Going optimal with online RPGs

As often happens, this article started as a conversation with smart friends. Mat Westhorpe tweeted about Roll20 vs D&D Beyond in the context of D&D 5e character sheets.

We discussed a bit further and of course his post on character sheets has a lot of thoughtful comparison that you will almost certainly find useful.

How I play D&D

Nearly all of my D&D and other RPGs take place online. As a working adult with a family and other responsibilities, I just find it far easier than trudging down to a gaming store or another player’s house. Dealing with the logistics of playing in my own house can also create a lot of headaches. Fortunately, we live in an era when we can play RPGs to our hearts’ content without having to do that.

Back in fall 2014, I found Roll20 and that changed it all for me. Not only does it give me way less stress than crowded Wednesday evenings in a loud room with uncomfortable chairs, but also it had a broader potential pool of players. Over the years, I’ve refined my usage of Roll20 and the feature set it offers. I generally don’t use all the top-tier sets like macros and API scripts, mostly because I do that enough in my day job already.

Not all of my games take place on Roll20. I have played D&D and Dungeon World for several years with a group of friends over nothing more than video chat. We use our own character sheets, whether paper or electronic, roll dice, and have fun just like sitting at a kitchen table. (Actually, about half the group does sit around a kitchen table, and the other half of us join remotely.) This game uses no virtual tabletop of any kind.

Going optimal with Roll20

I read a phrase the other day in the content of Magic the Gathering that really resonated with me: going optimal. I think of it as something like the knee of the curve, the point at which the effort or cost required for additional benefit changes drastically. Using a tool like Roll20 has a similar

Roll20 does a fantastic job at simulating the battle map. If you want to throw down a dungeon and some tokens, nothing else I have seen right now approaches its flexibility. You can perhaps go a step further by using fog of war or even dynamic lighting to preserve some information asymmetry. If you like narrative (“theater of the mind”) combat, you can share different backdrops with your players in a central view and maybe pop up specific graphics like mysterious notes or monster art. (I will have another post soon on the specifics of how I do those things. As a bonus, that method relies exclusively on the free features of that platform!)

Stop there. Don’t do anything else.

(c) 2018 Wizards of the Coast
“Disdainful Stroke” by Deruchenko Alexander

Wait, what about all the other stuff the tool offers? Character sheets? Dice rolling? Random tables? All those require significant additional effort for data entry and understanding the user interface. Players often just don’t have time to figure out the intricacies (and occasional bugs), because they have other things to do like play the actual game!

You might even find that these features end up reducing the simple pleasures from roleplaying games if you like rolling dice and scribbling notes on paper.

So, instead, use some voice chat outside Roll20, because you will still be able to communicate in the all-too-common scenario where you need to reload the page or accidentally click away. For bonus points, use video chat instead. Seeing faces really improves the “social bandwidth” in a game that is, at its heart, about having fun with friends.

If you decide later to embrace the fuller features of Roll20, great! As I’ve said many times, find the fun that works for you and your friends! But I truly believe that using Roll20 in a systemless manner and relying on traditional methods for the game itself yields the best of both approaches.

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