Monday, May 19, 2014

The Seven Ways That Roll20 Wooed Me

It looks like my last post didn't come across the way I planned - such is the way with the written word and attempts at humor. My irony meter was definitely off, because several things I thought were good attempts at irony didn't work. For example, "I am really in IT" isn't some kind of assertion of my expertise, but something I actually said while we were having problems because those issues made me look (and feel) like an idiot. When you have to explain a joke, it loses a lot of its power. But, hey, it started several very good discussions relating to online gaming in general and Roll20 in particular.

Subsequently, as I had originally planned, here's my breakdown of the things about Roll20 that have gone absolutely great and the reasons I'm sticking with it over other VTTs I've looked at. I want to hedge this with the disclaimer that previously to deciding on using Roll20 for my game, I only gave a cursory looks at the other VTTs out there. FantasyGrounds, RPOL, and others (including just simple Skype or G+ Hangouts) obviously meet the needs for lots of gamers out there - but they didn't do a good job of selling themselves to me.

7. Sometimes I Just Want To Be A Pretty Princess
One of the appeals of a VTT for me is being able to leverage graphic elements seamlessly during the game. Everything from custom card decks (I have both the Fate Deck and a custom deck uploaded), to being able to use tokens for aspect cards, to just simply being able to display a picture of an NPC or location are really awesome capabilities. I can just upload all of these things to Roll20 and drag it right onto the play space. The custom playing deck functionality, not only for cards like the Deck of Fate but Fate tokens, is awesome. Since I have some modest graphic design skills, I get to flex them and put them  - as well as my horde of inspirational images that I've collected - to good use.

I'm so glad I learned how to use layer modes in Gimp
6. Just Because Something Is Free, Doesn't Mean It Has To Suck
There's actually two main points here. The first is the free part. While Fantasy Grounds may look pretty it also requires a relatively substantial initial outlay. While I don't mind paying for tools and applications, and I know first-hand that application development is not easy, what Roll20 has done in terms of features and presentation for a free service is impressive. Which is the second point: free doesn't mean that a product has to look like it dragged itself out of 1998. The differences in presentation and the UI between Roll20 and RPOL - which is also free - are substantial. Roll20 looks good and has a slick interface.

Bill Me Later? When you need financing to buy a VTT that might be a bit much

5. You Know What Else Has Structure? Cages
One of the things that turned me off from Fantasy Grounds was it requires you to play a game that has a supported rules set - either included, commercial (i.e, you have to pay for it), or community-created. If that game isn't on the list, you better roll up your sleeves because you have some work to do. Otherwise, you aren't playing. Now I'm sure all of that infrastructure leads to doing some awesome stuff, but you can only do it if you fit everything in their specific buckets. All I really need is a place to store information and do a couple other tasks (like rolling dice, and maybe tying dice rolls to values). That's what Roll20 gives me.

Based on Mark Knight's template, but about to get completely reworked for character sheet compatibility

4. The Customization Needed Isn't Difficult To Master
In the grand scheme of things, if you can create formulas in Excel you can grok the customization needed for characters in Roll20. I was able to use +Mark Knights' tutorials to get my Fate Core character journals set up with few hassles, but even without them I wouldn't have had any problem figuring it out.  The other stuff - like automatic bonuses, macros, even scripts - aren't anything that is needed to get a game going. The impression I get of other VTTs like Fantasy Grounds is the depth of work in order to even begin playing is on the level of the "other stuff" in Roll20 - and that's not for me.

See as easy as @ + {Modifier|0}


3. Hey, I'm Playin' Here!
When a VTT automates too much, or has too many levers and dials to fiddle with, it puts itself solidly in your face. Granted, this impression is from very short exploratory stints - but I expect that my gut instinct about how much FantasyGrounds would get in the way is right (considering how the hiccups I've had with Roll20 have felt). So far, at least when there haven't been other problems, Roll20 has succeeded in fading into the background when it wasn't needed. It didn't force us to have to interact with it just to get on with the game, and I'm sure as we get more adept it will fade further into the background.

Pulled from the FG website. It looks nice...but wow that's cluttered

2. User-Friendliness

Being browser-based with no application to install is a huge deal - from where I'm sitting, there's very little that a VTT needs to do that can't be done in a web browser. On top of that, everyone has a web browser, and for the most part they all work the same. Some VTTs, like MapTools, require that the GM install a server and set up port forwarding. Fantasy Grounds requires everyone have the client installed.

Also, being browser based means Roll20 doesn't present a mess of tabs and fields and other elements taking up real estate and drawing the eyes. No more and no less than what's needed is presented to the players and GM, which is a sign of some pretty good interface design.

The RPOL game settings might be totally intuitive - but at first blush, it doesn't look it

1. People, People, People

So far, the community surrounding Roll20 has been absolutely awesome. For sure, as evidenced by a number of critical responses to my last blog post, it's a very enthusiastic one that really loves the platform. They've been helpful in answering questions, creating tutorials and giving examples, and otherwise helping out in general. This isn't to say that the communities for other VTT's aren't helpful or friendly - only that it's been readily apparent with Roll20.

All of those things are reasons I've found to stick with Roll20. There are always going to be minor glitches and other annoyances - but it is the best I've seen so far. Also, since I play Fate Core a large portion of the play area features that are provided just don't apply to me - particularly the tokens, although I really, really want to find a use for the token features like the radial menus.