When you are a teenager the ability to play games was far easier, you find your tribe in the halls or the library or through like minded friends growing up. You forge a connection in the drama room or music room or study room over dice and a thick Rifts rule book or a hard covered Monster Manual. Taking an entire day to go to a friend’s basement, eat very bad food, and pretend to be a creature of another species in a far away land fighting a fantasy adventure was a reasonable proposition and staying up until 2am gaming before going home and sleeping until noon was something you could do.
Time flows ever onward like a river of memories, we find ourselves years out of University let alone high school. The friends you used to play these games with scattered to the four winds, and if you are like me, missing those days in a basement and that human interaction and group story telling that made my imagination sing. A few years back I decided I wanted to get in to role playing again so using one of the various “group finder” pages (in this case Pen & Paper Games) I was introduced to my GM. My girlfriend of the time (no my wife) thought it was kind of weird I was basically going on an internet date with a stranger to see if I could “play with him”. I’ll admit, it kind of was, but building a good gaming group of like minded compatible players is very difficult. You need to make sure your players are a match or it can go off the rails very quickly and a “date” at a “desert bar” to talk about a Star Wars RPG was a bit… odd. But it worked, my wife sort of came to terms with it (I think the Geek Poker analogy made it make a little more sense) and I’ve been playing with this same core group of friends for years now.
We tried a variety of different tools before eventually stumbling on the free option Roll20.net, a Kickstarted project this is one of the success stories of a great idea that delivered on its promises. Announced in 2012 it started with a meager goal of $5,000 dollars and ended with almost $40,000 in funding! The tool has grown from its initial outing and developed in to a very useful and powerful aid in role playing.
The tool set provided is incredibly flexible even at the free level you are able to create characters, create game sessions, look for groups, and play using automated logging, dice rolling tools, macros and it even includes Google Group integration for those who want to use the stable Google Groups infrastructure for video chat and document sharing! I want to highlight, this is out of the box free for all these features, so this is something you don’t have to worry about paying a cent for. With this solid grounding that is free then how do they support themselves? Well there are two basic revenue models they use, the first is membership sort of like a patronage for the site that comes in two tiers Supporter and Mentor (and given how much I use it I’ve been paying for months now) and the other is via their built in marketplace. I’ll discuss this in more depth in a moment.
Now, with a pretty full set of features for base members what more could they give you? Well some really cool things actually. You can store your characters and move them between games with the character vault, you are able to use dynamic lighting and line of sight technology. I’ve used this once and it’s pretty neat. You can assign objects outlines and set objects as light sources, your characters based on their vision settings will see only what is visible on the map! Additionally supporter level members get unlimited looking for player active listings, external journal access, custom campaign backgrounds and removal of ads from the system. This is only 5 bucks a month, if you move to the mentor tier you also get the ability to share items and handouts between multiple campaigns, access to the API to customize your experience, dev server access to try out new features as they become available, a bunch of tokens to use in your game and direct e-mail support from the dev team!
The campaign I am currently running is a D&D 5th edition campaign and one of the great perks is you can use character sheets created by the community. I entered the stats from the PDFs all my players sent me in to the sheet, this was intelligent enough to calculate base rolls and damage and flexible enough to allow me to add things like racial traits that aren’t yet listed. From this sheet there are automatic macos generated so for my players they can go to their sheet, click on the button and it rolls based on the stats and proficiencies of the character and automatically inserts the token for the character and their initiative in to the action order! This makes tracking who goes when so easy it’s a breeze!
The virtual tabletop is awesome allowing you to create “pages” that you can move players between, these will let you set up your different scenes including the line of sight and lighting settings I spoke about earlier, you do this using an intuitive layers system. There is a background layer, an object layer and a token layer as well as a GM layer visible only to the GM (so you can lay down traps or other information on the map only visible to the GM). You can scan your own images and upload them as handouts or map layers, you also can use tiles from the library and marketplace. These tiles can be dropped in to place to build a map fairly easily. Think of it like a Lego set where you can build your fantasy world. The tiles are better for smaller encounters, specific rooms or areas or objects on a map.
The marketplace is a user driven content delivery system, creators generate maps, modules, tiles and tokens for use by players and GMs. The players and GMs can purchase these properties for use in their game. The creators maintain creative control over their objects and Roll20 take a small portion of the proceeds (20%). This gives you plenty of tools to work with and build your own dynamic adventures, the best part is using either the integrated chat system or Google Groups you are able to have cameras showing the faces of the players and hearing their voices real time. On top of this each campaign has tools like forums, player journals, sound cloud access and a host of other great features that keep the experience engaging. This is as good as being around the table with friends (the only problem is you can’t steal your buddy’s last slice of pizza).
I will admit I’ve barely touched some of the features and this is only scratching the surface. There are a ton of things I’ve not explored entirely but I highly recommend people check this out! Special thanks to community members Gabriel P., Brian and moderator Pat S. for their help with questions regarding this article.
*Disclosure - I am a supporter of this project and am subscribed as at the Supporter level.