3 of the Best Roll20 Alternatives
Tried your hand at DMing during the pandemic? If so, you’ll already know that it comes with its own set of challenges. It’s harder to keep your players engaged, maps are a real faff and it’s kinda impossible to keep track of sprawling melees -- leaving you second guessing the placement of your gnolls, or trying to attack a character that spent their last turn artfully outmaneuvering your slavering pack of rust monsters.
And yes, we know it sucks when they call you out in front of the whole party. You also lose out on a lot of social feedback: A lot of the tiny signals that let you know that you’ve caught your players off guard, or forced them to really invest in the story you’re telling.
A lot of us tried using Discord; installing phone apps, scrabbling around for headphones and frantically pinging photos of our hand-drawn maps via Facebook messenger but D&D is a social game -- an experience that requires face-to-face contact and a shared space to pore over battle maps
Enter the dragon..
So many of us turned to Roll20 instead: A free platform that promised to provide all of the above. Plus a bevvy of additional features. Dynamic character sheets; free maps and tokens. Sound effects and video chat functionality so that you’d feel like you were in the same room as the rest of your party, even if you were hunkered down in your spare bedroom, frantically rolling dice on an old tea-tray.
But Roll20 has its own set of problems. It’s clunky, it crashes every couple of hours and its voice chat/video call functionality has a really bad habit of dropping out at critical moments. Maybe one of your players has just fumbled an acrobatics roll, and you need to be on-hand to describe them face-planting straight into the mud. Or maybe your party have just burst through the doors of the villains layer, and you’re gearing up to deliver a truly epic monologue.
Either way, it’s fair to say that nothing destroys narrative tension as quickly as a frozen screen or a dropped connection.
And then there’s the issue with the dice, which sometimes take a full minute to roll; the music, which drops out every time the wind’s blowing the wrong way, or the maps, which, unless you’re blessed with the patience of an elf, tend to be a real pain to manage.
But there are alternatives. Competing platforms with a better foundation, and slightly more stable feature set. Modern and intuitive tabletop simulators that take the pain out of remote DMing, and let you run games with the same suave panache as your pre-COVID sessions.
To help you get back to those halcyon days, we’ve pulled together a list of our favourites. Profiling their features, their pros and their cons so that you can make an informed decision about where (and how) to host your games.
And yes, some of these platforms cost money. But the fees are normally minimal and we’ve taken extra care to flag the ones that are paywalled.
So without any further ado, let's dive in!
1: Skirmish! Virtual Tabletop
We love Skirmish! Virtual Tabletop. It’s still in beta, but it’s got an incredibly robust feature set, and it’s also a real joy to use. You can slap a map down in seconds, they’ve got a huge library of built-in resources and it also does some really nifty things, like automatically managing fog of war and vision so that you don’t have to stress about revealing bits of the map as your characters work their way through a pokey little goblin lair. Or shuffle their way through a haunted castle.
The team behind Skirmish! Are also dab hands at gamification; adding nifty (programmable) health and mana bars that’ll delight those of us that have grown accustomed to RPG video games. (And those of us that straight up suck at managing our hit points).
The only slight downside is that it is an unfinished product. It’s actually proved very stable for most of our games, but you should probably expect the occasional hiccup. Importing your own assets can be a bit of a faff too, but you’ll soon learn your way around the platform!
Price: Currently free for players and DMs, although the developers say that they may change once it’s out of Beta.
Pros: Robust, full-featured and very professional. The native assets (maps and tokens) are impressive too.
Cons: Beta product, so you may run into glitches.
2: Fantasy Grounds Unity
Fantasy Grounds Unity feels like a slightly more polished version of Roll20. It has a lot of the same basic feature set, but it’s much nicer to look at, and much easier to use. It also boasts some incredibly handy special features, like interactive maps that allow your players to open doors or chests; reveal scenery or interact with terrain while you’re playing.
This does two things: Firstly, it boosts player engagement, and stops people from sitting back and putting all the work on you. Secondly, it gives you free time to think. Moving your party around on Roll20 means sitting there and choosing which bits of the map to reveal; where to put their tokens and where they should have line of site, but once all those concerns are automated, you suddenly have time to think about how you want to describe the next encounter or
Of course there are some downsides. It doesn't have native video/voice chat functionality and while this does mean that you can’t be disappointed by a dropped connection, it does mean that you’ll have to find your own (2nd party) chat app. (We recommend Discord, as it’s one of the most reliable options).
Secondly, Fantasy Grounds is a highly customisable platform which is great for experienced users, but it can be a bit intimidating for first-timers. There’s a hugely helpful and enthusiastic community that’ll help you to dive in. But if you’re looking for something that’s plug and play, you may want to look elsewhere.
Price: $3.99 per month or a lifetime fee of $39 (DMs can also pay for an Ultimate license that’s $9.99 a month or $149 for life, and this allows players to join their games for free)
Pros: Incredibly polished platform with all the bells and whistles you could ask for
Cons: Relatively steep learning curve. This is not a plug-and-play app.
A bit of a hidden gem, Arkenforge has a very slick and sophisticated user-interface, and the same sort of vision and encounter management that makes Fantasy Grounds such a joy to use. Arkenforge also allows you to automate turn-taking so you don’t have to keep delegating control to your players, and while it’s native resources aren’t great, it’s backed by a thriving community of creative DMs, who have created all sorts of wonderful free map packs and templates.
Arkenforge is also built to integrate with Zoom (a powerful, free video and voice chat program) which means that you can use it without worrying about lag, glitchy video or juddery voice calls.
It’s cheap too (a one-off purchase of $35 for DMs and no cost to the players). But there are some downsides. Firstly, it suffers from semi-regular rollbacks and outages. Probably because it's quite new and the owners are still getting up to speed. Secondly, the process of uploading and using user-generated content is a bit fiddly.
But if you can overlook these teething problems, it’s a great piece of kit that’s great for remote gaming, and we think it’s definitely going to get better as time goes on.
Price: $35 for the DM (Masters Toolkit License)
Pros: Great to use, with lots of nice QOL features
Cons: It’s a bit unpredictable at times, and it does take some getting used to.
So there you have it folks! Three, top-notch alternatives to Roll20; built to deliver smooth and enjoyable RPGs from the comfort of your study.