by Mike Shea on 30 March 2020
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. Playing D&D is important.
With so many solutions out there, why are we picking Discord as our platform for playing D&D online? Here are a few reasons:
I'm not trying to argue anyone out of their own favorite stack of software to play D&D. All that matters is that you're still playing D&D, whatever tools you use. Do not take this article as a slight on other wonderful solutions out there. I'm focusing on this one for the reasons above and because I found it to be the easiest way to play D&D online. Your results may vary.
Getting set up to play D&D on Discord isn't effortless but it's doable by just about anyone who can operate their phone or computer.
In order to get set up to play D&D on Discord you'll have to do the following:
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.
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 over the same audio channel. It also prevents heavy breathing or speaker feedback taking over the voice channel when someone isn't talking. It's a huge help.
Discord's wide range of clients makes it easy for players to use it on nearly any device. It also makes troubleshooting difficult if things don't work out well. Discord clients on different platforms have different interface options. When you're helping your players, you'll want to make sure you're using the same type of client they are so you know what they're going through. If they're trying to do it on a phone, you should work with them while looking at your own phone. It also helps to walk them through it over a phone call if they're having trouble getting audio set up.
When everyone's set up on Discord and able to speak and hear in the audio channel you're ready to play.
While running Discord as a DM, I sometimes had my audio drop out while talking. For players, drops on the DM's side can be jarring, pulling them out of the fiction and the narrative when 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.
While much of our D&D game can happen over voice chat, we can drop images into Discord for pictures of NPCs, locations, handouts, maps, and parts of maps. You can add an image to the chat channel either by dragging and dropping it into the channel or uploading it directly. You can upload an image regardless of the device you're using. I recommend setting up a "maps and handouts" text channel and then locking down permissions so only you can add new images to it. This way you and your players can see the whole archive of images throughout a whole campaign.
We're big fans of theater of the mind combat here at Sly Flourish and this style of combat shows its value when running D&D online. Programs like Roll20 let you run more tactical games 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 images of combat locations into the chat and then asking the players to describe where they are and what they're doing. Seeing the 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.
Once you have audio chat going, you don't need anything else to play D&D online. You and your players can play with all of the physical books, character sheets, and dice you'd normally use at a physical table. For a more advanced and integrated form of D&D in Discord you might turn to D&D Beyond and the Avrae Discord bot. D&D Beyond is the most popular online tool for managing D&D characters. Avrae (a bot now owned by D&D Beyond) helps integrate D&D Beyond with Discord. Using Avrae you can import characters, roll attacks and damage automatically, look up monsters, look up spells, look up abilities, and run initiative.
The Avrae dice roller is probably the easiest function for players to use. Tying "!roll 1d20+5" for an attack and "!roll 1d8+3" for damage is easy enough on its own without using any of the character integrations. Once integrated, though, you can type "!attack longsword" and it will roll both attacks and damage for you.
You and your players should feel free to use whatever tools you want when playing D&D online. If you or any of your players prefer to roll dice on the table, that works perfectly well. If they want to use D&D Beyond and Avrae, that works well too. Individual players can pick and choose how much they want to use Avrae in Discord and how much they just want to do on their table. Avrae has tremendous functionality if you want it and you can use as much or as little of it as you want, including none at all.
Avrae has one feature I found 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 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. Modify the monster's initiative bonus to fit the monster you're running or add more than once monster for more complicated battles.
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.
Avrae is full of crazy commands but I found rolling initiative for the whole group to be the most useful. It's particularly useful because its only on the DM side. Players don't have to do anything at all.
If you want to run more tactical combat you can use a trick a few DMs have used. You can use an image editor on your own machine; often one with image layers like Photoshop, Gimp, or something else; and use Discord's "Stream It" feature to display this to your players. You can set up a layer for the map, a layer for the fog of war, and a layer for each token, including monster tokens. Game-icons.net has some wonderful generic tokens you can use and re-use. You can also use Avrae's "!token" feature (example: "!token vampire") to display a token in Discord. You can drag and drop the icon straight into your image editor and you're all set. Copy and paste that icon a few times and you have a whole horde of vampires. You then use Discord's "Stream It" to show your desktop and the image you've created. As they describe their actions, you can represent it in the image editor and they'll see it on their end.
Using the "stream it" feature doesn't require any additional software. They can see what you're doing on your side with whatever device they're using. The disadvantage is that only the DM can move tokens around. If you want more crunchy tactical combat than this, Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds is a more popular solution. Otherwise running combat in the theater of the mind augmented with battle map pictures shared in the text channel is an easier and faster way to go.
This one definitely goes in the "nice to have" category. There's a Discord bot called Groovy that lets you stream music from a bunch of different streaming services like Youtube and Spotify to your audio channel. Once installed, it acts as another member of the audio channel and plays music to the whole group. Individual people in your audio channel can change the volume on their end, including turning it off completely, so it doesn't overblow the voices of you and your players.
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. There are other popular methods as well and you may have your favorites. 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.
Subscribe to the Sly Flourish newsletter and get the latest Sly Flourish article to your email inbox each Monday morning.
You can also support this site by supporting me on Patreon or using these links to purchase the D&D Essentials Kit, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, Dungeon Master's Guide, or metal dice from Easy Roller Dice.