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. It can save lives.
With so many solutions out there, why are we picking Discord as our platform for playing D&D online? Here are a few reasons:
This article doesn't exist to convince you to use a different stack of software than you already use. 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 particular solution for the reasons above and because I found it to be the easiest way to play D&D online. Your results may vary.
If you are a DM getting ready to play D&D over Discord, feel free to forward this article to your players to help them get set up themselves.
If you prefer a video introduction to set up Discord for D&D, check out my Playing D&D Over Discord Youtube video.
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 run D&D games on Discord you'll have to do the following. 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 discord server based on my ideal setup. It includes channels, permissions, and roles suited for running a D&D game and integrating with Avrae. More on 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. 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 tactical 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 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.
While systems like Roll20 give you and your players great control over the battlefield, you can still run a degree of tactical combat in Discord. There are a few ways to do it but we'll focus on one: sharing images of a battle map and tokens.
As mentioned, we can take screenshots of maps and paste them into the "maps and handouts" channel so our players can use them. We can also drop maps into a program like PowerPoint, Photoshop, Gimp, or Google Presentations and then drop in tokens as a separate layer. We can then use a lasso screenshot tool to capture just the part of the map the characters can see. On Windows 10, you can press Windows-Shift-S to open up the Windows screenshot tool. Select the lasso tool and capture the part of your screen that the characters can see. 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. With the image in your clipboard you can paste it right into the maps and handouts channel on Discord so your players can see it. As the battle changes, you can move your tokens around on the map and take a new screenshot.
For tokens, I am a huge fan of Printable Heroes who now has many tokens available. Search for "VTT" and you'll see them all. Black and white tokens are free while subscribing to the Printable Heroes Patreon gives you access to a wide range of color tokens. I love Printable Heroes and highly recommend supporting them on Patreon.
Here's another option to better visualize what's going on in combat—the text-based battle map. This method uses a simple text list to represent general positioning in combat, sort of like 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 general 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.
Iron Mohawk Animated Armor 12
Brass Animated Armor 16
One-eye Gnoll 4
Purple Fur Gnoll 4
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. Three dashes "---" shows a distance of about 25 feet so a move action 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".
Generally speaking areas of effect can hit creatures in an 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 in a text editor outside of discord and use it to track a battle as it goes on. You can keep track of monster damage on it and, when things change enough or its time to refresh the players, you can paste it back into the Discord text chat so they can see generally what's going on.
This obviously isn't a detailed tactical battlemap for those who prefer a battle grid but it can serve better than pure descriptions when battles get complicated.
As long as you have some way to talk to your players, you have everything you need to play D&D. 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. In May 2020, D&D Beyond added the ability to access any paid content in D&D Beyond through Avrae. You can connect Discord through D&D Beyond and get access to any material you've purchased through D&D Beyond. This is a huge improvement and makes the bot tremendously useful.
The Avrae dice roller is probably the easiest function for players to use. Typing "!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.
For the dungeon master, typing "!monster thug" will bring up the statistics for a thug in chat. You can load up monsters this way in your private "dms-channel" so you can look up monster statistics without having to leave Discord. The same works for spells, items, and more.
You can also run monster attacks directly from Discord. Type "!ma thug mace -rr 2 adv" will have a thug roll two mace attacks (the "-rr 2") with advantage (the "adv"). You can easily reskin monster attacks with the "-h" to hide attack details and "-title" to add your own flavor text. Here's an example:
!ma thug mace -rr 2 adv -h -title "An Emerald Claw mercenary smashes you with a flanged mace!"
That command reskins a thug's mace attack into an Emerald Claw mercenary's mace attack. It's rolled with advantage (the thug's pack tactics) using "adv" in the statement, "-h" hides the details of the actual attack, "-title" lets you add your own flavor text, and "-rr 2" rolls two attacks.
This seems like a lot to remember but once you remember it, you can use and reskin any monster you have access to on D&D Beyond while running D&D on Discord.
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 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. Modify the monster's initiative bonus to fit the monster you're running or add more than one 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.
Avrae is tremendously useful but it's also complicated. You and your players should feel free to use whatever tools you want to play 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 or whether they want to use it at all. 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.
Beyond20 offers another popular option for rolling dice in discord. Beyond20 is a mixture of a Google Chrome and Firefox plugin and a Discord bot. It adds dice rolling options to your D&D Beyond pages for characters and monsters and, when pressed, will print the results of the rolls in your Discord server. The Discord server owner must add the Beyond20 bot and give the bot's private key to each player. The player pastes this key into the plugin and now when they roll on Beyond20, it should show up in the Discord chat channel.
Beyond20 is under continual development. Sometimes it's buggy but many people use it and love it.
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.