How Roll 20 brings the spirit of D&D to PC

The DM intervenes. My attack has taken the dragon below half health. It becomes 'bloodied', triggering an instant counter-attack. The beast hocks up a big one and drowns me in damaging dragon slushie. Ouch. The next few rounds are tough, but the dragon has used up his breath attacks and falls back on a less deadly combination of bites and slashes.

Luckily, one of us is made mostly of metal. As Chris soaks up the blows we whittle the dragon down to its final hit points. With a gasp, it expires. The Dungeon Master congratulates us. “Well done, you've killed the baby dragon.” Wait, baby? The DM slashes a big red 'X' through the giant Roll20 dragon token. What have we done?

There's little time to mourn the slain monster. There's work to do. Our group met days earlier as inmates of a prison hidden between dimensions. We violently broke out of captivity, opened up a portal onto the deck of a space galleon, killed its crew and rode the ship to Sigil. Many things were set on fire. Harsh words were said. Space pirates were kicked into the endless abyss. In short: we're wanted. The owner of the prison, Lord Killick, has learned of our arrival and is plotting our doom.

Things are looking up, though. According to an employee we may have slightly tortured, an administrative ledger detailing Killick's illegal prison operation is secreted away in his mansion. All we have to do is steal it and use it to undermine his lordly reputation, robbing him of his power and staving off our imminent assassination.

It's been a strange ride so far. In straightforward combat encounters, D&D feels very familiar. The levelling systems and stat-based damage rolls have long been a part of the DNA of PC gaming. The tank, support, damage dealer and combat roles remain enshrined in the highly detailed rulesets that govern modern MMO games. But the more I play D&D, the more alien it feels.

At first I just put it down to the bewildering freedom of being a free agent in an entirely malleable world. Game mats, models, and some well-delivered oratory are all that's needed to evoke a location when roleplaying around a table. In Roll20, the DM can construct custom game boards using tile-sets. Free voice chat programs like Skype let everyone speak, and those with webcams can stream their video feeds into the playspace. The DM can even trigger audio cues from their advanced interface to herald a boss or introduce some mood music to a dungeon. If you miss the noise of tumbling ivories there's a setting that throws virtual dice across the virtual tabletop.

With this simple toolset and nearly 40 years of world-building fiction, the options are only as limited as the collective imagination of the party. But that's not the source of my unease. It's energising. We're fighting dragons in a vast floating metropolis with transport links to a dozen wildly different dimensions. I feel like a kid that's just bellyflopped into a trough of Pick 'n' Mix.

I put my concerns to one side for a moment. We've taken time to scrub the dragon blood out of our skin/fur/bronze casing and donned some formal wear. The basement yielded only dragons, so we're down to plan B: bluff the bouncers, crash the event, eat the canapés and infiltrate the second floor. I turn into a fox, drape myself around the shoulders of our sweet-talking bard and play dead, hoping to pass as an item of grisly upper-class accoutrement. Our Warlord from the rock dimension scrubs up nicely, but there's no obscuring the fact that Chris is an eight-foot-tall magic robot. It's up to our gnome to blag us in.

Miles passes his persuasion check. Just. The Gnome stumbles his way through a mumbled explanation with the charisma of a boiled potato. The door thugs glare for a moment, and let us in. Perhaps they're bored. Perhaps they sense that plan C involves a robot and a lot of punching.

Our band of misfits is met with shocked stares as they enter the grand front room. We make a group decision to skip the canapés. Conversation gently bubbles back to life as we slink toward the staircase and edge our way quietly upwards to the well-guarded second level. We try to stay as quiet as possible, which means passing regular stealth checks as we slide through doors, peer around corners and move from office to office in search of the ledger.

I advance on my designated office, open the door, and find myself face to face with a guard. But I rolled a maximum 20 on my stealth roll. A critical hit. The DM ponders for a moment, and explains how the fox's lightning fast moves prove too much for the dopey grunt. With the flash of a knife, the fox silences the guard forever. A perfect stealth kill. Then Chris kicks a man through a window. The guard flies head first through the pane of glass and falls screaming to the street below.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.