Like most people, there is a sharp contrast between my life before 2020 and after 2020. If you happened to read any of my articles before that time, you’ll notice several times where I mention that I wasn’t comfortable with VTTs and wasn’t likely to run games using that technology. Even before 2020, there was a slight transition, because I started playing games with friends that were far away, and I became more accustomed to Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds as a player. When I first transitioned to running games online, I started using Owlbear Rodeo. But I moved towards Roll20, mainly because I wanted both official and 3rd party D&D 5e SRD resources available for my games.
This article isn’t advocating for Roll20 over other solutions. It is, however, a very well-used VTT, and one that I have (now) spent a lot of time using, and it is also a VTT that has begun to make a number of changes to its interface. Roll20 isn’t a difficult interface to use, but when I first started using it, it wasn’t an obvious one. I can’t speak for everyone, but many of the symbols and the arrangement of buttons were very easy to forget.
There have been a number of upheavals in the RPG industry in the past few years. Not only did the pandemic cause a boom in online gaming, but Roll20 and OneBookShelf merged into a single company. While there has always been a rotating cast of VTTs, many new contenders have appeared in the last few years, some of which have been built from the ground up, learning from the best practices of the last decade or so of online tabletop gaming. The biggest drive to hold on to market share is the looming specter of WotC’s own proprietary VTT.
Despite running games every Thursday using Roll20 in multiple systems, as well as being an occasional player in various games using the platform, I know there are people so much more versed in how to use this platform. If I get something wrong, please be gentle with me. No matter how many words I write here, I’m still a VTT Padawan.
Non-UI Changes and the State of Things
Roll20’s merger with OneBookShelf heralded a much more regular progression of products from the Dungeon Masters Guild to Roll20. Some of these have varying degrees of integration with the interface. For example, Home-Field Advantage: a Compendium of Lair Actions formats new lair actions as individual creatures, with rollable initiative, and a list of lair action effects that can be referenced.
Other products incorporate lists of special abilities incorporated as notes, allowing you to read those rules elements in the interface, but not incorporating those elements into the individual entries, such as monster entries or magic items.
This is a good time to point out that some items that you buy are housed in the journal, while others are stored in the compendium section. Items that are added to the compendium for a game are part of the core rules and are searchable. Items that are added to the journal are built as notes or as custom characters and aren’t searchable in the compendium section. Other than how cluttered your journal section might become, there isn’t a big difference with new characters or monsters added to your journal rather than the compendium, but rules items like spells, special abilities, and gear that isn’t added to the compendium still has to be added with custom tools to a character sheet, and doesn’t work with the drag and drop function from the compendium.
Speaking of the Journal
Until recently, every note or character added to the game had to be created by the person that created the game, and then assigned to one of the players. That means that when you first start a game, you need to make character sheets for each character, then assigned all of them, making sure that each player has access, and potentially making sure that those players only have access to the character sheets or notes that you want them to interact with.
Now, characters can create notes and characters by clicking on the +Character or +Handout section at the journal’s header. This removes some of the fiddly aspects of starting up a new game and creating new characters. There are still a few twists and turns for setting up tokens, and I’m not going to go into that here, because I’m mainly trying to take a tour of recently changed parts of the interface.
The UI Design
Some of the changes with the UI aren’t dramatic, but those changes have worked wonders for my ability to navigate the functions. One of the biggest boons with the new UI is that instead of having a drop-down to show you what layer you are interacting with, there are buttons on the side that you click to navigate the levels, with the current layer turning green when it’s active. I cannot tell you how much time I’ve wasted trying to figure out why I can’t manipulate a token, or where a token is when, because I lose track of what layer I’m interacting with, and this interface is so much easier on my brain. It’s also been a lot easier to drop templates into the GM level and pull them up when I need to measure an effect.
The various light options aren’t part of the new UI rollout, but they have been introduced in the interim from when I first started using Roll20, and the options have expanded over time. You can place lights in various places on a map to represent illuminated areas, without using the “sunlight” option to make the entire map visible. Newer options include adding doors and windows. These are nice additions that restricted the light model used by Roll20, keeping light from entering a room with a closed door, or allowing light to spill out in a range designated by a window. It’s worth noting that these are fun bells and whistles to play with, but if you’re importing maps from outside sources, you may have to do some work to set up what constitutes a wall and what limits light.
We shall not speak of the playtest I ran where the 60 feet of night vision I gave a player character gave them X-Ray vision on accident.
The Dice Roller hasn’t dramatically changed, but one nice change to the dice roller is that it can be resized. I’ve had a lot of times when I’ve lost track of an open dice roller, when I could have made it big and easily readable, and just minimized or maximized the roller.
One of my favorite options is the “Preview as Player” button. Previously, the person running the game could view a token based on what kind of light it sheds, but this wasn’t the same as seeing what the player whose character is attached to that token could see. Now you can select the token to see what the player sees on that map. I really wish I had access to this in several scenarios when I was trying to reinforce a certain “feel” in an encounter, and wanted to make sure that some elements were and weren’t visible from the start. See above with that whole X-Ray Vision incident I told you I wasn’t going to talk about.
What Still Bakes my Noodle
There are still a few elements of the interface that don’t click for me, and that makes me more likely to avoid using that aspect of Roll20. I don’t want to make a list that’s too extensive, but I do want to make sure I touch on these, since I hope they are addressed to some degree in the future.
Text on the screen is really fiddly. The main reason I want to put text on the screen is for games that use aspects of similar rules, like The Sentinel Comics RPG, Fate, or Modiphius’ 2d20 systems. In that case, I want the word big, obvious, and easy to reference. The current tool for adding text to the map seems to be geared towards adding a subtle word to a map that isn’t already included, and it takes a little bit of work to make sure you select the right font size and color for the word to show up. I would love to have a tool like Owlbear Rodeo’s interface that allows you to just effectively put a big, obvious sticky note on the screen.
The drawing function isn’t bad, but I don’t like using it on the fly. It has some of the interface options that the text tool has, where you need to make sure you have line weight and fill options set up properly when you draw on the screen. I hate to keep comparing things to the interface on Owlbear Rodeo, but it’s much easier for me to draw six filled-in rectangles to represent buildings in a city, on the fly, when setting up a map. I just want it to be a little easier to set up all the options to drop a simple filled-in shape on the map with the drawing tool.
The “effect” tool is fun. You can select a damage type and a shape, and then make it look like fire is exploding or a light of acid is shooting across the screen. The effect is minimal, and a little underwhelming, but it’s kind of a cute emphasis effect. However, rather than having this built-in effect, I would much rather have integrated templates of different sizes to pop on the screen rather than buying them separately and dropping them on the page from your art assets.
I don’t really know what would help this, but I am absolutely terrible at using the fog of war tool. I can’t freehand shapes, and when I attempt to shift it to reveal, I tend to make a mess of it. Full disclosure, Roll20 isn’t the only interface where I have issues with this function, which is why I have a hard time communicating what would be a better state of affairs.
Token setup and assignment for characters still aren’t as intuitive as I wish. It still feels like you need to save your changes in multiple places before they stick, and it’s easy to forget where that other save button is when you are setting everything up to begin.
Final Thoughts Ideally, no VTT would have a dramatic learning curve to use it outside of understanding the game being used, but since we don’t quite seem to be at that point, I’m happy to see some long-overdue updates to the UI that make the game easier to run in the moment, so that the game facilitator is running the game, and not managing the interface.
I would need to run games full-time as a career (which I’m not against, hit me up) to properly evaluate all of the VTTs currently on the market. I know Roll20 is a very broad product that serves a lot of needs, with an interface that leans most heavily towards d20-based games but works well for other implementations. While I would love to see some of the elements addressed that I spelled out above, I would also love to see Roll20 have the time and resources to expand the Charactermancer-guided character creation process work for other games, and to have more robust drag-and-drop options for other game Compendiums.
One of the trickiest aspects of VTTs is the availability of official support. Having looked at a few different games, I noticed that some core rulesets are cheaper on some platforms than others and look better on some platforms than others. That creates a user experience that’s very difficult to navigate, and it’s very easy to fall into the concept of finding a one-stop shop, rather than the optimal VTT for each particular game.
With all that in mind, I like the direction that Roll20 is moving with these changes. Ideally, no VTT would have a dramatic learning curve to use it outside of understanding the game being used, but since we don’t quite seem to be at that point, I’m happy to see some long-overdue updates to the UI that make the game easier to run in the moment, so that the game facilitator is running the game, and not managing the interface.
What are your favorite VTTs? Do you have VTTs that you prefer for some games, but not for others? Have you purchased VTT assets on multiple platforms? We want to hear from you in the comments below!