I’ve discussed one way to play board games virtually, and we’ll get to other options, but today let’s look at Roll20 for virtual RPG gaming. Roll20 is a way for GM’s of many different game systems to host their online games, whether its a single shot game or a campaign. It allows the GM to set up their maps, and have the players create or insert their character sheet and link that sheet to a token (image) on the map, which will keep track of hit points and other often used data.
Roll20 is a free platform, with paid options for those who want to have access to things like dynamic lighting and custom character sheets. It supports D&D 5E and Paizo products as well as many other publishers. It hosts most of the newest D&D Adventurer’s League Modules, which you can purchase right from the marketplace within Roll20, and have all of the tokens, maps and other components necessary to run the event. Also, when you purchase modules, the text of the module goes into the journal sidebar, so you can read right from your screen. I have a little problem with that, because you have to switch between tabs on the sidebar to get to the chat window, to add tokens, and/or to look at the journal. There may be a way around this that I have not yet found. There is inline video and voice chat which works reasonably well. It has a nice feature that is available to all subscription levels called Fog of War, where you can black out a map, and reveal sections of it to your players as they go. You can see through it so you know what you are uncovering, but your players can only see what you uncover. Dice rolls are available in the chat window, so that everyone can see what the rolls are, which is nice. You can do this without much setup by using text prompts in the chat window, or, if your players have built their characters in Roll20 you can use shortcuts. You can also “whisper” to other players in the chat window so that only you and them can see the exchange.
I have had some difficulties using the search engine to find some things in the marketplace, and have had to follow links from outside the program if there is something that I have been notified about. Again, this may be user error. I have run 2 games using Roll20 and have spend some time fiddling around with the interface, but not nearly enough.
Like any RPG GMing scenario, the more time you put into the interface, whether it be pen & paper (drawing maps or building 3D dungeons, finding the right minis and coming up with good NPC’s) or virtual (figuring out how to use all the cool tricks of the interface, and find good e-tokens, upload maps and get your players up to speed) the more time you spend getting set up the easier the game will run. There are some great You Tube videos on how to use all the tricks in Roll20. It’s got a lot to offer if you have the time to spend getting up to speed. I was able to get up and running with a basic set up with only a couple hours of preparation. I didn’t really get the best use out of the character set up for my players, but if you are looking for a basic “Here’s the map, your character is here and moves there”, and let you players keep track of things like hp and spells and such, it’s do-able with a minimal amount of effort. Especially if you purchase a pre-made module within Roll20. We started our first game with pen and paper character sheets and just used Roll20 for chat/maps/character and monster movement. I would highly recommend starting by having your players create their character within the game. It gives you many more options that work automatically down the line.
Roll20 also has a decent amount of community content available. As of this writing, there is no way for someone to create a Roll20 “module” that a GM can import into the system to use. You can import individual pieces easily, and can search for community created tokens (character/monster/dungeon dressing) within the program, or buy them and upload them. A couple nice ones that I have found are 2minutetabletop.com, which has a nice selection of inexpensive tokens and maps, and DM Dave, who has content within Roll20 as well as a Patreon where you can get A LOT of really nice content for a minimal price. He also regularly puts out free content which is well done.
The help feature in Roll20 works reasonably well. I have been able to find answers to my questions fairly rapidly. The Tutorial you take when you first log into a game takes a little time, but is well worth the effort as it explains most of what you need very well. However it IS a LOT to take in when you are just starting, and if you are like me, you’ll forget half of what it taught you by the time the tutorial is finished. I recommend giving your players a virtual “playground” starter screen where they can get in prior to your game time and kick the tires before they start play without messing up your finely crafted map areas.
Overall, you should expect your first several games to take longer than a normal game session as people get used to the interface. I have found this to be the way with most online RPG platforms. I would recommend if you are looking at a 4 hour play slot, that you pick a 2-hour adventure, or plan to split your normal adventure into two sessions. And be prepared to spend game time sharing platform knowledge as well as game information. “You see the giant ahead of you, he hasn’t noticed you yet…” says the GM. “Hey guys, did you know if you type /gr /w [name] [message] that only you and the GM will see the message…uh…not that I just did that…” responds player A.
Overall, I like Roll20. It can get you up and running quickly, but has a lot of depth that you can explore to make your gaming smooth.