Thursday, 9 April 2015

Tools of the Trade - Roll20

Most of my current gaming is online, as a result of a scattered friend base, limited budget and the demands of childcare. I started out doing this sort of thing over Skype or Google Hangouts, using various online blackboards for illustrations until I stumbled onto Roll20 (which I have mentioned before in terms of seating plans.)

Screenshot from the virtual tabletop for Operatives of CROSSBOW (the rebooted series*.) Due to non-tech issues, games often start late or not at all, hence the link to a video about ROM: Space Knight in the chat window.
The map of the zoo is legitimately for the game.
Roll20 is a virtual tabletop, designed to provide a user-friendly interface for online gaming. The bulk of the screen is the map, with a sidebar which can be switched between chat window, asset library, journal, jukebox and decks and tables tabs. There is also a dropdown bar for switching between your map screens.


The Map
The heart of the virtual desktop is the map. Key features for Roll20 include:

  • Layers - You can place any image or object in one of three layers. Anything in the map and background layer is locked in place by default, while tokens and objects can be moved freely as needed. There is also a GM overlay, allowing the GM to add notes that the players can not read. Objects can also be popped between layers if need be (say by keeping a tap icon in the GM overlay until it is set off or detected.)
  • Grid - The grid is highly customisable, allowing square and hex arrangements.
  • Fog of War - You can hide the map and then reveal rectangular or custom areas as the PCs explore. This is especially fun if you hide a monster in a space you are about to reveal.
  • Ping - Click and hold and you mark a ping for other players to see. I can not count the uses we've had from this as an alternative to 'over there. No, I mean there, by the thing.'
  • Draw and type - You can also use the space as a straightforward whiteboard.

Chat Window
A little extraneous when using voice chat, but this does provide a good place to share links, and also incorporates a dice roller (including Fate dice.) It also has a 'whisper' function for note passing.

The asset library contains an array of free-to-use images. There are also paid images, which tend to be higher quality, but you can live without them if you're on a budget. In fact, there are a fair few premium features which a less penurious GM might want to check out. I can not speak for the features, but I certainly don't begrudge the makers a paid option.)

Provides a place for handouts and character sheets, although I use a wiki for a lot of this.

Plays music from an eclectic selection to all players; pretty neat, and I really ought to get a credit sequence organised some day.

Decks and Tables
Highly customisable content for card decks and roll tables. Potentially a godsend for OSR-type games or systems making heavy use of cards.


The Map

  • Snap-to-grid - I haven't found a way to turn this off, and it means that if you use a hex grid in particular there is a good chance of people jumping into walls when you move them. It can also play silly buggers with the scaling.

Voice and video chat
There is an inbuilt chat system, but we've not managed to get it to work yet. Instead we used the Hangouts integration, which is fine except that it limits the screen space available for the map.

I find that Roll20 has greatly enhanced my online gaming experience, not only by clarifying positioning, but by providing a central focus for the group on to of our various videopresences. It's not a perfect product, but it's pretty good for the no money I pay for it and I might consider checking out the premium features if I were wealthy enough to do so, but not wealthy enough to just travel more.

* Basically, Operatives of CROSSBOW got 'rebooted' once I'd got a bit more experience with Fate Core under my belt, less like Battlestar Galactica and more like Witchblade season 2 where they rewound time and did things differently.