New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

Playing D&D Over Discord

by Mike on 30 March 2020

Updated 9 Feburary 2021

In these times of social distancing, it becomes even more important for us to connect and spend time with family and friends. There is no better way to do that than playing D&D. D&D gives us the excuse to get together, be with one another, and share stories of high fantasy, even if we can't be together physically. Playing D&D is important. It can save lives.

There are many ways to play D&D online. Today we'll focus on one single-tool approach: playing D&D over Discord.

If you prefer a video, here's my Youtube video on playing D&D on Discord.

Summary for Running D&D over Discord

Why Discord?

With so many solutions out there, why choose Discord as our platform for playing D&D online? Here are a few reasons:

This article isn't intended to convince you to use a different stack of software than you already use to play D&D. All that matters is that you're playing D&D, whatever tools you use. Don't take this article as a slight on other solutions. If you love Roll 20, Fantasy Grounds, Foundry or other VTTs; go with the Gods.

I'm focusing on Discord not to convince anyone to switch from another system but to help those who seek what I've found to be the easiest way to play D&D online.

Setting Up Discord to Play D&D

In order play D&D on Discord you'll have to do the following things. These steps are intended for the DM.

There are a number of tutorial videos and help articles on the web to help you get set up if you have trouble. Otherwise, once set up, you now have to get your players onto Discord as well. Here are some steps for getting your players on Discord.

To make things easier, I've created this Discord D&D game template. You can use this template to set up your own D&D discord server based on my preferred setup. It includes channels, permissions, and roles suited for running a D&D game integrated with Avrae. I'll talk more about Avrae in a bit.

When your game is actually running, make sure to tell your players to either mute their microphones when it isn't their turn or use "push to talk". This prevents players from talking over one another which can be a problem for online play. It also prevents heavy breathing or speaker feedback taking over the voice channel when someone isn't talking. It's a huge help.

Sharing Visuals in a "Maps and Handouts" Text Channel

While much of our D&D game can happen over voice chat, we can also drop images into Discord for pictures of NPCs, locations, handouts, maps, and parts of maps. You can add an image to the chat channel by dragging and dropping it into the channel, pasting from your clipboard, or uploading it directly by clicking the + button near the chat box. I recommend setting up a "maps and handouts" text channel on your D&D Discord server and then locking down write permissions to just the DM so only you can add new images to it but your players can see it.

Running Augmented Theater of the Mind with Screenshot Maps

I'm a big fan of theater of the mind combat and this style of combat shows great value when running D&D online. Programs like Roll20 let you run tactical grid-based combat online but have a high learning curve and require full PCs or laptops for all participants.

Instead of running tactical combat, you can run a form of augmented theater of the mind by uploading screenshots of pieces of maps or pieces of maps into the "maps and handouts" channel so players can see the combat location and then ask players to describe where they are and what they're doing. Seeing a map is often a big help for players even if you don't display tokens for characters or monsters. Knowing generally what an area looks like is often enough.

This works equally well for exploring dungeons. You can take a full dungeon map (I personally love the maps over at Dysonlogos), screen capture and crop the relevant sections, and upload them to Discord as the characters explore the dungeon. A lasso-style copy and paste tool lets you clip out exactly the right portion of a map to show the players. Windows has this natively by pressing Win, Shift, and S all at the same time. The Mac has third-party applications such as Screenshot Maker that lets you use a lasso to copy a part of an image as well.

Text-Based Battle Map

Text-based battle maps are another way to give an abstract visualization of positioning in combat using just a text channel.

This method uses a simple markdown-based text list to represent relative positioning in combat, similar to a one-dimensional Final Fantasy or Darkest Dungeon style of combat representation. This text list represents the current areas in a location, the combatants in each area, damage inflicted, status effects, and relative positioning. Here's an example:

**Eastern Doorway**
Iron Mohawk Animated Armor 12
_Sabre_
Brass Animated Armor 16
_Banner_
---
**Northern Hallway**
One-eye Gnoll 4
Purple Fur Gnoll 4
_Shane_
---
**Southern Doorway**
_Arwin_
_Zarantyr_
_Shift_

Because Discord supports markdown text, this will actually render like this when we paste it into the text chat.

Eastern Doorway
Iron Mohawk Animated Armor 12
Sabre
Brass Animated Armor 16
Banner
---
Northern Hallway
One-eye Gnoll 4
Purple Fur Gnoll 4
Shane
---
Southern Doorway
Arwin
Zarantyr
Shift

Character names are italicized. Area names are bolded and define areas of roughly twenty to thirty feet square. Names within one or two slots of one another are considered within 5 feet. Line breaks between characters represent short distances of 10 to 20 feet. Three dashes "---" shows a distance of about 25 feet or so. A move is required to move from one area to another. The number next to the monster's name is the current damage that monster has taken. We can add hordes of monsters with a "25x" in front of them such as "25x Crawling Claws". We can define individual monsters by asking our players for a physical trait.

Generally speaking areas of effect can hit creatures in a defined area. Of course, DMs and players should negotiate for edge cases as we do anytime we're running theater of the mind combat.

As a DM, you can keep this text list in a text editor outside of Discord, update it, and paste it back into the text chat as the battle goes on. You can keep track of monster damage, status effects, and other changes in combat and then paste it back into the Discord text chat so they can see what's going on.

This is far from a tactical battle map but for theater of the mind combat it can help players keep track of which monsters are where and who is near them or not.

Owlbear Rodeo for a Fast and Easy VTT

If you want a simple sharable virtual tabletop without all of the bells and whistles of more advanced tools like Roll 20, consider Owlbear Rodeo. It's a pure virtual tabletop with maps, tokens, fog of war, and no cruft. It doesn't attempt to integrate the rules into the VTT and requires no user accounts to use. Just paste the URL of your battle map into Discord and everyone can join in.

Owlbear Rodeo is the easiest and fastest VTT I've used. To learn more, read my Owlbear Rodeo article or watch my Owlbear Rodeo Youtube video.

Integrating Avrae

Avrae is a Discord Bot owned by the company who runs D&D Beyond. It's an advanced dice roller and D&D Beyond integrator with tons of features. After using it for almost a year I find I use it mainly for passing dice rolls from the D&D Beyond game log and for fast initiative rolls. While the temptation is there to use lots of features of Avrae, I found most of them to be slower and more complicated than just rolling dice on the table. Still, it's a very valuable bot for the reasons I describe below.

D&D Beyond Dice Log Through Avrae

D&D Beyond now lets you connect your [campaign's dice log] to your Discord server through Avrae. This lets players use their D&D Beyond digital dice rolling and have the results show up in Discord. Here's how to connect the two:

  1. Ensure you have Avrae installed on your capaign's Discord server.
  2. Link D&D Beyond and Discord accounts in your accounts page.
  3. Check that your accounts are conected by typing "!ddb" in your Discord server once Avrae is installed.
  4. Connect your campaign's dice game log to your Discord channel by typing "!campaign CAMPAIGN_URL" in the channel where you want dice to show up where "CAMPAIGN_URL" is the URL of your D&D Beyond campaign.

At that point dice rolls from characters in that campaign should start appearing in D&D Beyond. Type "!help campaign" for more details if needed.

Avrae for Easy and Fast Initiative Rolls

Avrae has one feature I find tremendously useful on the DM's side: rolling initiative for the whole group at once. As the DM you can set up an alias in Avrae to roll initiative automatically for all characters and a default monster with a single command. This trick doesn't use or require integrated characters from D&D Beyond. Instead you set up a single alias that rolls initiative for all of the characters and a default monster at once. When you're in Discord on a server that has Avrae set up, modify the following text for each of the characters in your game and paste the whole thing in at once into the Discord chat channel:

!alias rollinit multiline
!init end
!init begin
!init add -1 Banner
!init add 3 Shane
!init add 2 Xi
!init add 3 Sabre
!init add 2 Shift
!init add 3 Zarantyr
!init add 1 Monsters
!init list

The numbers in the above are the initiative modifiers for each of the characters. Once this is done you can type "!rollinit" and it rolls initiative for all of the characters and a default monster at once. Modify the monster's initiative bonus to fit the monster you're running or add more than one monster for more complicated battles. I frankly never bother to change it.

After that it's "!init next" or the shortcut "!i n" to go from turn to turn. The Discord channel keeps the initiative in a pinned message for the channel to show people what the initiative list is whenever they want to look it up. Once combat is done, type "!init end" and confirm that combat is over.

If your players are happy to let the system roll initiative, this is much faster than just about any other method of rolling initiative.

Troubleshooting Audio Dropouts

Sometimes Discord suffers from audio dropouts during a call. For players, audio dropouts on the DM's side can be jarring, pulling them out of the fiction just as the DM is trying to draw them in. Here are a few potential ways to fix audio drop-outs from the DM:

This article on Discord describes other tips for fixing audio issues.

Discord: A Simple, Free, and Powerful Way to Play D&D Online

This article focuses on playing D&D over Discord because I found it to be a popular, free, simple, and powerful way to play D&D online. Choose whatever system you wish to help you play D&D online. If you're having trouble finding the right system and method to play D&D online or don't know where to start, hopefully this article helps you find an option with Discord. Most important is that we continue to play D&D with our friends and family. It's never been more important than it is right now.

Related Articles

New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the Sly Flourish newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon.

Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Lairs, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.