Firing Squad welcomes Nolan T Jones of Roll20

Today the Firing Squad puts Nolan T Jones of Roll20 up against the wall, in a slightly-belated but much anticipated (at least by me) continuation of the Virtual TableTop  topic for the RPGBA Blog Carnival. We’ll be discussing the ideal features of VTTs, where Roll20’s strengths and weaknesses lie, support for major and minor games, and what’s currently enabled and what lies in the future.

Unlike the usual process, we’re uploading the video immediately, with the audio file and transcript to be made available as soon as possible.

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing
Squad. Today we are joined by Nolan Jones from Roll20.

Very excited to have
Nolan with us today, as I believe Roll20
is the largest virtual tabletop on the market. If not it certainly seems to be
the best known. Nolan, thanks for joining us today.
Nolan Jones (Content Creator Roll20): Thanks for having me.
Doug: So am
I right? Is Roll20 the biggest, best kid on the block.
Nolan: By
everything we know, it is. There is no way to know that for sure, but looking
at Google Traffic, we are actually coming to the assumption that now, if you
added up all virtual tabletops over time together, we are bigger than all of
them, by what we’ve seen just in terms of Google Traffic. We’ll hit a half
million users in about a month and a half, if things keep on pace, and that’s
way more than anybody else has had.

Doug: That
is a ton of geek in one spot. I approve.
Nolan: That
is a ton of geek. We were looking at . . . Tabletop Day is tomorrow. International
Tabletop Day. We were looking at the numbers last year and we said “That’s
about every weekend on Roll20” [laughs] There is just that many games going on now.
Doug: That’s
Nolan: It’s
a heck of a ride. To think it started off with me and two of my college roommates saying
“Hey, I really wish we could play long-distance.” And going…here we are now,
almost half a million people (almost) later.
Doug: That’s
pretty cool. Backing up to that just a tiny bit. How did you get into
roleplaying, what games did you play? I have a feeling I know, given the d20 on
That’s one of those things . . . it ends up being the silliest mistake in some ways.
We were all actually big World of Warcraft players and somebody, a friend of
ours said “You need to try this other stuff, because it’s a lot more fun than
World of Warcraft.”
We were late, because we got into it in college, but after
we were into it, 4th edition is where I started, Dungeons and Dragons.
I had no idea by
naming the program Roll20 it would be thought that was the only thing we could
handle. Very early on the decision was made that every time we came to a fork
in the road, design-wise it was “What makes us more like a table?”
We did all
sorts of houserules and other stuff like that, and we didn’t want to lock into
anything, and that I think has been the appeal of Roll20 in so many ways is that
every design decision was “Let’s not bake in the rules or automate it that
makes you play a particular game” and the benefits of that has been we’ve been
able to play things like Settlers of Catan and stuff like that that is just
absolutely nothing like a 4th edition game.
Things like Savage
Worlds, Shadowrun, all these different game types that I’ve gotten to play now
that I had never played previously as a result of Roll20.
Doug: Do you
do a lot of…I imagine that given your status in the market, if there was a game
system “Hey, I’d like to drop by and see how that works on Roll20” people would
be like “Yes, please do come in.”
Nolan: I’ve
wanted to do that so badly and there hasn’t been time.
Roll20 had finally
became…I was the last one on the dev-team to jump off, because I was funding so
many comics – I write comics as well and artist need pay so they can do it all
day. I finally quit my day job within the last month, and this is my fulltime as
well, and I’m going to start doing some of that
We did a Will it Play series for about half a year where we went through and
jumped through a bunch of systems.
A great benefit and how Roll20 all started
is that I started playing a live game out here in Las Vegas. We were all
originally from Kansas, and parted, and the guy who does my live games is really
interested in all sorts of systems so he…now we’re playing a FAE game, but
we’ve done all sorts of little…Dungeon World and other things along those lines
or even just dice games we’ve started playing. Hunters of Ark Fall, we call it
Bunko for geeks, a game we’ve gotten into recently.
There is a lot of different
explore, but I haven’t gotten to do enough of that  “Hey, I made Roll20, I’d love to drop in on
your game and see how it plays,” yet. It definitely is in the plans if I can ever get
caught up with everything.
That’s the other thing, this has been my full time
job for about a month now, not that it wasn’t a full time job anyways before
that, but I finally cut other ties, and man oh man, just the amount of stuff I’m
still catching up on. we’re all headed to PAXEast next week and I’ve got other
windows open now because it’s like “Oh, we forgot to order buttons” and “Oh, we
forgot to order this and that.” Man oh man.
Keeping track of all the details of almost anything, one of my day job things
is ordering and overseeing the build of multimillion dollar vacuum process equipment (not like Hoovers and stuff). It’s amazing the things that “Oh yeah, we got this great tool and it
all works technically. Do we have a Mylar overlay that will allow us to install
it in a tight space? No. We don’t. Okay.
That’s a problem.”
Nolan: [laughs] We just had a
development meeting about 10 minutes ago and we were talking about PAX preparation
stuff and one of the things that we realized is we got a ad running throughout
the show, it’s supposed to have a landing page for PAX. The landing page isn’t up yet. [laughs] We haven’t made the PAX landing page, so there is this website
URL on all these printed materials that doesn’t actually go anywhere. Yeah. We
need to do that [laughs].
Doug: Solid call. Put
that at the top of the list.
So you started playing World of Warcraft, you got
into tabletop games a little bit . . . so what led you to take the next step and say
“Okay, now we’re going to start coding a virtual tabletop, and then eventually to
feed it into Google.”
That’s all Riley in so…we had like I said moved apart after college. It’s funny
because both Richard…it’s Richard, Riley, and myself.
Richard and I both have
wives who are in the law, they’re lawyers and they moved for law school to
opposite ends of the country. Me out here to Las Vegas, him to Washington,
DC. I started playing a live game out here in Vegas and started bragging to
Riley and Richard “I’m having a great time, bet you guys miss this. Ha ha ha.”
And Riley said “Well I got this image-sharing program that I’m working on right
now that allows….” It’s really basic for putting one thing atop another. It was really for a
learning disabled community that he was doing things where the kids needed to
be able to say what they wanted for lunch without saying it.
Looking at
image-sharing and what I’ve done before is I could make a image-sharing program
cause what is it other than a map with a token on the top of it? He did that.
We played on it for like a month and then said should we take this to
Kickstarter, should we look and see if this is something other people would be
interested in?
It was funny, because Riley was really uncertain at all if it
would be successful. His comment was I want it to be a short campaign in case
it completely flops, that way we can just forget about it and move on.
done a lot of projects together previously. We pitched a animated series, and
done some other weird things in the past. So we put it on Kickstarter and in 18
days raised $39,000 dollars and went “no, this is real” and we needed to do something
The initial use was entirely self-motivated in that we wanted something
for ourselves to use. And then kind of went “We should check and see if other
people have this problem too…”
Doug: Right.
Honestly, the funny thing is I used to have a fairly extensive gaming group
locally, here in Minneapolis, and that borrowed people from my Martial Arts
group and they graduated from college and went all kinds of places. My more
adult friends had the audacity to start getting married and having children and
stuff. My wife gamed with us and we have a daughter, a four-year old, now, and so
its like all of a sudden, the time that I can game is after bed time, when
people aren’t working. And actually enough friction in getting up, and getting
your stuff, and getting your books, whether they are PDFs or hardcopy and
getting ot someone’s house and “Oh, I’m sorry my daughter’s head started to
spin around like exorcist baby with projectile vomit or whatever.” I can’t open
the house to you today.
It became, first, I just didn’t game, then it was I could
do this online thing, and within the last month or so I’ve played with people
all over the country. I’ve played with people from Australia and it’s just been
a great outlet and if I want to game at 9 o’clock at night, then it’s 5 o’clock
for somebody else and a perfect gaming time for others. It really broadens the
ability to engage in the hobby.
Nolan: It’s
been really interesting to see just how this spreads, because it is so social.
The thing is, we don’t do much in the terms of actual advertising – it’s all
word of mouth  “Hey, I’m playing. Do you
want to play?”
From a business standpoint its awesome, but from a social
standpoint its so cool. This thing that we worked on is growing organically in
this way, people are really talking about it and using it. It puts a lot of
pressure on us to work on it and improve on it but man oh man is it cool.
Doug: so
what would you say are the most and least desirable features of virtual
tabletops in general, and in a way this is a total softball, because obviously
the stuff that was required to play was what you implemented first.
Nolan: The
dice rolling engine was important, but at the same time the next update that
we’re doing, the “data delve” is changing our dice rolling some, in the way that
we’re approaching randomization. We’re using this formula that’s the way that a
light particle splits to do the randomization. IT’s almost overkill, because
honestly our random number generator is pretty good as it is, but it’s
something that people are so interested in…and it’s a fun place to play around
in and explore.
Doug: I’m
actually going to ask you to repeat that because my video froze for a little
bit. I got to “light particle” and then we went into a quantum place and now we
came back.
Quantum roll is what we are calling it, we’re taking a random number generation
system and we’re using this formula for splitting a light particle to do the
And our random number generator from the beginning has been very
good. We went through a bunch of testing to make sure it was…computers can’t be
random. They don’t know how to do it. We got as random as we could get at the
time, and now we are looking for an even more random…but things have always been  . . . looking at the totality of data very random.
In this next update the “data
delve” in addition to this “quantum roll” will even more randomize it. We’re
also going to publicize how random the numbers are, so there is going to be a
running chart so you can see, we’re not just saying this, you’ll be able to see the
results regularly instead of the once every six months blog post where we’ve
been showing how random things are.
But in that regard in as far as desirable
features that is something that people very much care about. Honestly though
it’s putting one thing on top of another is the most important part and the
flipside of that the least desirable the thing that made us make Roll20 is that
it’s got to be easy to use.
Something that is difficult to use that you got to
download, that you got to organize everybody…port forwarding, you got to spend
half a hour getting everyone on the same…Roll20 is a link. As long as you’re
using Chrome or Firefox – an HTML5 compatible browser, you send somebody a link
and they’re in the game.
The least desirable feature is the opposite of that, where you are dealing with the headache of people…don’t want to download stuff
from random RPG sites. They just don’t want to get into that, especially when
you got people new to the hobby, and don’t have any enthusiasm for this and they’re not out there searching for it. It
needed to be something the opposite of all of it. That is by far the least
desirable feature for me. That is why we’ve done all this. We wanted it to be
quick and easy.
Doug: Right.
And my personal experience has always been on…so I am a user of Roll20. I play in
games using Roll20. I’ve never gamemastered a game using Roll20, but I’m
absolutely right there with you on the ease of use.
But from a GM perspective,
what steps should people take if they’re going to approach it to run a game as
opposed to play a game.
Honestly, I think that the biggest approach…and I know I was just talking about
ease of use, but take some time and play. Fiddle with it in a way that you’re
going to . . . you’ll find that we’ve made it as much like a table as possible in terms of
you can do a lot of different things.
Figure out a way that you want to
theatricality present to your players, things that you will set up to make it
easiest for them to jump in and play a game. The thing like when we were doing
the Will it Play series, we played 13th age which is a great RPG that
plays very much like a stripped-down 4th edition Dungeons and
Dragons, and one of the best features is that they got this escalation die so
everybody hits harder so you never end up where it’s the end of the fight and
everybody is whiffing and everybody is getting bored with it. It just gets
bloodier and more awful as it goes, but we set up this escalation die for this
table that was tied into the macros for all the sets, so as the turns came you
just turn the die on the table and it affected everybody’s abilities, and scaled
them up to the next level as it went.
And by taking the time to make that ahead
of time it wasn’t a long drawn out here’s what everybody’s going to have to do
with the next round, taking the time from the GMs stand point to figure it out
made everybody go “Oh! This is what’s cool about 13th Age. This is
why it works.”
In some ways it is almost easier in that regard than at the
table, telling a bunch of people “Hey, you got to add this in every time.” But
that took time from the gamemaster up front setting that up, looking how to do
it, and getting it there.
Somebody has to invest time somewhere. Every time I
talk to somebody about doing a module it’s “Wow, that would be a lot of work,”
We’ll you’re saving time for every GM downloading that module from then on out.
Time is a very very precious commodity. That is what you’re going to need to
Doug: I actually
think that that’s the hidden currency in gaming, because whenever you hear
about how did this game go or that game go, people like to make fun of whatever
game, and it does seem to be that way. You have people who sing praises and
those who are throwing knives.
One of the hacks at this game or how it was played is
“Oh, the gamemaster spent half the game looking up rules.” Is it a good game? Yeah,
it may be a good game when you read it back, but in play it’s a problem.
And I
think it’s the same philosophy with a virtual tabletop, you may have to invest
some time up front, but it’s better to be front-loaded and then the game plays
smoothly. As long as the net time between the GM and the player is still
smaller than passing out note cards.
Nolan: It’s
one of those things that if you put in prep ahead of time it just makes such a
Like you said even with a live game, it can make such a difference in
the way everybody feels about the experience and how smooth it goes,  so it…there is absolutely
something to be said for the net when it’s all said and done, but there is
also something…I don’t think you want to be over prepared, sometimes that can
be a dizzying spiral [laughs] of you’re out of control as your prepping for a
game. Getting enough so you can be fast on your feet is definitely a great
place to be.
Doug: In
terms of that game prep, is it mostly graphical manipulation of objects, and
fairly simple stuff of any graphical user interface would do, or do you have to get in
and write code?
Nolan: You
don’t have to write code at any point. All the basic elements to the program
are made in a way that you would never…I don’t actually code. Riley codes. I’ve
done some HTML [laughs],
But we do have the option to use a API – or
Application Programming Interface, if you wanted to get some…and that’s more of the
“Bakes-in Rules Type Stuff” so we kind of outsourced that, so if you really want
that in your game you can do it.
At the same time that’s so easy because there
is such a big community of people doing it…so Richard doesn’t really code and
there have been games where he has been gamemastering and gone to the API
forums and went “Oh, I’d like to be able to do this in a game.” Taken the API
code that somebody has put at there for somebody to use and pasted it in with
no actual programming experience himself and been able to get that working.
terms of just a regular game there is no need to program. It’s put down your
map, put down your token, if you want to put the stats on your token, you can do
that. If you want to put the ability to roll already prepped, you can, but you
don’t have to.
When we started this we
were playing off of paper, because we like holding paper. So I would have a few
rolls like ready, if you roll once there is a option to use a previous roll essentially,
so I’d roll and do that instead of setting up the macros. The macros aren’t any
programming language other than “Slash, roll 1d20 plus 3.” That’s not
programming, that’s what you would have to do on a sheet anyway.
It really is
meant to be used in the simplest, around the table way, If you want to take it
in that other direction, that option exists for you.
Even in things like dynamic lighting,
which is one of the great things about something like Roll20. I don’t think
live games are ever going to be replaced, that’s the way to play. Something
like dynamic lighting where we can set up different visions for characters, is
one of the few places where it’s a actual advantage over what you can do at a
table. You’re not asking for a suspension of disbelief, you can really put
somebody in the dark.
Doug: I’ve
played a couple of games with dynamic lighting, Roll20 being one of them and it’s
really neat because “This is what your character sees.” GURPS, I’m a GURPS
gamer, GURPS is very facing-dependent and so you’ve got the area
in front that you can see and you’ve got the area in the side that you can sort
of see and you’ve got the area in the back that you can’t. So you have this 60
degree wedge behind you, that you are blind to unless you take the movement to
turn around and look.
And that has caused no small amount of angst and a couple
of character deaths [Nolan laughs]. We had a thief in our Dungeon Fantasy game
that literally got ninja’ed to the back, because he didn’t check six or didn’t
have time or the ninja made his backstabbing…I don’t think it was his fault.
That  was when we came up with the concept that the
most important piece of armor in Dungeon Fantasy is the piece of metal that
goes on your spine and your kidneys [Nolan laughs]. The only time we really got
killed was being ganked from behind.
Having that ability to make that, to have that set up that the GM can see
everything, and keep the players and that suspended…not a suspension of
disbelief, but actual disbelief, because they have no idea what’s going on.
That’s a great thing, and doing that
in Roll20 it’s not a program it’s a “Go draw a line” and figure out what you
want the barriers to be and how you’re going to box people in. It really works
and it makes for some really interesting scenarios.
Doug: Does
the lighting and vision hang on a token?
Nolan: You
can put it on a token, there is a couple of different ways you can do it, and
it’s one of those things that taking some time to fiddle with it beforehand,
but also looking at the documentation. So everything we try to keep up to date
in terms of a wiki, luckily we also have users who…dynamic lightning…
Doug: If
you’d like to do screen share, that’s been very successful in previous
interviews. So if you’re like “here’s an example I want to show you,” that works quite well.
Nolan: I
don’t know if I got anything right up to do.
Doug: In
case you have something that you want to do we can…
Nolan: How
you add it, and where it goes, and what permissions do you want to give it. There
are a couple of different ways to approach it. Because you can add light to
areas, and things like that.
At the same time to all of us can interact as far
as you want it to using fog of war, which is another way to approach the
lightning scenario, which is basically you going to areas and making them
visible. There are several different ways to skin the cat and I think that’s a
good thing, that there is a lot of different games that use it in a lot of
different ways. Like you were talking about, range of vision is so important
for GURPS – whereas so many games just say…there is a circle around my
character this is all I need.
Whereas in other games, you have this is a torch on the wall and you should only
be able to see in that area.
Doug: So
speaking as a GURPS guy, I’ve played with…the times that I played with the Roll20
engine have largely been – except for one cool playtest that Peter Dell’Orto and I did where we
were just using tokens on a map and nothing else mattered because we were
trying a rules set that we were writing. But what I’ve done in gaming, you roll
your d20 add whatever and the gamemaster is in charge of the damage class so
he’ll tell you whether or not he succeeds. In GURPS, you’re rolling against
mostly your own skill. Is there a straightforward way to do a 3d6 roll under
type mechanic?
Nolan: As
far as the macros, and this is straight from the wiki. Somebody has gone and
set up a full page on GURPS 4th edition and what the macros would be
if you wanted to use that. Roll 3d6 and what is the mechanic, the modifier
here…it’s a…
Doug: You
roll 3d6 and modify your skill and if you roll under your modified skill you
Nolan:And here’s the vs. the modified skill, and somebody even has the API scripts here if you were a mentor
user and you wanted to do automated rolling of stats. It adds the backend so
you’re not doing the other stuff. Somebody has even gone and done what the
ability macros would be if you wanted to do it for a character sheet. They’ve
put tips for condition cards and stuff like that.
Nolan: Yeah. That’s one of those things where I’ve never played GURPS. I have no experience in it whatsoever, but somebody
has got it working in Roll20 and working in the extent that they got a wiki
page laid out with…additionally, they’ve got the settings for what you want the
battlefield to be like. [laughs]
Doug: I
guess that’s what happens when you have half-million users. A small fraction of
them are hard core about it. The engine grows organically.
That’s one of those things…looking at it, it’s not super-advanced Roll20 use
happening here. But it lays it all out if you were coming to us for the first
time, how do I do the specific sort of roll that’s specific to the game I’m playing, it’s relevant to you in that way instead of going that other direction where
it’s a pay for every single type of dice roll, you can do in Roll20, what’s the
one that applies to me. But having it set up like a system like that it’s a
really great benefit to get players to that particular game in and comfortable
Doug: You
mentioned two things and I’m going to hit them in the, I don’t know, the order
or not. But I’m going to him them anyway. You did mention a distinction between
a mentor user and the rest of us freeloaders like myself. What are the benefits
of mentor use vs. the more casual model.
Nolan: There
are three models, mentor, supporter, and the basic free user.Essentially, the
supporter is getting the basic features like dynamic lighting, some expanded
storage space, the ability to use Roll20 on a tablet, and it’s one of the things
we keep behind a paywall because honestly because it takes more time and
troubleshooting than a lot of other things.

Then the mentor side of things are
that plus…we have exclusive tokens that they get access to. Anybody could buy
those tokens, but they are on essentially a rental plan so they have access to
everything that falls into that category.

The biggest benefit for a mentor is
access to the development server. For example, with the data delve update
that’s coming out we will have a version of character sheets that’ll go live
with next week. Even though it’ll be buggy and there will be problems they’ll
get the opportunity to say “Hey, could you maybe approach this new feature like
that.” We do listen to that feedback.

Mentors are overall people who are interested
in that bleeding edge, really really big power users, whereas supporters are
people who probably are playing a every other week game and you want some extra
umph for what you’re able to do.

Doug: There
we go, and you mentioned exactly … a perfect segue way into my next question:
Character sheet support and how is it that…it snowed six or seven inches on
fricking April 4th here over the last six hours and now the sun has
the audacity to come out and is blinding my camera…so….I really thought we were
done with. Many are cold, but few are frozen, but Elsa needs to get the hell
out of the state.

Anyways, so what are we doing here. Character sheets, right,
that’s one of the things where. especially in the game…GURPS is particularly
interesting that way because you could have a couple of dozen skills and
advantages, more the skills than the advantages. Pathfinder, my rogue has 10 or 12 or 15
skills and you have other games that are skill-centric, and one of the things
that I think is useful is the ability to export/import character sheets, so how
are you guys approaching that at the moment.

Nolan: It’s not entirely decided.Right
now it’s a very basic put in what abilities and modifiers you want and attach
it to a token. What we’re going to do next, as far as how it’s going to be
shared, we are not entirely certain. We’re looking at a half dozen different
options and fiddling with it and trying to figure out, we’ve been pretty
successful at so far is steering clear of copyright issues.

One place where
companies really take a stand in the RPG industry is leveling up, and things
like that in terms of the character sheet. That is one of the things they
really stick to as proprietary.

So I don’t know exactly what our solutions
are going ot be there, but we’re going to have…the biggest benefit of what
we’re doing with character sheets is we’re doing a more graphical interface
that looks like what you are holding rather than our very basic layout. In
terms of how all that’s going to be shared…I think we’re looking at another
week and a half, two weeks, considering PAXEast coming up, before we can say definitively
here’s how we’re going to be sharing sheets. We just haven’t come into the
point yet where we have ot make a firm decision on that.

The first thing is
what is a sheet? We are just now…today is literally the first day that anybody
has seen how the programming for that . . . not programming. Actually, in this case, you’ll have to pick up some form of
sheet from somebody that has done some HTML or CSS appearance. That’s one of
those things again you don’t have to be a programmer yourself to use that,
because you can just grab it from someone else, but how that grabbing process
from someone else is going to work we haven’t decided yet.

Doug: Are
you going to enable things like the perception ability or skill in Pathfinder
and you double-click on Perception and it rolls with your bonus, or does that get into the rules/copyright issues?
Nolan: Some
of that you can already do with the system as it is, you can go in, and whatever
you’ve got for your character data you click and it’ll roll off of it.It’ll be
the same in that regard in the future, it’s just a matter of what all we’re
actually touching and what all the community is doing in terms of sharing and how
that line goes out. We’re probably never going to put out a Pathfinder sheet
unless Piazo and us are talking on that level.

With that regard, I do expect
there to be Pathfinder sheets that are out there in the community that people
have made, and there is some format to give those and trade, but as for how
that’s going to work…it’s not entirely decided yet.

Very soon it will be
decided, but we’re just not at the point where I can say “Here is what the list
is going to look like, and this is what the approval process is going to be
like” and that sort of thing.

Doug: Sure.
Do you think that in terms of features as you scroll through say the initiative
tracker would it bring up the characters so its right there so you don’t have
to go hunting for it? Or is that something a user will go tie that together.
That’s something that people already do with the API scripts and the like, but we have not approached that yet that
it would bring that up, which might be interesting for a gamemaster would do
something along those lines, but…right now everything is very token based in
terms of how it’s all connected. And so it’s more you click the token to bring in
what it is in character data. Technically it’s a character sheet right now
even, it’s so basic looking.If you’re used to playing a particular game in
person the data I’ve got for my 4th edition character that I was
playing in Roll20 doesn’t look anything ike a character sheet does. It looks
like a list.

Doug: Sure.
A stat-block.
Nolan: To
change that into what we’re doing is honestly just adding a layer of polish
over the top of it. In terms of changing what the feature is right now for
clicking from the initiative, probably not, just because that’s going beyond
the scope of what we got to get out in this update, but you never know what’s
going to…that’s one of the fun things with us being as small as we are.We will
have a very definite…here are the marks we are hitting with the update, there
are times where Riley will be in there playing with the code and he’ll go “You
know what, I can squeeze out this.”

A great example of that with this update,
he’s doing all these things currently with the dice rolling, and while he was
playing with it all he went “You know it’s about time I put out…” he’s been
meaning to for over a year, a reddit-bot that uses the Roll20 dice engine.

now, if you’re a reddit user and you’re doing a play by post or you just want
to have a random roll as an example, you can actually use the Roll20 dice engine
on reddit. It wasn’t planned on the outset as part of the update, but he was
there, fiddling with it, “I’ve got a couple of extra hours today let’s see what
we can do.”

Doug: Sure.
Exactly. So in terms of the…you mentioned you and Piazo getting together, to
what extant do you think going forward that the virtual tabletop community, or
the virtual tabletop user and content generators and gaming publishers
themselves will start playing in each other’s sandboxes or do you think
there’s going to be a . . .
Nolan: I
think one thing that’s highly unfortunate is that we are at the tail end of a
era…if we’re operating under the assumption that we are bigger than all
previous tabletops combined, what’s happened is all the previous tabletops have
at some point had a deal with one of these companies and it hasn’t worked out
the way the company wanted.So there is a large resistance to actually . . . to them
trying it again with a new company because the assumption is we’re going to
fall apart or this isn’t going to work out as many of those virtual tabletops
have. Or simply the sales metric isn’t going to be high enough, which is really
unforntuate for our user base [laughs],

My hope is eventually some independent publishers
are going to pull through and get some more module type content out there.
There are conversations going on with a lot of small publishers to make that
happen, but at the same time we’ve had very close conversations and almost
happen with any big name that you can think of. Some so close that it makes me
sick to my stomach.

I don’t know what the holdups are on their end or what the
corporate answers they’ve got to give at the end of their day are, but our interests are in
terms of what our deal would be with any of these companies. It’s the same deal
we offer with anybody on the market place, 70%, we take 30% and we handle the
credit card fees. That’s what we’re looking to do. It’s publicly out there..

Doug: It’s
not sneaky.
Nolan: There
is no weirdness or anything going on on our ends that’s mucking up anything –
its just these companies…some of them really get it. There was a large
publisher who was like “You’ll be selling this on your website, right?” there
was one large publisher “This needs to all go through our website”We don’t
know how that’s going to work. What they’re buying is the ability to one-click
and play the game on our website, so how is that working through our website.

There have been publishers who have come to our and said “We want this to go
through your website, we want this to happen through your content, we just want
our modules to exist there.” And really really got it and for some reason,
somebody up the ladder said “No, let’s not do it” or “we got to work on this
instead right now.”

And it repeatedly hasn’t happened. It’s just so incredibly
frustrating, and I know its frustrating for users that are saying “Why aren’t
there modules?” “Why doesn’t this exist?”

There is definitely a huge
opportunity our there to do something different here, and it just hasn’t come
together yet, but I really do think…we previously tried independent wise to go
through where we had a intern by the name of Tristan Judas, who now does a RPG
art site of his own, and he went and emailed every single independent board game
and RPG Kickstarter, and said “Hey, would you be interested in bringing your
content to Roll20.” And we couldn’t get anybody to put it…and that’s unfair to
say in some ways, it’s a lot of effort, you’d absolutely have to put in the
same sort of effort you’d have to put in to say, put it into print. Get the
stats and everything ready to go. But man oh man if we could get somebody to
make that jump.

Doug: It
also seems like…so I could sit down and I could create a map, and populate it
with Pathfinder tokens, maybe they’re free or maybe they’re not, and if they’re not free, you’d have to figure out a way to get royalties to everyone  who’s going to use it, which maybe isn’t a big deal, and you get that out there and the
danger would be something like “Okay, I just populated all kinds of stuff in
there and just for fun I’m going to throw in a beholder”or something that is absolutely one of the
iconic things that is not shared. I think that’s one of them. In any case, you
put all this out there and your point from earlier it becomes a greenlighting
process which can be very difficult. You need ot make sure all the pieces are
Nolan: From
a legal standpoint what we do with everything on the marketplace is you’re
signing that you have the rights to this work and what we are is distributors. If
something came down the line the buck is going to come back to the person who
submitted the content.We absolutely take a look as much as we can to go “Did
they?” but the buck stops with them, with the provider in that case. In many
ways we are just a store for things like that, and so the actual content is
theirs and they have ownership in a way too, that’s something time and time
again to hear from people that’s so amusing that “Oh, I can sell on more than

Yeah, we’re not looking to push anybody out or make any…the stuff that
we got that is exclusive, is stuff we’ve paid for just so there is additional
content is the exclusive tokens is one it’s paid. Paying the artist up front, so
we have the rights to do whatever so this rental thing with mentors happen.

The other side is
that we do odd things there that isn’t necessarily…there is not a huge market
for western-themed RPGs. It’s just not there, so nobody’s taking that risk
themselves to go out there and make a western-theme pack because no one’s going to make their time up, money wise. Paying up front makes it exist and gives the opportunity so it can make a couple sales
and be something, but at the same time, more importantly, it can be a resource
for that so that it exists and can be a long term investment  and say “I need this pack to sell 20 times
within the next month for me to..”

Doug: …eat
[both laugh].
Yeah. That’s the reality of it.Modules end up being a different thing because it
does end up being specific to the program, but at the same time you can
absolutely sell your PDF elsewhere. You can sell the tokens elsewhere and that
sort of thing.

But like you were saying, if you’re somebody who is just writing adventures and you go
out and make your own deal with a artist. That is what a publisher is. It’s a
publisher who has a bunch a deals worked out with a artist, a writer. Be your
own publisher, come to us and say “Hey, this is what I want to do.” We will absolutely carry it as long as it meets the quality standards of a eye test.

The majority of things we get are of quality, the majority of submissions are
pretty high quality. Every once and a while we’ll get something that looks like
it’s been done in crayon and “I just want to share this with community.” Our
thought is if it’s worth the uploading and the time and the hosting it’s got to
be worth something, I think that has made our marketplace unique in that it’s not
crap. Which I feel pretty lucky about that we got as many items there with that
sort of visual caliber to get the adventures there that match that, hopefully
it’s going to happen. But right now there are literally two modules that exist,
we’d love to see that expand to two hundred times that.

Doug: It
seems like what you’d really need is a map, and tokens, and hang the lighting if
such things exist, you’d need a pre-populated fog of war, then you’d need the tokens to have stats
and you’re good to go.
Absoultely. That’s all you need. You can take it as far as you want to in terms
of you can have handouts ready, you can have different options for places to go
in terms of what maps there are so it can diverage in different places.My
dream scenario for the marketplace would be to do something like the dungeon
delve. Which is the 4th edition book that just has a bunch of level
1-3 adventures and it goes all the way through 30 and you can just pull a
section, it’s got a hook, it’s got treasure, it’s got all the little things
you’d need. Pull it. Place it in. And you’ve got your adventure for the night.
And having that for a variety of systems…that’d be great.

It saves that time
for the gamemaster significantly. It’s just a matter of somebody stepping up
and making it happen. And if anybody wants to have that conversation, we are
here to have that conversation. And we’ve had that conversation with a lot of people.

Figuring out…somebody’s got to be familiar with
our interface to do it. They don’t have to be involved at all in programming,
but they got to be able to sit down and look at what Roll20 is and play with it
some. We’ll see. One of these days.

Doug: That
sort of segues into as we go forward, what is the role of the virtual
tabletop and the future of tabletop RPGs – with Tabletop Day tomorrow this is a
good time for pontification.
Nolan: I
think that our rule going forward, strengthening and expanding the hobby.The
most common email that we get is “Oh my gosh, thank you, it’s been 10 years
since my group was able to play together.” We are reestablishing gaming groups
that have been lost as the world becomes increasingly global.

I think now there
are more and more people moving away from where they grew up, and going to
different places to get that specific job. This is giving people the
opportunity to stay connected, but also we are getting more and more traffic
from people who are “I’ve heard of Dungeons and Dragons, but I’ve never played
it. How do I get into this. How do I do this. Where do I go to do that?”

one of those things that we talk about Google a lot if you look up “Play
Dungeons and Dragons Online” we are now what comes up. I think that is a really
big responsibility in making certain that the hobby’s continue in a way…it keeps
the conversation relevant in a way that it couldn’t necessarily be if it was
just in person.

Again, in person is the best form of this, but that’s like
saying the best form to see  a movie is
in a movie theater. Movies in a large part happen and exist in home in your
home theater or your television or some people are crazy enough that they do it
on their phone. That’s not the optimal way to do that experience, but… The
Veronica Mars movie just came out and there are people who downloaded and
binge-watched three seasons of that before they went to the movie theater.
We’re the download and binge-play all sorts of different tabletop games where
you get that one in person where you get to do the 3D…the best live encounter I
ever did was a three-dimensional spinning platform, it was at the heart of a floating fortress
anti-gravitational…absolutely nonsense something you could never ever ever pull
off in a virtual tabletop…ever. And it was great. Having the experience doing
things online gives you that base you can go and do that into the future. That
was a long and rambling answer to that question [laughs].

Doug: At least at
this particular time, it’s my guest who’s giving me the long involved answer
[Nolan continues to laugh]. Every now and then I forget who is the interviewer
and the interviewee and something comes into my head and I’m like blah blah
blah. And I’m looking over and my guest is looking at their watch, like “any day now you could ask me another question.”So, what are the things you are working on now and
what are the things you’d like to see yourself working on a year from now.

Nolan: The
data delve is kind of three-pronged: character sheets, this rolling change
we’ve made, and the other thing is server upgrades. New servers are already
available on the dev-server, the development severer, they’re great, they’re
faster. People should be excited by that, because it’s going to be easier to do.This feels to me like a meat and
potatoes update in some ways, it’s very important meat to a lot of people, but
they are not the fringe.

I am so interested in the marketplace, I want to do a
bunch of different things over there in changing how it looks and improving
some of the backend there. Right now we have about 50 regular creators who are
involved in the marketplace and I would like to improve how they see their
sales results and turnaround in terms of what they are aware of and what they
know and how easy it is to update things. That’s not an update that appeals to
the half a million users [laughs], that appeals to the 50 people and makes
there life a whole lot easier, but it’s important because it allows the next 50
people on the market place to get that benefit as well. But that’s definitely . . .

Doug: A
apropos of nothing, one of the great things that Steve Jackson Games does is
they publish the sales reports. I have a grappling book that’s out, and its
tiny, but I know every month exactly how many sales I’ve had, and it’s a very prompt royalty check disbursement. It’s
very available and very friendly and very creator focused, and it’s having that kind
of low-friction, working relationship is incredibly important to become the
first touch point for vetting your wares.
Nolan: Right
now we fail in the automation of that. It’s all very available, I make myself
very available to the marketplace creators. Anybody who wants a “Hey, how is
this doing right now?” I’ll go jump in the system, pull out the numbers, and
get it to them, but you got to wait for me to get to my email and you can’t
just check yourself. And that’s a pain. And it’s something I’d like to see
change down the line We’ve taken some steps in that direction, it’s just a
matter of finalizing it and getting it out there for those people.
Some kind of query-able relational database or something.
Nolan:  That’s one of those things that we need to
get done, but at the same time it can’t be the priority overall because it’s
such a small portion of what’s going on. It’s one of those things, it’s much
easier for me to take the 10 minutes to go do that now, even though it’s 10
minutes repeatedly, than it is for Riley to take the two hours, get all that
programmed, make certain it works, make certain there is nothing that’s buggy
or leaky or a problem or what happens if the data falls into the wrong hands.
Right now, if you lose your account, there are things that we can do to take
care of that. But none of that is money-based in the same way that this would
Doug: It’s
hard to imagine a evil-mustache twirler saying
“And now that these tokens are in my hands, I will take over the world!!”
That’s very big concern that a lot of people had in terms of selling digital
content, we’ve seen again and against that the best approach is to not try and
put a lot of DRM. Not try to do a lot of Digital Rights Management, because the
more of that you put on, the more it is a pain for the user and they just don’t
buy it.I was talking earlier about the larger companies, they feel like
they’ve been burned by this virtual tabletop thing because it didn’t take off
in the way they thought it would previously. Users have been burned by that as
well. They’ve bought content at a different virtual tabletop and the virtual
tabletop doesn’t attract a community anymore and they got these tokens over
there they can’t use.

Our suggestions, repeatedly have been “Make this
available for download here” and then we give that option so you can download everything as a zip file
so you can go and get it and have it yourself in addition to having it on Roll20
and the content that has that option does perform better on our website than
the stuff that’s locked. The proof is in the pudding. You can’t make it any
clearer a case than “Yeah, this will actually increase your sales.”

Doug: So a
year from now, what do you see yourself…what are the coolest things that you think could be coming in a year?
Nolan: I
would love to see a few modules of some really high caliber. We did our own
internal goals at the beginning of the year and that was the thing I said. I
really want to see a couple of melt your face off modules happen before the end
of the year.We’re having a lot of conversations and…I’m aware of a few really
good looking modules that are in creation. I have been in the campaign, seen
them moving, hopefully the creators go that extra [mile] and finish them off.
That’s the thing to me that’s most interesting. I think a lot of the stuff in
terms of what the tabletop is, is pretty good right now.

Maybe beyond a year,
maybe we’ll get it done this year, maybe we won’t. I would really love to see a
user interface overhaul that just kind of cleans up where everything is and
makes it easier. The example that I use when talking about this is right now Roll20
is done in pages. This is one page of maps, this is another page of maps. And
the page existence is over on the top right corner in this little thing that
you pull down and there is no reason why it’s up there and separate from
everything else…it’s just this weird artifact of the way the program has
snowballed over time.

I would love to take all that stuff, smash it all
together and come out with something new in that interface area. We’ve talked
to some people about how we would do that and what it would look like. It’s also
something that people who are very used…while it would make it easier for our
future users, people who have grown accustomed to what it is now there is going
to be some pushback for that. So it’s really gotta be “this is it and we’ve figured
out how that’s going to look.” Maybe that’s not this year, but that’s definitely
a conversation we are having. That is a big term “RAH!” goal.

Something you really want to do.One last suggestion and then I’ll let you have
what I call the “Parting Shot.” Have you guys thought of doing like a…going to
GenCon and saying “At GenCon, next year we will announce the winners of the Roll20
Module Contest, in order to enter you need maps, tokens, stats, and a plotline
and the best whatever get. A contest!

Nolan: The
only contest we did previously have been things like wiki pages in that realm.
“Hey, what’s the best community based…” here is this system as you would do it
in Roll20Somethign that absolutely we could do later at the same time though I feel like that’s not a…I feel like
the effort there on somebody’s part. Entertainment weekly just came out this
week and said they are going to outsource a bunch of their writing to users for
prestige. AND THAT’S HORRIBLE [Doug laughs] because those people need money.

they’re writing some that’s good enough…it shouldn’t be a community/website
based thing that Entertainment Weekly is making money off of ad revenue. What I
would say to anybody in that sort of case as far as modules go is we will put
our full marketing umph being it. This isn’t going to be a contest, you’re
going to be on the front page of the website for a month.

This is going to be
we send out newsletters to the hundreds of thousands of people that we got on
our lists about what your module is with previews of it and what it does.

don’t want it to be a gimmick that diminishes what the people do or your second
place so you don’t get the spotlight, if you’re module is second good we don’t
need to say it’s second good we just need to talk about it next month instead
of this month.

Doug: I
don’t want to misconstrue…as a project manager myself, I could say “Yeah, I’m going
to do something eventually.” The meeting or the conference or the whatever is
next Thursday, all of a sudden people are scheduling it and making time for it.Like last month we had the Role-Playing Game Blog Association Blog Carnival. I
was like okay, not enough…I didn’t think enough . . . for a group that was meeting online or people that interacted online for a lot of people who played games
online there were fundamentally no posts going on for the first half of it so I
started these interviews, and I had a month to do it, which is why our email
pace got a little frantic [both laugh].

Nolan: That
Doug: That
was your data delve coming on a date, right, and that date is important.
Nolan: It’s
a nebulous date somewhere in May. There are several highlights for what we
would like to hit, but we will see how fast things go.That’s one of the things
about controlling our destiny is we can look at it and go “How do we make
certain that this is polished and ready for that…”

Doug: What’s real, what’s ready. But the important thing about it is setting deadlines. I’m going to run GURPS Alien Menace
campaign and that was all nebulous and fuzzy until I contacted three or four
who are going to play with initially. The first game is April 19th
and they said “Great! We’ll make time for you.” And now, damn it I got 15 days
to get this together [Nolan laughs].So I better start on making some maps and
figure out what the templates are and all that stuff.That was really my
trhought process behind this contest. Give people some deadlines. Encourage
them to say “Hey, and we’re going to show some of our favorites at this place
and then well, all of them are publishable.” Anything that’s not bad crayon art is going to go on
the side. But we’re going to pick our best and run a convention.

Nolan: Maybe the way to run with this is along with an update which is previously something that we’ve done. There
have been several times in turns of…there are a half dozen people who say they
got marketplace packs on the way and they’re coming soon and I know we got a
update a week and a half from now and they say “You’re going to make the
newsletter if you get it to me by this date.” Maybe taking that to a higher
extent and pushing on a few of those half-dozen modules that I know are out
there in a kind of nebulous churning phase. Maybe
that is the way to go.
Doug: The
quarterly Roll20 online convention, right?
Nolan: Now
that’s a conversation that is slowly mounting as well. We would love to do some
sort of online convention. We’ve been part of about half dozen of them now and our
opinion overall – each one of them has had something that we’ve really really
liked, but overall there have been a lot of weird trying to make the online
convention like the physical convention in a way that’s not necessary.So much
so that there are some conventions that have like vendor rooms and stuff like
that instead of…we’ve talked at length about what we would do differently, and
eventually it came to a point where we reached a critical mass. This isn’t just
a hypothetical “What we would do if we were in their shoes” this was a “One of
these days we’re going to have to do this and this is what it’s going to be
like.” As for when that is, I don’t know, but that conversation is definitely
happening. I would say without a doubt you will see a Roll20 online convention
of some sort that we put some time into.

And for something like that it’ll be
a weekend where there is some reason to schedule your game on that weekend and
be involved in that weekend. We want to make it attractive for you…if you’ve
been thinking about putting together a party and doing a special game, we’ll give you a reason to do it. If you’ve been
thinking about livestreaming on Twitch, there is a reason to do it.

Doug: I
could easily see…because at some point and with “only” half a million users,
you haven’t quite…
Nolan: We’re
almost there.
Doug: You
have not saturated the available gamer market.
Nolan: No.
Doug: By any
stretch of the imagination. You guys still have good work to do, I think, in
increasing the user base. At some point, your user base is going to be so
robust because its not about getting more people, it’s about taking that group
that you have and serving them better or differently…
Nolan: Churn, is the term that’s used, in the online nebulous . . .churn is how
you make this work. It’s how you churn and recycle the user base that you
already got. That’s something that we do from time to time. We go back and say
this many users haven’t used us in this many months, why is that?We’ll even
send surveys on that sort of thing. Is it just your gamer group is broken up.
Is it we’re not doing something right? And getting some information on that, we
have seen regularly that the number one reason people leave us is there gaming
group has fallen apart, and we have started to look at that as a failure of the
universe, but a failure of ours.

We do need to do a better looking-for-groups
system and things like that and ways to make it easier to find a group if you
don’t have a group. “Oh I want to play, but things didn’t work out.”

Some of
that is them saying they think they want to play, maybe they don’t have the
time. That we got to deal with, but there is a definitely a space where we can
better serve our users in terms of making a different game after their group

Doug: It
would be interesting to do something like, not to..I think this plays into
the module support as a gamemaster I’m going to be playing this game in this
system on this day, here are the pregens. Here are five spaces or four spaces
of my regular gaming group, here’s four space, and here’s a fighter, here’s a cleric, here’s a magic
user, here’s a thief that are open for anybody or they’re open for signing up.So I would say “Oh I’m interested in playing that fighter on that day” and there might be 400
people who sign up and as a gamemaster I can say pick randomly or I recognize
that name, he’s cool or I recognize that name he’s a internet troll, and I’m
just not going to allow that or whatever. Because Wheaton’s Rule always
applies. This is going to be how we build a group . . . and I can easily see that
kind of gamer finder, not just gamer finder, but we’re going to make a
relatively low-friction entry into the hobby or any particular campaign.

Nolan: I
think our looking for group system was the first step in that. I think it got
us on that path, but it’s coming to the point.As with all things. It’s about
our own development cycle in terms of we get something…card decks are a really
great example of a feature we’ve gone back to now three or four times. Every
time it’s like “Ah yes, Card decks are finished and we’ll never have to do
anything with them again.” “Well…actually, we could probably make them a little
bit better if we went and did this.”

It’s what you’re emotionally able to do on
that time on a specific feature. We’re definitely on a point now with looking
for group where we are talking about. Just this past week I was on the forums
soliciting input on a future update in terms of what do we need to change about
the looking for group system to make it more viable for you and what you need
in terms of finding people. That’s another thing too.

My goal for the looking
for group system is that someday it’s good enough that we don’t need a looking
for group forum anymore. That there is no need to go there, you can just have a
wanted ad our there floating around a message board that the system is reliably
enough at connecting you with the people you want to be with why would you go
paste that to a wall. We aren’t there yet by any stretch of the imagination,
but the conversation is ongoing.

Doug: It
does seem like something that should be very doable. I want to thank you for
your time, I’d like to give you guys your parting shot. Any topic, any message,
how would you like to close out the interview.
Nolan: If
anybody is going to PAX next week, keep a eye out on our social media because
we’re trying to figure out some sort of meet-up there. We haven’t figured out
exactly what we’re going to do. We’re kind of doing this one for us just to
experience it and see it. But we definitely want to hook up with people and we
will probably be wearing shirts so we can be easily found out there. Beyond
that, if you haven’t used Roll20, give it a try, give it a little time. Go to
the wiki, check out some articles, drop by the forums and ask questions, we’ve
been really really lucky in so much of this community is really really cool and
gets what we’re trying to do and has since the Kickstarter. So yeah, Roll20.
Doug: There
you go. Thank you again, I’m glad we were able to hook up.
Thanks for having me.
Doug: You
managed to walk away from the Firing Squad unscathed.
Nolan: I
don’t know, I took a few shots. Not body hits.

2 thoughts on “Firing Squad welcomes Nolan T Jones of Roll20

  1. Thanks to this moron, Nolan T Jones, he made my decision to invest in Fantast Grounds VERY easy. Did this piece of shit ever apologize to the community and the YouTube D&D promoters he didnt want to hire because of his sexist/racist rant against white people and males?

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