I used to play a lot of role-playing games when I was a teenager (and I do mean a lot), spending most weekends staying up late as the Dungeon Master for my players as they faced the many perils of my favorite AD&D campaign setting: Dark Sun.
One of the things I like the most about RPGs is not the escapism of a fantasy setting, the ability to quickly adapt to an insane detour in the adventure taken by the players, or the power of life and death over my players’ characters. It was the time spent together with my friends, talking, making fun of each other’s mistakes, and bickering about the many loopholes in AD&D rules. Those were the best days of my youth.
Eventually, we all got girlfriends and jobs, moved away to other cities for college or work, and our little group was no more. After several years many of us were living in the same city again, but with jobs and girlfriends making time is never easy, so we almost never played live. We tried to play over email, but the tactical nature of D&D 3.5 makes that very hard as you need to determine grid position, line of sight, etc. which caused me to calculate and draw everything on MS Paint every combat turn, making quick encounters take literally days and putting an even greater effort on me as the DM. So that didn’t last long and we went several years without a single gaming session.
Fortunately, one day a fantastic podcast called The Incomparable decided to have an episode dedicated to RPG and the setting chosen was none other than Dark Sun. They used Google+ Hangout so the entire session was recorded with audio and video and seeing such different people talk, make fun of each other mistakes, and complain about rules made me want to get the gang back one more time.
I still had no idea how to manage a session with all players in different cities that didn’t drive me crazy, but it seemed that Scott McNulty, the DM in the podcast, was using some sort of web app to display maps and control positioning of player characters & monsters, and even roll die. Scott told me over Twitter that app was called Roll20.
I quickly drafted an email to my friends proposing a session using the exact same setup as the cast of the The Incomparable did, and everybody also seemed excited about the idea. A day was set, and I was off to create my first session in many years.
While the first session wasn’t the best as everybody, including me, was very rusty and shy after all those years, but talking, interacting, and goofing around once again with friends I only saw through Facebook status updates was just fantastic. We now have biweekly sessions scheduled.
Roll20 allows you to create a virtual tabletop (VTT) where you lay out a map on a grid and then can add more elements such as scenery, obstacles, and monsters. Roll20 has a marketplace with lots of resources (free and premium) that you can use to make your job to set up an encounter easier (you can also add maps you created or got from somewhere else). As the DM you can add elements for your eyes only, use fog of war to obscure player sight, and create dynamically illuminated areas so each player has its own line of sight. During the game you can also access text chat, public and private, both in- or out-of-character.
Players can create their own character sheets and use their stats to automatically determine attack and damage rolls, and display that information in-game. Being completely platform agnostic is both boon and bane here, as Roll20 does not leverage any information from D&D or Pathfinder SRDs, a public rules framework that could be leveraged to make the character creation/management much friendlier. I would love to be able to load a monster from the SRD directly instead of either manualy configuring it or looking it up and then rolling all dice manually. Probably because of that it also doesn’t help dealing with area effects, such as spells, which need to be manually calculated and drawn over the VTT with no so good results.
The service is ad-supported and doesn’t cost anything to use, but I was so happy with all the cool features it provided that I quickly became a supporter for just $5 a month. If you’re the DM, becoming a supporter will also provide perks for your players, as it will also remove ads from your campaigns and allow them to access Roll20 from mobile devices.
Roll20 still has a long way to go before it’s the perfect virtual tabletop experience, but for the first time in many years I can play with my friends in a way that doesn’t frustrate anyone, and for that I am more than happy.
- The virtual tabletop coupled with Google+ Handout make it for the best remote experience you can get
- Platform agnostic (D&D, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, etc.)
- Player Character sheets are still very manual and time-consuming to create
- Area effects very hard to manage
- Hard to move players across different encounters
- No API or SRD support