Packing Up: Moving My Campaigns to Roll20

Hi, everyone. Thank you for your patience during a drought of blog content. Wow, it’s certainly been a crazy few weeks. I’ve been engaging in social distancing for about a month and some change now, and it’s certainly been bizarre to see events unfold. I’m sure that I’m not the only one whose game group has been upended by everything going on, so I thought it might be helpful to talk about my experience transitioning to digital gaming. Studying computer science as a minor, I’ve often cautioned that I know just enough to know that you shouldn’t bring a computer into something you can do by hand, and my gaming group is no exception.

I’ve had the fortune of being on a more flexible schedule with my online classes, which has opened some opportunities for me to try virtual tabletops for the first time in maybe 5 years. Over the last month, I’ve been learning a great deal in the process of converting my home game to Roll20, and also getting a sense of what the experience is like from the perspective of a player with both friends and strangers’ groups.

The Conversion Process

Here in Nebraska, we had the luxury of making the judgment call for ourselves on when to stop gathering with other people, so right before the start of our isolation, my group had a final session in which we brought our laptops together and made a party of dragging our food and drink-smudged dead tree character sheets into a Roll20 game. Migrating character sheets was certainly a bit of an ordeal, as none of us had used any of Roll20’s digital character sheet options before. Trying to transcribe my players’ sheets, we found ourselves fighting against the current, unaware of features like the Charactermancer, designed to make building characters relatively painless – our sheets are still a little uncooperative since we tried to simply type features into their relevant fields(for some reason, certain players’ hit dice still revert to d4’s when nobody’s looking). My takeaway from this has been to take the time to learn the features of the tools you’re going to use beforehand so that you’ll be able to make an informed decision as to which features are superfluous and which could prove to be lifesavers later on.

When to Buy What You Already Have

I’m a staunch believer in paper versions of my books, which is certainly ironic considering that I sell digital copies of my 5E homebrew. I had serious reservations about purchasing digital copies of books I already owned, especially with circumstances flipping everyone’s finances on their heads. However, after about 3 weeks, the pain of transcribing monsters and players’ options for game prep became far too much. Being able to share a Roll20 Compendium as a subscriber is certainly worth the weight of the books you can share, though the further you stray from the core 5e books, the less likely you’ll be able to bring content into your Compendium with any sort of efficiency. Because everyone’s money situation is so volatile as of late, you have to be careful about your purchases. Weigh the time cost of copying what you need into the compendium and whether your players have access to the books they need if they are using character options not listed in the 5e SRD. If that time cost is too much, then be selective about the books you purchase in digital and make sure to ask your players if they’d be willing to chip in, as a Plus subscription on Roll20 will allow you to share your compendium with your players.

Your GM Is Not Tech Support

Our group’s first session or two were a little rocky – not being used to playing games over a distance, our equipment for recording is shaky and varies wildly. Roll20’s jukebox feature fought with me at every attempt to use a musical cue. There was no nuance of control; you either heard someone at earsplitting volume or not at all, and there was no way to finesse between the two. It wasn’t long before we transitioned our voice chat needs to Discord while keeping the incredibly useful tokens, character sheet, and handout tools in Roll20. Players – become the master of the equipment you have, because there are a million factors to your sound that can’t be replicated by your game master, both in hardware and software, so you’ll have to figure out your setup. (No, Grandma, I can’t help you with specific problems with your iPhone, I use a completely different model.) One of the greatest quality of life improvements for my campaign was instituting a half-hour mic check time right before we started to play – a time when we could poke at our volumes and preferences and just chat about how our week has been, a feature of our social gatherings that we were sorely missing with a now-empty game table.

Key Takeaways

  • Learn your tools before you need to use them – otherwise, you’ll waste precious game time unable to play your game.
  • Prepare your game smartly; find options to reduce that prep – spring for digital access to the books you need for your campaign, but see if your players are willing to share the cost of them and a Roll20 subscription so that you can all benefit.
  • Be thrifty with your purchases – There are a bunch of bundles on Roll20’s marketplace for different groups of books. Some of these packages will include books or prewritten adventures that you won’t want, and you may be able to buy the books you do want a la carte for a cheaper price. See if your players can chip in, and spring for the paid subscription to share your Compendium with others.
  • Do a Mic Check Early – Connect with your fellow gamers maybe 20-30 minutes before you start to play so that you can balance audio as you need to, see if anyone’s mic is picking up distracting sound, or otherwise experiencing technical issues.
  • Don’t Become Tech Support – Encourage your players to learn the tools they have – unless you have the exact same setup, there are probably plenty of unknown factors that you’ll never know at work on someone else’s machine.

When things start to settle again, my group will probably go back to physically getting together to play games. Thankfully, with virtual tabletops, there are plenty of opportunities to keep gaming in the meantime. Hopefully, the details of my group’s shift to digital were able to provide you with some tips for your games and inspire you to keep gaming despite the need to distance ourselves physically right now. Stay safe out there!

Some artwork © 2015 Dean Spencer, used with permission. All rights reserved.

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