Even before the Covid pandemic hit the US officially in March 2020, I had been planning to shift my gaming routine from the tabletop to virtual online. I had a good gaming group and a great game room for physical play, but I had friends out of town where that wasn’t a viable option, and given the leaps and bounds VTTs had taken over the years, it seemed a no-brainer to engage the new technology. Despite my reluctance to learn a new skill and software. And that was really the main obstacle: I love gaming in person, have done it for decades, and I did NOT want to learn an entirely new suite of abilities in order to facilitate the same thing. Plus, I had a hefty amount of money invested in miniatures and models and maps for use at the table. Moving the operation online would invalidate all of that.
Now, at the time I was running Lost Mine of Phandelver. Well, running it for the second time; the first was at the beginning of 5e, but now I ran it for a new group of players, and it was better the second go around. They had even made it all way to the titular Lost Mine and weren’t too far from meeting the Black Spider when – you know. Pandemic happened and everything shut down. Pretty much permanently. Well, for the next 12+ months anyway. I don’t think any of us really saw that coming and just how long the isolation would last.
Anyhoo, my point of all this is that I had to make a drastic shift from in-person to online games practically overnight. I had a few gamers help me out who had prior experience with Roll20, so that was our go-to system. I even purchased Fantasy Grounds, but for some reason that VTT didn’t click in my mind as well as Roll20 did. I think it works fine for online gaming, and the automation is better than Roll20, but I just couldn’t get past the system’s quirks.
The first small campaign I ran was Forge of Fury from the 5e Tales of the Yawning Portal. This was just supposed to be a practice run and not an in-depth campaign, and at first that’s how it went. And yeah, the first two sessions were rough. I didn’t know how to navigate Roll20, the layers and lighting effects gave me an infernal headache, and I honestly didn’t think I was smart enough to wrap my brain around thing. It was depressing. I had lost access to my favorite hobby! Or rather, I now had a pale imitation of my favorite hobby.
Well, I had a better time the second or third session, but during the interim between games I practiced Roll20 about 4 hours a day. I wanted to run this game seamlessly, and I wanted to record it in such a way as I did my old in person games; snapping shots with a camera to edit and upload. I eventually installed a program called Sharex that allowed me to instantly screen grab whatever I needed with the touch of a button, and that let me tell the stories I wanted to much easier. In fact, once I got used to “covering” a 2D map, it was much easier to snap a screen than it was to take photographs of the physical game board. Of course, the 2D maps don’t have the wonderful 3D physicality of the game table, but they have something the table can’t remotely match: dynamic lighting.
I’ve read on forums that some people don’t care about dynamic lighting, or think it is overrated. To each their own of course. Some people also hate gaming with miniatures, and I think you mofo’s are crazy. Miniatures are awesome (but more about that another post). Dynamic lighting let me do things at the virtual game table I couldn’t replicate in person. I could have shadows and darkvision and realistic torches and lanterns and it could all be done visually and not require the player’s imagination.
Was this easy to accomplish in Roll20? Hell no. It took a lot of practice to work out the kinks, but the end result was very satisfying. I think any of the VTT’s that utilize advanced lighting code will have their own quirks to work through.
So 2020 ended up with me diving into the deep end of Roll20 online play, subscribing to the Pro account and tinkering with codes and API and all that jazz. I will never understand coding but I admire those of you that do. Roll20 needs an overhaul in my opinion, and I’ve only been using it for over a year. Too much of the cool stuff is hard to access and harder to manipulate. But when it works it works pretty well.
On a side note, I have heard that Foundry is an excellent new VTT and although I have it, I haven’t mucked with the mechanics too much yet. I’m sure that will change.
The point of this post those is the transformation that took place the more I ran online games. I liked them. I REALLY liked them. And the more we played every week – multiple times week after week – my appreciation of the medium grew. Access to maps, tokens and props were all available at a few clicks of the mouse. I used to painstakingly print maps and cut and tape them together, roll them up and transport them to my destination. With online play, that’s all a thing of a past, and now I could indulge in fantastic color maps for mundane encounters with no combat needed whatsoever.
I still love gaming in person, but the perks and convenience of playing online can’t be ignored. I’ve had as much fun from the DM side of the screen as I ever did before. I still play with maps and props and miniatures and sound effects and voices and acting. None of that has changed. We don’t use cameras to see each other (that’s a downside) but the benefits of online play in the modern age are still fantastic.
I don’t think I will be giving it up anytime soon.