With COVID-19 on the rise, and dozens of countries locking down their borders, and even their streets (I’m on ISO day 9 at time of writing), it’s never been harder to get a full party of D&D players into a room to play for a few hours. Luckily, getting everyone into the same room isn’t a prerequisite anymore!

Today we’re going to look at playing D&D from the comfort of your own home. Whether flattening the curve, or playing with friends long-distance, it’s never been easier.

Finally, you can conquer the world from the comfort of your own home.

Technology is your friend

While there are dozens of apps that work as assistants while playing, there are also a few that outright let you play long distance. While I’m certain the possibilities are endless, we’ll just look at a few more popular options for now:

TableTop SimulatorAvailable on Steam
Combine Virtual reality (headset optional) with a digital table, and the ability to put pretty much anything on it, and you have TTS. I’ve been using it for years – it has two great features that separate it from other online RPG environments – the ability to import 3d models (I’ve run sessions where, instead of tokens, my players all were League of Legends characters), and great support from the workshop. The community’s made thousands of resources available for you to use in your game. It also comes with the benefit of being able to play pretty much any board game ever made, so that’s nice. The downside is, TTS was never designed with D&D specifically in mind, and as such can seem a bit clunky at times.

An old map I made in TTS, a fort belonging to a mercenary group.

Fantasy Grounds – Available on Steam
Another paid-for option, unfortunately, Fantasy grounds is a complete suite designed specifically for tabletop roleplaying games, with specific support for D&D, Vampire: the Masquerade, Starfinder, and many others. Where TTS is a broad-spectrum “Have table, will play” solution, Fantasy Grounds is specifically designed for times like these – where online is the only way to roleplay. The only downside to it is the price tag – though the basic version does come in at the same price as TTS (at time of writing)

Fantasy grounds is currently on the top of my wishlist. In-game shots will be provided if I ever get my hands on it.

Roll20Online system
You didn’t think I’d leave you without any free options, did you?
Roll20 is great – endorsed directly by some celebrity DM’s, they’ve made the Explorer’s guide to Wildemount‘s content available for free during the Carona crisis. The interface can take some getting used to, but for the free option, it’s more than sufficient – I’ve played 2 sessions on it over my quarantine so far, and the learning curve hasn’t been enough to stop us from having fun.

Footage of our last game in roll20 – the building on the right was burned down

In all 3 instances, I recommend using Discord to talk to each other – Even the apps with built-in communications can be buggy or poor in quality – having an app dedicated to VoIP will definitely give a better experience – and you need to clear every problem you can when you’re trying to play online…

It’s all about communication

One thing I’ve noticed in my sessions, is that communication gets tricky. Not being able to see your fellow players around the table robs you of many visual social cues that we usually take for granted. People talking over each other becomes commonplace. Loud noises creep in when headsets get adjusted, and volume issues can make a players’ voice easy to miss. More than anything, it’s important to be patient with your fellow players.

Lord of the rings - Aaragorn Arguing with Haldir in Lothlorien
Communication can be a very physical thing. Poor communication can get out of hand very quickly

Playing around a digital table brings many new things to learn, but the most awkward one to figure out is your new table etiquette. I’ve picked up a few tricks in our sessions so far:
– If two people start talking over each other, stop and let the DM call for who should talk first. The same applies offline – it’s up to the DM to manage the chaos that is 4-12 players all trying to get their word in.
– Accidental dice rolls happen. A fair and reliable rule, is that no dice rolls made, without explicitly being asked for from the DM (or, announcing an action that the DM doesn’t somehow veto) are allowed to count for anything. Remember to call ALL rolls.
– Remember the other players (probably) can’t see you – be more vocal about your character’s body language. (I often found myself emoting on behalf of characters before remembering to actually describe the motions)
– Don’t mess around with the table. Nothing frustrates a DM like trying to keep track of players who’s avatars are floating around the table, playing football with the dice while they’re trying to move the story along.

Using the technology to your advantage

Each of the apps mentioned so far, as well as any others, have several unique benefits you don’t get at the table IRL. By leveraging these, the online space can be turned from a requirement of the times to a blessing. I’ve already mentioned the 3d models in TTS, but there are other advantages as well.

Take a lesson from Jinora – use the tools you have at your disposal for effective long-distance communication

The dozens of map editors can easily be used to export high quality maps over to your game for all your players to see. The same is true of character art – you can much more easily bring any art you have on hand to the fore if they’re all on the same device (I went into detail about getting character art here).

The drawbacks of talking to your players through apps also bring advantages – On discord, for example, instead of telling your players to block their ears for individual, secretive conversations, you can move them over to separate chats within the app. (Don’t worry, Discord allows you to do this for free.)

The most powerful thing about online sessions, is that you can prepare the entire table, including multiple encounters, before the session. Gone are the days of your players waiting patiently for you to set up an encounter on the fly, losing valuable play-hours while you bump over that tree the orcs are hiding behind. The key, is preparation.

Just be sure not to overprepare, too long before you play…

Being ready for anything

The biggest difficulty in playing online, is not knowing what you’re doing. New software requires the same level of figuring out as a new game system – learning how to set up tables, import models or tokens, adding maps to the game, rolling dice, and working with character sheets are all things that you, and in some cases, your players, will be learning from scratch. More than ever, it’s worth taking time before your sessions to figure things out.

You can set up multiple maps in most programs, which will save you a lot of time, but you also need to be able to talk your players through using the app. It’s not that different to pointing at a new player’s character sheet to the skills section to tell them if they have stealth proficiency or not, but that’s only the case if you know your way around.

The plus side of this, is with the little bit of extra effort, you can really bring your story to life in new ways.

Making memories

With quickly available maps, character tokens your players can see, and a lot of the math handled automatically, playing online can go from a chore to being a more streamlined, and higher quality, roleplaying experience.

Whether your players are a few miles, or a few continents away, you can all play around the same table, from the comfort of your own homes, and have a game that’s enjoyed by all – all while maintaining a safe and healthy distance in these contagious times.

So flatten the curve, maintain your social distance, and hang out with your players online – you never know, you might come to enjoy it even more than playing at the table.

Have any apps that are well suited for online play that I’ve missed? Any tips for new online-players? Or etiquette fails and horror stories? Please share below – we’d love to hear from you!

Dylan Beckbessinger

App developer by day, Chaotic Neutral dungeon master by night, Dylan has been a DM for 10 years, and an avid fan of all things geekdom for far, far longer than that. Favorite class is eldritch theurge, because raw power doesn't need any limits.


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