Reviewing the Virtual Tabletop: Roll20

It has been a reasonable amount of time since I talked about the functionality of Roll 20 and a lot has actually changed since I did.  I want to look at as many virtual tabletop software solutions as I can over the next few months and give a review on each.  Todays blog will be the first look at Roll 20 but there will be more.  It just has too many functions and options to cover in one post alone.  So if you have been looking for a virtual tabletop software to run a game (be it an RPG or a pure tabletop war game or board game) then keep an eye on the blog over the next few months.

Let us start with the three types of backer levels that are available for the Roll 20 system.  This will illustrate what is available in total and what is activated at what level of funding.  Remember one thing, you can use Roll 20 completely free which is the base level, then there is the supporter and mentor levels.  At each of these levels there are separate functions available to use in your games that broaden your ability to run your games.  The following table was extracted from the Roll 20 website support page on 7 August 2013.

This table details the functions of Roll 20 and who gets what!

Just before we pull this all apart and have a look at the nitty gritty of the levels it is interesting to note that the level of the game that is played is determined by the level of the GM.  for example, I run a lot of games in this system and I make a monthly subscription payment so I can be at the mentor level.  I do use dynamic lighting (a lot) which is available for the supporter or greater level.  But I have players that have simply signed up at the free (base) level that play with me.  Roll 20 does not turn off dynamic lighting for them, they get to play with it turned on while in my game as I am paying for the service.  So that is good to know.  If you play with a regular GM then you could pool the $10 or so a month it is for mentor level amongst the entire group and apply it to the GM’s account.  That way you get all the benefits!  This is not “cheating the system” as Roll 20 was actually advertising themselves in that manner when I signed on (e.g. buy your GM a subscription!).

The base supporter level is completely fee free and allows you to have an unlimited number of games or campaigns on the go.  As long as those campaigns and games do not breach the 100 MB storage limit that you have on offer.  You can use the public forums and also can put up two posts requesting players for your games.  Essentially this allows you access to a virtual table top without bells and whistles.  You can upload maps and tokens (as long as they remain under 5MB per image) and gain access to the dice roller and main playing surface.

The main structure of Roll 20 looks much like this.

The state of play at the end of last Reign of Winter game

The largest portion of the screen is taken up by the map which is the “playing surface”.  There is a floating toolbar to the upper left of the application that has functions on it that depend on if you are a player or a GM.  The one shown in the image is my own and includes GM functions that are not included in the player version. This toolbar is recreated in a larger format here so I can explain the different tools that are located on it.  The top arrow icon is the select icon.  You use this tool mainly as it selects tokens.  Clicking and dragging moves those tokens.  Holding the click down creates a circle to radiate out so you can highlight areas and as a GM you can hold shift and hold the click so all players views are moved to the area of the screen you are highlighting.  Both players and GM’s have this tool.  As a GM it will only select tokens that are on the current layer you are on.

The next tool is a GM only tool and it is the layer selection tool.  Clicking on this as a base supporter GM gives you a selection of three different layers being the token, map and GM layers.  If you are a supporter or above you can also access the dynamic lighting tool that Roll 20 offers.  The token layer is the default layer for players and they can interact with tokens that the GM has given them access to.  normally this represents their character on screen or perhaps their cohort or animal companion.  The map layer is the “lowest layer” in that it exists underneath all other things (including the gridlines).  This layer is visible to the player and the GM meant to be where you put the maps and things that act as the background for the players to move on.  The GM layer is a hidden layer that the GM can see the contents of and the players cannot.  The GM can place monster tokens or other parts into this layer and know that the player is not going to see these until they shift them to the Token layer (“Surprise!”).

Dynamic Lighting is something available only to supporter levels and above and only  appears on the GM layer section.  This layer allows you to place down a series of barriers that will block light and line of sight so that when Dynamic Lighting is enabled the player will see only what their character can.  This is an exceptionally cool feature and always seems to produce an ooh and an ahhh from players new to Roll 20.  It is really easy to do also.  You draw lines on the screen over features in the map that would block LOS in this layer.  You can draw shapes, lines, polygons in one colour or many.  You can draw them in so when a door is opened you nip into the layer and delete the door bit and they can see in the room.  It looks like the following image when you add the lines (they are not visible when on any other layer). The effect gives a character only perspective like the image below that one.

The brighter red lines are the dynamic lighting lines
The next tool in the toolbar is the drawing tool and it is available to both the player and GM.  You can draw shapes, free lines, polygons and any combination of them all.  The colour is usually set to that of your assigned colour next to your name.  It is a very handy function as the GM can quickly draw something to explain a detail or a player can draw an arrow where they want someone to look.  The lines can be deleted by selecting them with the select tool and simply hitting the delete key.

After this on the toolbar there is a magnifying glass which is a tool on both the player and GM bar.  It allows you to choose what percentage zoom you want to view the tabletop at.  As the GM I like to zoom it out to about 50% so I can see where all the players are and I believe the players tend to like it around this level also.  It is obviously a matter of personal preference at what level you want.  
This is the players view of the setting with dynamic lighting
on.  This is what the red headed character to the left can see
The next tool is again one that is on both panels and it is a measuring tool (hence the ruler).  You click on this and then on the tabletop you can measure distances by clicking and dragging the ruler.  If the GM has set up the page correctly then the ruler will give you a measurement scale dependant on the type of game you are looking at.  In Pathfinder we use a 5′ per square rule but this may vary (after all you can use a hex grid here too).  It is interesting to note at this stage that most of the time tokens and measuring tools will “snap” or align to grid.  You can avoid this by holding down the alt button while you are clicking and dragging the token or ruler.  This allows you to leave the token in between grid lines or measure from a specific point or corner of a grid.

The next tool on the bar is a GM only tool and it is the tool that a base user can use if they do not want to pay to get Dynamic Lighting (If you have Dynamic Lighting you can use this as well, or both at the same time).  It is called Fog of War and in essence creates a completely black screen for the players that the GM can slowly reveal by erasing patches of the blackness for them.  This is entirely labour intensive for a GM and it is how I began with the tool.  I occasionally use it with Dynamic Lighting to keep hidden something I really want to but setting it up and removing it sections at a time takes a great deal of time that you are not roleplaying in.  Also, when you reveal a section, all players can see it even if their characters could not at that point in time.

The next tool is a GM only tool again and it allows them to set up a turn order or initiative rank when in the game.  Clicking on this toolbar pops up an initiative order in all players screens and the GM right clicks a token selecting add turn to add them to the rank.  Once this is done the GM enters the value of their initiative roll and can then order them numerically and step the turn order through one at a time.  The player can move the turn order controller anywhere on screen using a click and drag functionality so that it does not block any of the screen as they play.

The next button is the dice rollers graphical interface.  It appears on the players and the GM’s interfaces. You can set up all of your rolls by clicking on this and using the interface that pops up.  There are a number of options that you can familiarise yourself with in this tab and they cover most game systems that I know for dice.  There is another way to roll dice though so I do not use this at all.  You can roll dice by entering commands in the chat tab which I will talk to soon and it has the same effect.

The final button on the floating bar is a help button.  It contains links to bug reporters, wiki pages and the like.  It appears on both the GM’s and Players toolbars.  I have never used it before although it would be handy to use if a bug came up in game.
To the right of screen there is the tabbed pane.  It contains the rest of the functionality that Roll 20 has to offer.  The first of the tabs (you can only have one open at a time) is an in built chat bar and dice activator.  The start screen for this chat gives you the syntax that you need to use for various functions like entering a line of text, making it look like your character has said something, whisper something to another character and so on.  For those of you familiar with IRC chats then the format will feel very comfortable to you.  It is through this section that you can alternately roll your dice with commands.  If I typed /r 1d20 into the chat line it will give me a randomised (sort of!) roll between 1 and 20.  If I type /r 1d20+6 it will give me the same roll with 6 added.  There is a great deal of complexity as to how you can roll stuff and how it presents these rolls to you so it is worth looking at the wiki page to see if the odd rolling conventions of your game are supported.

The next tab is a GM only tab and the only tab on the pane that appears only on the GM version of the application.  This tab is where you can go in search of tokens for the game.  Roll 20 has an online marketplace that contains a load of tokens, maps and the like for you to purchase and add to your art library which this tab searches through but it also looks for material on the web.  It is important to note here that the Mentor backer level has a bunch of purpose built tokens available for free.  All other backers have to pay for the same amount of tokens.  They have also added a bunch more (House of Orr inspired I believe) to the pool and they get a giggle and an occasional use from me.  This tab also has a favourites function so that if you find a token you like you can favourite it and it will appear at the top of your lists.  You can also add a bunch of labels to your tokens so they are sorted well.

The tab past this is the journal tab and it is here that a player can build a character sheet up.  It may mean that the GM needs to create a sheet for you to start with and there is a fair old slog in entering a lot of systems character sheets (cough cough templates would be good) here but you can set up macros in here.  Macros are something that you can enable so common rolls appear at the bottom of your screen and you just click a macro to do the roll.  You can actually string a lot of chat commands together so the macro does multiple things at once.  I have a barbarian character who plays in my game and he has his attacks set up in macro so when he attacks it triggers three things.  A description, an attack roll and a damage roll.  I have included an example image here for you to see what I mean.  This is all initiated with a single click.
Killgore FrostHammer (Martin) Hulk SMASH!

Killgore FrostHammer (Martin):

rolling 1d20+10 vs AC (POWER ATTACK & RAGGGEEEEE!!!!)




rolling 2d6+18 Damage







The journal tab also contains the GM handouts.  I use this a fair amount, keeping all the images of NPC’s and notes that the player can look at here.  As the GM I can choose when to make them accessible by all players and I can also push them on to all players screens when they first meet the NPC or find the map etc.  It is a really handy thing and the players can always go back and look in their journal and all of these images will still be there if the access is still allowed.

The next tab is a music jukebox.  Roll 20 has a load of music included with it and you can go on here and select tracks to provide ambience to your players.  There are some nice sound effects in there and if used well it can be quite atmospheric.  The tune the GM plays is run through all of the players hangouts but I do not think that is the same the other way round but I can not say that with any certainty.

The penultimate tab is a spot for decks of cards and also rollable tables.  I use the card deck on occasion but I have found the cards are too small (I was using them for Paizo critical hits cards).  They also seem to be slow to load and hard to handle well.  This may have been my internet connection (as I have recently upgraded to super fast) but I can’t really say for sure as I have not tried them since.  The other option here is the rollable table.  The table allows you to set up a number of entries and you can call a roll from it in the chat tab.  When I did this initially it told me the number of the item that had been selected but not the description.  This has now been fixed so it is a great tool to use now.  If you add images it shows them instead of the description.

Dynamic lighting from the GM’s perspective

The final tab contains a mass of settings.  The first of these are the Macros I mentioned earlier.  You can develop other macros for use here and place them in the macro bar.  It is quite easy to do as all you need do is put into a box the commands that you need to string together.  Give it a name and then type #name in the chat bar and it runs or you can include them in a macro bar at the bottom.  After the macros there is a raft of personal settings like what you want your name displayed as, 3d dice activated (you see them rolled on the virtual table) and a raft of other options.  One of the most important settings here is the Video/Player Avatar Size.  Those avatars take up a lot of screen space so the best option is to switch it all to names only and it gives you maximum screen space.

So what is left to talk about?  Most of the features above, apart from dynamic lighting and the free token program is available for free.  So what else do you get for a subscription.  Well, first and foremost you lose the ads asking you to contribute!  I am not an ad person but that is not the real reason I bought a subscription.  You can put as many ads up for players as you want as well.  The other thing you get at the supporter layer is the ability to have images of up to 10 MB and also a generous 1000 MB of storage space.  Plus it also comes supported for the iPad and tablet like devices.  That is right!  If you want you can sit in the lobby of your favourite resort sucking up internet and play your favourite game at the same time.  Or of course on your couch or wherever.

Keep rolling!

But wait, there is more!! As a mentor you get all of the supporter stuff, can have up to 2000 MB stored and your ads for players are highlighted too!  Not only that, if you need help they give you an email address to contact support rather than having to log it in the forums.  I have done this once and it was great, quick service and turnaround.  You get full access to the Development Server!  What is that?  Well, it is the server where they trial all the new cool pretty toys and get us mentors to trial them for them.  I have only moved all my games there today as I want the new cool stuff!  I want to try it.  There has just been released the Transmogrifier!!!!  I so wish this was out a few months ago.  What this allows you to do is transfer resources between campaigns!  Maps, tokens, characters, NPC’s, handouts.  Just a fantastic idea.  It may sound like not much but believe me, when you have spent three hours getting a map just right layered with dynamic lighting and all the tokens in place and you realise you could use the same thing in your other campaign or you have two groups this tool is the greatest thing on earth.  You access this from the settings tab or from where you launch the campaigns as well.  

Also as a mentor you gain access to the Roll 20 API which is like a programming interface.  Through this interface you can “program” tokens to do stuff and things in Roll 20 to do, well, stuff.  Cool stuff.  It is hard to explain but it is very cool and if you have any understanding of Javascript or are a programmer then this is where a lot of the really cool stuff can be done.  I really, really suggest you take a look at this if you get the chance and have a little bit of time.  Finally, you also get access to a mentor only forum if the rest has not convinced you.

I have attempted to use a few different tools for a virtual tabletop but none that I have come across have such a broad range of stable features at the moment AND offer a native adaptation to Google + Hangouts.  You don’t need to use it in the hangouts as it can be used from their site alone or you can put it through a hangout which is great.

Looking at costs of the programs the creators offer two methods of payment for supporter and the mentor program.  You can pay a monthly subscription fee or you can pay an annual fee that is in essence the amount of 10 months subscription.  I pay mine via a monthly fee as I actually want them to have the extra $20 per year to help them be able to keep up the fantastic work they are doing providing new and innovative ways to use the product.  The supporter level is at $4.99 USD a month and the mentor is $9.99 USD a month to subscribe.  They also have a handy bar on their site that shows their funding level as they have the goal of making it their full time roll.  Yes, that is right, this program has been developed in their spare time to date.  Imagine if it were their job!

A complete map that I built up from a scanned map…

In summation, you have to try Roll 20.  Then you have to sign up for it.  OK?  Well, I use Roll 20 a lot and find it very functional with some excellent features.  It has some rough edges like the card system but that is far overshadowed by the fantastic work that is the rest of the program.  There is some room for improvement and I am sure they have some of these on their to do list but I would love to see things like character sheet templates for popular games (maybe even submittable by users) for the journal.  Some tabletop skins like some of the mats I have seen on Google for Fate Core.  Option to have tokens, like poker chips or something that can be used in games that have bennies and fate points etc.  They have a great product but there are some good looking virtual tabletops being developed at the moment that could offer a real challenge.  For now though, my money is with Roll 20 and I hope you look at it, consider it and maybe even sign on for it!  I give Roll 20 four and a half dead ice trolls out of five…  Keep rolling!

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