Friday 17 October 2014

7 things I learned from DMing my first Roll20 game

The BEST resource for those who do not keep a DM and 3 other players chained in their basement.

What ho, Adventurers!

Recently I decided to take the plunge and run a Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition game on Roll20. I've been using Roll20 as a player for about six months, and have been blown away by what a tremendous free resource this is for RPG players. I've heard it said that we are living in a golden age for tabletop RPGs, and between Roll20, the OSR, the plethora of PDFs available, and now the awesome D&D Fifth Edition, I am certainly inclined to agree. That said, I was still finding that there never seemed to be the exact game I wanted at the exact time I wanted (SO picky, I know!) 

I decided the best way to solve the problem was to just run my own darn game, when I wanted and how I wanted. How hard could it be, right? 

Here's the summary of what what I found out from my experience, presented as 7 items in no particular order:
  1. Use the resources they give you. In the games I played in before running my own, I found I sometimes felt like a slave to the built in character sheet. I couldn't really see the calculations being used on my rolls, and I constantly had a sneaking suspicion things weren't working correctly. I decided when it came time for my own game, it would be pure dice rolls, no templates or anything. In practise, I was allowing room for a LOT of human error. The way around this is to use macros. You can set them up in advance, and the calculations are visible to everyone. I've seen experienced DMs with very elaborate macros laid out. They do this for a reason - it's the most likely way to get a correct result. It also speeds up play considerably, and when you're in the game, every second counts.
  2. Use your time in advance wisely. The main difference between DMing in person, and DMing using Roll20 is not only are you running the game, you're also running the Roll20 interface. This can sometimes lead to awkward situations that slow down gameplay as you load tokens, configure initiative, transfer maps, enable hidden journal entries, and so on. ANYTHING of this nature you can do in advance will be well worth it when the game is underway. You'll be able to focus on your players, and not your computer.
  3. Book extra players.  Roll20 users are the best people on earth. They are funny, smart, patient and able to bring more life into a simple pre-gen than you ever would have believed possible. They are also PEOPLE. They will on occasion get suddenly busy, be generally confused about dates and times, have sudden emergencies, or just flake out. You need to have backup players, and backups for the backups. The good news is there is always SOMEONE looking for a game. If you're in a pinch you can probably find a player ready to go in about 15 minutes. Did I mention Roll20 is awesome? It's because of the community as much as the technology.
  4. Get ready for the avalanche! I've heard it jokingly said that on Roll20 the ratio of players to DMs is 100-0. While its obviously not that bad, there are a lot more players than DMs, and thus there are a lot of people who will want to play in your game. Most will probably not have much experience, and may not have headsets or other technical specs necessary, especially if you're using voice. Try to be kind and point them in the right direction, and if possible don't get too frustrated with the sometimes strange requests. Yes, you may be three hours into your adventure and people are still asking to join your game, but that's the price of popularity.
  5. Get your voice or chat option running as smoothly as possible. It's the nature of online gaming that voice chat is something you're going to need to deal with. Most games are going to use it, and that means players need a headset/mike setup of some sort. There is a voice option native to roll20, but most people prefer other options. Google Hangouts are a popular choice, as is Skype. These are free, but sometimes suffer from sound quality and latency issues. Teamspeak and Mumble require a hosted server, but give a higher quality of sound. I was able to get a hosted Mumble server for under $2 a month, so we're not talking a huge expense here. If possible do a sound check a few hours before the game starts. It's very sad for someone to be stuck doing text chat only in a voice game.
  6. Use the built in sound player to add immersion to your game. You've got a group of people you're trying to draw into a fictional world, and they're all wearing HEADSETS. It would be crazy not to use some awesome audio to help paint the picture. Roll20 has a great built in function that lets you search Soundcloud for music and sounds, and plays them for anyone logged into the game. You can play several at once to create layers, adjust audio levels to keep everything in balance, and loop infinitely if you so desire. My favourite was adding a thumping heartbeat just a hair above inaudible. A cheap trick maybe, but really effective at adding tension.
  7. If you are considering running a game on Roll20, do it NOW! It will be exhilarating, frustrating, hilarious, tragic, and leave you sweating profusely and grinning ear to ear. I did just about everything wrong humanly possible, and still had an absolutely fantastic time. My players even said they would like to play again. To me, that counts as a total victory, and I'm sure you will do even better!
If you are interested in how the game went, you can view the actual play video:

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