By Dan Moren
April 30, 2020 3:45 PM PT
Service Station: Roll for initiative… and so much more!
We all need to find ways to distract ourselves these days, and there’s really no better way than killing a bunch of monsters and finding precious loot, all with the help of your friends.
Virtually, I mean.
Dungeons & Dragons was, fortunately, one of my favorite pastimes even before our current stay-at-home era, and it’s one that translates pretty well to online play—in fact, the majority of my games these days were already via the Internet, thanks to farflung players and the demands of podcasting. But a big part of what’s made this such an attractive way to play, not to mention making it easy to transition even live games online, is Roll 20.
Roll 20 is a web-based virtual tabletop (VTT) service, and while it’s neither the only nor the first of its kind, its overwhelming popularity comes from a combination of its active development, vibrant community, and ease of use. I’ve been using VTT software for more than a decade, and Roll 20 is definitely an improvement over the previous open-source client/server system I used to rely on, which required constant fiddling with port-forwarding, a slew of bugfix updates in a never-ending “beta,” complicated macro scripting, and sourcing a large number of art assets for every campaign.
By comparison, Roll 20 is a breeze: literally all you need to get started is a web browser. You can create campaigns, easily invite other players to them, and take advantage of the broad integration with various gaming systems to run pretty much anything you want, from the ever popular fifth-edition D&D to homebrew campaigns with custom systems. In recent years, Roll 20 has also partnered with game developers like Wizards of the Coast and Paizo to not only build in support for popular RPGs like D&D and Pathfinder—including character sheets and in-game access to game reference materials—but also by letting you purchase everything you need to play an adventure right inside of Roll 20, down to maps and art. There’s a big marketplace of third-party options as well, which makes it easy to find the right tokens or battle map for adventures.
Roll 20 is incredibly powerful—and the consistent updates over the years have made it ever more so—but it also realizes that most players just want a place to see a shared map and roll dice, so it keeps most of those advanced features tucked away by default, making it easy for players of all skill levels to pick things up. Plus, if you’ve never played D&D before, or maybe just don’t have a group currently, Roll 20 has Looking for Group options that let you find like-minded folks and start an online campaign.
The base level of Roll 20 is totally free, and lets you do everything you need to play, from the shared map to built-in video chat to 100MB of upload storage space. A modest $50-a-year rate eliminates ads, lets you share the benefits of your membership with friends (so, when it’s time to upgrade, you may only really need to shell out for one account for your whole party!), and lets you easily move characters between games. For the super-dedicated, there’s also a $100/year tier that adds nuts and bolts like access to the service’s API and dev server.
If there’s a weakness in Roll 20, it’s that its integration on tablets and mobile devices isn’t always the best. Though there is an app, it mainly operates as a bare-bones dice-roller, leaving the full experience to the browser. But even with iPadOS’s most recent attempts to bring “desktop-class” browsing to the tablet, Roll 20 is simply not as usable as it is on a computer. I hope the developers spend some more time optimizing the experience for those increasingly popular mobile devices. I also wish that there was more robust integration with the official D&D Beyond service, which would prevent having to manage campaign resources in multiple places, but there is a least a third-party browser extension that provides some ties between them. And, if you are willing to delve into those nerdy API scripts, there are other methods to connect the two services too.
I’ve been using Roll 20 for eight years and a paying member for six, and in that time, I’ve run a few campaigns and played in more hours than I can count. In exchange it’s enabled a ton of great memories and left me with very few, if any, regrets. Really, the only thing I could ask from Roll 20 is to help me, you know, roll a few more 20s.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]