Sunday, September 2, 2012

Roll20: Virtual Tabletop Revolution

A few months ago, I began to tire of my group’s constant struggle against Maptool. It runs on Java. Some of my less technically inclined players ended up with Java auto updating, ruining any chance of them running Maptool. Of course downgrading to an old version worked, most of the time. But issues like this kept popping up. The upgrade to Windows 7 was a big change for Java. Memory errors on machines with 8GB+ of memory were common. Sometimes people couldn't even launch Maptool at all.

The application also had huge bandwidth requirements; even with most of our assets being streamed from my webspace, instances of being “stacksized” as we called it, waiting for the framework to catch up to our actions, were every week occurrences. I grew tired of the constant technical issues, and the general overcomplexity of D&D 4E.

This is nothing against my players, but the game is just too complicated to really learn and get a good grasp of over the Internet. Unless each of my players read the rulebook cover to cover and memorized it, they would never learn the intricacies I have learned from playing in a home game for years. Our game was approaching Paragon level and I just didn’t see it getting any easier at all. Turns were already taking 5 or more minutes, and it is too easy for my players to tune out when they have screaming goat videos and animated gifs on the Internet to look at.

A New Beginning

So, after a few years of Maptool, and 2 or 3 frameworks,  I decided we needed a change. I wanted to go back to Star Wars, which is really my first love when it comes to RPGs. Star Wars captivates our group; we all love just thinking about Star Wars. 

I have actually contributed to Wookieepedia, and several of our group members have read the novels. Star Wars quotes fly fast and furious during our weekly games even when we play D&D. And, as the GM, Star Wars actually interests me. I genuinely like reading Star Wars background information. D&D, to me, has occasionally interesting fluff (usually when it is based on real life history, like the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan) but most of it is incredibly boring generic fantasy.

When I decided we were going back to Star Wars, I wanted to use a simpler system. Star Wars: Saga Edition is a really good game, but there is too much to track for players, and GMing it can be a nightmare. At around level 13 it starts to get really hard to present a challenge for most PCs. 

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games is not without its own problems; dice pools can get absurd, leading to un-hittable characters and Wookiees that can soak an E-Web shot. Luckily, my players aren’t really powergamers. They are more interested in playing a character than critting every round for 2 rounds and killing 100 Stormtroopers in 10 seconds. I figured this, plus any limits I might have to impose upon them, could keep the game from getting totally unbalanced. 


After deciding on a new (old) game for our group, I decided we needed a change of “venue”, too. Roll20 had just finished a very successful Kickstarter campaign. I had tried it out before, but it wasn’t good for D&D 4E; nothing is automated, making bookkeeping and tracking effects a chore for the DM. With Star Wars D6, however, there’s almost nothing to track. A player keeps track of his wound status, equipment, and character/force points. Everything else is easy to keep track of for the GM. The ridiculous array of stats in Saga Edition and even the minimalist monster statblock of 4E don’t compare to a statblock for D6.

The first screen I see when I log into my Roll20 account is my campaign screen. From here I can launch the campaign, manage players, find players, look at the chat archive, etc. I like the feature that lets me set when our next game is, even if my players never look at it.

From here, I can go into my campaign and create content. My players like maps and enemy tokens to help them visualize the game, so we use a grid with tokens. Tokens can be moved around easily on the grid and players can “ping” the map, something we actually like a lot better than the “pointer” feature from Maptool. In the screenshot you can see the initiative window; from there one can track whose turn it is fairly easily. Just add a token to the initiative and set its place in the order and it is ready to go.


Using the layers on a map is actually really easy. There is a background layer and a token/object layer. The GM Info layer is only for the GM. I haven’t used it much yet, but I can see its value in notetaking. Adding things to a layer is as simple as drag and drop; whether I use my own assets or an image from an online library Roll20 provides, I can always bring something into the game without having to have my players download it first. This is a tremendous boon; getting my players to manage resource libraries in Maptool was a nightmare.

Drawing, text, and line tools work as they should. The magnify tool is sort of unnecessary. Alt+scrollwheel zooms the map as needed (the keyboard shortcuts they have mapped are generally awesome). It’s possible to hide and reveal areas from the players, something I haven’t done much of yet. In Maptool it was a major memory hog; we had stack overflows on large maps with a lot of hidden areas. The dice roller is a new tool they just added, making it easy to roll any number of any kind of dice.

Switching from one map to another is a breeze. I simply drag a ribbon marked “Players” from one map to the next. There are no insane load times. My players don’t have to “click to make it load faster.” So far, even with an incredible number of people playing and creating content on their servers, the Roll20 crew have managed to keep the experience almost lag-free. Customizing maps, something very important to a GM, is feature-rich and easy.

The chat window is functional. It shows who said something, when, and logs it to a database for later viewing if necessary. Dice rolls show up elegantly and it’s easy to make a macro that displays the dice roll with some flavor text if you so choose. The “Art Library” seems like it is where the Roll20 crew hopes to make their money. You can download art from all over the Internet to drop into your game, or buy packs of art from artists on their library. I haven’t used it much since I have a lot of my own assets, but I wouldn’t be against paying for good art for my game.

The Journal is my favorite feature, by far. Here, I can create PCs and NPCs. I can create handouts. I can create statblocks for vehicles, etc. In the past, I had been dropping information like this onto my wiki. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get players to really read information on a Wiki and absorb it. If I show them a small blurb with a picture on Roll20, they get the idea of what I want them to know and can associate a face to a name. Better yet, I can add that character to their individual journals, so they can always look it up later easily from within the game. 

For Star Wars, I really like being able to make handouts. Putting information on a “datapad” and “handing” it to my players is really cool. Creating this kind of content is really fun for me - it almost makes the RPG into more of a hobby. I feel like giving the characters a datapad showing them casualty numbers adds to the weight and scope of the campaign. Having handouts that look like official documents makes the universe seem more real. All of these things were possible before if I wanted them on the Wiki - but here it’s all in one central place where I can share them with the players. This is a really, really great feature.

The Jukebox feature is sorely lacking, in my opinion, but doesn’t sound like it is going to change soon. Basically, it pulls from Soundcloud any music you search for. Unfortunately this mostly means less well known music, or unlicensed music, which is a mess to search through. I want an easy way to add my own tracks to the game and cue them up, something I will probably have to go to a 3rd party application for. I can understand why a company would want to shield itself from copyright liability but it seems like letting a person link to their own storage for music wouldn’t be a big deal.

The macros menu is bare-bones but functional. You can write macros to roll dice with flavor text and add them to a bar on the bottom of the screen. So far we have been able to make macros for most of our stuff easily. I’m a bit worried that if we try the new beta Star Wars game from Fantasy Flight that it will be impossible to roll their special dice on this virtual tabletop. It would be awesome if Roll20 added custom dice capabilities.

Lastly, the system has integrated voice chat and video. We use the video but use our own solution for voice. It works well after you work out the Flash issues on Chrome. We’ve had some issues with video dropping out then coming back in duplicate or triplicate, which I assume are related to the incredible number of users logged into Roll20 lately. They just recently added a feature for 3D dice, as well:

My favorite feature of Roll20 is definitely the journal. But it cannot be overstated simply how well this application performs compared to Maptool. We almost never have the frustrations we had with Maptool and the virtual tabletop is just much, much more responsive. No forwarding of ports, no disconnects, no lag waiting for a roll to show up. I really hope the Roll20 crew keeps up with server maintenance and adding more performance to their servers (as it seems they have, so far).

There are a few features I would love to see out of Roll20. I would love to be able to share macros with my players. I want to let my players have control of their token - and their journal page. Currently they can’t edit these things. As I stated before, I would like more music options. Custom dice are a concern for the future thanks to Fantasy Flight Games. Custom state icons - being able to mark someone as “Wounded” etc. would be great.
Keep your eye on the blog for more posts about different ways to enjoy RPGs!


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with most of your comments. Certainly the journal is the greatest feature for roleplaying and mechanics info, and the music feature is likely the least satisfying. However I'm not sure that I'd agree with your complaint about it being inadequate for 4e games.
    Certainly some degree of automation would be nice, but I find it no more difficult to keep track of more complex mechanics using this interface than I do when playing on an actual tabletop. The core stats are provided for (HP, and a few others of your own choosing, such as Action Points and temporary HP), and effects such as "wounded" as you suggested can be represented by the coloured markers. What each colour represents can be decided upon in advance.
    All in all though, I agree with the overarching sentiment of your article: Roll20 is superb!

  2. One further comment: I am willing to sacrifice a reasonable amount of comprehensiveness in exchange for versatility. While I would use this almost exclusively for 4ed games, I am happy knowing that other roleplaying systems can be accommodated as well.

  3. Pretty cool, thanks for sharing. I intend to play around with this a bit for my D&D group.

  4. We're having a blast running HackMaster with Roll20. Works well enough as it is for us, but I look forward to seeing it evolve and having more features added.

  5. Your players CAN modify their character pages by setting them as the controlling player; I was pleasantly surprised by this. Now, if only a player could spawn their character token onto the map without GM intervention...