One of the problems the internet is always trying to solve is how to make it possible for people in different places to do the same thing at the same time. This is especially true for RPGs. The situation is like this: You grew up with a bunch of guys and gals playing D&D or Shadowrun or, heaven help you, Call of Cthulhu. Now that you’ve all grown up and got your dream jobs writing for WoTC and FASA and Chaosium (hey, we specialize in fantasy around here), you are too far apart to get together at any one person’s house on a regular basis and actually play. What do you do?
One of the potential solutions is to track down a Virtual Table Top solution. The idea behind the VTT is to provide software that mimics the table you would normally be playing on in an online space accessible to all your friends. Anything to facilitate the game and keep playing generally works. Some solutions are better than others, however.
One of the major stumbling blocks to setting up a VTT that you and your friends can use, has always been just that, getting it set up. Over the years a variety of solutions have been proposed. From the proprietary, everyone buys a copy of the software variety, to the more cash friendly option of open source, free to use, community maintained style they all seem to suffer from a pretty steep learning curve just to get the thing off the ground and running the most basic type of adventure.
If it’s not a problem generated by learning the software, it’s the necessity of making your own maps, or figuring out how to import them so everyone can see them, or getting whatever it is you are going to use for miniatures to work properly, or dealing with oddball dice rolling plug-ins or system friendliness or… well, it’s been a minefield of varying problems, each of which is unique to whatever VTT you are using. Having played around with a number of different software solutions, I can tell you that none of them has ever lived up to the ease of use hype that they all pretty much promise. Until now.
Roll20, a new VTT still in Beta, is the creation of Riley Dutton, a web developer who also happens to be a Role Player. Roll20’s true innovation, even among all its other features, is actual, real, ease of use. Not, easy-to-use if you understand java, not easy-to-use if you’ve used these sorts of things before, not easy-to-use if you can work out the oddball connection method, and certainly not easy-to-use if you don’t mind a couple of weird idiosyncrasies of the software. All things which have plagued previous VTTs to their ultimate demise. Roll20 works and it works well. There is no reason not to have an adventure up and running that you and your friends can enjoy in under 30 minutes.
Roll20 manages to do this because it’s creators have made some excellent decisions about how the software should work. You don’t download anything for starters, the entire program runs as a web app that you access either from the Roll20 web site or via Google Hangouts. It is programed in HTML5 and runs in your web browser of choice, provided you are using anything like a modern web browser. Once your adventure or campaign is set up, you simply share a link with all your players and everyone should be ready to go.
There are no files to email around, no ini to edit and tweak and best of all, at least from a ‘let’s get playing’ standpoint, everyone can be up and running within moments of getting the link. You don’t even have to create your own maps and tokens.
Roll20 has a large and easily accessible art resource. You can make your own custom maps and tokens and tiles, but if this isn’t your thing, you’ll find all these resources available to you through the app itself with a couple of quick searches in the built in search. If you STILL can’t find what you want, then just click over to the web search and find it there. Once you’ve got what you want you don’t have to do any coding of your own, you just drag and drop them into the appropriate layer (map, token or GM). Best of all, you can do this on the fly in the middle of a game if you suddenly decide that you need an extra few goblins in the current encounter.
The maps and pages update in real time for all players, which means no one should be lagging behind when that horde of goblins comes out of nowhere. Player status can be managed via a series of incremented bars controlled by either the GM or the players themselves as well as various dots that can be placed on a character to show ongoing effects. Character sheets are readily available to all and easily edited just as if you were writing a regular document in your favorite word processor. Players and GMs also have access to handouts that can be created in a similar manner with player access to any given hand out being set by the GM.
One of the downfalls of many VTTs is the amount of time and effort it takes to manage the VTT itself rather than GMing the game. Roll20 is so elegantly simple to use that this time is at a minimum. Even in my first attempt at GMing a session with Roll20 as a newbie to the application I spent most of my time adjudicating the actions of the players rather than trying to finesse the system to get it to do what I wanted. The developers are very serious about making it easy.
Nice features abound. There is a built in music player that allows searching on Soundcloud to add ambiance and mood to your game. Sound effects are readily found and added, again, on the fly if need be, and played out to all players simultaneously. There is master volume control on the GM side, but also volume settings on the players side to keep the music at levels all will appreciate.
Roll20 is system agnostic. Meaning, unlike some of the other VTTs on offer, that you can run any game system you want in it. It’s not meant to enforce any one specific ruleset, because, just like you at home, it doesn’t run just one game, it facilitates the running of all games. The built in dice roller is constantly being added to so that you can roll virtually any sort of dice you need to with a couple of quick keyboard commands. Rolls can be seen by all or be sent to specific people, such as the GM, only. If, like me, you enjoy the original Deadlands system with its card based randomizing mechanic, you can do that, too with the built in card dealer. In fact, the VTT is so versatile I’ve seen Settlers of Catan played on it because you can import your own card designs as well.
Individual encounters are set up on pages, with each page representing one location for your PCs to act on. Moving to the next page is as simple as dragging a bookmark from where you are to where you want to be. All players receive the updated location and off you go. The only hang up to this is the need to bring player tokens to the new location as this doesn’t (or didn’t at the time I tried it) happen automatically. It’s cut and paste and a tad annoying but not so much that you’d stop using it. The app at least maintains all information and status effects on the players when you do this.
Other nice features include fog of war, an initiative tracker, and a reasonably robust voice and video chat system. When I played, only one of our 6 players had any trouble at all getting this running and we were eventually able to sort it out. It delayed us a little bit, but once up and running the chat system performed well with good quality all along the line.
All files and maps you personally create are stored on Roll20’s server. There is a storage size limit, but the fully fleshed out, four encounter one shot using maps and tokens I created myself never even came close to using it up. You shouldn’t have any worries there, unless you intend to run The World’s Largest Dungeon.
Roll20 is, as mentioned, in Beta. It is free to use and updates come regularly to add features and squash any bugs that might occur. Original funding for the app was done via Kickstarter with all its development costs fully covered. The app will remain free once it leaves beta, but a fee for additional storage and some ‘premium’ features will be instituted. There is no word on what these premium features might be at this time, but the core app and all the features currently in place will remain available at no charge.
We enjoyed using Roll20 for our game and had a great time with it. If anything, unlike other VTTs, Roll20 actually enhanced what we were doing and made things much more fun for all involved. It did what it was supposed to do: Facilitate the playing of a game online with people spread out across the country. What’s more, it did it very well indeed. Rather than being something that needed constant massaging to make it work properly and therefore interrupting your game and making it harder, it got out of the way and came as close to sitting around the table rolling dice as you can get without actually sitting around the table rolling dice.
Roll20 gets as high a recommendation as I give anything: Try it, you’ll like it.Add to favorites
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.