Session Building in Roll20

With a few successful 4+ hour Roll20 sessions under my belt, I’m ready to hand off the DM’s robe to others wanting to make their own games. Here we’ll focus on the general outline of session construction within the platform, with specifics on the nuts and bolts of game assembly in Roll20.

Fixed Fundamentals

This guide is framed within the context of the ongoing campaign, The Interplanar Agency. As such, there are a few fundamentals to the campaign that are more or less hard set, unless negotiated prior to play.

  1. All games are on a “Mission” basis.
    Sessions are self contained adventures with the goal stated at the beginning. Ask the party before committing to multi-session games.*
  2. The Agency HQ and Staff are constant.
    The NPCs Teodor, Rose, and Belsar as well as the HQ grounds may not be used or altered as part of a session’s story unless approved beforehand.
  3. Low Magic Item World
    Avoid doling out items that affect long term gameplay mechanics and power scaling, eg. magic swords and items. Consumables, fashion items, and take-home oddities are OK.

*This doesn’t mean you can’t have story arcs, only that you need to give warning if your session is going to be a 2 part’er or more.

Planning Your Session

After you’ve outlined your story; the locations, NPCs, conflicts and encounters, you have to concentrate the parts down into scenes.

A scene is, generally speaking, the beat of story in the overall narrative of the session. For example, players arriving in a town square might observe the wreckage following an attack from the monster they were called in to kill. There, they can talk with NPCs who provide context and clues, getting directions to their contact who gives the party their lead on where to go next. All of this takes place in a single scene. When the players are done, they can proceed to the next scene in a sort of linear progression.

Building Scenes

the page layer selection tool

In the Roll20 GM console, you build these scenes, called pages, mostly from scratch but largely from pre-made assets. Each page is split into different layers — like a Shrek. Start in the top left toolbar to choose your layer.

The map layer is where you put the background. Generally, these are large tiles and shapes you don’t intend to move during regular play — the grass under players, the trees, NPC houses and structures. This can also include tabletop items and decorative clutter. Basically, anything you don’t want to accidentally click on while playing should go here.

The token layer is where players, enemies, and anything that could be moved around goes. Some nonconventional pieces, such as a house roof, could be a token — it covers the interior on the map layer below until you move it out of the way for players to enter.

The GM layer is hidden to players and serves as a place to stash tokens or any other components. Use it for enemy reinforcements, or making items in the token layer appear and disappear.

The dynamic lighting layer is where you set up light sources in conjunction with the individual token and overall page settings. It’s a bit janky in it’s implementation, but critical if you’re hoping to reveal parts of a map without giving anything away. It otherwise functions like the GM layer, tokens are hidden but any lighting settings are visible.

Placing Stuff on the Page

It’s a basic drag n’ drop interface. Take images from your computer and drop em’ into the game. They’ll appear in your My Library and you can sort them from there.

Watch out fore filesize limits, 5mb per item max.
  1. Make a note of the resolution of the map file on your computer, it’ll be a multiple of 140. Like, a 2800 x 3500 map would be 20 x 25 grid in-game.
  2. In Roll20, create a New Page and set the width and height.
  3. From your computer, drop the map on the page and stretch to fit.
  4. Right click the map, and make sure it’s on the Map Layer. (The table top grid will appear on top of it)
  5. Tile images from different sets to complete a hot new look.

Decorating Your Layers

On both the Map and Token layer, you’ll want to add some extra items that either fill out the area appearance, or serve some use in the gameplay.

moving items around on layers
  1. Like the map layer before, drop the image on the table top.
  2. Hold alt to free resize/rotate the item. (Alt turns off grid snap)
  3. Right click and Send To the appropriate layer, if necessary.
  4. When layering items you can “Send to Front” or back, it’s finicky.

Page Settings & Lighting Effects

These settings will have some global effects for your whole page, you usually only need to set these once while you’re building but some cases could be changed around as you play.

in the blue Pages tab, click the gear on a page.

Page size is just the tile width and height of your overall map, with each tile representing 5ft. This mostly affects your map layer so be sure to set it before you start building everything else, the system can start to lag if you have a complex map thats over 40x40.

Fog of War drops a total (light is blocked too) screen over the page. You can hide and reveal areas at will, but it’s all manually done by the GM. There is no reveal-as-players-progress function as expected with fog of war.

Dynamic Lighting / Enforce Line of Sight the master ON switch for dynamic lighting, and whether it shifts in relation to what players tokens can “see”. These shadows are all hard black and can make traversing narrow areas with small openings and various light sources complicated or messy.

Restrict Movement is whether the drawn walls and barriers that prevent light also prevent player tokens from crossing. This is useful for corralling players along specific paths or prevent them from going into certain areas, though it might be superfluous if they move their tokens properly anyway.

Global Illumination is turning the house lights on and revealing everything. This option is handy if the players are on a friendly map where they’re free to explore wherever.

Final Note on Pages and Illumination

Your plans will vary, but maps are what take up most the time in building a session. Be efficient about what you build, and in DM’ing have an idea of what the players will see and interact with most. Keep a few things on the GM layer just-in-case players decide to go aggressive or off script.

For lighting, best practices aren’t hard set. After some problems with seeing doors while using drawn dynamic lights, i’m more inclined to just let the map be all black, with manually placed light sources where applicable.

Configuring Characters and Creatures

A creature token (player or monster) on the map is just another piece of art unless you associate it with a character sheet and give it the proper settings to interact with the rest of the map. Double click to Edit Token.

Represents Character should be your first step; just select a character from the dropdown and choose it for the token. This menu can get cluttered as it options every creature sheet in your library, so keep that tab tidy.

For plot-relevant characters, I like to give them a Name and Show Nameplate so players can identify them quick and easy.

Bar 1, 2, 3… I set Bar 3 as HP but otherwise leave it. This lets you quickly add, subtract, or overwrite HP values right from the tabletop.

On the Advanced Tab, it’s worth checking the box on Player Permissions, See > Name. This just confirms that everyone can see the nameplate you enabled on the Basic tab.

Emits Light is handy for giving individual players a sight radius given how actual sight-distance isn’t a mechanic in roll20. I like to give players a view of 30ft, with Start of Dim after 10ft. This is flexible.

Has sight simply means the players are affected by (see) environmental lights, this is basically required on all player characters.

While setting up tokens can be tedious at first, the key to remember is that you only have to do it once. Right clicking (or shift clicking to select multiple, then right clicking) a token will allow you to Copy and Paste between pages. HP, spell slots, and whatever else carries between pages — tokens are just the ‘front end’ to the persistent character sheets!

Monster and Character Sheets

These are what power the tokens and just about any other in-game interaction. PC (Player Character) sheets don’t come along often, and because of the custom sheets used in game, have to be input manually.

However, importing monsters is super easy, here’s two methods.

  1. Import a sheet from a database.
    In the chat, simply type !shaped-monsters and you’ll get options for what monster you’d like to add. Simply pick and click and it’ll be added to your Characters tab to be associated with a token whenever.
  2. Import into a token.
    If you have the token on the table, and know what you want it to be, select the token and type !shaped-import-monster --MONSTER to create the sheet and automatically import it directly to the token.
if it doesn’t complete, retry the import

You can play or edit the creature just like you would any other character. That is, go to the Characters tab, open the sheet, and click on the spells or attacks to do em’. As a matter of housekeeping, sort your creature sheets into folders where you can keep track of who does what easily.

Wrap Up & Run Down

That about does it for the How-To of this guide. Here’s a final summary of what you should be doing to create your own session.

  1. Come up with an idea, and outline your story. You’re aiming for <4 hours of play, which often means 2 or 3 decent combat encounters.
  2. Break up the story into scenes. This is you scoping out your own work load, as well as how much players will do per location.
  3. Build the scenes. Most time consuming, because you have to find the tiles that serve your purpose. Prefab is your friend.
  4. Play-test the scenes. Using your own token, test out lighting and any traps or other scripts you might be using.
  5. Populate tokens and sheets. Fill out the scenes with NPC tokens, put nameplates on important ones but also remember filler NPCs as well. Each enemy needs it’s own individual sheet for distinct HP tracking.
  6. Final check for extraneous circumstances. Add on GM-Layer (hidden) tokens in case an encounter occurs, or needs something extra. Maybe a dungeon prop that just needs to be dropped in, plan head.

You can’t account for every scenario your players might surprise you with, one of the limitations of building in advance like this is that it’s much harder to simply go with the flow of what your players feel like doing. So, don’t be afraid to put your foot down and do a light bit of “railroading” to keep the story progressing along.

Useful Links

Roll20 Shaped Companion Script

Roll20 Shaped Character Sheet

5th Edition Encounter Calculator

OrcPub 5th Edition (SRD) Monster List

Roll20 Assets by Gabriel Pickard