by Mike Shea on 23 March 2020
Many of us currently find ourselves stuck at home and unable to play our in-person D&D games. If we want to keep playing D&D, we have to move our games online. While it may be harder for us to get our gaming groups together, it has never been more critical. Getting together with our friends and family to relax, enjoy ourselves, and share in some stories of high fantasy may be crucial to our mental health while stuck at home.
Many DMs have been playing games online for years and the rest of us can learn from their experiences. James Introcaso and I, for example, talked about his top tips for running D&D on Roll20 on a previous episode of the DM's Deep Dive. More recently Todd Kendrick talked to Lauren Urban about playing D&D online.
Running online games isn't a specialty of mine so I asked for feedback in this Twitter thread. The feedback I received helps support the ideas in the rest of this article. Let's look at some tools and tips for running D&D online.
All we need to play D&D online is a tool to let us chat with our friends. There are many such tools used by D&D groups online including Discord, Skype, Zoom, and Google Hangouts. We need no other online tools. While playing, we can use all the physical stuff we typically use to play D&D at the table including books, character sheets, and dice. We don't even need a computer. A phone with one of the above audio chat programs works just fine.
Let players roll their own dice on their own table if they want to. Trust them. As a DM, we can use our own books, dice, and physical notes to run our game just as we would in a physical game. Write things down on paper if you want. Use 3x5 cards to keep track of initiative, character names, or just about anything else you need.
Beyond a way to talk online, we don't need anything else to play D&D online.
Most text and voice chat programs have a way to share images. Discord, for example, lets you drop images right into the text channel for your server. This works well for pictures of NPCs, handouts, artwork, and other visuals. For maps, you can cut and paste the relevant parts of a map and share it as an individual image. Load up the map on your computer, screen grab the relevant portion, and paste it into the chat window so everyone can see what the area looks like around their characters. This works for both exploration of a location or for visualizing a combat location.
Some DMs have had success using Google Drawings to share multi-layered images with their players. Drop in the map and draw some shapes over it to act as a fog of war. As the characters explore you can move the fog of war around and reveal what they can see. Because it's a shared image, the players can move their tokens around as well. This works well if the players are using desktop or laptop computers but probably won't work if they're on a tablet or phone. Instead, consider capturing the relevant parts of a map and sharing them as images in your chat program.
Other DMs have had success using layered image software like Photoshop or Gimp to act as a local virtual tabletop. You can use image layers for the map, fog of war, and tokens. You can erase the fog of war layer to reveal the map and move the tokens around to represent the positions of both characters and monsters. This requires that the DM moves the tokens around, which isn't ideal, but the whole view can be shared over the screen sharing function of most chat programs or the "broadcast" feature of Discord and is more compatible with those on phones or tablets.
For tokens, you can use Game-Icons.net for excellent generic monster and hero tokens or generate your own tokens using art from the web and Token Stamp from Roll Advantage. The Avrae Discord bot, a wonderful D&D-focused bot for Discord, lets you pull up monster tokens for SRD monsters with the "!token otyugh" command. And, of course, for maps, we have the nearly 1,000 Dyson Logo maps, all perfect for digital play.
For a simple single-app solution to play online, I recommend Discord. It's free, well supported in the D&D community, and available on the PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. The voice chat is relatively solid although drops do occur. The best way to fix consistent drops is to disconnect and reconnect to the voice channel.
The Avrae Discord bot is a wonderful way to integrate D&D Beyond into Discord. This full-featured bot includes initiative tracking; spell, monster, and ability lookups; token lookups; character sheet integration; and dice rolling. You need not use all of it, though. Using it as just a dice roller works perfectly fine, as does using it to quickly look up monster statistics. Some players can use it fully with their D&D Beyond character fully integrated while others can skip it entirely and both methods work just fine in the same group. You and your players can choose as much of it or as little of it as you want.
For visuals we can drop in pictures of NPCs, handouts, pieces of maps, battlemap images, and any other images into the text chat so players can follow along visually. Using Discord to play D&D is probably one of the easiest ways to play D&D online.
The list of tools to expand your online D&D game is nearly endless. I'll just touch on a few of the more popular ones here.
Roll20. Roll20 is a well-known and well-received web-based tool for running roleplaying games online. It has a built-in 5e D&D character sheet. Purchasable add-ons give you all of the material in the D&D core books. Getting started is free, includes the D&D basic rules, and a free adventure called The Master's Vault written by James Introcaso. Roll20 has a high learning curve and a lot of features to dig into. If you and your players are willing to give it the time to learn, it can bring the full tabletop experience to your online game.
D&D Beyond. The number one online tool for building D&D characters and online access to digital D&D sourcebooks, D&D Beyond goes hand-in-hand with online play. Players can build their characters and share them with the DM. It's integration into Discord through the Avrae Discord bot is very powerful. A popular Chrome extension integrates D&D Beyond with Roll20. None of this is needed to play D&D online but some groups might enjoy the technology integration.
Fantasy Grounds. A very popular shared tabletop application for RPGs, Fantasy Grounds is a paid application for your desktop or laptop. Like Roll20 it has all the D&D books available for purchase and integrated into the application. Like Roll20's integrated book licenses, these don't share across systems so if you start buying books for one application, you'll likely want to stick to that application. The more recent Fantasy Grounds Unity has a free version able to play in games and monthly paid versions to host games. It's client-focused nature means it tends to run smoother than web-based applications who are limited by the nature of the different web browsers we use.
For a more detailed look into these tools, check out Roleplaying Tips on Moving Your RPG Campaign Online and RPG Musing's List of Online RPG Tools
Many DMs use a mixture of Discord for audio and video chat with Roll20 for the virtual tabletop. Some groups leave the dice rolling and text chat to Discord while others move the dice rolling and text chat to Roll20. Feedback suggests that the audio and video quality of Discord is superior that within Roll20; enough that it's worth having it as a secondary system to carry the load of audio and video chat.
This pairing works well for technically savvy DMs and players who have good desktop and laptop computers to play from. It doesn't work well for those who are using a phone or tablet to play. For them, sharing the DM's screen for maps and visuals through Discord's "broadcast" feature or sticking to pure audio and theater of the mind play likely works best. You and your group will have to decide what setup works best for your group.
This is a hard lesson but an important one. Running with six players is hard for in-person games and even harder online. The latency of online services means people will often talk over one another. The more players you have, the worse this problem can get. A simple but hard way to deal with it is have fewer players. Playing with four, three, two, or even one player can go a long way to help you streamline an online game. If you have a lot of people who want to play, try splitting them up into separate groups even if they're in the same campaign.
When it comes to understanding what's going on in a D&D game, players are in trouble about half the time. Playing online can make this even worse. Keep your story simple. Keep the plot simple. Keep the situations simple. Keep your combat encounters simple. Dig into the fun part of your story and focus on that. Laurin Urban recommends focusing more on the story and less on the complexity of the combat environment. We can put our focus on a different aspect of the game than tactical complexity, heresy to some I am sure, but useful for keeping things smooth while playing D&D online.
More DMs and players are beginning to accept theater of the mind play for D&D combat. For online games, running in the theater of the mind means things stay simple, fast, and fun. You don't need anything but an audio connection with your players to run a full game of D&D if you're willing to run combat in the theater of the mind.
Running combat in the theater of the mind goes hand-in-hand with running with fewer players. The fewer players there are, the easier it is to understand what's going on when we're describing a battle. The fewer characters, the fewer monsters. The whole situation becomes simpler, easier to understand, and easier to visualize.
Playing online is different than playing in person and we need new rules of table etiquette to account for it. Discuss these with your players early and often to make your games run well for everyone.
Take extra time for tech support. When you bring four to six people online to play D&D, someone's going to have trouble with their setup. Getting all of the audio working, both in and out, is tricky. Different systems, different software, different setups; all of these complicate getting connected. When you bring in a handful of people to play online someone will have a problem.
Ask your players to come early to get set up or, better yet, set up an individual session with each of them ahead of time to make sure everything is working. Even then it may work at one time but not another so be patient and be prepared to help them out or have another player help them out. When in doubt, call them on the phone and walk them through any problems they might have.
Mute audio between turns. If you have more than a couple of players you may want them to mute their mics between turns. Latency and drop-outs can break up the smooth stream of conversation so muting mics can help prevent interruptions at the wrong time. If it gets really bad you can use the text channel to have people queue up with questions so when you're done with your (hopefully short) narrative you can go through the list of folks who have questions.
Shine the spotlight equally. When you don't have the players there in front of you it can be hard to ensure you're giving each player their due attention. This can get exasperated if some of your players are more active (and loud) than others. You'll want to pay special attention to ensure you're giving each player their due time. You might go so far as to keep them in initiative order throughout the whole game and keep going through the list to see what they will do in any given circumstances. Let players know you'll be cutting them off to bring other players in when their turn is up.
Use webcams to increase engagement. Many online DMs mentioned the value of using webcams. Not only do they help keep people more physically connected to one another but they help players to stay engaged with the game itself. Without a camera it's easy to alt-tab over and check the news. No one wants to do that.
Use headphones. Some camera and mic setups are sophisticated enough to avoid feeding audio back into the mic but many are not and even the good ones screw it up from time to time. Ask your players to wear headphones when they play. Mention it before the game so everyone's prepared.
When we find ourselves unable to get together in person to play D&D, it's worth the effort to play online. I'd say it's important. Socializing with other people is a critical component of our health. Playing D&D online takes work but we need nothing more than a good audio chat program to continue to share fantastic stories with our friends and loved ones.
If you haven't tried playing D&D online or are not comfortable doing so, give it another try. In these days of social distancing it is ever more important to our health and well being to take the opportunities we can to play games with our friends. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and have some fun playing D&D online.