How many Players Handbooks does it take to change a lightbulb? To be honest, I couldn’t tell you; I’ve got three 5th edition PHB versions and no lightbulbs have yet changed. Let me explain…

Over the last year or so, my newly awakened Dungeons & Dragons passion has slowly eased into digital age. It’s been a joy discovering the many fantastic tools and websites that are now available to players and dungeon masters alike. The sheer volume of material available is gloriously overwhelming.

But hidden among this glory is a degree of frustration. I’ve now paid for the 5th edition Player’s Handbook three times! And this vexes me.

The hardback book came first, out of habit. You can’t beat a solid, weighty tome for that sense of ownership and value. A generous player later donated/loaned me a number of other 5th edition books (MM, SCAG, VGtM, MToF), which was more than enough to get our campaign underway.

Then came the D&D Beyond digital version of the Player’s Handbook, which I found to be a far more convenient way to access the information to support online play. The interface is slick, nicely presented and very smartphone friendly.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my players to embrace using it, largely because character creation felt restrictive unless you’d spent a fortune on rebuying all of the character creation content scattered across several tomes.

Additionally, as we were already using Roll20 for our online sessions, my players didn’t much care for having to switch between the two platforms for information.

So my D&D Beyond investment was reduced to a DM’s reference tool. Over the following months, I purchased the Dungeon Master’s Guide and some official campaign material which, in conjunction with the Forgotten Realms wiki, has become the mainstay of my game session preparation. I felt it was a shame the D&D Beyond service didn’t have a virtual tabletop component like Roll20, or at least some kind of cross-compatibility, but I was content to do the cross-platform admin as part of my game prep.

Enter the Charactermancer

However, Roll20‘s recent upgrade to include a character creation tool, the Charactermancer, suddenly awakened me to the prospect of Roll20 evolving into the catch-all solution I’d hoped for. A short tinker with it made me realise that, like D&D Beyond, it was frustratingly restrictive without the content, so I took a punt and bought Roll20’s edition of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook.

I was pleased to discover it works really well, taking a logical step-by-step approach to character creation and levelling up, dropping the character sheet straight onto the virtual tabletop, completed and ready to go. And it doesn’t take much longer to make a 10th level character than a 1st level one.

I wondered how the two character creators compared.

To be fair, it’s been a while since I used D&D Beyond for character creation and I know there’s been an update. So for curiosity and posterity, I decided to try creating two identical characters concurrently on both platforms.

Here’s how it went:

Roll20 versus D&D Beyond

  • Step-by-Step Character Creation

Both character creation systems cite a step-by-step process which Roll20 claims ‘makes building a character simple and streamlined’.

D&D Beyond offers several options at this stage, but I’ll explore the quick build and randomize options later. For now, we’ll go with Standard with help text on.

  • Getting Started

The next click had very different results. Roll20’s Charactermancer took me straight into choosing a race, whereas D&D Beyond gave me a host of customisation options.

While Roll20 waited patiently, I adjusted D&D Beyond’s settings to fit our campaign: Advancement Type from the default Milestone to XP, Hit Point Type from Fixed to Manual, and Encumbrance Type from Use Encumbrance to Variant Encumbrance. In Roll20, I know the encumbrance is handled elsewhere in the virtual tabletop. I’m not certain about the others.

  • Choosing a race

The more polished presentation and matured development of D&D Beyond starts to become evident here, with subraces available in dropdowns, whereas Roll20 handles these choices a little later. I note that the Aasimar race and Eladrin Elf subrace are both available on D&D Beyond, but are absent on Roll20.

Beyond’s random name generator had decided we were called Bellenura, who sounds like a slightly edgy halfing to me, so let’s go with that on both platforms.

  • Subrace

The two platforms handle subrace choice very differently. Roll20 has you choose a race, then presents you with the universal racial details and the relevant PHB excerpt in a sidebar, whereas Beyond has you choose the subrace from the outset and provided the details in a pop-up window.

Personally, I found Roll20’s presentation clearer and easier to navigate at this point. I opted for a stout halfling.

  • Class/Review

Once again my attempts to compare like for like were confounded by Roll20’s eagerness to plow straight on to the next step, while Beyond provides the opportunity to review.

This is really a matter of taste, I suppose; it feels like Beyond is really savouring the creation process, whereas Roll20 wants it done so we can get on with the show.

  • Choosing a class

D&D Beyond is again the more visually striking (notwithstanding Roll20’s use of PHB artwork), but both are functional. I was thinking Bellenura the stout halfing ought to be a rogue, but I wanted to see how spells are handled so maybe I’ll go for one of the mage types.

  • Class details: Sorcerer

Not being that familiar with the distinction between the 5th edition spellflingers, I select Sorcerer first. Roll20 helpfully provides me with flavour text alongside the basic class details. Beyond keeps it simple. The flavour text wins me over to Sorcerer, given that it describes a halfling using stealth and spells together. Sold.

  • Proficiencies

Choosing proficiencies and Bellenura’s Sorcerous Origin takes place on a single page for both systems, with Beyond highlighting where player choices are required with a blue/white exclamation mark.

Roll20 developed an odd bug at this point, repeating its request to choose two class-based skill proficiencies. In the interests of playtesting to destruction, I chose two additional ones on Roll20, then selected the Wild Magic origin on both platforms…

  • Sorcerous Origin & (Beyond) Spells

…in doing so, both pages were populated with additional information.

I also noticed that the D&D Beyond layout featured a low profile, greyed-out dropdown option to choose spells which, when selected, opened out into a whole host of new options. I nearly missed that.

So while Beyond has me choosing my spells now, looking at Roll20’s progress bar at the top of its page, it’ll be a while before I do that in Roll20 (which is the norm, right? Is now the time to be choosing spells, before I’ve even rolled attributes or chosen a background?). In any case, Beyond’s spell selection process was simple and clear.

  • Ability Scores

Finally, we get to the all important dice rolling bit!

Both systems offer the same options: standard array (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8), point buy (27 points), and manually rolling for stats. D&D Beyond doesn’t do RNG so I’ll generate and allocate the scores in Roll20 then manually copy them across to Beyond.

Roll20’s suggested abilities and class spellcasting ability reminders in the top bar were helpful. Beyond has more customisation though.

  • Background

Bellenura’s edginess (as well as her stealth-related skills and spells) leant themselves well to the burglar background. For Roll20, this was a straightforward case of choosing from dropdowns or, in the case of personality traits etc. the option of determining randomly.

At this point, D&D Beyond pretty much presented me with fields for everything that hadn’t yet been done; character details like alignment, faith, lifestyle,as well as appearance and backstory. This makes sense off the back of choosing a background. I note that, while Beyond prompted me to choose skill proficiencies (stealth and one other), Roll20 didn’t. I assume this is because I chose too many earlier. Oops.

  • Equipment

Both platforms offered a choice of equipment or gold. For brevity’s sake, I opted for the out-of-the-box class options. Irritatingly, Roll20 didn’t have any simple way of showing me what was included in the offered Dungeoneer’s and Explorer’s packs.

Completing this page showed D&D Beyond’s tendency to review and procrastinate in a good light, giving me a chance to assess my equipment.

  • Does this spell the end?

Roll20 never really clarified what equipment Bellenura ended up with, instead rushing on to choose spells. D&D Beyond, however, declared that we were done. I chose the spells I’d opted for earlier in the Beyond process (aside from one which didn’t appear – I suspect that was a spell from a non-PHB source, which I thought I’d opted out of. Oh well.)

  • Roll20 rolls onto Feats…

The feats page appeared for Roll20, ready for the levelling up process, but it pithily pointed out I hadn’t really done much yet to earn any.

  • … then character details

Then we moved onto the character details D&D Beyond had bundled in with the Background section earlier.

  • Final review

Roll20 finally presents you with a review page which is curiously light on detail. No clarity on my equipment was a notable omission. It did point out I’d missed choosing an alignment. How did I manage that? No doubt I’ll see it when I review the screenshots. Fortunately I was able to click on the ‘start’ button on the tracker along the top of the page and located the dropdown I missed (it was under ‘race’). I’m relieved to say that no details were lost in doing so and I was able to return to the review page to complete the character.

Unfortunately, this was also the point at which the ‘Building your character’ progress bar freezes for me, but I’ve figured out this seems to be an issue related to using a popout window rather than remaining on the Roll20 virtual tabletop environment.

I resolved it by closing the popout and finalising the process from an embedded pane.

Behold, the character sheets!

With all details completed in both systems, the character sheet’s sprung forth.

In D&D beyond’s case, there is an option for a four page PDF (page one shown) …

… but the main event is the interactive and customisable character sheet which is impressively slick and full featured.

It is also supported by a very tidy and usable smartphone interface.

I presume, therefore, that the same is true of tablets, which I would imagine would make perfect portable D&D Beyond character sheets for the real-world tabletop environment.

Like Beyond’s PDF, Roll20’s character sheet stays true to the original pen-and-paper character sheet.

It isn’t as pretty as D&D Beyond, but what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in functionality. Linked directly into its virtual tabletop, clicking any ability, proficiency, attack or other element prompts an appropriate virtual die roll.

The Charactermancer has still got a few kinks to shake out, but it works. And it is a welcome improvement to our online D&D experience.

Final Thoughts

The purpose of this comparison was to help me decide where to direct my future digital purchases. It might not make much sense to own a hardcopy and a digital copy of each D&D book, but it certainly makes zero sense to have multiple digital copies.

All things considered, I think my players have already decided for me. As much as I support the D&D Beyond project and think it’s a fantastic product, if it’s of less use to my players than an equivalent product that is integrated into the virtual environment that ties our game sessions together, then there is little point in be investing further in it.

That said, if our group were ever to decide to meet around an actual table, then I would absolutely push the D&D Beyond solution.

For now though, as Roll20 adopts more official Wizards of the Coast products, I’ll likely buy them if it will directly impact our virtual quality of life. I understand Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is already in the works and is certainly on my ‘to buy’ list in some format, and I would very much like to see a Roll20 Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.

Until then, I will nurture my dead tree editions. Except Xanathar’s, which I still need.

I suppose I’d better go change that lightbulb now. Remember the lightbulb?