Monday, July 20, 2015

Virtual Table Top Review: Roll20

Roll20The Lords of Tyr have been using virtual table tops (VTT) in our games from pretty much the creation of the category.  Early on we used kLoOge.Werks, but ended up switching to MapTools pretty quickly.   MapTools was our mainstay until recently, but as support for that tool seems to be winding down, we have been looking elsewhere for our virtual table top needs.

Roll20 was one of the first alternatives we checked out, and honestly one of the best.  So I thought it might be good to give it an thorough review for anyone out there who is thinking of using it.

OS Support

Roll20 is a web hosted Virtual Table Top.  That means that if you have a computer with a modern browser, you can use it regardless of whether you have Windows, Mac, or Linux.  This is great for a group like the Lords of Tyr where all three of the aforementioned operating systems are represented at the table. There are also apps for iOS and Android, although I haven’t really used them enough to give a decent review of them.

Game System Support

By default, Roll20 is system agnostic.  It provides you with the basics of a VTT (map, grid, tokens) and character sheets to which you can assign various attributes and abilities.  These can then be referenced in macros which you create, allowing you to simplify your game play.

This only tells half the story though because there are a large number of community created character sheet templates which can be applied to a campaign and that will do most of this work for you.  Since they are created by the community, generally the more popular the game the better the character sheet.  The character sheet templates we have used for our D&D 5e and Pathfinder games are very robust and professional looking.  However, the template we used for the Dragon Age RPG was a bit less polished (e.g., strength was misspelled, poor font choice), although in all fairness it did do the job.

Play Experience

Since Roll20 is web hosted, there is minimal setup.  The GM and the players need only create accounts on the Roll20 website and login.  Unlike traditional client/server VTT setups, there is no need to worry about opening ports on your router for NAT traversal, something that can trip up less tech savvy GMs.  However, this does mean that if the website is down, you aren’t playing.  We also would occasionally have issues where a specific player’s screen would not update and we had to have them hit refresh on the browser.

Game play is generally pretty smooth.  The GM controls what maps the players can see. Die rolls can either be made through the GUI or by a simple chat command (e.g., “/roll 1d20+5”).  The turn counter is pretty generic in order to keep it as system agnostic as possible, but works really well with the initiative based games I have played on Roll20.  It even allows you to keep track of durations by adding an item with an incrementing counter (e.g., “Flaming Sphere 1).

The Roll20 team prides itself on using a high entropy random number generator.  They even provide statistics on the website of every roll made just to show how perfectly random everything is, which is handy to show players who have had one too many fumbles in a game session.

Roll20 also has built in chat, video, and audio (using WebRTC).  You can also run Roll20 inside of a Google Hangout, but personally I found I had too much lag when I did that.

GM Preparation

The GM creates an account on the Roll20 website and starts a campaign.  Maps, tokens, and other bits of virtual set dressing can be uploaded to the site or acquired from the Roll20 Marketplace (both free and for a nominal charge).

Maps you have created are shown across the top of the screen.  These maps have three layers: a map layer, a GM layer, and a token layer.  The map layer is where you put everything that you want the players to see but not interact with.  The GM layer is where you put things that only the GM should see.  These can be things like monster tokens, pit traps, or room numbers.  When it becomes appropriate to reveal these things they can be moved to either the map layer or the token layer.  The token layer has objects that can be interacted with, although who can manipulate a token is still limited by who owns it.

There is also a dynamic lighting layer available to people who have either a supporter or mentor level subscription.  Dynamic lighting is an advanced feature which limits what the players can see of the map based on their light sources and line of sight.  This layer where you define light sources and objects that block the players line of sight like walls.

When players are logged in you can either present all players a map by moving a virtual bookmark called ‘Players’ to the appropriate map, or drag individual players to a screen if the party decides to split up.  I have found it useful to have a generic page to park the player bookmark on when I am not using a map.

Players, NPCs, and Handouts all reside on the right hand side.  Like tokens, who can see or edit these items are controlled by access control lists (ACLs).  So if I want anyone to see a handout I set ‘all players’ as being able to see, but leave able to edit blank (the GM always has access).  All of these items can be organized by folders, but are also searchable by name or by tag (you define both).  Tagging monsters can be very useful if you want to bring up a specific category of creature (e.g., undead, goblinoid, etc).

Maps, players, NPCs, and handouts can all be archived if you want to get them out of the way but don’t want to delete them.  I find I archive pretty much everything except what I think I will need in a given session, since bringing items back is just a couple of mouse clicks.


You can sign up and use Roll20 for free.  While not every feature is available at the free level, it is surprisingly usable without paying a dime.  The main limitations are you only have 100 MB of storage and no access to advanced features like dynamic lighting or tablet support.

You can upgrade to the Supporter ($4.99/month or $49.99 /year) level or Mentor($9.99/month or $99/year) level if you choose.  Supporter basically gives you 1 GB of storage, dynamic lighting, and tablet support.  Mentor gives you 2 GB of storage plus features like access to the Roll20 API and the ability to get support from the development team.

One nice feature is that if you have access to a feature, anyone joining your campaign has access to that feature.  For example, if I have access to dynamic lighting and use it in my campaign, none of my players need anything but the free level to use the feature.

There is also the Roll20 market place where you can purchase community created tokens, maps, and modules for a nominal fee.  Alternatively, if you are a content creator, you can sell your wares here.

Personally, I joined up at the Supporter level and found it more then met my needs.  My fellow GM Chad joined at the Mentor level.  None of the other players used anything but the free level of Roll20.

Customer Support

Roll20 has a wiki and a robust community supporting it.  I was able to learn how to use the interface via YouTube tutorials and how to create all the macros I needed by reading up on them in the wiki.  Users who have Mentor status are able to get support via email from the developers, but since I am only Supporter level I cannot comment on it.


Roll20 has a great community.  It also provides excellent tools for finding players or games built right into the website.  Since I have a group I play with regularly I haven’t really taken advantage of these myself, but from what I have heard the ease with which you can find players or games is one of the big selling points of Roll20.

Final Thoughts

I love Roll20.  I think a web based VTT is the way to go and it continues to get better.  The interface is also more modern feeling then pretty much any other VTT on the market.  That said, I am not currently using Roll20 for my ongoing Princes of the Apocalypse game.  Why not?  Well, that will be the topic of a future Virtual Table Top review.


benensky said...

I voted for it in the Ennies

Medraut said...

Roll20 is a great virtual table top. I would say it is my favorite, even though I am not currently using it (odd, I know). Heck, my subscription came up this month and I let it roll over because even though I am not using it at the moment 1) I imagine I will use it again at some point in the future and 2) They do such great work I don't mind giving them some money just to support them.