Thursday, March 7, 2013

Moving from TTF to Roll20: An Assessment

Last year I ran about fourteen sessions of Mutants & Masterminds 2e using Tabletop Forge. This year I ran four sessions of a sequel campaign (wiki here). I’d backed TTF in the Kickstarter campaign, less for the assets and more for the promised functionality development. Last week, TTF went offline, pushing our group and others over to Roll20.

M&M 2e is a crunchier game than those I run right now. I say that as a veteran of running many, many years of higher crunch rpgs like Champions, Rolemaster (Classic and Standard System), and GURPS with all the chrome. M&M 2e as a system and superheroes as a genre invite tactical battle play. That may not hold true for all groups but it does for mine- five old school rpg players all of whom assembled originally to play the City of Heroes MMO. Several of of them seriously play tactical video games or board games (like HeroClix). A different group composition might  result in a different focus. My face-to-face supers rpg groups still like tactical combat. But they prefer games more open ended with more sessions devoted to investigation and NPC interaction. I think f2f works better for that. 

What I needed out of the program was pretty simple:
  • Easy connection set up. We have a couple of people with odd set ups and jinxed systems. The players broadcast audio only, while I as GM broadcast audio and video. That means I can’t see their faces and what they’re doing. That creates problems from time to time, as they step away or don’t pay attention and miss when I tell them to go.
  • Ability to put up decent maps. I just need these as a surface. I use a variant movement system for M&M 2e which breaks up the map into zones. Depending on your movement power, you can move X zone and still take an action. I want to keep things relatively abstract- avoiding counting hexes or squares. It has worked well. It means I don’t need a grid for the map, the scale can shift, and I don’t have to worry about other bells and whistles.
  • Ability to make tokens from images and be able to move those tokens around map.
  • A simple die roller that doesn’t take up much screen space. Easy command line to add bonuses.

That’s the basics and in general TableTop Forge handled that decently. It ran in G+ Hangouts and from time to time we’d have some connection problems which necessitated people logging out and back in. That would usually happen for just a couple of the players. We could tell it was coming because their rolls would stop showing up or have a significant delay. TTF also had a number of glitches with some basic functions requiring work arounds. These added a few minutes to the set up. It lacked a few features I could imagine would be helpful but I got used to the program. I used the G+ Screenshare app to show images, for example. I didn’t want anything more complicated getting in the way of things.

The needs of other campaigns and GMs may vary. I run a WoD Changeling the Lost campaign, and I don’t use TTF or anything like it for that- just the G+ Hangouts. That campaign doesn't tactical maps or dice rollers. I imagine GMs running a D&D 4e would need lots of things to track statuses, detailed grid maps, and, perhaps a more involved die roller. As always your campaign set up will vary. For example, the excellent Barking Alien seemed shocked that I would use maps for a supers campaign. In his games, the scale of the superheroic made that  difficult to map or keep in a constrained space. Something like Marvel Superheroes is purely abstract, so you never need a map. That’s less of an issue with my tactical over narrative play group.

That being said, I worried about learning a new program with Roll20. I’d heard it described as more robust and complex. The need to set up a special account and the presence of micro-transactions via purchasable assets and tokens made me nervous. Some people mentioned problems with the video chat functions. The closure of the TTF project I'd backed made me irritable as well. I posted in a couple of G+ threads about my trepidation. I saw some back and forth, but nothing that convinced me to be positive (or more negative).

So last night I ran using Roll20, having taken a day earlier in the week to familiarize myself with it. I planned on a little investigation, leading to a fight.

Long story short: The transition was easy; Roll20 does many things important to me better than TTF; and the players came away excited and impressed.

I set up the game easily. Roll20 allows GMs to create several different scenes, rather than working with a single map. You can easily move between those scenes and they load quickly. I really wanted that from TTF. More importantly, in Roll20 the GM can easily set these scenes, maps, and tokens ahead of time. TTF allowed the GM to save a map and a set of tokens. However, more times than not, when I loaded those, players could not see them. So I’d have to go through the process of choosing setting them out again- delaying play. Now I can easily have a staging image for the investigation/narrative section of the adventure and then switch to the map.

But even more, Roll20 makes loading tokens and maps super easy. You can drag and drop them right on to the table. I use two monitors and a couple of times last night when I wanted to remind them what a bad guy looked like, I just grabbed the image from the other monitor, dumped it onto the battlefield for a minute, and then deleted it. Any image you upload in this way becomes part of your library. I have a 100 Meg storage limit to start; I’m not sure if that’s a TTF backer thing or the general rule. You can quickly clear out images you don’t want from your library. The search function makes finding images efficient  and encourages me to be accurate about how I name images. You can also tag these assets.

Campaigns are persistent- with a campaign page players can hop on to at any time. You supply players with a link. I set up a NY Skyline image as the default landing page. That means you don’t have to send out Hangout invites- players just show up at the appointed time. I suppose you can still send out reminders. Each player has a little graphic box- since I’m using video, my broadcast shows up there. The players had grey boxes- I think they’ll need to set up icons to represent them. There’s a green bar below their image which moves to show talking. Each player can pick a unique color to represent them, used for drawing and similar functions. The players, of course, immediately drew penises on the screen. The GM can erase all drawings (thank god). There’s an Undo function in the program which only goes back a single step. Audio set up wasn’t a problem; you have to grant permission to the built-in program. A couple of times during the evening players dropped out of the audio; however they signed out and rejoined which quickly fixed it. They commented this fix was easier than with G+ Hangouts. Two of the players signed in accidentally on two devices, creating two icons for them. That didn’t affect anything thankfully. A couple times we had a little chat lag- which resulted in players talking over one another. However some of that I think has to do with one player’s attention level. The Roll20 forums suggest doing a campaign in G+ can help with some connection issues. The minor problems we had don’t make that an issue. We’ll see how that goes over the course of the campaign.

The die roller is simple and the command syntax easy. Some players turned on the 3D dice for themselves; I left it turned off. One player discovered you can easily build die rolling macros for commonly used rolls- attack, toughness save, gather information, etc- and started to set those up right away. Since players can go to the campaign page at any time, I expect that will become a widely used feature. I’ll just need to make sure they keep those numbers up to date.

Roll20 has several other functions I didn’t know I needed but which everyone loved. It has an initiative tracker- something I’d done on a scratch pad for TTF. Having the order on-screen and clearly available to all players kept people more focused. They could easily see when they would next take an action. You can easily label tokens and those labels stay- as opposed to TTF where they’d vanish when loaded. Players loved the tools for marking status- several different color dots or an “X” over the token. I will have to build a legend  those. As I mentioned, they’re a tactical group and love having that info. Each token has up to three info boxes you can put numbers into. The GM can set who can see and edit those. The PCs tracked the number of Bruises they’d taken and how many Hero Points they’d spent. If you don’t want that info, you can just set them to not be visible. The table doesn’t look cluttered, as I feared it might, because tokens only display the additional info if you click on them. Another goofy feature players loved was the ping- an animated circle allowing them to point at a place on the map.

Was there anything I didn’t like? The audio drop out was a little annoying, but super easy to manage. The chat delay affected a couple of times. I use 50x50 pixel tokens, so they can be a little hard to grab. A couple of times I ended up stretching the images rather than moving them. But you can Undo that if you do it immediately; you can correct the size from the edit on the token as well. I’m sure I’ll find other things which bug me in time, but that’s about it for the moment.

I’m really, really pleased with the group’s response to the new program and set up. They quickly embraced it. I picked it up pretty easily. I thought it was pretty good, but the everyone’s reaction convinced me we had a winner. It features a number of other little details and tools that I haven’t mentioned- ability to turn off the grid, the speed of image resolution for the players, highlighting tokens from the initiative menu and so on. I would say that if you’re going to run an online RPG which requires a map and tokens moving around, Roll20 is a dynamite option. I came in very skeptical and ended up sold on it for this kind of campaign. 


  1. Roll20 has single handedly brought back my old group together, still hoping for a good API

  2. "The players, of course, immediately drew penises on the screen."

    Glad to know that some VTT experiences are universal. :)

  3. In case you missed it, API launched the other day:

    1. I haven't yet sat down to do that, but I will.