Saturday, October 27, 2012

Using Roll20 and Google+ Hangouts: Some Observations

Harley Stroh asked me to share a bit of my experiences in using the Roll20 application for gaming in Google+ Hangouts. I'm happy to oblige.

First, I'd like to say that Roll20 offers a lot of supercool tools for your gaming experience, including a great mapping tool, a very flexible die roller, a variety of free-to-use tokens, a whiteboard feature, and some very useful chat options. I've been favorably impressed with the whole package.

Though it can seem a bit overwhelming at first, it's pretty easy to use once you have the basics down.


The Roll20 app is driven by two distinct tool sets, in two menus. On the left you find a set of tools for interacting with the virtual desktop: Selection Arrow / Layer Chooser / Zoom/Ruler / Fog o' War / Turn / "Normal" Dice. You will use these the most. On the right are a set of tabs: Chat / Art Library / Journal / Juke Box / Settings. These are used less, and probably you'll only really use the chat while in-game.
Map Tools

The map tools allow you to do a lot of things. Remember: You don't have to do all of them. Use only what you need. They include three different layers with three different functions (Map, Tokens, GM Info). These layers can include all elements (tokens, line drawings, other map stuff) in any layer, and allow for selection of movement of objects between layers. For example, you can take something in the GM Info layer (say, a secret door and room) and promote it to the Map layer when it's discovered by the PCs. All you have to do is go into the GM Info layer, use the selection arrow tool, right click on the object in question, and use the "Layers" option to select Map and Terrain layer, and then your players will be able to see it. If you keep it in the GM Info layer, they can't.

There's also a "fog of war" element that you may want to use. It allows you to hide or reveal sections of map as they are explored. U

There's a ruler tool. Click and drag to see what the distances are between two points. Very handy.

Die Roller and Chat Window

There's an integral die roller in the chat bar. It's very flexible, and allows for any number of sides for dice, multiple dice, modifiers, hidden rolls, etc. Great tool.

Token Library

Token library is useful but limited. It's certainly enough to get the job done. I think you can import your own tokens. You can buy them in the marketplace as well (but it's not necessary, really).

Things you should do:
  • Sign up for an account if you are the GM. Players do not have to do this. 
  • Launch your G+ Hangout from inside the Roll20 application. It's designed for this and works just fine.
  • Be sure to view all of the tutorial videos, both Player and GM versions. They show you relatively quickly how to do important things in the application. They take a little while to view, but will take less time than the useless fumbling you would do without them. So, rather than me putting up a bunch of screenshots on this blog, I'll assume that you will do this thing instead. It's worth your time.
  • If you're using it for the first time, then take a few days to make your maps. When you make them, remember that each grid square is 5 feet (not 10), and each hex is 1 mile.
  • Get familiar with the use of the three layers used for mapping (map-background/tokens/GM Info), and how those layers should be used. 
    • Do the map first, and do it in the Map and Terrain layer. The polygon tool is the best for this. Use long rectangles for hallways
    • Once the map is in place, change to the GM Info layer, and put in things like secret doors. 
    • Only then should you place tokens, and you should be sure to switch to the tokens layer before you do so. 
    • The payoff is a map with each layer of information serving its best function. The only way you mess this up is to put things in the wrong layer. If that happens, you can fix it by right-clicking on the object in question, clicking on "Layers" and sending it to the proper layer. 
    • REMEMBER: Be sure to to do this according to a plan, and stick to it--Map first, then GM Info, then tokens.
  • Test it out with a friend, to ensure functionality from both sides of the screen. 
  • Make time at the beginning of the session to help the players familiarize themselves with the interface, especially the dice roller. Again, it's not that difficult, but it will take a while for people to "get."
  • Pay attention to the players' use of the chat window. You can miss important things if you don't.
  • If you need to select something, use the selection arrow tool.
  • Kick Roll20 a little bit of money for their awesome free app. It gives you a couple of perks, and helps them continue to develop it as a useful tool for gaming online.
Things you shouldn't do:
  • Don't use too many tokens in the zero-level funnel. It gets confusing very quickly. If you're in a zero-level funnel, and want to represent all of the PCs, have the players use tokens that are distinctly connected to player rather than character (i.e., a particular theme or color for each player's tokens). Another option is to use a token for each player (not each zero-level PC), and allow the player to determine which of his or her PCs acts in that round.
  • Haven't found anything else, really, but I'll update as I do.
So, yeah, all in all this is a great tool, and I highly recommend it.


  1. Awesome post man! I had an absolute blast on Thursday!

  2. You can change the scale of squares and hexes to be anything you like.

  3. Oh, also you can add tokens (or maps for that matter) by dragging them from your desktop into the application. Resize as needed.

  4. Hmm... I will have to investigate this. Thanks for the heads-up.


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