When most role-players think of “demiplane,” they think of a couple of things: small places of reality where wizards and other beings have their hidey holes, and the most famous (and dreaded) demiplane of all, Ravenloft.
Adam Bradford and Travis Frederick want to folks to associate it with another idea: a safe, convenient way to play TTRPGs online.
Last month, the duo announced their new company. Demiplane is a platform for playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade. But it’s not just another competitor for Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds, which are virtual tabletops for RPGs. It has tools for running what Bradford and Frederick think as better, safe games.
Bradford knows more than a bit about role-playing games and digital spaces. He was the cofounder of D&D Beyond and a former vice president of tabletop gaming at Fandom. D&D Beyond is a digital toolset for playing the world’s oldest role-playing game, with PDFs of the books, rules, and other materials, and a snappy character creator.
Frederick brings a different perspective: that of a lifelong player. Frederick was an All-Pro and Pro Bowl center for the Dallas Cowboys. And he’s loved TTRPGs for decades. He’s such a believer in how the hobby can teach communication, empathy, and problem-solving that he said he helped make Demiplane happen because “I am a firm believer that if everyone in the world played RPGs, the world would just flat out be a better place.” He launched Demiplane in 2020 with his business partner, Peter Romenesko.
As countries come out of the pandemic and relax restrictions on gatherings, people are beginning to play TTRPGs in-person again. But the pandemic showed us that virtual tabletops can be useful, fun, and powerful tools for gaming, enabling family and friends to play over distances great and small … or make new friends with people in countries they’ve never traveled to before.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What is Demiplane?
Adam Bradford: Demiplane is a platform that brings together gamers, hosts, and creators in the tabletop role-playing space that can help facilitate and enhance gameplay for those people. We have a gamut of functionality that helps people. We separate it into three main categories: before, during, and after the game. Before the game, we have a space where you can prepare information about your game. You can find other players if you don’t have a full group. Or if you have a group and you lost a player, we have a matchmaking algorithm that helps match groups together based on different attributes. We believe that by using this algorithm, we can create better and longer lasting groups. During the game, we provide an online place where people can play that’s a voice and video solution that is specifically tailored for the tabletop enthusiast. We have tools and things around it that help keep the focus on what’s important at the table. That’s the people. There are so many different solutions out there that take the focus away from the people. These games, because of the nature of them, are about imagination and creativity and creative storytelling and collaborative storytelling among the people around the table. We help keep that focus. We have tools like shared and searchable journals, task tracking, inventory. We have different text channels so you can stay communicating while you’re in a game or outside the game. When you’re at work and trying to plan how you’ll take over that space station in next week’s session, you have that. At the end of the game we have a unique feedback loop that we call our ratings and rewards system, where at the end of the game you’re asked whether you had a great time with your game master, and you’re given the opportunity to tip if you had a great time. You’re also given an opportunity to rate the other players and provide awards to someone in the group. When you have those ratings built up, that feeds into the post part, which is you get to build up a resume, a profile as a tabletop role-player or a host or a game master of these types of games. It’s a unique thing that you don’t find a lot of other places, but it allows you to show quality. When you’re a game master and looking for people to join your group, and you’ve been playing a long time and you have a ton of thumbs up, your ratings are high, it’s going to be easier to find quality players. It’s the same as a player. You’re able to display that quality too. We find it to be a unique system that helps support tabletop role-players.
GamesBeat: Is the thing that stands out here the tipping aspect, or is it the whole package that stands out in your opinion?
Bradford: For me it’s the whole package that stands out. The tipping is a unique thing we offer. We also offer the ability to charge for your games. Some game masters can say it’ll be five dollars per session per player. We have rules and safety measures to make sure that everything is fair around that transaction, so you don’t have people that have to pre-pay and don’t get a good adventure, or get a great adventure and ghost and never pay the GM. We keep them safe around there. Offering the opportunity to tip is just — in the old days when we used to all play around a table, people would bring chips or soda. I’ll bring the cookies, or my mom made a loaf of bread. It doesn’t happen that way when you’re online. This is a way to bring the group together and do something to show your appreciate for the hard work that the GM does.
Travis Frederick: One thing I would add there is that at the end of the day, we are aiming to make every part of the game better. That’s the mission we’re talking about internally, all the time. As a big part of that, what we have out there today is the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to be looking for any ways that we can, going forward, to make any part of the game better. What’s unique about what Demiplane is doing here in the very early stages is the way that we’re approaching that, coming at it through the play experience part of it. It’s not necessarily just trying to redo or reinvent the wheel that a lot of the VTTs or other ways that people are trying to play online right now–this is coming through, as Travis said, to focus on the human element of what’s going on in these games. That’s where the voice and video — it’s the same kind of thing that many of us are turning to with places like Zoom to play right now.
But Zoom wasn’t built for tabletop role-playing. This is an area where Demiplane can provide the things people are looking for in some of those other types of video solutions, but this is going to be tailored very specifically to tabletop role-players. The great thing is, as we start to introduce fans out there to how we’re going to facilitate the play experience, that’s going to allow us to get this wonderful community feedback loop, to see what the community needs to make that play experience better. That’s what we’re going to be aiming to do in any way that’s going to accomplish that mission of making it all better.
GamesBeat: By safety tools, are you talking about, we’ll guarantee that the adventure will be good, that the GM will be good, that the players won’t ghost, but what happens if you’re with players that ruin the experience? What can I do about that?
Bradford: We have a couple of different places where that safety piece is touched. First of all, and foremost, we are very committed to having an inclusive and safe and committed community that works to make it a better space. Not just our game and our system, but the space in general. This is an awesome group of people that plays these games, how inclusive and caring and how much they want to work together. It’s important for us to do our part to make sure that that space is upheld and kept safe. In the matchmaking process, there’s a tough thing there, because you’re introducing people to new people and allowing communication there. It’s important for us, whenever anyone is added to a game, there’s a chance to communicate first. A player communicates to the GM, and it’s not just an automatic, you’re in because of the matchmaking algorithm. We’re not just putting lobbies together. It’s to make sure the GM can get a chance to make sure it’s a good fit before they join the rest of the group and expose them to other players.
During the game, we have a hand raise button. Whenever anything during the game is going outside the bounds that you’ve set in your session zero or that you’ve discussed as a group, an anonymous notification comes to the GM that says, something has gone wrong here. An adventurer is uncomfortable with the current state of the adventurer. It allows the GM to identify what limits they’re approaching and pull the game away from those, or if the game needs to be stopped to discuss this, that can be done.
The ghosting and the financial piece there is, we just want to make sure that from a financial standpoint, when you give someone your Venmo and you expect them to pay you, there’s a trust that happens there. We’re trying to use technology to formalize that process a bit so you don’t have to trust that that’s going to happen. You know that the system will protect you in that. We give players a period of time even during the game to make sure that they’re interested in playing. If you’ve gone in and said, this is going to be a great time, I’m looking forward to it, and then you start a game and you don’t want to play that game anymore, you won’t be responsible for paying for that whole session. But on the flip side, when you commit to the game, you’ve been in the game and you’ve had a good time, at the end of it you can’t just leave and not pay the GM the agreed-upon rate. We provide those around there. And then last, in that feedback loop at the end, we provide the opportunity to say, did you have a good time or did you not? If you didn’t you’re required to provide feedback, and if you did there’s still a place where you can provide feedback that goes to the GM. We find that even right now, we’re having groups come on to the platform that have been playing for a long time, and because of this feedback loop that’s anonymous, they’re now submitting feedback that says, it would be great if you made sure that everybody had an equal chance to talk, or act. Sometimes one player is leading. These people have been playing for years, but they’re just now providing this feedback because of the feedback loop in there.
Again, we’re trying to make the game better. Having ways to communicate these things can help that.
GamesBeat: Does this also include ways to deal with a player who, say, just doesn’t know the rules, who’s doing things wrong and annoying everyone else? Or someone who has other things going on in the background and isn’t fully committed to what they’re doing?
Bradford: There’s a fine line of where you can enforce these things from a technological standpoint. We try to empower GMs to be able to control their table or their space. We provide the feedback opportunities for other players to get involved. You have direct messages. If the group is not comfortable with one of the players, the GM can stop the game and remove that player, or address it specifically with that player. We have a whisper feature, part of our voice and video, that’s unique to gameplay. When you sit around a table and something happens where not the whole group needs to know, only one player, the GM will often walk over and whisper something to that player. You can’t really do that online, so we have a button you can press that takes you to a one on one chat with the player you want to talk to. That goes in many different ways. You can use that in the game when you make an insight check on a goblin and that goblin happens to be telling a lie, or if there’s a problem and you need to step aside with a player to discuss that, you can use that system to do it.
Frederick: I joined Demiplane in the first place because for several years now, my prevailing goal in life, to be honest, is I am a firm believer that if everyone in the world played RPGs, the world would just flat out be a better place. It’s the kind of thing I look for when I’m interviewing candidates for a job. If I’m looking to be friends with someone in real life, it’s great if they check that box strongly, that they play these games, because of the social contract that is happening at the table, whether it’s virtual or otherwise, in these games. It makes people better at interacting with others. It makes us all better at cooperation and all of the important things that, again, translate into a real life out here. A big part of that is building a community that is passionate, that is safe, that is a place for people to go and be able to celebrate these things they love, these games they love. As I’m joining Demiplane, a big part of what I will be doing is spearheading the development of that community. All of these technology tools are a wonderful starting point. That’s what I’m excited about. It gives us tools that I haven’t had in my former life here, and everything else to be able to provide that framework, to have a healthy and thriving community. A big part of what I will be doing as I come in is engaging that community and building and cultivating it. That excites me, because again, where we’re entering this from the play experience side is a wonderful starting point to be able to build that.
GamesBeat: One example I’m thinking here is, say I’m a person who’s trying to set up a paid GM business. But I want to cater to children. I want to teach kids how to play. I want to be able to have a table where a group of seven or eight 10 year olds play. Will Demiplane have tools in order to not only facilitate that but also keep other people from joining or having the children adhere to the agreed-upon rules for behavior?
Bradford: First of all, when you’re dealing with minors, it’s a very sensitive subject. We’re very aware of that. Right now, on our platform, we do not allow minors to play for that reason. We’re dealing with matchmaking and bringing players together. But one of the things we make sure of with the chat and the way the matchmaking process works is that no player gets into the game unless they’re specifically invited. No one is going to randomly pop in and have access to the players in your portal. That’s important to us. We make sure there’s a gatekeeper between those things. In the future, if there’s an opportunity for us to be able to allow minors in, we have the baseline of these tools that we can begin to start to use to keep the pool even safer in those situations. We can provide opportunities for contracts or specific agreements for minors, or if there needs to be permission from a parent or guardian. Those are things where we can use the technology to assist.
Frederick: I have two sons. We’ve played these games for as long as they could read. I love running games with kids. I love the creativity on display there. I do think that’s one of those problems that we’d love to be able to help solve in the future. But as Travis said, we’re going to do that with the utmost care. I do think that’s something that would be on our radar in the future, but we’re going to approach it with the integrity that we need to, to make sure that safety is in place. The scenario you’re mentioning is something that I’d absolutely love to see, and we’ll see if we can get there.
GamesBeat: How are the mapmaking and presentation tools that you have different from what I can find on other platforms like Fantasy Grounds or Roll20?
Bradford: What’s important to note here is that we’re not attempting to compete with a place like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds in a lot of the tools that they have to offer. As a virtual tabletop, they draw your focus to the table, to grids and maps and things like that. What’s important to us is keeping the focus on the people. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be using grids or maps or visuals in a lot of cases. One thing we pride ourselves on is being able to be sideways compatible with those tools. You can one-click open into your instance of Fantasy Grounds or the Foundry or Roll20, whichever virtual tabletop or grid system you choose. You can launch a game from within Demiplane to get to that in one click. Beyond that we allow our GMs to share their screens as well. A
lot of times, the GM will have their virtual tabletop available, or the grid, and during our combat, or when there’s a specific encounter where you need to use measurement tools and things like that, the GM will share their screen and take care of the virtual tabletop. Then they’ll often put it away again to continue to keep the focus on the players in those social situations or exploration or things like that. We try to do our best to work with and around these other tools to make the experience better. We’re trying to offer something that they don’t necessarily already offer, that can help players have a better time.
Frederick: That’s the important thing I’ll note there. What we’ve seen in the space — my ear has been to the ground for many years now. There’s a new virtual tabletop popping up roughly every week. You’re seeing it on Reddit, on Kickstarter. All over the place, there are many players that are trying to make the perfect virtual tabletop. What we’ve all seen to this point is that none of them are at that perfect point yet. We’re going to continue to see that evolve. If a new one pops up every week and that trend continues, we’ll get there one day.
As all of that is happening, we want to focus on, since it’s such a crowded space with VTTs, the areas where there are gaps, the things that the VTTs are not addressing, or that they’re not addressing well. That comes into a lot of these facilitation tools like video, the different kinds of chat, the other things that we have planned for the future. We’re trying to take a liquid approach and fill in a lot of those gaps in ways that are going to provide that value and make the game better. We want to work with those tools. There are many of them that we have our eyes on. We’ll see how that can continue to go in the future.
I’ve used all these VTTs. Even when I see one pop up every week, I go and I kick the tires. I try it out. I’m wanting to see what they’re offering and what they’re providing. I still come away from that experience kind of lacking some of the things that I’m looking for. I was discovering that I was simply turning to Zoom to run a lot of games. I was just sharing my screen when I wanted to show a map, those kinds of elements. We want to make that experience better for tabletop role-players, and then have that sideways compatibility, where if you do want to use one of the many VTTs out there, we’ll make that as easy as possible and keep that focus on the players around the table, while supporting the ways they want to play using a grid.
GamesBeat: Are you setting this up such that if I wanted to make some sort of animated video to introduce a new area or introduce a boss, I could play that inside the client that you’re running?
Bradford: I think you’re on the right track. Obviously, we can’t discuss all the things in the future road map. But we’re attempting to provide a space where you can do those types of things that you can’t do in other places, because they’re specifically made for these things. With the ability to share a screen, that’s pretty straightforward for the GM, to be able to share a video. As we continue to move forward, being able to integrate custom tools and options like that are things we want to do. We think that can enhance the experience for players.
Frederick: Another way to think about this, I have been in many online games, particularly since the pandemic started –I play in streamed games, at home, remote games over video conferencing. Before all of this started, I played in-person games at the office. All of those experiences are different. They come across differently in the game. But the thing that always unified the best of those games for me was when you had players, and especially the GM, who is running that game, that really takes to heart what’s on the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which is inspire and entertain your players, that part of it. We’re going to pull out all the stops and listen to the community about what will help prop up GMs to be able to inspire and entertain their players. What you mention there is an interesting thing, and those are the kinds of things that we absolutely would like to support as we go forward.
GamesBeat: Another thing I think about, a lot of people play game systems that have video game counterparts — Pillars of Eternity, Dragon Age. Would you be able to use Demiplane to take assets from those video games to use them inside what you’re doing, through a license agreement?
Bradford: We can’t talk about any of those kinds of possibilities at the moment. What I can say is we understand that in order for us to be successful, we’ll be talking to the players in the space and forging partnerships where that makes sense, and where it makes sense to fulfill the mission we’re on, to make the game better and to facilitate the play experience itself.
It’s a very interesting thing you’ve come up with, and I’m not tipping that, hey, that’s the kind of thing that we’re exploring out there. But I wouldn’t say that that kind of thing was completely outside the realm of possibility. With technology anything is possible. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take, what resources you need to pull those things together.
That’s one thing that excites me about this. We get to customize what this technology looks like. It’s not driven by anyone else except for us and the feedback we hear from the community. That’s important. We want to make sure that we–the core of our mindset is to make every part of the game better. We use that as our north star. Is bringing elements from video games that are attached to a lot of these RPG systems a positive thing that will make the game better? Then this is something we should look at and figure out how to implement in our system. All things are possible with technology. That’s what’s so great about this.
GamesBeat: How big is the company at the moment?
Bradford: With COVID there’s a lot of remote work happening currently. We’re based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It goes back to our home and heritage. Peter and I co-founded the company, and we grew up 15 minutes west of Lake Geneva, which is obviously where [Dungeons & Dragons co-creator] Gary Gygax was from and where these games were originally created. We grew up as players and GMs ourselves. Adam can attest that he’s been a role-player and a game host for a long time. Those are the things from our background that we want to dive into, using that knowledge and experience to shape what the future looks like for us. We’re based in Green Bay, and it’s important for us to keep those roots. The team is up seven people right now, with the intention of being able to add more as we continue to grow and move faster.
GamesBeat: Did you come up with this idea before COVID?
Bradford: I wish I could tell you that we could have put this all together since COVID and move that quickly. I do think we’ve moved quickly, but this is something that was in the works long before COVID. Peter and I started in the spring of 2019, formulating and figuring out if this was something that was worth going after and sustainable. We wanted to build a tool that would be able to last. We founded the company in the summer of 2019 and we’ve been working hard on it since then.
GamesBeat: Where is your funding coming from?
Bradford: There’s a myriad of ways you can handle these things, but the core piece is that it was important to me and Peter to make sure that we could put ourselves in a position to do this right. Obviously, I’ve been very fortunate to be in a situation where I’ve been able to earn a nice paycheck and help get something like this off the ground. We continue to look for and find partnerships in the space and outside of the space that believe in what we’re doing and want to be a part of it, to be a part of changing the game and making the space better.
GamesBeat: What’s your road map for the next three months, what you’re trying to accomplish and get out there?
Frederick: We’re not quite ready to talk about that at this point. Keep your eyes peeled over the next few months and I think you’ll see some exciting things coming.
GamesBeat: The name Demiplane, is that indicative of how this is existing out there, but it’s a service that works with everything else? Kind of how Ravenloft comes in here and there, or other demiplanes.
Bradford: Yep, you hit it on the head. A demiplane is a place; we see it in a couple of different ways. It can be a gateway to a new place. It can be that pocket dimension. They can be spawned for whatever need that you have. It envelops all of those different ways to look at it. We see ourselves as the gateway to adventure. That means, if you’re a player that’s looking for a gateway to go through into an adventure, to find your next adventure, that correlates there. But also, we provide an individual and private pocket dimension for you and your group to focus on each other and play these games. It’s private. Nobody from the outside. Nobody’s jumping into your game, which is important from an internet security standpoint. And then the fact that they can be spawned for whatever need you have. It’s easy, two clicks and two questions that we ask to get you into a new portal. You can spin one up for the game you want to run tomorrow if you want. It’s important for us to be in the space. We think Demiplane fits in the industry, but also it’s a unique thing. It’s encompassing of what we want to do.
Frederick: And it just sounds cool, too.