How Roll20 Gave Me Back Gaming
When I wrote NPCs, I honestly didn’t expect it to do as well as it did. Yes, I know tabletop games have a wide-spread fan-base, but just because someone enjoyed those didn’t mean they would A) see my book, B) decide to read it, or C) like the spin I took on the genre. I wrote that book because it was fun, and it let me channel the pent-up D&D energy I didn’t have an outlet for at the time. But NPCs has done really well, to my surprise and delight.
One of the unexpected benefits of writing NPCs has been getting e-mails from people who used to play D&D, or RIFTS, or Pathfinder, or… look, you all get the idea here. There are a lot of systems out there and I’m not naming them all. Anyway, I got great e-mails from people who used to game but were no longer able to. Life can be a real dick to gaming groups, what with people moving, families cropping up, and limited social circles making it hard to replace lost players. To them, NPCs was a nice reminder of a past time that they used to really enjoy, but that had slipped out of their reach many years ago.
I’m now going to tell you all the same thing I ultimately tell every person who brings that subject up in the e-mails they send me: you should really check out Roll20.net. Now I’ll say upfront that this isn’t advertising hidden in the context of a blog (not that I wouldn’t do that, mind you, but no one is offering). I know of Roll20 because I use it weekly. It’s a great service; one that has enabled me to reclaim my gaming groups as well as forge new ones.
Many of us D&D players remember the great online gaming debacle of 4th edition, where Wizard made a big to-do about the online components that would come with the (then new) 4e. They trumpeted it as a way to play across the nation, for old players to re-connect with each other and throw dice from states away. If you were around for that, you might also remember that no such online tools existed at launch, though they were still making empty promises up until three months afterward, which is when most of us threw up out hands in disgust, both at the unkempt promises and the 4e system, which is a blog post in itself. I distinctly remember thinking at the time that someone out there should just make a system of their own. The demand was clearly there, and if WoW could exist then this was doable. It took a while, but that wish came true in the form of Roll20.
Functionally, Roll20 is a system that allows for a DM to design custom maps that others can view, dropping in tokens or effects as needed. There are dice-rolling commands, health and status tracker, chat/voice/video options, and a slew of other small but necessary add-ons to keep the flow of games going. A few years ago, that was pretty much all they had, but over time they’ve been slowly expanding and adding cool new options, like a library of tiles and tokens, and more recently system specific character sheets. I won’t claim it’s exactly like sitting around a room, drinking beer and throwing dice, but it’s still pretty damn fun.
All of that said, I still don’t think I would be taking the time to do a blog post today if that were all Roll20 were. It’s a great tool, no question there, but that alone wouldn’t be much help in getting those who missed gaming back in. No, what accomplishes that goal the best is the Looking For Group forums. Someone with no other friends who likes games can go on, find a group playing the system they want (right now I’m digging the hell out of D&D 5e) and request to join. It’s that simple. Or, if you want to run a game but are short a player or two, post up on there and let someone new into the game. You can specify schedules, whether you’re accepting inexperienced players, and what the party’s existing make-up is all to make sure that it’s a fit for both the player and the group. That, to me, is what makes this such a cool and useful tool. It actually gets one over on real life tabletop gaming by simplifying what was always the hardest part of D&D: finding new players.
Some groups won’t fit together well of course, and games do fall apart, but shit that’s true of games with people you know as well. I’ve probably seen more games burn out than finish, and I spent all four years of college living with friends who fucking loved D&D.
Point is, I know how much it sucks to lose the tabletop outlet. When I moved from Lubbock and separated from my friends, I didn’t know how I’d get another game together. Then 4e came around making its promises, and when that fell through I pretty much gave up on being able to throw those dice anymore. Then one day I was at the corporate job, started talking to a friend about wanting to game, and he told me about a game he’d started with old friends using this new site called Roll20. Finding this thing a few years ago was a godsend, one that I want to share with others who think the good old days of drinking ale in taverns and slaying dragons are behind them.
That’s probably enough shilling, by this point you’re either a gamer who is interested or you don’t care about this blog. To those of you who do go check it out, don’t worry if you’re a little rusty on the rules or what systems are out there. The digital age has also made it far easier to look things up rather than flipping through those massive tomes. Go forth, find some players, and get to gaming.