Content of the article: "What I’ve Learned Transitioning to Roll20 + a little advice"
This is some stuff I’ve learned using Roll20 (my best practices) plus a little free GM advice. Basically my gaming group had to transition to this quickly when Covid struck, but this has really allowed me to get my weekly game in and I’ve learned a few things that might help you do the same.
My tech setup: Laptop, $20 Craigslist 2nd monitor, ancient Bamboo Graphics Tablet/ Mouse, Roll20 free account, Discord for Voice, Pinterest for monster tokens/maps
I create 2 channels in Discord: general and an information one with links to cheat sheets, any google drive content etc.
If you plan a long running information heavy campaign with lots of places, characters, plots, items etc setting up a Wiki on something like DokuWiki can be very helpful. This DOES mean you and players need to maintain it, however. (Also, don’t be grandiose if you are a first time DM, run a single session with the option to renew LATER, go ahead and be coy about it – this will save you the headache of committing to do 52 weeks of unpaid labor you come to resent AND kick people out of your game who are lousy players or you just don’t like – I cannot stress this enough – manage expectations up front, it prevents a lot of hurt feelings and awkward or confrontational conversations later)
I have Roll20 open on the 2nd monitor in chrome as well as Pinterest, A google doc with names for NPCs, Interesting sounding places, items etc – this is my Improv tool for DungeonWorld, but I use it for all games because no one I ever met can make up names on the fly.
If you have people who like to eat chips into the mic or have a lot of background noise tell them to enable “Push to Talk” in settings or tell all players to enable this BY DEFAULT.
There are a ton of videos on getting to know roll20 on youtube.
Manage your game settings – these are presets before you even create a map, etc. I use a default page size of 40 wide x 25 tall to mirror screen aspect ratio. I also like a 30% grey as default map color – easier on the eyes than bright white. Fog of war is enabled – more on this later. With DnD the default character sheet is nice, you might want to know the “always roll with advantage” check box is in there – it confuses a lot of people that it is on by default.
Once you have a game set up, go into it and go to settings on the right (gear) I recommend:
• Set voice + Audio options to NONE
• Set your display name (save)
• Check Enable 3d dice
• Dropdown “Scroll to Zoom” (you can pan with a right mouse click)
• Player Video/Avatar set to “Name Only”
Give out your link to Roll20 for players at 1-7 days in advance. Getting a character sheet with a functioning token set up can take a little bit – you do NOT want to be stressing over this wasting 4 other people’s time on game day, though it is inevitable to a point in your first game. They will need to set up the same settings or you will suffer terrible audio feedback. To help this, the first board they enter on login is a blank map with these instructions pasted as a graphic in the middle of the screen (hard to miss). If players have DnD Beyond there is a Chrome Extension called Beyond 20 to import characters a lot of people like, though I personally have not used it.
I tell players to also put there name as follows in settings:
“Drizzt (Bob) AC 15”
This saves me having to ask their AC over and over in game. If you want you can also have them put “Elf Ranger” at the end or anything else you find helpful.
I tried Roll20 boards and other websites to find gamers. Facebook groups were most effective by a long shot. A lot of RPG gaming systems have Discord groups as well, which is nice because those people are already fans of the game system. It’s a good idea to build in expectations as much as possible if you are doing this (6-9pm CST weekly for 3 weeks, grimdark game tone…etc). I like to identify who my solid players are too – a mix of some people I know and like and maybe a few newbs. That way you are always meeting new people, and if you have a few new ones that you can’t count on you don’t need to call off the game because you have 3 solid players.
Minimum Viable Setup
Some people think you need 15 full color maps, spell effects, etc. This is not true – while those can be impressive and evocative, this is a game of IMAGINATION, and sometimes having those beautiful graphics in my opinion detracts from the active use of imaginaning the action. The key point of maps is so everyone knows who they are standing next to, threatened by, where they can move, etc.
The smallest, fastest set up is a SINGLE page with hastily drawn maps pointing out key items – most rooms will be squares. I have the advantage of having a very old Bamboo graphics tablet, and can quickly draw on the fly (it helps to go into settings and have it map to a single monitor – the one I am using for Roll20).
I think the roll20 initiative tracker takes forever for the GM to manage, so instead I use a graphic strip for 5e – at the top is 25 (then 20, 15, 10, 5, 0) at the bottom -5. Once you have player tokens set up, you can duplicate them and have the PLAYERS manage their own initiative by placing their 2nd token on the strip in order of initiative (you can copy a monster to track yours on there too). This is MUCH faster in my experience and maintains more excitement when you say “Roll for initiative!”
I use Pinterest to get all my token pics, there are a fair amount of great map boards on there as well, though in my experience you are better off being inspired by a map and building your encounter around it than conceptualizing the perfect encounter and then trying to find a perfect map for it. I have a degree in design and am quite skilled in photoshop and could modify found maps, and I have yet to find a situation where it is worth my time – it most likely is not worth yours either. I have drawn things on graph paper in the past scanned but it is a pain to scan and align. Lately for basic custom maps I’ve been using https://dungeonscrawl.com/, which is amazing.
As a side note, sometimes when I’m stuck on ideas, just flipping through monsters or fantasy art on Pinterest inspires a fun encounter.
If you are ever uninspired, remember 3 dollars gets you a helluva lot on DMs Guild – pick a 5 star adventure and go. I think a lot of new DMs want to be writers and world builders and view writing a custom adventure as part of the fun, which is fine. But if you’ve never read a good adventure in your life, how do you expect to do this? Watch a few movies before you decide to become a director. Run a few great adventures before you decide to become an adventure designer.
For token creation, I try to do a closeup on faces – I do NOT try to get the whole body, though might for something like a horse and carriage which is more important as a map item in a fight. It helps to know how to screengrab Windows+Shift+S on a PC, keep your selection as SQUARE as possible. You can then paste into Photoshop, Paint etc and save a token. Irfanview is a free program for viewing graphics that I use for this. If you are using a map, it’s better to just right click the image and “save as…” to your desktop. Sometimes they list dimensions on maps (23 x 22) I try to save this in the file name as it is VERY useful to set up in Roll20 later. You only get so much space on Roll20 for graphics, so don’t save 20 MB image tokens, no one will see them anyway. My goal for a 1 square token is a few hundred KB tops. If you want to have all the players see the gruesome closeup of the zombie when it appears in game, click it and hit Shift+Z to pop it up on their screen (they can click it off to continue to play). I have never exceeded my image space on Roll20
What is an Adventure?
To me 5e is a high prep game. That means the players OWE the DM to either go along with his plot or tell him their plans a week in advance.This is not railroading, it is courtesy to the person doing more work than anyone else in the game. If people don’t like it, they should play something that is lower prep, like DungeonWorld or Fate.
We typically play for 3 hours (6:30 to 9:30, people log on Discord and chat a bit starting at 6). My goal is to have 2-3 combat encounters centered around a plot. With low levels and few players things go fast so I might plan 4-5, at high levels with lots of players I would plan 2 fights and a role play scene or skill challenge. This means my prep is:
Roll plot around in my head for 6 days – What do they expect? What is fun? What would be surprising or shocking? What would happen in a movie or TV show? What character moments would be fun? What would be most dramatic? Can I actually do this idea in a 5e game? Examples of things that do NOT work well: Hostage situations, chase scenes, players deciding to kill goblin babies, torture…
The night before I round up maps and tokens. I paste monster stats and spells into a google doc (once again, google and screen grabs are great for this, you can also create 2 columns in a google doc by inserting a 2 cell table). I also write up short lead in descriptions for encounters. In my experience a lot of GMs try to do this on the fly, but often forget an important feature important to the encounter. 3 sentences summing up the scene, what they see and setting the tone usually works better. I also write up any important bullet points of fun things villains or NPCs might say, or important things they know and tell the PCs after the encounter that will lead to the next encounter or advance the story. If this is the end of an important arc, I write up a dramatic “cut scene”. The key is to have 30% more content than I need in case they tear through prepped material but to NOT overprep. The game the next week will almost always be better if I react to events this week, what players seemed interested in, what they seemed bored with, etc.
Page/ Map Setup
As mentioned previously, I usually have a 40×25 page with fog of war enabled. The page should already have an initiative strip and player tokens on it. If it is a dungeon that I will reveal as they go, the monsters should be placed, and I use the 3 circles to enter the AC/ HP in advance. If it is more of an “ambushed by enemies” situation I have the entire map visible (or just draw a few trees and road) and have a fog of war strip on the right hand of the map 3-4 squares wide where I hide my monsters. It is very easy to copy and paste monsters so I usually have 2x what i need JUST in case. I also don’t want to have to construct a goblin army from a single goblin while the players sit bored. A nice thing is you can copy/ paste all the player tokens and initiative strip BETWEEN pages, so those are pretty fast to set up on all your pages.
I think it’s a pain in the ass to punch in monster stats into Roll20 for 5e (it was easy though for Shadow of the Demon Lord, hats off to Schwalb) so I roll actual dice for most of the game on my desk. I will roll on Roll20 for something very dramatic (a villain saving throw or something) but usually I keep it fast with real dice. Players on the other hand will ALWAYS be expected to roll using Roll20 as a default and that expectation is built in. You can loosen this up if it’s your trusted group for 10 years, but it’s worth addressing up front especially with a new group you don’t know well. Why even give someone the temptation to fudge a roll? Save yourself a difficult conversation later…
Game Day Schedule
6pm (players log in to discord, BS, chat, catch up)
6:30 I read a short recap, summing up what happened last week, reminding them the context of the plot, what quest they were on etc. I have seen people post these, but 90% of the time players don’t read it, and reading this helps focus people and stops me from wanting to murder players an hour in when they can’t remember why the hell they broke into the Thieves’ Guild last week.
8:30 this is about where I should start the last encounter. If there are a lot of moving pieces (fighting a goblin army of 30) I might drop half the monsters just so they can chew through it faster.
9:30 end of game.
Thanks for Reading
I hope this is valuable to some and would love any feedback or to hear your experiences. RPGs have become my best social outlet during the last many months. I already loved them as a lifelong GM, but they have really kept me from cracking up in my apartment as well as my players I suspect. Having watched the tools to do online gaming I will say we are blessed to live in a time where this is viable, I feel the technology just wasn’t there 10 years ago. It can take some fiddling but once you have a few games under your belt it’s almost as good as meeting the old group down at the game store every Wednesday, and you don’t even need to drive home after!
- Lazy DM Tools for Online Play
- Fun new interactive concept D&D stream on twitch. I think it could catch on.
- Advice for being more flexible in running sessions on Roll20?
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