When the dust cleared, the golem lay in pieces on the dungeon floor. Erik sighed deeply and although his vision blurred, he could still see the rest of the group coming to his aid. Emmelina, the knight who had first accepted him into the group, cradled him in her arms as he took his last breath. Our team had gotten so far only to lose its youngest member. In five different states, there was no dry eye in our team, but we reassembled and continued our tabletop adventure with the service we've been using for half a decade: Roll20.
Perhaps you, like me, had fun adventures with friends on site when you were younger, or maybe you are interested in role-playing games now, but thanks to the pandemic you cannot meet anyone. In this case, Roll20 solves the biggest hurdle between you and browsing dungeons with your friends. And without too complicated things. If you have internet access, Roll20 allows you to run virtual tabletop games from Dungeons & Dragons – or anything else.
Enlarge /. Your standard card with tokens on it after a hard-fought dice fight.
What is Roll20?
Roll20 is a digital platform from the relatively small company The Orr Group. It started in 2012 and allows people to create, share, and play tabletop campaigns. There are various upgrades available for purchase, but with the basic service, anyone can do it all without too much effort. And of all the reasons to try Roll20, probably the biggest is the easiest: it's free.
With Roll20, you can create campaigns from the start, use different cards that can be switched as active or inactive, place digital miniatures in the form of tokens that can then be moved over these cards, and much more. Would you like to record video and voice while playing? This is integrated directly. Simple text chat also allows you to roll the dice, send messages as specific characters, and shoot the breeze. In the free version, a jukebox function is even integrated, with which you can adjust the mood with a little music.
There are also certain premium options in Roll20 that range from useful to extremely useful: things like dynamic lighting and premium tokens. However, all of the core functionality is there from the start, and there's no need to upgrade if you don't need the extras. It's really a nice setup since you can run full campaigns without paying anything, but all the extras are helpful. The different subscription levels (Plus for $ 49.99 a year and Pro for $ 99.99 a year) offer more storage space, the dynamic lighting mentioned above, custom drawing sheets and much more. I've subscribed in the past and will probably do it again in the future, but for someone just starting out, a sub will likely only add more things to play with. After all, you don't have to improve the learning curve from the start.
In addition to subscription levels, Roll20 also sells digital modules and manuals to play a number of different RPG systems. If you are the type of person who really wants to "inspire" people but doesn't have the time to do it all from scratch, you can just pick up on some pre-built adventures and take them on without over-optimizing. In my opinion, nothing replaces the presence of physical books, but there's also something to say to access everything and everything in those books with just a few clicks, and you can't exactly throw a physical book into a virtual table system the same way.
Enlarge /. While the premium options almost always fit better, Roll20 makes finding free cards and tokens easy enough.
Who needs it?
Even before the COVID-19 answer switched everything off, the virtual table top was a way to connect with people across different rooms – and it stays that way. There are just more people who have the time and distance to make such services all the more attractive. My own trip to Roll20 seems to be quite common: when my high school dungeons & dragons group went to college and then across the country to work, Roll20 let us play in the same room again, even if it was a digital one.
Since I came to Roll20 in late 2012, I've logged almost 500 hours on the platform – the vast majority of which bring friends and former acquaintances together rather than random strangers. Not that there are problems with random groups, and Roll20 even facilitates this by being able to add yourself to a player directory by specifying what kind of games you want to participate in by system. If you're feeling adventurous, you can also search the forums where players search for games to play in and where games are running looking for players.
I have tried other virtual tabletop platforms over the years, but due to the relatively simple operation and the wide access, I always seem to fall back on Roll20. Other popular options are Fantasy Grounds or D20PRO, but in my experience, both are far more fiddly than Roll20. The path in Roll20 from signing up to participating in a game to playing in a game is fairly easy and largely seamless for players. People who actually play games have to make a number of different decisions, including the level of detail of a game they want to play. However, the majority of the players just have to click a few links and appear at the specified time.
And that has worked perfectly for a game in the past five years that I have been running online for a number of former acquaintances. The vast majority of them are people I have never met and the ones I have? The last time we met outside of the internet was around 2013. Every two or three weeks, we log in to Roll20 to run a campaign with Green Ronin's tabletop setting Dragon Age. My players theorize in Discord about our game while we're not playing, and they share horrible memes. Each session is a new reminder of how much fun playing tabletop can be, although it's completely virtual.
Here is an overview of the party: There is the Scottish knight who was kicked out of school, the archer who likes to play music and maybe has more religion than she would like to admit, the calm elven magician who is not always sure what make them do the rest of the group and the dwarf gladiator trying to keep everything together. The archer keeps a canonical record of our campaign, which at that time spanned hundreds of pages. There are fan art and custom miniatures. And at least partly thanks to Roll20.
Enlarge /. They can be as detailed as you want with character descriptions, and even upload portraits to refine them.