To Boldly Nerd…

Video games, pen&paper RPGs and other nerdery

Roll20, or technology is awesome


Ever since I started GMing pen&paper games again, I have been struggling with getting maps across to my players. I am terrible at drawing. I seriously was the worst art student ever and deeply admire anyone with a talent for art, and when it comes to RPGs, map-making in particular. Back in the 90s, I actually bought a copy of Campaign Cartographer after seeing an ad for it in Dragon Magazine. I wanted to create beautiful player handouts for my sessions and create. Well, let me tell you, it didn’t work out. At the heart of it, CC is a CAD software, and hardly what I would consider intuitive and user-friendly. I messed around with it, but never created any full map myself. To this day I am disappointed. It’s entirely possible that version 3 is much improved, but I wouldn’t try it again.

With the campaign I am currently GMing, I am very lucky that there are crazy amounts of community-created stuff to help GMs with running the adventure path. There are also gorgeous maps. But how to bring them across to the players without spoiling anything? I tried with one print-out for the Glassworks in Burnt Offerings and what happened was that the players took in all that was visible on the map and meta’d like crazy, using knowledge of the map. I vowed I would never do that again. Hand-drawing everything was out of the question because once again, I suck at drawing. I am very jealous of people with custom made gaming tables using projectors or integrated monitors. (As an aside, I would love to have a gaming basement, let me tell you).

Now that I have a TV, I was looking for a way to connect the laptop via HDMI cable and display a player map on the TV, with me control the GM map on the laptop. I looked into two solutions for using maps for Virtual Tabletop games, short VTT. First, I tried MapTool. It’s free, game-agnostic, and a lot of people with custom tables were using it. I played around with it a bit, and found it to be somewhat hard to grok. Also, the setup to use a GM map and have a player map involved running it as local server, and it all seemed a bit much. Solid piece of software, but I think it’s for the extremely tech-savy.

I started watching the Rise of the Runelords videos (they’re in German) which is a VTT game through Google Hangouts, using Roll20 as VTT. I was really impressed by what I saw. Cool tokens, fog of war, and it looked slick. It’s a browser-based VTT that’s also system-agnostic, with nice support for Pathfinder. It’s primary purpose is to actually run online games, and I can totally see that. I would run an online game like that, if I actually had friends who would rather play online. Not so much with the strangers.

Roll20's page bar

Signing up is free, and though there’s a subscription model, for the basic thing I want to do, it’s already perfect. Once you have created a campaign, you launch it, and end up on your start page. From there you can create additional pages, as many different maps as you might need for it, with a simple click of a button. Importing maps onto any given page is incredibly easy. Either you upload your own, no bigger than 5 MB, or you use the search function. Which is pretty nifty.

Let’s assume you want to run one of the published adventure paths, and are looking for a map for the Catacombs of Wrath. You can select Maps, Tiles, enter your search term and voilà, your results that you can simply drag and drop into your current page. Incredibly easy to use.

The art library

I am currently preparing our next session, and I didn’t like the maps you have access to in Roll20, so I will be uploading my own, or rather, those of a very talented artist at Deviant Art. I would link to it, but my players read my blog, and I just don’t want to risk them peaking ahead. They wouldn’t be able to resist. Now, once you have set up your map, it’s time to hide it, or reveal it, as you see fit. In the page settings you can enable Fog of War, which does exactly the thing you might be used from RTS games. When you do that, a dark layer that is opaque is laid over the page. You can then click on Reveal Areas and drag and drop to select the area you want to have visible on the player map.


And that’s pretty much it on the GM side. But how to display the player map now? I created a second free account and added it as player in the campaign. I logged into Roll20 on the laptop which was connected to the TV with an HDMI cable, using Firefox. I opened another browser, Chrome, to log into Roll20 as the player account, then dragged the window over to the TV. I created a token representing the group, which is a turtle (don’t ask). As they explored the Catacombs of Wrath, I moved the party token and revealed rooms. It worked fantastically well. Whereas I have an opaque GM layer, the player map really only shows whatever you have revealed right now, and it’s just as easy to hide areas again or reset the fog of war.

The revealed room where the party had their last stand against a quasit.

The revealed room where the party had their last stand against a quasit. Why yes, I am using a photo of Sophie Ellis-Bextor as my gravatar. *coughs*

The only downside was that I have to turn my head to see the TV, and that hurt my neck. But that’s really what we call ‘Jammern auf hohem Niveau’ in German, whining when you’re actually doing great. My players loved it, and so did I. Next time, I am trying the next technological trick, using a bluetooth speaker in the center of the table with Syrinscape on a tablet. One of my players has an excellent one. It should really enhance the game some more.

Am I a giant nerd, or what? Next weekend I’ll actually take a photo of the TV and how it looks in action. 🙂


  1. Ohhh yes, I LOVE Roll20! I used it for a little while with some friends who were running a homebrew campaign over the internet… it was fantastic! 😀

    • I bet it worked fantastically for that! I have been wondering if I can use it to run the ZEITGEIST adventure path, because who wouldn’t want to play Steampunk Pathfinder, but I don’t know yet. So much fun to be had, so little time. 😮

  2. “players took in all that was visible on the map and meta’d like crazy, using knowledge of the map”

    Did not!! :-O

  3. That looks fantastic, we keep talking about getting back to Tabletop but we never quite manage to get everyone together at the right time and in the right mood for it.

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