Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Roll20 Experience - Exploring Virtual Tabletops (VTTs)

Tonight (well, last night Saturday) we tried out Roll20. This was a bit of an abrupt shift for a table mostly of long time gamers --only some of whom have tried online virtual tabletop gaming before, and fewer still who did it enough to feel good or comfortable about it.

Still, I'll say this much: I was able to figure out Roll20 and run a game with it with minimal hassle, which is not a bad endorsement. For those of you who are like me and my group (in need of gaming but also keen on engaging in self-isolation to avoid playing the coronavirus lottery), here are my experiences and observations:

First, we carried on with Pathfinder 2nd edition, our sole game of choice on Saturday nights since August. The group has just hit level 13 and the story had a sufficiently new break that it was a good spot to transition to the new medium. Of course starting a game with an entirely new format of play at level 13 led to some interesting complications; for one, the Roll20 rules let you load a Pathfinder 2.0 character sheet but it requires a lot of input by the players; unlike the default SRD content tied to the D&D 5E options, there's no walk through on PC creation (and for an example of how cool and easy that can be go look at the Pathbuilder 2E app). Still, everyone gave it a valiant effort, though some were still inputting spells by midnight (we started playing at 6, and the actual game at 7 after it became clear spells would talk a while.) Though much time was spent putting the PC sheets in place, it was pretty much unnecessary; you could easily play with paper character sheets and just input modifiers for rolls as you go.

Since I had about one day's lead time in the decision to use Roll20 I had enough time to figure out that I didn't really know what to do to fully take advantage of it. I went ahead and subscribed, which gave me access to some maps and free tokens. I downloaded free maps I could find, then grabbed this pack of 120 map tiles on drivethrurpg which seemed like a good deal; I got one map constructed for detailed play, and used some generic overland maps for wilderness encounters. Then, after getting a test session in Friday to figure out the functions and features I was able to grab some images which could be used for illustration.

My big conundrum with moving to Roll20 is that it's a format for gaming which naturally seems to lend to maps/minis, which left me wondering how to reconcile my "theater of the mind" approach against the VTT's key focus. The game's main features center on providing graphics and dropping virtual tokens on to them. Surprisingly this VTT does not provide some mechanism for literal virtual 3D minis (in which you could actually buy graphic suites to lay out 3D maps and use 3D images and icons); that would be rather cool, though probably a bit of work to set up.

Rather than try the Theater of the Mind approach I went ahead and just made sure to try the map/tokens approach, and after a lengthy portion of role play we got to a fight with some shuln (challenge rating 12 giant angry molerat monsters with adamantine claws in Pathfinder). Finding a mini to work turned out to be trivial, as it let me search for online sources and import the actual shuln image which I could then place on the virtual tabletop. Kinda cool. Indeed, the core elements of the VTT were clearly intended to help out - easy bubbles to plug some numbers such as hit points in to, an initiative tracker, and each of the players seemed to figure out the optimal way to roll and declare ability uses.

The actual process of combat was clean enough, but I found the advanced die roller slightly clumsy in actual use, and everything felt just a bit slower and more painful; I probably would have done better to keep my trusty old note pad for combat tracking and simply called it over audio and the experience would have gone smoothly enough.

Only one player had issues; he had tried to use the Roll20 app, which it turns out is more of a support app and did not have audio or mike use on his phone. He did not have a PC and ended up having to sit out on the game. I'm going to look at some ways to fix this, but for the night's session at least it was a wash for him.

Other oddities I noticed: the free suite of tokens and tools was enough for anyone who doesn't mind sorting through, but a bit of a pain to search on the fly. I am not 100% sure (yet) if there's a way to refine the tokens and other bits to make it easier to find the provided tools. However, while trying to use the search feature I found it much more impressive simply because I could quickly grab a graphic and apply it, which was much more useful in the long run.

It took me a while on Friday to figure out the whole map drop-down and player banner deal, but once I did it made the rest of the VTT make more sense. If you use Roll20, just remember that: you need to put the player banner on the thing you want them to see.

I created some image sets intended entirely for illustration; for most all of the role-play elements I simply provided occasional graphics I liked for their suitability to show locations and characters. But in each case, the images snapped to the grid and shrank to one square, whether it was a single image or a whole map. I haven't figured out how to stop this (yet).

In the end, I had the following take-aways:

It will fill a needed Role: Roll20 will work for what my group needs to survive a couple months* of social isolation; we are not going to be suffering too badly thanks to this tool (and for my friend without a good laptop I have an idea to refurbish an old one he can use).

I need to use it the way I do at a Real Table for combat: The compulsion to take full advantage of the VTT elements with maps and virtual minis is hard to resist, and I am not sure that really helps with my style of game that much; I have been running Pathfinder 2E religiously by what I call the "Page 494 rule," which is essentially just two paragraphs but it is all you will ever need in terms of Theater of the Mind gameplay guidelines for PF 2E.

I Think I'd Enjoy it More with Cypher System: my group has been obsessed with Pathfinder 2E since it came out, but prior to that I'd been running Cypher System for about two years with great obsession. I still want to make Cypher System a main game, but can't fault them for enjoying PF 2E, which is a great iteration of the D20 system. That said...I think the vastly simpler mechanical elements of Cypher System would make it easier to run a game on Roll20 with a focus on using illustrations and maps purely as visual aids, and taking advantage of card decks (of which quite a few are available, though not the Cypher System creature deck for some weird reason).

Good for other, simpler systems, too: I think 13th Age, Traveller, Tiny D6 (which has support in Roll20!) and others could translate well to this medium. I actually am certain I would really enjoy using this for some Swords & Wizardry or Forbidden Lands, for example. White Star, too. Really, this would work for any game system that doesn't require a bunch of math or nitty-gritty mechanical pieces. Not having to roll too many dice with the clunky die roller would also help.

Are there specific reasons not to go with Roll20? Well....first, you need a decent laptop or desktop PC with audio and a mike. If you don't have that, you can use it for chat-based play with the VTT elements, but that can be less interesting than actually seeing and talking to your cohorts.

Second, while I haven't checked out all the other systems yet, Roll20 is subscription-based so you won't own it, precisely. You can play a free version but that is pretty darn basic. If you like owning a product D20pro and Fantasy Grounds can do that.

Third, and this depends heavily on your need for resources, all the licensed content is capital-E Expensive. You're basically paying full retail for resources that let you access rules info in the game, but so far as I can tell these purchases only work with Roll20. That means if you decide to commit to this VTT, you're in it for the long haul. If you're like me and your gaming investment has been 95% for the real table, it can be a pain to even imagine spending a bunch of cash a second time to get virtual versions of the "real deal."

Luckily you really don't need it; with the books at hand and what that basic Roll20 suite (I did subscribe for a month to the deluxe set) you've got all you need and probably more than you will want to run decent games remotely. I think we'll stick with this VTT for now, though I really want to check out Astral next.

*If this goes longer than two months then we will have much bigger problems to worry about.


  1. We've been using Roll20 for about a year now and our experiences are about like yours. We started using it to run an "off-night" weekly PF 1E game because a couple of our members live too far away to meet weeknights. The group mostly didn't want video, to save on bandwidth, and we use Mumble for voice for the same reason. Roll20 is slow and clunky, and the character sheets are terribly laid out. I think it would go much better with video and "theatre of the mind.

    1. I'll check out might be the fix for at least one player. I noticed, cutting video dramatically helped my players with lower bandwidth. My next session is Wednesday, going to focus on props and illustrations with less emphasis on precision movement and virtual minis.