Roll20 is tabletop roleplaying with customizable maps, a chat log and drag and drop monsters

Roll20 is tabletop roleplaying with customizable maps, a chat log and drag and drop monsters

Roll20 advertises itself as a “virtual tabletop,” but it's much, much more than that. In many ways that's a good thing. Roll20 isn't just blank tiles and webcam support, it's a full suite of creation tools and an active community with their own suggestions or workarounds to creating custom content. The downside is that Roll20 requires a lot of preparation and work, and roleplaying groups that tend to operate on the fly may not like its structure. Still, if you and your buddies are separated by distance but want to continue your dice-based adventures, there are few better programs. Roll20 started development in February 2012 as a way for the developers to enjoy their pen-and-paper roleplaying hobby over distances, and in fulfilling that purpose it surpasses expectations. There's a ton of creation tools at a GM's disposal, including tokens, backgrounds, music, data sheets, status markers and more. There's a 10-minute tutorial the first time you boot it up that gives a brief rundown of the app's features, but you'll want to watch it several times to get a full understanding. Even then, it's a good idea to mess around free-form for awhile, just to see the staggering amount of content available, most of which is free.

Roleplaying is all about creation, and so is Roll20

In the summer of last year, I was separated from my usual roleplaying group. I had only played a handful of times as my whiz-kid mechanic mad scientist before I departed for Los Angeles to begin a three-month stay in the city, and I was pretty down about the whole thing. I love roleplaying games, and the character I had in mind was smart and scrappy. It was a letdown to leave her behind. My DM and I tried to set something up with Skype, but it was clunky and awkward. I would have to tilt my laptop every time I rolled so the built-in webcam could display my dice result. I could only see a portion of my group at the table, with none of them turned to face my digital presence. The breaking point was battle however, as it was both impractical and inconvenient to give me a topdown view of the battlefield and our minis. I returned to a character who no longer felt like she was mine, and whom I no longer wanted to play. Roll20 addresses each of the problems I had with my improvised Skype setup, and does so with a slick and easy interface. Note that “easy” should not be used as a synonym for “simple” or “minimalistic” - there's a lot of stuff here, and many options for a GM. Here's how it works: A GM creates a campaign and names it. They are then dropped into the Roll20 virtual tabletop, which begins as a white area overlaid with squares. To the right-hand side is a menu that allows the GM to access Chat, the Art Library, a Journal, a Jukebox, and miscellaneous options such as enabling 3D dice. The top bar shows the GM all the pages they've created. Think of pages like maps: you can always create new ones to shuffle players to, and they have many variables including size, scale, fog of war, or even switching to hexagons instead of squares. Roll20 gets GMs into the game of creation quickly, as there's no need to do things like draw out your own map or fetch an image from the Internet. The Art Library has a handy search function, so if for example you wanted to have your characters enter a forest, you would go to the Art Library tab, select “Maps, Tiles, Textures” from the dropdown menu, then search “forest.” Move your mouse to the image you like and drag it to the main screen. Drop it and then stretch, enlarge, or rotate the image until it's the way you like. You can also draw custom maps if you don't like what's given to you or want to reproduce a special place dear to your heart. Say you want to add a goblin for your players to fight. Switch to “Tokens” in the Art Library dropdown menu and search for “goblin.” Dragging and dropping works exactly the same with tokens as it does with maps, allowing you to alter the image's dimensions and rotate it. Many tokens will also let you add numerical values to three different categories represented by a red telemetry line, a green heart, and a blue lightning bolt. Technically none of these symbols means anything unless you say they do, so you don't have to worry about filling them out. Roll20 is just giving you the option in case your particular system uses multiple values. One particularly cool thing I liked that Roll20 actually improves from real life is the ability to give players secret messages or notes. A GM can whisper to a player without worry of someone overhearing, or even place a blood-stained note found at a crime scene into their inventory. Since these messages and notes are saved between sessions, it's always easy to organize and remember what's been said and what's going on. The whole system is very quick and painless, though it's not perfect. Some images, for example, seem better suited to Roll20 than others. Many of the included sci-fi theme images appear muddy once stretched above a certain size. Tokens might use a round border or a square one, or they might be designed to look like minis from a top-down view, so it's up to you to manage them for consistency. The other gripe I have is that this is designed for groups to roleplay together over long distances, so it's not going to help one person dial in unless everyone has their own laptop. Of course, that defeats the purpose of getting together in person for everyone else.

Room for improvement

This sort of program is only as good as the people using it, and there are forums full of suggestions, general and off-topic discussion, even players looking for a group to join. I'm more excited by the idea of the forums and the possibility of them being a busy exchange in the future than their current state though. Only six of the 25 threads currently displayed have upwards of 10 posts, with the most popular being the “Character Sheets” thread in Suggestions & Ideas, and a thread that invites players to share screenshots of their campaigns. Developers regularly read and interact with the forums, and not once did I see a flame war or discourteous post. People get passionate to be sure, but it's all done with an air of respect. Perhaps it's because the forums strip away anonymity, protecting readers from the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. In a post detailing the features he'd like to see, user Nicholas Hines lists no fewer than 10 suggestions, some with their own subdivisions of suggestion. Although the app supports turning on Fog of War, Hines lists several ways in which it could be improved: “1) Currently, if the characters move to a screen and you set the option to place FOW after they view it, it will not show up. 2) Player based FOW. Not every player should see around a corner just because another player does. Allows for characters to tricks others etc. 3) GM FOW view. When using a darker background, its impossible to tell what you have revealed. Adding options for opacity and color similar to the grid would help. 4) Better revealing. Allow free form (mentioned in another post) and I think grid reveal as well as in click squares/hex to reveal that section.” At the end of Hines' thread, Nolan T. J., a member of the Roll20 development team, informs everyone that many of the suggestions listed are in the works, and he thanks Hines for his view. It's a refreshing breath of fresh air to see developer/community interaction on such a level. I just wish there was more. Roll20 boasts a user base of 57,000 but the aforementioned threads combined total just 10,600 posts. Another troubling sign is that Roll20 made almost four times its Kickstarter goal, yet the bar tracking support on the site is a red sliver. We tried to contact the team to discuss the program, and they never returned our email. Roll20 isn't perfect, especially for groups like mine, which have a tendency for the theatrical. This is a good start, however, but let's hope that the Kickstarter money and user donations allow for a slightly smoother experience in the future.