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How to move your role-playing game nights online

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Aurich Lawson

When the dust cleared, the golem lay in pieces across the dungeon floor. Erik sighed deeply, and though his vision blurred, he could still see the rest of the party coming to his aid. Emmelina, the knight that had first welcomed him into the group, cradled him in her arms as he took his last breath. Our team had come this far only to lose its youngest member. Across five different states, there wasn’t a dry eye among our team, but we recomposed ourselves and continued to play our tabletop adventure through the service we’ve used for half a decade now: Roll20.

Perhaps, like me, you had fun adventures with friends locally when you were younger or, perhaps you’re interested in role-playing now but unable to actually, you know, meet up with anyone thanks to the pandemic. If so, Roll20 solves the biggest hurdle between you and delving dungeons with your buddies. And it does so without overly complicating things. If you have access to the internet, you can run virtual tabletop games of Dungeons & Dragons—or anything else—thanks to Roll20.

Your standard map with tokens on it after a hard-fought battle with dice rolls to the side.
Enlarge / Your standard map with tokens on it after a hard-fought battle with dice rolls to the side.

What is Roll20?

Roll20 is a digital platform from relatively small company The Orr Group. It launched in 2012 and allows people to create, share, and play tabletop campaigns. Various upgrades are available to purchase, but the basic service will let anyone do all of the above without too much muss or fuss. And of all the reasons to give Roll20 a shot, possibly the biggest is the simplest: it’s free.

From the start, Roll20 lets you create campaigns, use a variety of different maps which can be toggled as active or not, place digital miniatures in the form of tokens that can then be moved about said maps, and more. Want to do video and voice while you play? That’s built right in. Basic text chat also allows for rolling dice, sending messages as specific characters, and just, well, shooting the breeze. There’s even a jukebox function baked into the free version that lets you set the mood with a little music.

There are also certain premium options in Roll20, and they range from useful to extremely useful: things like dynamic lighting and premium tokens. But all of the core functionality is there from the start, and there’s no reason to upgrade if you don’t need the extras. It’s a nice setup, really, because you can run full campaigns without having to pay anything, but all of the extras are helpful. The different subscription tiers (Plus at $49.99 a year and Pro at $99.99 a year) add more storage, the aforementioned dynamic lighting, custom character sheets, and more. I’ve subscribed in the past and likely will again in the future, but for someone just starting out, a sub will likely only add more stuff to fiddle with. No need to up the learning curve from the start, after all.

In addition to subscription tiers, Roll20 also straight-up sells digital modules and handbooks to play a number of different RPG systems. If you’re the kind of person that really wants to “wow” folks but doesn’t have the time to build everything from scratch, you can just pick up some preconstructed adventures and run them without too much tweaking. In my opinion, nothing quite replaces having the physical books on hand, but there’s also something to be said for being able to access anything and everything within said books using just a few clicks, and you can’t exactly dump a physical book into a virtual tabletop system in the same way.

While the premium options will almost always be a better fit, Roll20 makes finding free maps and tokens easy enough.
Enlarge / While the premium options will almost always be a better fit, Roll20 makes finding free maps and tokens easy enough.

Who needs it?

Even before the COVID-19 response shut everything down, virtual tabletop was a way to connect with folks across disparate spaces—and it remains so. There just now happens to be even more people with the time and the distance to make such services all the more appealing. My own journey to Roll20 seems to be pretty common: in the wake of my high school Dungeons & Dragons group moving away for college, and then across the country for work, Roll20 let us play in the same space again, even if it was a digital one.

Since joining Roll20 in late 2012, I’ve logged nearly 500 hours on the platform—with the vast majority of that bringing together friends and former acquaintances rather than random strangers. Not that there’s any problem with random groups, and Roll20 even facilitates this with the ability to add yourself to a directory of players by indicating what sort of games, by system, you’re looking to join. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can browse the forums where players look for games to join and where those running games look for players.

Over the years, I’ve tried out other virtual tabletop platforms, but I always seem to drift back to Roll20 thanks to its relative ease of use and broad access. Other popular options include Fantasy Grounds or D20PRO, but both are far more fiddly than Roll20, in my experience. The path in Roll20 from signing up to joining a game to playing in a game is fairly straightforward, and for players, it largely comes across as seamless. Folks that are actually running games have a number of different choices to make, including just how detailed of a game they want to run, but players in large part simply need to click a couple links and show up at the designated time.

And that, for the last five years or so, has worked perfectly for a game that I run for a bunch of what were once acquaintances online. The vast majority of these are people I’ve never physically met, and the one I have? The last time we met outside of the internet was something like 2013. Every two weeks, or three, we log into Roll20 in order to play out a campaign using Green Ronin’s Dragon Age tabletop setting. My players theorize in Discord about our game while we’re not playing, and they share terrible memes, and every session is a new reminder of just how much fun playing tabletop can be despite the fact that this is entirely virtual.

Here’s an overview of the party: there’s the jock knight that was kicked out of school, the archer that likes to play music and maybe has more religion in her than she cares to admit, the quiet elven mage that isn’t always sure what to make of the rest of the group, and the dwarven gladiator trying to hold it all together. The archer keeps a canonical story-style log of our campaign, which at this point is hundreds of pages long. There’s fan art. And custom miniatures. And, at least partly, it’s all thanks to Roll20.

You can get as detailed as you like with character descriptions and even upload portraits to flesh them out.
Enlarge / You can get as detailed as you like with character descriptions and even upload portraits to flesh them out.

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How Zelda fans changed the ending to Ocarina of Time on a vanilla N64

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Enlarge / This… isn’t supposed to happen in Ocarina of Time. Here’s the story of how some fans made it happen anyway—all on a stock N64 with an unmodified Ocarina cartridge.

Summer Games Done Quick

Shortly after our guide to Summer Games Done Quick 2022 went live, the event hosted an astounding demonstration of a classic video game—one that has since crowded that Ars article’s replies. If we want to split hairs, this run through the 1998 N64 classic Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is not a “speedrun,” but it’s another example of the “TASBot” concept transforming games in ways we would never have dreamed of 24 years ago.

The team of fans and programmers responsible for this week’s “Triforce-percent” demonstration have since revealed how they achieved the feat with nothing more than a stock N64 and an original Ocarina retail cartridge—though the secret involves controller inputs so fast and precise that they cannot be performed by anything less than a computer.

Nothing stale about this run

An early 2020 video that explains how stale reference manipulation works. You may want to watch this before watching the SGDQ 2022 video, embedded further below.

The 53-minute demonstration (embedded at the end of this article) opens with an exploit previously unearthed in late 2019, which the community dubbed “Stale Reference Manipulation.” This exploit takes advantage of a vulnerability in the game’s original 1.0 version, which allowed players to manipulate numerical values assigned to specific objects in the game’s memory. The breeziest explanation for this complicated technique can be found in a YouTube video from early 2020 (embedded above), as it spells out the various numerical values assigned to each object in the game, such as their X-, Y-, and Z-axes and their rotation.

Savvy players can make values overlap or overwhelm the game’s original code so they can be manipulated as players see fit. The technique we see in this week’s run requires Link to pick up a rock while going through a “loading zone,” a hallway used to disguise loading pauses on N64 hardware, and to do so in a way that the game was not designed to handle.

Initially, this exploit was a speedrunning tool, as it could trick the game into loading the final credits sequence and technically count as a “completion” within only a few minutes. But the Triforce-percent run goes much further.

RAMming new content into a classic game

Hey, wait, that doesn't belong here... but as the TASBot demonstration team points out, an Arwing from <em>Star Fox 64</em> was left in the original <em>Ocarina</em> cartridge, as a reminder that this object was used to test certain animation routines in the early development period.
Enlarge / Hey, wait, that doesn’t belong here… but as the TASBot demonstration team points out, an Arwing from Star Fox 64 was left in the original Ocarina cartridge, as a reminder that this object was used to test certain animation routines in the early development period.

Summer Games Done Quick

By picking up and dropping specific items, then making the game’s hero Link move and perform maneuvers in a specific sequence, the TASBot team opens up a Pandora’s box of what’s known as arbitrary code execution—the type of vulnerability used by hackers the world over to make a closed computer system run whatever code they want. What’s more, the TASBot chain of moves and commands begins to tell the N64 to accept button input from all four N64 controllers as if it’s code.

This item-manipulation menu was left in the game as a beta element, easily unearthed for use in the SGDQ 2022 run.
Enlarge / This item-manipulation menu was left in the game as a beta element, easily unearthed for use in the SGDQ 2022 run.

Summer Games Done Quick

At this point, a computer takes over all four N64 controller ports and sends a rapid-fire series of button taps, as if it were a zillion-finger superhero equivalent to The Flash. The glitched-out Ocarina cartridge has instructed the N64 to accept each button tap in a way that corresponds to specific code strings. Once enough of this payload has been sent, the team can return normal control to the “player one” port, so that a real person can play through an entirely new sequence of content—all being dumped into the N64’s random-access memory (RAM) by the other three controllers’ incredibly fast input.

These on-the-fly patches can do many incredible things that, combined, resemble a fully blown patch of a cartridge’s read-only memory (ROM), though the TASBot team restricts itself to changes that specifically apply to the console’s RAM: tiny changes to existing code, total file replacements, or commands to tell the game to ignore content that it would normally load from the ROM. As a result, this exploit can glitch or crash if players go outside the expected path that this exploit is optimized for.

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Diablo Immortal is bringing in over $1 million a day in microtransactions

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Use cash to buy orbs.

Despite backlash from some players, Diablo Immortal‘s free-to-play, microtransaction-laden game design seems to be working out just fine for Blizzard’s bottom line. Using data from mobile analysis firm Appmagic, MobileGamer.biz estimates that the iOS and Android versions of the game brought in $49 million in earnings from just over 10 million mobile downloads in the versions’ first 30 days of availability.

Those estimates, which are based on public charts provided by the mobile platforms, don’t include the PC version of the game and, thus, may actually be underselling the scale of its financial success. With PC players included, Blizzard announced that Diablo Immortal hit 10 million installs after just over a week, well ahead of the mobile download pace estimated by Appmagic.

By way of comparison, Diablo III took nearly six months to sell 10 million copies after its troubled launch back in 2012. But that game sold for a $60 MSRP, making it hard to compare directly to a free-to-play game that has so far brought in an estimated average of less than $5 in earnings per download, according to Appmagic.

The long tail

While Diablo III‘s earnings were front-loaded on initial sales, though, Diablo Immortal seems well-positioned to bring in additional revenue from its existing player base for a long while. As of Monday, for instance, the game was still the 34th highest-grossing app on the entire iOS App Store, despite having fallen to 134th in terms of new downloads.

Many of those initial Immortal players (and payers) will eventually fall away from the game, of course. But that process might happen slower than you might think. Estimates of Android app retention from analysis firm Quettra suggest an app that launches in the “top 10” on the Google Play Store (as Diablo Immortal did) can expect to keep close to 60 percent of its initial users after three months. And public data from mobile hits like Pokemon Go, Angry Birds, and Candy Crush Saga suggests that roughly 10 to 20 percent of all players who had downloaded those games were still regular players a full year or two after launch.

That all suggests that Diablo Immortal will have millions of active players well into next year and beyond. And while the vast majority of those players will never spend a single cent on the game, the top-end whales could easily spend enough on the game’s confusing sets of currencies to keep the revenue rolling in for Blizzard for a long time.

Blizzard has already promised that the upcoming Diablo IV will limit microtransactions to optional cosmetics. But the early performance for Diablo Immortal helps show why the free-to-play business model can be so appealing for a publisher like Blizzard, even if it can be annoying for many players.

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The best game-exploiting speedruns of Summer Games Done Quick 2022

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Enlarge / All four of the mascots seen in this SGDQ promo image appear in various speedruns hosted over the past week.

Summer Games Done Quick

The Games Done Quick series of charity events has long been a favorite among the gaming fans and critics at Ars Technica since it combines classic, beloved video games and carefully studied methods to break them apart in search of high-speed exploits.

This year’s summertime installment is particularly special, as it’s the first in 2.5 years to take place at a physical venue—albeit with some of the most stringent masking and distancing requirements we’ve seen in a livestreamed public show in 2022. (GDQ’s organizers appear to read the news, which makes sense for a series that benefits the likes of Doctors Without Borders.) Even with precautions taken, its combination of players, commentators, and crowds in the same room has brought excitement back to its broadcasts, which is why we’re pulling together some of the best runs from the past week, as archived at GDQ’s official YouTube channel.

The event is still ongoing as of this article’s publication, which means you can watch it right now via its Twitch channel. The event’s final runs, dedicated to Elden Ring, will conclude in the late hours on Saturday, July 2.

Tunic speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Tunic, 2022, “true ending” run

If you haven’t yet played Tunic, we recommend you pause before watching this game-breaking, spoiler-filled romp through many of its biggest secrets. (My March review of the game has far fewer spoilers.) But if you’ve already collected the game’s slew of hidden “instruction booklet” pages, consider this a must-watch, because it includes a compelling guest on real-time commentary: Andrew Shouldice, the game’s lead designer, programmer, and artist.

He’s joined by a member of the Power-Up Audio team, which worked on the game’s soundtrack, and they divulge tons of information about how the game was made—including confirmation about how many of the biggest exploits were intentionally left by the devs in the game. At one point, Shouldice watches a trick begin to play out, telling the crowd that he programmed it to be a possibility but could never personally trigger it. Moments later, the speedrunner demonstrated the trick, allowing him to warp through a wall and bypass a ton of tricky content.

Halo Infinite speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Halo Infinite, 2021, “no tank gun” run

Many classic games’ speedruns include multiple categories, and the most broken ones are known as “any-percent” runs, since they allow players to use any tricks and skip any quests that they want. In certain games’ cases, these kinds of runs can be boring to watch, and the infamously glitchy Halo Infinite is no exception.

This speedrun begins with a demonstration of the “tank gun,” which bolts an unlimited-ammo gun to Master Chief’s feet. That’s too much assistance for speedrunners’ tastes, but this SGDQ demonstration still includes a ton of wacky tricks that combine geometry clipping and otherworldly physics exploits—all boosted by Chief’s immediate access to a new grappling hook item. Sure, the hook makes players move much faster through the world, but it also figures into a wild glitch that makes players bounce off explosive barrels in ways that defy gravity.

Thunder in Paradise speedrun, Summer Games Done Quick 2022

Thunder in Paradise, 1995, all-cutscenes run

We’re not sure whether this is GDQ’s first speedrun dedicated to a full-motion video (FMV) game, but it’s certainly one of the dumber examples of the mid-’90s CD-ROM genre. Thunder in Paradise is based on the short-lived TV series of the same name, which starred Terry “Hulk” Hogan alongside Jack Lemmon’s son as a crime-solving action duo on the beach, and it was as bad as that sounds. The video game version, relegated to the CD-I console, forces players to watch excruciatingly bad live-action footage between light gun shootout sections.

In most video game speedruns, players skip as many cinema scenes as possible, but GDQ elected to show this game’s filmed footage in its entirety while cheesing the gun gameplay parts as quickly as possible. Strap in, brother.

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