Roll20 guide: how to play RPG games online

Covid lockdowns have seen tabletop RPG players flock to online platforms, but these can be a pain - here's how to do Roll20 right

Roll20 and the rest guide main image digital map showing tokens and dice

Virtual tabletop platforms make it possible to go on dice-rolling social adventures with your friends from the comfort of your own home, shifting your roleplaying sessions online so that your treasured weeknight Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder campaign can carry on, even when your party can’t meet in person (like, say, if the planet’s in the grip of a deadly virus and you’re not allowed to leave home except to buy bread or get your jabs).

One of the best-known digital platforms is Roll20, a free online setup that, as long as you have a browser open and a decent internet connection, gives you everything you need to run a streamlined roleplaying adventure with your mates. Offering tons of nifty features – and these days enjoying direct support from Wizards of the Coast, Paizo and other industry powerhouses – Roll20 has a whole range of new and classic campaigns, optimised and ready for you to launch with a click of a button – as well an undeniably flexible suite of tools to build your own from scratch, using self-made assets.

However, making the first step from pen-and-paper to the digital tabletop is understandably a big jump, and with a UI as notoriously opaque as Roll20’s, the mere thought of starting an online campaign can be as frightening as dealing with a tyrant game master (GM).

But fear not: with a little guidance, Roll20 is a super convenient (albeit sometimes finicky) tool which, if you know how to stroke it in all the right places, can not only keep your RPG group going in lockdown, but help elevate your roleplaying experience with new elements you may not have tried.

Welcome, then, to Wargamer’s guide to getting started with playing D&D and other tabletop RPGs online via Roll20, offering essential step-by-step guidance and tips to make sure your first digital session is as stress-free and devoid of technical troubles as humanly, elvenly or even dwarvenly possible.

Roll20 and the rest guide Roll20 online RPG platform logo showing D20

Setting up

So you’ve found a group of eager roleplayers, and you’re ready to dive into the digital physical world of imagination – let’s first talk about the most fundamental extra step in online tabletop RPGs: voice and video.

Handling audio comms externally via Discord makes Roll20 run smoother

You will want to make sure that every player’s device (and especially the GM’s) has a decent microphone and (if possible) a webcam, to recreate that social, tabletop group-session feeling. Roll20 has a built-in voice and video feature, but it can slow down performance and cause annoying echoes. From personal experience, handling your audio and/or video comms externally, using low-profile apps like Discord (or even Zoom) will make Roll20 and any other online platforms run smoother. To turn off video and voice in Roll20, simply change your settings before launching your campaign and inviting people in.

Another vital thing to consider before even logging on to Roll20 is using the right browser. Simple as it may sound, lots of frustrations and lagging issues can be solved straight away with just switching away from your typical web browser for the duration. Firefox is known to run best, and it’s advised to avoid Safari at all costs.

Roll20 and the rest guide welcome campaign launch menu screenshot

Starting your campaign

Roll20 has a tutorial, and, whether you are a player or the GM, getting to grips with the basic controls is a must. It can get a bit detailed, but if you are a player, you won’t need to worry about all the features and the technical ins and outs. On the other hand, GMs may want to watch Roll20’s walkthroughs and play around on the site before a session, practising and getting used to the program.

If you are a first-timer or not that tech-savvy, we definitely recommend purchasing one of Roll20’s licensed campaigns via the marketplace as they’re pretty affordable and give you everything you need in the way of digital tokens, maps, lore and info documents, artworks, etc. If you purchase a fully-fledged, official D&D 5E campaign like Storm King’s Thunder or Lost Mine of Phandelver, it will come with its own maps, assets and detailed notes on how to run your campaign – saving you time and a few grey hairs.

Venturing forth: Our guide to running Lost Mine of Phandelver

Before starting your game, make sure you’ve chosen the correct character sheet template and have enabled ‘allow players to import their own character’ under game settings. Remember if you’re the GM, to pick the correct compendium for the campaign you are running (this is normally your chosen game’s core rulebook, e.g. D&D 5E’s player’s handbook) and click the option to share compendium with your players.

Now the whole party can fill out their character sheets, with all the information they need at their fingertips, bringing you one step closer to your first game session.

Roll20 and the rest guide more map options screenshot showing top down image of a castle

Playing the game

Let’s say that the GM has uploaded all the battle maps, got the atmospheric music playlists ready (Roll20’s music tool is quite intuitive here) and the character sheets have been sorted – it’s now time to get cracking on your online offline adventure.

The dice roller handles anything from D4s to D100s and does the maths for you

The basic thing for players to get to grips with is the toolbar on their screen’s left-hand side. The toolbar contains a move tool, enabling you to drag your token around the map, a draw tool for indicating changes to the environment, and a handy measurement tool that is incredibly helpful for combat ranges.

There is also a super-convenient dice roller in the toolbar. The dice roller lets you roll anything from D4s to D100s and does all the maths for you instantaneously, speeding up gameplay and making dungeons feel faster-paced. If you want some animations in your rolls, go to your settings on the right-hand side and enable 3D dice for that extra dose of realism.

Roll20 and the rest guide map screenshot showing character and creature tokens, HP markers and the toolbar

Now let’s go over what happens when your party finds itself in some hot water, facing off in your first online combat.

Firstly, the character sheets are amazingly helpful: players can simply click on their weapon or spell, and Roll20 will automatically roll an attack, taking all your modifiers into account.

Blaze your own trail: Read our Pathfinder classes guide

If you are using a D&D 5E character sheet, you can also click the options at the top to enable either advantage or disadvantage to a roll.

To adjust hit points, you can physically change the value on your character sheet, or type ‘-’ or ‘+’, followed by the amount of damage taken, into the green bubble displayed above your character’s token, and the amount will be altered automatically.

Roll20 and the rest in-game screenshot showing map, player tokens and D6 dice

Next steps for GMs

Going over everything in Roll20 is nearly impossible in this compact starter guide, but we can point you towards your next research steps and offer a few resource recommendations. A big thing to come to terms with is importing maps for your next game.

Consider using Tokenstamp to create your own in-game tokens quickly

If you are choosing to start your own adventure instead of a licensed campaign, simply search for some images and drag them into Roll20’s map layer. As a GM, we would also recommend practising with Roll20’s alignment tool to make grids on any maps you find as (from experience and multiple headaches) it can be temperamental, and takes time to perfect.

Another thing to consider is that if you want to create your own tokens, sites like Tokenstamp are favourites for making your own to import into a game, adding some extra visual uniqueness to the player characters, NPCs and creatures in your session.

Finally, in terms of more advanced map creation features on Roll20, the best method is trial and error, watching videos or even looking through some subreddits for tips and advice. You can always leave questions on Wargamer’s social channels, too (linked below) and one of our resident digital dice-fanciers will get back to you.

Roll20 and the rest guide Roll20 marketplace screenshot showing book cover product images for D&D campaigns

AND THE REST…

With all of us cooped up at home, there is no better time than now to take your roleplaying online. Roll20 is excellent for everyone, as it is browser-based and easy to get into (if not to master). But there are tons of alternatives out there, if Roll20 doesn’t sound like your cup of RPG tea.

Astral is an up-and-coming platform, and an excellent alternative for Pathfinder players, but (despite its user-friendly UI) it presently still lacks many features. Fantasy Grounds is another choice, explicitly built for D&D – but requires upfront payment, making it somewhat of a gamble for first-time online players versus the free account available with Roll20.

An extra dimension: Check out this free, 3D D&D map builder 

However, no matter where you choose to take your online adventure, take courage: as long as you have a stout heart and a steady internet connection, nothing can stop you and your friends from coming together to dungeon-crawl or space-travel your way beyond the familiar, enclosing four walls of the past year.

Although it may not beat an in-person roleplaying session, the convenience, multitude of features and constant updates mean online roleplaying comes pretty close, and keeps getting better year after year. Time to join the party.

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