Pen and Paper Adventures with Mouse and Keyboard
5e D&D and other pen and paper roleplaying games are meant to be played together around a table laden with dice and snacks. If however, you or your friends are stuck at home or far away (or are all socially isolating themselves due to a global pandemic) you’ll have to either cancel your game or find a way to make it work online. It can still be a chore to set up but we’re living in a golden age of online tools and services you can use to make that weekly game happen hell or high water (or coronavirus). Get your headsets on and login as we go through everything you need to know.
Analyze Your Game’s Needs
The first and most important step to your online gaming should be figuring out what your game needs, which has a bit more nuanced than you may think. Not all DMs and playgroups play the same way and they don’t all need the same things. A DM who relies on roleplay probably doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of gaming software, whereas a more wargaming minded DM will flounder without them.
The following list includes everything your games may require, let’s go through each one and figure out if your playgroup needs them:
- Steady Internet Connections
- Voice Chat
- Video Chat
- Online Dice Rolling
- Virtual Maps/Tabletop
Steady Internet Connections
This one is the baseline that’s pretty tough to get around. Nothing interrupts the flow like trying to get the paladin’s connection back for the fifth time in the same combat. You have a few options though if one of your players has a notoriously bad/slow setup.
If one of your players has a connection that is really slow or is generally unreliable, have a backup for them that’s solely in text form. Discord, Skype, text messages, whatever is most convenient for you. Have this text channel open so that when their shoddy connection interrupts their voice or video, you can still get their actions for a turndown and figured out in text form.
If one of your players regularly loses their internet connection entirely, you’ll need to work some outs into your campaign. Keep a copy of the player’s character sheets on hand and fabricate some sort of excuse to regularly have the character disappear. With the sheets on hand, you can still play out a missing player’s turns if they cut out in the middle of combat. If they’re out for whole sessions, your in-game reasoning can excuse the player as their magical curse/shadowy benefactors/other obligations call their character away for the session.
You can technically get away with just text messages for a lot of situations. You likely won’t be able to roleplay well or have much fun doing so, but you can get through it. Voice chat is extremely helpful for wargaming playgroups, but it’ll be absolutely vital for roleplaying playgroups.
So, how do we best get everybody talking? Personally, I’ve had the best results using voice channels on Discord, but there are a million services out there and you can use whichever suits you best. I do recommend using something that is free though, as it’s a rude imposition to demand your players buy into some service. Discord has been my best, below that is Skype, and Roll20 technically has a voice chat feature but I’ve found it to be unreliable.
Once you pick your method for hearing each other, check to make sure everybody is set well before game time. I swear, I’ve never had a group chat come together without at least one or two problems along the way. Always budget yourself a buffer of 20 minutes or so to deal with whatever audio problem crops up.
This is where we start to get into more optional features for your games. It’s nice to see your friend’s smiling faces, but you don’t exactly NEED to. Some of the software options you may already have voice chat capacities like Roll20, Skype, Google Hangouts, or Zoom.
Video capability is largely optional. Your introverted friends may be averse to showing up on camera as well, so work that out before making it a permanent installation of your online gaming.
I’ve personally found Roll20’s video chat feature to be the easiest and most reliable, but again, just use whichever service seems to work best for your group.
Online Dice Rolling
This may seem like an essential feature, but you really shouldn’t need to worry about it. Unless you have that one player who seems to always roll a natural 20, rolling dice and simply stating the results are just as good as rolling it using a program.
If you ARE super concerned about some sneaky rolls, you’ll automatically have access to dice rollers if you’re using any form of virtual tabletop. If not, there are also Discord bots that you can use to roll your dice directly into the discord chat.
Virtual Maps / Tabletop
This is the big question that divides playing D&D using the internet from playing online D&D. Playing D&D using the internet is a way to work around people’s schedules, playing online D&D is about using programs to enhance your game. Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds are probably the biggest frontrunners for this service, but they all boil down to providing some degree of a virtual tabletop to adventure on.
Really though, a lot of games don’t need all this. A lot of DMs make use of the “Theater of the Mind” in the first place, if you don’t need a tabletop in the first place (you don’t use miniatures) then you don’t need a virtual tabletop. If, however, your games DO make use of quite a few complex strategic combat encounters with handfuls of miniatures in play, you may want to pick one of these two leading services:
Roll20 is free, which automatically makes it very widely used compared to its competition. It is also not attached to any single system, and already has support for the big names as well as quite a few small 3rd party systems and even board games. What it isn’t though is intuitive. Running a game in Roll20 often feels like navigating a strange conglomeration of photoshop and excel. It’s not badly designed, but it feels like work. Especially if you’re running something new, you can technically run anything on it, but expect to do some basic coding to do so. Roll20 is free, has almost unlimited potential, and takes a ton of work.
Fantasy Grounds is the opposite of Roll20, it’s not free for a start, and quite similar to D&D Beyond you’ll have to purchase quite a few virtual books to get going. It also has a lot more artistic flair and color that keeps it from feeling like a spreadsheet. Fantasy Grounds forces you to buy the books, but once you do all the work is really done for you. One of the biggest complaints used to be that it was limited to 5e D&D, but they’ve continued to roll out with support for other systems. You don’t have a lot of opportunities for homebrew, but you also have way less work to do for a prettier result.
Overall, Roll20 is the free and versatile option, but it’ll take a whole ton of prep work for you as a DM. Fantasy Grounds is an expensive and pretty option that takes far less work on your part. I recommend using Roll20 if your online game is a temporary thing, but think about using Fantasy Grounds if you’re trying to set up an online game on a long-term basis.
Keep it Simple
Once you figure out your bare necessities, I recommend you stick with them. That cool lighting effect with the fog of war on your online tabletop may end up looking great, but it’s not worth fiddling with it for an hour of game time. Don’t overthink this stuff, I’ve had some otherwise great online games plagued by constant troubleshooting of features that we really could have done without. Talk to your players, roleplay, play the game. Anything that gets in the way of that is a distraction that you can cutaway.
Calling a Player In
One of the most common reasons to do any of the aforementioned online stuff is just to accommodate a player who can’t make it for a session. If you’re facing your normal retinue of players + one call in, I’ve got some specific advice.
I know I said video chat wasn’t important, but it’s a major thing when everybody is in the room except for your one online player. They’ll often get forgotten, or their voices will go unheard as their transmission is drowned out by the laughter around the game table. Set up a screen (spare laptop, tablet, whatever) to face the rest of the players as if the person was there. Then use your video chat of choice to display your missing player’s video feed.
This may seem like a lot of extra work, but I guarantee that players will feel much more included and have a better game overall.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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