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Playing D&D Online Is About To Get Easier

From Roll20
From Roll20

Everything is getting uploaded, including stalwart meatspace occupant Dungeons & Dragons. Today, Roll20, an online “virtual tabletop,” announced its new licensing deal with D&D to offer the pen-and-paper RPG’s original content on their digital platform. Although D&D intellectual property is already accessible on popular digital RPG platform Fantasy Grounds, D&D’s Roll20 collaboration is the latest in the game’s quest for accessibility and social play.


Roll20 is an in-browser tool for long-distance online role-playing. A sort of all-in-one role-playing service with over 1.6 million users, Roll20 wraps up character sheets, dice, maps, rules and other adventuring materials into one simple platform. It even calculates stats and dice rolls, so no one’s dropping dice under the table or spilling whiskey on character sheets (oops). Roll20 users can use the video chat feature to talk on-screen, but there’s also a sidebar chat, so the Dungeon Master can whisper insidius secrets to specific players.

Broadening the game’s accessibility beyond hobby shops and friends’ basements, strangers can also join each other’s online games if they don’t have a local Dungeons & Dragons group.


Recently, Dungeons & Dragons been taking great pains to make the game more palatable to new players, streamlining gameplay and emphasizing the RPG’s social aspect. Before the release of D&D’s 5th edition in 2014, publisher Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro, opened up the game to player input. By popular demand, the game’s designers untangled D&D’s famously idiosyncratic ruleset, paving the way for a more socially-focused role-playing experience.

Back in edition 3.5, to pull off a grapple attack, players would provoke an attack of opportunity; add together their base attack bonus, strength modifier and special size modifier; make a melee touch attack; and then succeed in an opposed grapple check. The grapple mechanic became a sort of inside joke, a measure for D&D know-how. Now, in 5th edition, a grapple check is just a player’s strength versus a monster’s.

(Once, when I went to buy a Dungeon Master’s Guide at a hobby shop, the cashier quizzed me on D&D 3.5’s grapple rules before selling me the book. That guy sucked.)


By design, role-playing—what really makes the game worth playing with other people—is now front-and-center, since the actual ruleset is more easily digestible. 5th edition’s new “Backgrounds” section gives players bonuses for thinking through their backstories. More models for women, people of color and varied body types are included in the Player’s Handbook, representing people who may have felt alienated from the game’s past incarnations. Also, since 2014, the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League, an “ongoing official organized play campaign,” has been facilitating in-person role-playing events and has proven to be quite popular for newbies.

Roll20’s partnership with Dungeons & Dragons is the game’s next step toward becoming easy-access. In my mind, Dungeons & Dragons has historically been a bit of a boys’ club, entrance to which was limited by knowing players IRL who can indoctrinate others. And it’s not just me—the other day, when I spoke with Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th edition lead designer Mike Mearls, he described initial barriers to entry he confronted for a game he now designs:

“When I was a kid growing up, I didn’t really have anybody to play D&D with. During the summers, I didn’t have a car, so I couldn’t meet people and play games with them. I had actually recorded the movie Mazes and Monsters, that anti-D&D movie from the ‘80s with Tom Hanks, I would actually watch that movie again and again and again just to watch them play the fake RPG, just so I’d have exposure to people playing Dungeons & Dragons.”


Roll20’s software, which in 2012 earned nearly $40,000 worth of backing on Kickstarter, capitalizes on technology’s ability to bring people together and cut away tedious crap. Now, acclaimed beginner’s adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver is available in full on Roll20 for $19.99. Players have access to floor maps, a bestiary, magic items, a term glossary, NPC information and plot overviews. I’ve found that this campaign is a good way to introduce new players to the game, but is a little too classic for my taste in terms of its plot and world-building.

In September, Storm King’s Thunder, which is now available for pre-order, will be released for Roll20.


Mearls added that, while playing face-to-face is ideal, “If you’re in a situation where you can’t find other people to play D&D with, playing remotely does help people fulfill that desire, gives them a positive quality of social connection with other people they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

So if you don’t have any dice-rollers within reach, or you’ve always been a little D&D-curious, log onto Roll20 and see whether you can best the Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Senior reporter at Kotaku.

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As someone who loves to DM, but works ~60 hours a week and lives an hour or so away from my friends, Roll20 was the absolute best thing that could have happened to my group D&D-wise. If WotC were smart, they would purchase Roll20, or heavily invest in getting Roll20 set up faster.

I manually converted a lot of Lost Mines of Phandelver (first 3 chapters) into Roll 20, and it took me forever - my friends had a blast being introduced to D&D through this adventure, and everyone was in unanimous agreement that we’d love to keep playing, but I can’t put the time in to make the content for them fast enough to run a cohesive and evolving campaign.

WotC would do well to put these ‘jumping off points’ in, and then follow up by providing plenty of generic maps, a beastiary, and pre-made classes directly into Roll20. I would spend hundreds to have a consistent flow of high quality content that my friends and I could enjoy. I may be in the minority here, but there’s gotta be a huge market of 30-40 year olds who are short on time and long on distance between old friends that would love just as much to capitalize on this.

The marketing possibilities are already there - series like Critical Role, Wil Wheaton’s Table Top and Harmon Quest are introducing new people into how exciting and fun D&D (and table-top gaming in general) can be, and that it’s not just strictly a ‘nerd’ culture thing. People have been using Roll20 on Twitch for awhile now with varying degrees of success, but WotC could put some effort into this, or even partner with Geek & Sundry to start building awareness.

tl;dr, this only means good things, I just hope WotC really puts some effort into this.