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by Mike on 10 October 2022
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I went from running D&D exclusively in person to running D&D exclusively online for more than two years. Though the circumstances are terrible, this was an opportunity to re-learn how to run D&D games — this time online — and I found it tremendously valuable.
I wrote a few articles one these experiences including:
I also took to Twitter to see what other DMs learned.
Today, with more than one hundred online games under my belt, I wanted to share my experiences running D&D games online.
Digital distractions abound and not being in front of other people makes it easy to stray away from the game. The whole internet is one tab away and that's hard to compete with. I definitely notice, both as a player and a DM, how easy it is to get distracted from the game.
It takes work on the part of the DM to keep players engaged. Calling on individual players for questions instead of dropping general questions to the whole group helps. So does reiterating the current situation in the game. Don't shame players who get distracted. Summarize what's going on and ask them how they want their characters to respond.
Voice lag over the internet definitely causes a social change in how we talk to one another. Even sub-second delays can make it sound like everyone's talking over one another or no one wants to talk at all. Ginny Di offers excellent suggestions for dealing with this social communication change and I touch on the topic in my article, Call on Individual Players During Online D&D Games.
I became so spoiled with the ease of sharing portraits of NPCs, images of events, and maps of locations online that it made me question how we ever managed to do it in physical play. The idea of hand-drawing maps after spending two years dropping Dyson maps into Owlbear Rodeo feels like the difference of writing out a novel long-hand and typing one up in a word processor.
I'm not done with physical maps or terrain at a physical table but I sure look at the problem differently now that I've had two years doing it easily online.
I've definitely had better attendance at games, both as a DM and as a player, with online play. This comes as little surprise. Committing to three or four hours in front of a computer in our own home is much easier than committing to a drive across town. Online D&D fits better into many peoples' lives than in-person play. I'm not abandoning in person play, but playing online definitely became a regular way I play D&D from now on.
I've had the great joy of playing in D&D games run by Ennie-award-winning DM Paul Gabat multiple times — a DM who lives in the Phillipines. During 2021, one of the players I used to play with in person moved half-way across the country yet we still continue to play weekly. I've attended multiple gaming conventions, playing as many games as I used to play in person, without leaving the comfort of my own home.
Playing games online immeasurably improves your access to players and DMs. Instead of only being able to play with people within five to ten miles, you can literally play with anyone on earth. Being comfortable playing D&D online exponentially improves your access to players and games.
I find lazy DM prep easily fits online play. The stack of tools I use (Discord, Notion, D&D Beyond, and Owlbear Rodeo) are easy to prepare and easy to run during the game. This isn't true for everyone. For those spending a lot of time tinkering with maps, lighting, tokens, and integrations in thick VTTs like Roll20 or Foundry, prep time is still an issue. I've heard DMs say that it takes them about 1.5x as long as a session to prepare a game. For me it's about 30 to 60 minutes for three hours of gameplay.
We each decide how much time we spend on prep and where we spend that time. If setting up custom maps with dynamic lighting is important enough to you to spend the time doing it, go with the gods. If you're looking to speed up you're prep, there are ways.
Digital tools, products, and assets offer a tremendous value to DMs running games online. If I want four balor miniatures, I'd have to pay about $180 on the miniature market. Four balor tokens for my virtual tabletop? Essentially free. Hell, forty balor miniatures are basically free.
Searching the internet for an image and then banging out a token with Token Stamp is fast, free, and extremely powerful. It's fast enough that I can do it during my game for improvised situations.
Even with a tremendous heirloom-level collection of physical miniatures, I still struggle to find the right miniature for the right situation in a physical game. In an online game, I can build a token for any monster in under a minute (I actually timed myself).
The same is true for maps. Getting a full color map of Loomlurch from Wild Beyond the Witchlight would run like $50 for a full-sized color map. Online I can grab the map from the D&D Beyond version of the adventure and throw it into Owlbear Rodeo in no time at all. Yes, the adventures run about $30 on D&D Beyond, which isn't nothing, but $30 for every map in the adventure is pretty cheap. Third-party versions of maps are often far cheaper.
There are many options for digital tools we can use for our online games. There's a plethora of different virtual tabletops with different features, sources, and levels of complexity. There are tons of sources for online maps, music, visuals, and sound effects.
As DMs, we must be selective about which tools we choose to add to our toolbox. Some offer a wonderful experience for us and our players — often at the cost of time spent preparing.
Seek those tools offering the most fun for you and your players.
As much as I love running D&D games online, I desperately missed my in-person games. I've only recently returned to playing games in person and I still much prefer it. The first time my friends gathered around the table laughing, eating chips, rolling dice, and enjoying the game — I almost cried. I was so grateful to have them back at my table again and, whenever possible, I try to run my games in person.
That said, running games online offers me a powerful alternative and wonderful option I have no intention of ever stepping away from.
Over the past two years I've come to the following stack of software which I regularly use and love.
I'll give an honorable mention to Above VTT, a Chrome plugin that lets you run a full virtual tabletop atop D&D Beyond. If you're running official modules in D&D beyond, its fantastic. I've not fully incorporated it into my stack because I'm just comfortable with Discord and Owlbear, but it's a fantastic option and worth checking out.
I can't think of what it would have been like not to play D&D over the past two years. As terrible as the last two years have been for many of us, having the options to play D&D online not only made it bearable but showed me an entirely new way to play the game — one I plan to use for the rest of my life.
Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:
Every week on the Lazy D&D Talk Show I answers D&D-related questions from the Sly Flourish Patreon. You too can join in the conversation by becoming a Patreon of Sly Flourish.
Last week's questions and answers came out in two videos with links to each question below:
Every week I write down seven tips I learned in the last game I ran. Here are this week's D&D tips.
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