicity itself; everyone can move everything. That might give rise to chaos for some groups, but it was fine with us (at least until after the game, when folks realized they could randomly add additional tokens to the map.
- No storage worries: All the assets are stored locally, so there’s no need to worry about paying for increase file storage.
The sense of the Sunday group echoed my own – Owlbear Rodeo is great for one-shots, but for an ongoing campaign, the lack of macros and other persistent tools could make it more of a chore to use.
The original version of Owlbear Rodeo has a number of limitations, which may be frustrating to game masters and/or players.
- Tokens don’t have attributes: There’s no way to specify arbitrary values for tokens (e.g. hit points, armor points), which means all of the book keeping needs to happen outside of the app. It’s a little thing – after all, we do this all the time in our real world games – but for an online game, it’s nice when I can just look at a token and see how many points it has remaining.
- No Initiative Tracking: The tabletop doesn’t have any concept of initiative tracking, though oddly enough, it does have a countdown timer. Again, this isn’t a huge deal – there are plenty of offline ways to track initiative, but for an online game, it is nice when players can see it’s their turn.
- No campaign persistence: The 24-hour life span of a tabletop means that your campaign doesn’t persist, at least, not in the way that you may be used to.
- No dice roll log: We didn’t realize how much we used the dice roll log in Roll20 until we didn’t have it in Owlbear Rodeo. It’s a little thing, but being able to see what everyone rolled over the last few rounds can be super helpful.
- No macros or formulas: Just like at a physical table, you roll dice … and you do the math in your head.
Some Owlbear Rodeo Gotchas
While Owlbear Rodeo is largely intuitive, there are some gotchas to watch out for.
- Removing Tokens: It’s easy to add tokens, but removing them isn’t so obvious. I expected to select a token and be given an option to remove it. Instead, this gives you the ability tweak the token (add a label, add a border) To remove the token, you need to grab it with the hand tool and then move it; this causes a “trash can” icon to appear. Moving it to the trash removes it from the map.
- Aligning the Battle Map to the Grid: It’s easy to upload a map and add it to the tabletop, but it took watching Guiding Bolt’s “Owlbear Rodeo Map Alignment” to figure out how to align the map to the battle grid. Unlike other tabletops I’ve used, you set the map’s grid through the “Select or import a map” interface when uploading or choosing a map (not once you’ve already imported it onto the table top). When in the “Select or import” interface, click on the pencil icon next to your map – from there, you can set all of the properties of the map, and then drop it onto the tabletop.
- Don’t forget where your files are: After you’ve building out your tabletop and its assets, it’s easy to forget that the maps and tokens are associated with that computer, not all of your computers. There’s no syncing, no remote version of the tabletop. I knew this intellectually as I built out the tabletop on my MacBook Pro … and completely forgot that fact when I sat down at my iMac to actually run the game. Morale of the story? Develop your tabletop assets on the computer you plan to use to run the game. This is obvious – after all, it is one of the platform’s major selling points – and yet … I still forgot.
The original iteration of Owlbear Rodeo clearly set out to be an easy-to-use virtual tabletop that replicates the real-world tabletop experience. It lacks the bells and whistles of its competitors, but depending on your game, you may not miss them.
Like any virtual tabletop, Owlbear Rodeo has its idiosyncrasies, but none of them are crippling. If you want to get started with a VTT without missing with a ton of fiddly bits, Owlbear Rodeo is for you.
As for Owlbear Rodeo 2.0, we haven’t played with the beta yet, but we’re looking forward to doing so in the future.
Owlbear Rodeo Resources
- WASD20 (video) – Roll20 vs. Owlbear Rodeo (Virtual Tabletop Comparison)
- Owlbear Rodeo (video) – Using Owlbear Rodeo: Tokens
- Owlbear Rodeo (video) – Using Owlbear Rodeo: Fog
- Owlbear Rodeo (video) – Editing Maps Without Players Seeing in Owlbear Rodeo
- Guiding Bolt (video) – Owlbear Rodeo Map Alignment