Beta teething issues aside, Discord's Roll20 activity for running D&D and other RPGs inside the app works great

An adventurer crosses a rope bridge while an orc prepares to throw a spear
(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

To get a roleplaying game going you have to make it past as many hassles as any party of adventurers ever faced in a dungeon—only instead of traps that sever your hand if you put it in a statue's mouth they're more like scheduling issues and the difficulty of finding a group you vibe with. 

Playing online with a virtual tabletop means at least people don't have to come to your house, which is one hassle less, but can cause its own problems. Some virtual tabletops have to be paid for, some require everyone to sign up to the service, some demand players learn how to use complicated software, and so on. Which is why Discord pairing with Roll20 is potentially ideal—Discord is the default voice app for most gamers, and Roll20 is a popular virtual tabletop that's lightweight enough to have a low learning curve, but featured enough that you can get advanced with stuff like realtime lighting and fog of war if you want.

The big flaw of Roll20 is its voice and video quality, which is why everyone runs Zoom or Discord in another window when they use it. Combining the two is a simple solution, and having Roll20 run as an "activity" you can launch inside Discord as easily as one of its Jackbox-adjacent minigames means players you invite don't need to make Roll20 accounts. The dream is of having instant plug-and-play RPG sessions, where the only prep needed is the GM planning a scenario and then everyone being online at the same time.

The Roll20 activity is currently in beta, so it's not seamless yet. The first issue we ran up against was getting everyone into the same channel. While it's easy for the host, who just needs to have a Roll20 Pro account to get access to the beta server and make a channel, everyone else had to be invited to the server, then invited to the channel via the Voicemaster bot, and then given user permission by the same bot—a final step I managed to miss completely.

The other problem we had, and this was a bigger one, was that players with existing Roll20 accounts couldn't join as guests. If the app spots your email has ever had an associated Roll20 account, you'll need to remember your password and log in properly. For the one player in our group who had never used Roll20 it was a breeze, but when the others tried to join as guests they were stuck in limbo, unable to enter but not given anything as useful as an error message so we could figure out why this was happening.

(Image credit:

I get all this kvetching out of the way up front so I can get onto the good stuff. Because once we finally had everyone in the Roll20 activity, it worked perfectly. The only complaint I have is that in fullscreen mode there was some wasted black space around the edges, which presumably is necessary so you can mouse over it to bring up the Discord controls. But the Roll20 app itself ran smoothly within Discord, with great sound and our faces all lined up in a video call beneath it. 

(I know some people are fine running RPGs online in voice-only calls, and of course you can use Roll20 that way as well, but I find it offputting not being able to see people's faces when we're roleplaying.)

To test it out, I ran a D&D one-shot inspired by the first chapter of In Volo's Wake, an official Adventurers League module. I made some changes like most people do when running pre-written adventures, including changing a tavern called the "Come Butte Inn" because honestly, just try saying that out loud. I also added Volo, who is annoyingly missing from the original. Given that Baldur's Gate 3 has given the boastful bard/scholar/travel guide a boost in visibility it seemed appropriate to have him cameo. 

(Image credit:

The advantage of running this in Roll20 was how easy it was for players to visualize. I loaded up a battle map during a fight against some undead trees (twig blights and a needle blight, who you may also remember from the the shadow-cursed second act of Baldur's Gate 3), and when the party finally found Volo, clumsily attempting to sneak out of a cave full of goblins, I brought up a map showing that layout. 

As a GM I get frustrated by how often I need to repeat basic aspects of description to players who've forgotten what's happening or need to know what's within 30 feet of them so they can cast a specific spell at it, and visual aids like this fix that problem. I used to worry that putting a map with a grid in front of people would make them default to combat in every situation, but that didn't happen here. I pasted a screenshot of the goblins from Labyrinth into the cave rather than placing down a bunch of individual tokens to suggest there was an entire tribe in there and the players got the message, using stealth and an invisibility potion to get Volo to safety, save the day, and then high five in slow-motion.

Or they would have, only they insisted on rolling Dexterity checks for that and two of them failed, because of course they did.

So after some of the teething issues you expect with a beta, it really did just work. And since there are so many more Discord-savvy gamers than there are people familiar with any given virtual tabletop, having a way to casually fire up a session of D&D or whatever game strikes your fancy within Discord really is wonderful. Anything that disarms one more of the traps preventing me from running games on the regular gets a thumbs up from me, or will once I pass this Sleight of Hand roll. 

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.