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Roll20 Logo

Roll20 Logo

Dealing with COVID-19 has, of necessity, forced me and several other gamesmasters I know to adopt Roll20[1] as an online platform for table-top roleplaying games.

So, having done so for the last couple of months, what are my general thoughts on Roll20, and are those thoughts extendable to other platforms[2]?

The Wins

Before I get into the details and the admittedly many issues I’m struggling with, a reminder of why I’m doing this.

I started the Perth RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha group because I’d had so much fun running it for the Canberra group that I wanted to share. I did so expecting that I would only get to run the Perth group maybe 3 – 4 times a year. Now I get to run it weekly.

WIN.

I also get to play Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition weekly with most of the same players in Perth. Lo these many years ago[3] this was my most regular role playing group before I left Perth for Melbourne. Getting to reconnect with this group weekly is something I’m really happy about.

WIN.

As far as my Canberra RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha group goes, see above. I’ve had a lot of fun with this game, and being able to continue running it even with COVID-19 in the air and winter setting in in Canberra[4]?

WIN.

The Learning Curves

Yes, there’s a plural there.

Yes, that’s deliberate.

A joke I shared with @ariaflame yesterday when we were wrapping up a session for my Perth RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha group was that anytime you try to do anything new on Roll20 you will be facing an all new learning curve. It will probably be a fairly steep learning curve as well. We laughed, but there was definitely an element of “if we don’t laugh we’re surely going to want to cry”.

The particular topic of that discussion was dynamic lighting, but it’s been true for learning to set up maps at all, setting up mooks vs NPCs, managing handouts, coming up with macros or rollable tables, managing tokens, managing access levels, etc, etc.

There’s simply a lot to master in Roll20, and even after a couple of months I’m still wouldn’t say I’m there yet. I think I’m doing a decent enough job of it, but there’s still room to improve.

More Advance Preparation

This is an issue that may abate over time as I get faster, but for the moment if I’m going to need a map for a particular session, I need to have that map fully set up before the session starts. This is especially the case if I’m using dynamic lighting[5]. That takes even more time to set up and test.

Setting up NPCs so that they can roll dice within the game space also takes time. There’s also some finicky details that you need to manage[6] if you want to have say 20 odd mooks all using the same stats.

This is probably the single biggest weakness in Rol20, and possibly any online platform.

I’ll admit to not being the most creative/flexible of GMs[7], but needing that advance preparation limits my ability to respond when/if the players decide to go off the script as it were. Given that I’m reluctant to railroad my players too much[8], I can see a risk here of having to cut sessions short to prepare for what they are doing.

System Support

This will be variable by system. Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is pretty thoroughly supported on Roll20, as is Pathfinder[9]. Alas, for my purposes, about the only Chaosium system with a decent level of support is inevitably Call of Cthulhu. The support for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is currently limited to a fairly decent character sheet.

As such I’m having to improvise a fair bit using private blog posts for rules clarifications/guides, and also kit bashing the Turn Tracker with dividers for Strike Ranks. Some initial testing is showing that whilst that gives me a tracker, it interferes with the ability of the character sheet to put actions into the tracker and then activate those actions. This is an area where I need to do more testing[10].

I’ve also ordered one of these so that I can have something on my desk that will help me keep track.

I recently prepared a rollable table to simulate resistance rolls such as the POW vs POW rolls so often needed in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha spellcasting. However it doesn’t tie directly to the PCs/NPCs involved. The best I could do is a table that reports a relative result – the player still needs to tell me their POW, and the relative result (e.g. “active + 5”) so that I can then work out whether or not the spell succeeded.

Audio and Video

This is going to be variable depending on the quality of tech available to your players. My Perth groups[11] seem to be set up consistently enough that I can use the Roll20 audio and video exclusively. The Canberra group is more varied, so we’ve had to abandon Roll20 for comms entirely and go to voice only on Discord.

I do recommend getting a decent gaming headset with a microphone though.

Running the Game

Not having everyone at the table does present additional challenges in terms of managing the game in flight.

I’m still learning here but some simple techniques that I’m trying to adopt are:

  • Player icons/avatars are displayed in a row at either the top or bottom of the screen[12]. When I need to poll all of the players (e.g. for declarations of intent in a melee round), I try to do it from left to right.
  • Making use of the chat whisper function to pass information to specific players that they become aware of that others are not.
  • Seeking feedback when I can[13] on what’s working, and what’s not.

What can be challenging is keeping people focused and on track when it’s their turn to act. That’s something I’m still struggling with.

That said, I do think I’m getting better at it, and that my players are generally finding their feet on the platform as well. So things are starting to smooth out overall.

One thing that has been useful has been the handouts mechanism. I tend to hand out rumours fairly regularly in game, and doing these via handouts means that they’re always there for the players to refer back to. Plus I have GM notes (that they can’t see) that tell me how reliable (or not) that particular rumour is.

Post Game

One thing I do really like about Roll20 is the Campaign Forum, and especially being prompted to write a post when you exit the game. That makes it really easy to dash off a few paragraphs that summarise the last session as a reference point for future sessions.

This can be really useful in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha if you need to summarise the upcoming cult holy days for the next session if players are going to need to recover Rune Points.

Generalising to Other Platforms

AKA me talking out my arse. 🙂

Look, there are going to be certain use cases[14] common to any online tabletop roleplaying solution. I think the core ones are:

  • Support for audio/video conferencing in some form or other
  • Support for text chat, including private text chats
  • Support for mapping, with GMs having different views of the map
  • Mechanics to implement characters, NPCs, and monsters
  • Mechanics to support whatever combat system the game uses

Whether my thoughts above can be generalised depends on the extent to which each use case is custom built within the solution.

A solution that relies on Skype for Business (or equivalent) for the audio/video conferencing (and possibly the text chat as well) may not have a steep learning curve because many will be familiar with it from a work setting. A custom built solution will be more complicated.

Against that the three last use cases probably do require custom build/configuration on any platform, so I think many of the issues I’ve described to Roll20 will be applicable.

Conclusion

Adapting to Roll20 has been a major challenge for me, but one that has been well worth the effort.

The regular gaming connection with friends that I see only rarely, and the maintenance of my connections with friends here in Canberra, is well and truly worth the effort that goes into it.

Questions of the Post: If you are using Roll20, what are your thoughts on it? If you are using a different platform, which one and why? If you aren’t using any of these platforms and are within a couple of hours of the Canberra timezone, are you interested in playing RuneQuest online with me as GM[15]?

[1] There are other platforms out there, Roll20 is just the one I’m using.

[2] And, yes, that is your cue to sound off in the comments.

[3] i.e. Not this century.

[4] Apart from anything else, I had a bout of pneumonia late last year. It was not fun. I’m feeling pretty risk-averse in the COVID-19 environment.

[5] As a purely hypothetical example, say I want my adventurers (who can’t see in the dark) to be facing Trolls (who due to Darksense effectively can) and who have a penchant for using Extinguish and Darkwall Spirit Magic spells. Dynamic Lighting is going to be essential in that situation.

[6] See The Learning Curves above.

[7] There’s a reason I primarily rely on published adventures.

[8] When I was much younger, and a much worse GM than I am now, I forced things so badly once that I ended up with my Stormbringer players chanting “What do we want? Free will! When do we want it? Now!” at me. Lesson well and truly learned.

[9] Both first and second edition I think.

[10] See The Learning Curves above.

[11] I’m also playing in a Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition game being run by @ariaflame. Even with the two hour time difference and being up til midnight on Friday nights, I’m having a huge amount of fun in that game with my Dragonborn Barbarian.

[12] This is a user controllable setting.

[13] And, yes, to any of my players who are actually reading this, that is your cue to sound off in the comments.

[14] Business Analysts gonna Business Analyst. Yes, I pretty much do think in these terms for most systems I use.

[15] I may have a couple of one-shots I can run. 🙂