TL;DR: Many reasons to be mad at Roll20. I hope this is a wake-up call for them, and I am going to see if they change as a result.
Drama? On the internet?!
If you have been on D&D Twitter, Reddit, or YouTube the past few days, you may have seen that there was a lot of Roll20 “Drama” going on. If you don’t know what it’s about, there are lots of threads you can read online to get in-depth, but I will summarize, and I will tell you why, after much consideration, I’ve decided to stay with Roll20 for now.
If you are not familiar with Roll20, it is an online “Virtual Table Top” (VTT) that allows groups to play roleplaying games online using maps, images, tokens, automated character sheets, special effects, and more. There are a handful of VTTs out there, with Roll20 and their main competitor Fantasy Grounds being the top two. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but generally speaking Roll20 works in your web browser, and can be played for free, while Fantasy Grounds requires installing software on your computer, and needs at least some people spend money for a subscription to play. That’s a really simple comparison, but the purpose of this post is not to compare or recommend VTTs.
There have been three major issues with Roll20 that have culminated in what (anecdotally) seems like a lot of people cancelling their Roll20 accounts and fleeing to other VTTs like Fantasy Grounds.
A long time coming.
The first is a general upset over the long-time practices of Roll20 staff, especially co-founder Nolan T Jones, censoring criticism of the system and staff on their forums and Reddit, and the general lack-luster “customer service” many of us have received from Roll20 over the years. I have my own negative experiences with Roll20 staff, and Nolan, that I will recount later in this post, suffice to say the issue of bad and snarky customer service, and the actions of Nolan, have been percolating for some time.
Sorry, not sorry.
The second major issue involves a recent incident where Nolan banned a reddit user from the r/roll20 sub-reddit. In short, The user posted a list of criticisms of the Roll20 platform. Nolan banned the user claiming they were actually another user banned a year previously for breaking r/roll20 rules. The user went about proving this was not the case and asking that his account be reinstated. Nolan, and Roll20, ignored the user for days, and the user – justifiably, in my opinion – became upset over their lack of response and sent a total of about three emails, demanding they be reinstated, and warning they would take their case to social media if their concerns weren’t addressed. Despite proving they weren’t the previously banned user in question, Nolan informed the user they would stay banned because of the multiple emails they sent to Roll20. This blew up on Reddit, and eventually after they were roasted online Roll20 recanted, reinstating the user (and others banned for criticism), and the Roll20 Reddit mods (including Nolan) were replaced with mods from another sub-reddit.
Five White Guys
The third issue involves a crew of TTRPG YouTube personalities who pitched Nolan directly the idea of having Roll20 sponsor a new online streaming campaign they wanted to run. They were asking for some financial consideration from Roll20 in return for plugging the VTT to their viewers. This sort of endorsement partnership is not uncommon. Lots of D&D (and other RPG) podcasts, Twitch streams, and YouTube shows are sponsored by Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, Wizards of the Coast, D&D Beyond, and more. The issue in this case was that in a meeting with the YouTubers, Nolan allegedly turned down the offer because of the skin-colour, and gender/sex of the YouTubers. According to Cody of Taking20 Nolan said “He did not want to do business with us because we were five white men.” According to Andrew Armstrong of DawnforgedCast Nolan said “We don’t need another five white guys“. Cody and Andrew have both publicly characterized this as racist and sexist, and that for this reason they no longer work with Roll20.
These issues, especially the last one, seem rather damning to Roll20, and specifically Nolan T Jones, and there has been an exodus of Roll20 subscribers and market creators as a result, but I decided to avoid jumping to any quick decisions about my own subscription with Roll20, or posting about it much until now. Where the first and second issues are concerned I am totally on the side of those of us who feel we have been abused by Nolan and Roll20 staff, but where the third issue of “racism and sexism” is concerned, I was not so sure. At first blush it has the appearance of being what they claim, but that claim made me feel uncomfortable, and it was eventually a post on Twitter by Jim Davis, the other member of the YouTubers in the meeting with Nolan, that summed up what I was feeling.
Nolan & Roll20’s “Customer Service”
First I want to address the issue of Roll20 customer service, and actions by Nolan and Roll20 staff towards users, because I’ve had my own negative encounters with them.
In August of 2017 D&D Beyond announced they were finally out of Beta, and about to launch their digital version of the D&D Player’s Handbook (PHB). For those unfamiliar, D&D Beyond is a web site (and accompanying app) from the development team at Curse, which is part of Twitch, which is owned by Amazon. D&D Beyond is partnered with Wizards of the Coast, and provides digital format versions of the D&D 5th Edition books and adventures. These digital versions are fully indexed and searchable, cross-linked, and more. There is also a very robust character builder, and an app for reading your books offline. It is a great service, and well worth the cost (Yes, you have to pay for these digital versions).
By comparison, after years of waiting, Roll20 still did not have a digital version of the PHB to use with their service, despite having digital versions of the Monster Manual and official adventures. Fantasy Grounds (their main competitor) had a digital version of the PHB integrated with their VTT for a couple of years at least. I had been asking Roll20 for a long time via twitter and the forums when we would see a Roll20 PHB with only canned responses about “the future”, but now here we were on the eve of D&D Beyond (and also of GenCon 2017). D&D Beyond was offering an amazing deal. If I bought the PHB from them that weekend I could get it for only $19.99! After the weekend was up, the sale was over, and the price would be $29.99.
My preference was to buy a digital PHB from Roll20, since that was where I played my games and had put so much effort into setting up PCs, NPCs, and monsters, but Roll20 had no digital PHB, so I tried to contact Roll20 to ask if there were plans to bring out a digital PHB for Roll20.
On August 16th, 2017, I tweeted at Suzanne Wallace who was at the time the official PR person for Roll20 (she has since left) and asked her if I should buy from D&D Beyond, or if I could expect something from Roll20. I got no response, and after waiting till the next day I asked again.
On the 18th of August I tweeted at Suzanne and Roll20 again, letting them know that, after two days with no response, and since D&D Beyond’s sale was ending Monday, I had decided to spend my money with D&D beyond, rather than with Roll20. I also posted to the Roll20 forums letting them know I was trying to get answers but was not hearing back from their official PR person on Twitter.
I also then tweeted directly to Nolan T Jones to ask him, and to complain that Roll20 staff wouldn’t answer. His reply was “I doubt our staff “won’t” answer; we’re busy with Gen Con. And we’ve consistently said we’re working on how we can present a PHB…” This frustrated me. It seems to me that being at GenCon is no reason not to answer. I know GenCon is a busy time, but a new competitor is launching something you’ve not had for years, at a huge discount. Your team should be answering questions about this for the exact reason I gave in my tweet to them… I would rather spend my money with them, but needed info to make my decision. I couldn’t be the only one.
I replied to him and suggested that (in my opinion) if their staff had time to tweet out photos of their dessert, surely they had time to answer my question, even if the answer was “sorry, no info at the moment”. That’s when Nolan got snarky.
Now I get that Nolan feels he needs to defend his staff from criticism, but while my post might have seemed sarcastic or petty to some, it certainly wasn’t offensive or threatening, and frankly I stand by what I said. Suzanne was their official PR person. She could have responded to my tweet with very little effort. Nolan’s reply, though, was to write me off, rudely, as a customer of Roll20. That’s not how you speak to customers.
He then followed up that “…we don’t have a timeline as our plans are ambitious.” Given that two main competitors had the PHB and they didn’t (at the time, they now have recently launched their own PHB) it was too little, too late.
Meanwhile on the Roll20 forums, I had posted my question about plans for a PHB and my inability to get a response from Suzzane or other staff via Twitter. The response from “Mel” the production coordinator was:
The team is currently at Gen Con, hence the slow response.
We have not announced our plans for the PHB or other books at this time because the team is dedicated to making them more than just a Compendium expansion.
I understand your frustration at a lack of a timeframe. There has been a lot of hiring here at Roll20 the past few months, which means more folks to work on these really exciting features. However, we will not promise features and dates without knowing we can integrate them well into Roll20.
I hope that helps and you can expect more timely responses after Monday when the team is home.
I thanked her for the response, but lamented that Monday would be too late. Mel subsequently locked the thread, stating the question had been answered, which brings up one of the other frustrations with Roll20, that mods routinely lock threads because they have decided there is no more need for discussion. THAT is arrogant, in my opinion. If there is no abuse happening in the thread, then it doesn’t hurt anyone to keep it unlocked, but mods lock threads like this, ending discussion. If you try to start a new thread to continue the discussion, you’ll get locked and maybe banned. This is insulting.
Now, I know some will criticize me, and say that I was getting “worked up over nothing” and it wasn’t worth getting angry. They may suggest I was being whiny, and “entitled”, that I was just upset because I wanted something I couldn’t have. I understand that criticism because on the surface it can appear that way, especially against the much more important issues in the world. Complaining that someone won’t answer my question about a game, compared to something important like Black Lives Matter seems petty.
Okay, maybe it is, but we live in a consumer society, and Roll20 is a company selling a product. No, they are not obligated to answer my questions at all. I get that. On the other hand, customer service can sometimes be the thing that determines the success of a company, if it weren’t we wouldn’t routinely see news reports about companies (especially airlines it seems) with the worst customer service. Admit it, if you received poor or outright insulting customer service from a company, you wouldn’t want to do business with them either. Roll20’s customer service, and the actions of mods against users, has been routinely bad, and in some cases, downright insulting. It’s the reason the issue of the reddit user we spoke about earlier happened, and culminated in Roll20 subscribers and creators leaving the platform.
But, are they racist?
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s finally discuss the “racism and sexism” accusations.
My initial reaction when I saw the “drama” happening on Twitter, and then watching Andrew and Cody’s videos, was to feel a bit smug. Oh yeah, I though, Nolan screwed up big time now, and will get what’s coming to him. As I watched the videos, however, and let it all sink in, something felt “off”. Let me say up front, I do consider myself a “social justice warrior”. I know it gets used as a slur, but come on, how can you not want social justice? Do you want the opposite? Do you prefer social injustice?
The first inkling I had that something was off, was when Cody referred to a known Anti-SJW YouTuber who often rails against Wizards of the Coast for what he sees as a political and social “agenda” in their games. This person has apparently been banned by Wizard of the Coast. Cody was saying that, while he felt this other YouTuber went about it the wrong way, he, Cody, believed this person was “right some of the time”, and Cody had considered reaching out to tell this person about what happened with Nolan. That was when it started to bug me. Why is he agreeing with someone who has allegedly said racist things, and who is apparently “anti-SJW”? I am not sure what he intended because he only alludes to it in his video, and he does say that he supports diversity in gaming, but it gave me an impression of the issue that seemed to be shared by those who are against such diversity.
Now Cody and Andrew, and many of their followers, are claiming that what Nolan did is racism and sexism. I see lots of people in this discussion repeating a mantra that goes “Get woke, go broke” and it tells me that, whether they intended it or not, Cody and Andrew have signaled to the racists, the sexists, the misogynists, the incels, and the anti-SJWs. That tells me that my intuition that something was “off” with these claims had some merit to it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was beyond that general feeling.
Was Nolan’s declaration racist or sexist? By a very strict definition of racism and sexism, (which seems to be what Cody and Andrew are going by) then it seems to be those things. Simply put, Nolan declined to work with them because of their skin colour and their gender/sex.
But then Jim Davis of WebDM took a moment from his vacation to give his side of the story, since Cody had specifically indicated he was a witness to what happened, and, in Cody’s opinion, a victim as well. Jim’s tweets put everything I was feeling in to perspective, and helped me come to my decision to stick with Roll20… for now. Jim’s position was…
…we were not discriminated against, victims of racism or sexism… To say that we were discriminated against is to misrepresent the meeting and we were not entitled to anything… we weren’t denied something due to our race or gender that we would otherwise be entitled to or have a right to… Something that wasn’t vital to our existence or kept out of our reach due to systemic injustice.
I am selectively quoting for brevity, and to get to the heart of Jim’s message, but you can read the entire exchange on twitter, and I suggest you do.
My interpretation of Jim’s tweets, and larger message I believe he was getting at is that there is a larger type of racism and sexism that we know about, that we have been talking about, and which has given rise to the type of social justice that Cody alluded to when mentioning the banned YouTuber he was shocked to realize he agreed with on some level. Systemic Racism and Sexism. The sort of racism and sexism that becomes part of the larger system of laws, government, hiring practices, economics, and social philosophies. This is the racism and sexism that has kept people of colour, members of the LGBTQ community, and women, oppressed for centuries, and which we now see society trying to address with movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. The type of racism and sexism that leads to the white, male entitlement we have begun to realize and decry. For the record, I am a white male in my fourties. I had not thought about the entitlement I enjoy until it became part of the discussion and I realized it exists, and whether I want to or not, I benefit from it. I can’t not benefit from it.
While, strictly speaking, Cody, Andrew, Jim and the others in their group may have experienced literal racism and sexism from Nolan, they did not suffer the sort of real racism and sexism that hurts people. As Jim points out in his tweets, they were not entitled to work with Roll20, nor was Nolan’s refusal to work with them (regardless of the reason) damaging to them. Would it have been different if Nolan had said that to women or people of colour, or someone from the LGBTQ community? Yes. Completely yes. Those members of society have been oppressed by systemic racism and sexism and bigotry that wants to hurt them.
Why I’m staying with Roll20… for now.
So, my position is this: Nolan T Jones is a rude jerk. He could have handled the situation with more tact and aplomb. He could have just said something like “Not at this time, our budget is limited and we are looking to help bring some more diversity to the scene.” That sentence accomplishes the same thing. It says no, and explains that the reason why is a desire to help increase diversity in an industry that needs it, and if you understand why wording it that way isn’t racist or sexist, then you understand why they weren’t really discriminated against the way minority groups and women have been.
I strongly believe that Nolan T Jones either needs to stop talking to people about Roll20 and let trained PR and customer service staff deal with it, or he desperately needs to get some PR training if he’s going to continue being an official voice for his company. The moderator staff of Roll20 also needs to stop being so heavy-handed in their dealing with members of the forums. They need to stop censoring dissent and criticism. I understand that as a private company they are not required to. This is not a first amendment issue. But from a purely PR/marketing stance, they give the appearance of believe their customers are “beneath” them, and unworthy of their time and consideration.
For now, I will keep my Roll20 account. The Roll20 mods have been removed from the sub-reddit, and at last count Nolan has about the second-most down-voted comment in all of Reddit history for his “not-pology”. My hope is that these events and the public reaction to them, will finally give Nolan and the Roll20 staff pause to reconsider their actions, their message, and how they communicate with their customers. If, however, they don’t learn from these mistakes, if the rudeness and authoritarian (yes, I went there) behaviour continues, I will move my games to another provider, one who values me.