This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Sixteen on 29th April 2020.
Lennon (distorted): Okay, can you hear me?
Ryu: Um…well yes, but that doesn’t sound right
Ostron: I think you’ve got the…
Ryu: Ostron? Oh great I think we lost him.
Lennon (worse distortion): How about now?
Ryu: Oh goodness! Whatever you did change it back!…Gah! Hey, I thought you were quarantining yourself in the workshop!
Ostron: I am. There’s massive interference from the containment failure that’s messing with all the artifacts in there, so I figured it would be easier to just astrally project myself.
Lennon: Okay, I think I got it sorted.
Ryu: Why is Lennon stuck in the audio alchemists’ cave again?
Ostron: The cave hatch is right outside the Workshop door. I’m not sure the wall of force protocol activated before something leaked out.
Ryu: So you’re astrally projecting, Lennon’s fiddling with the sending stones in the cave, I’m the only one still in the booth. Why is this so hard to coordinate?
Lennon: Well, there are a lot of options to choose from.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, various surveys of D&D players suggested about 30% of games were played virtually. Now that most of the people in the world are under self- or officially-imposed orders to avoid gathering in groups, that number has jumped up to 80% or so. But the transition has not been smooth for everyone.
A lot of that stems from people not always knowing what their options are. For good or ill, the responsibility for pulling together a fully virtual gaming experience often falls on the DM, and many simply jump on the first thing they’ve heard of or seen to implement various aspects of the game. However, for some groups frustration sets in after one or two sessions, with people wondering if there are better options available or alternative solutions that address some of their pet peeves.
We’re going to briefly cover some of the more well known solutions for hosting a virtual game here. This is by no means going to be exhaustive and we’re only going to describe the very very high level features on most of these things, highlighting how they differ from one another. Unfortunately you’ll still need to do your own research to figure out if various tools are what you need or want.
First, let’s figure out what we need. To play D&D, you need a way to communicate, a method to keep track of your characters’ info, a way to do die rolls, and a play area or tabletop.
Now, I can already hear the theatre of the mind people getting their keyboards ready so let’s get all the caveats out of the way. Technically it is possible to play D&D with nothing more than a method of communication. If you do all narrative combat with no maps or tokens at all, and you implicitly trust all of your players to accurately relay their die rolls and character statistics, you can play D&D by conference call with nothing else necessary. If you can manage that, more power to you. Now for those of you who want some extra tools, here we go.
Communication is the first big thing to solve. In 99% of cases you need at least 2 people to play D&D effectively, probably more, and those people need to talk to one another. Right now computer-based solutions for that problem seem to be the most popular, and the platforms rising to the top of the herd are Discord and Zoom. Both platforms are free and have web-based options (though Discord also has a downloadable client) and have comparable setup complexity, though Zoom is slightly easier to set up for a newbie than Discord. Both options are also accessible via smartphone. As for older solutions, if you still have a Teamspeak server running, I salute you, keep that fire alive, and if you prefer Skype, please know that help is available, and staying in an abusive relationship isn’t healthy for anyone involved (web gnome snickers in agreement).
Depending on the group involved, you may hear of options like WebEx, Microsoft Teams, or GoToMeeting. Those are conference options usually used by businesses, so if someone is meeting on them they’re probably using an account they got through their company. That may or may not be an issue for you, but it’s probably not totally in line with company policy, so be aware.
A side note on the communication; there is a bit of a debate on the subject of video. Some people say that you definitely need to do video for the games because it helps to keep the players focused, reestablishes that “face-to-face” feel, and massively enhances the roleplay because you can see expressions and gestures. Others argue that it increases the barrier to entry for players who aren’t tech savvy or have sub-par internet hookups, and forces them to cut down on screen space they need for other things. You’ll have to figure out what works best for your group. We will note that of the major platforms we mentioned, Zoom is slightly better integrated for video than Discord at the moment.
Next up, where are you playing? Even if your game involves mostly narrative combat rather than grids and tokens, having a virtual tabletop can be useful for displaying geographical maps and other images or documents that might otherwise have been handouts at in-person games. The two big players in the virtual tabletop (or VTT) field right now are Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, though a third player, Astral Tabletop, is starting to get recognition lately as well.
Roll 20 has a slightly easier barrier to entry; it’s all web-based and basic accounts that let you play or create a game are free. There are also paid options that give you access to more features of the interface and additional content. However, setup and organization is mostly up to the user; maps, tokens, etc, generally have to be manually uploaded and organized by the GM ahead of time, and players have to learn a bit about the interface to use it. Because of that sandbox setup, it’s very easy to play any game or system you like, provided you do the pre-work.
Fantasy Grounds has a lot more out of the box; it’s more like an actual piece of commercial software that’s tailored to game systems. They have a D&D 5e interface with buttons and labels for common 5e things like advantage rolls, and the system in general is more aesthetically pleasing. However, there’s no free ride here; someone has to pony up some money, either with every player getting an account or one person buying a $150 or more subscription that allows them to invite players. Both solutions offer official 5e content, including maps and tokens, that can be purchased through their interface. They also both theoretically have integrated voice and video chat, though in both cases users have said it’s unreliable and can slow things down, so they recommend using another app.
After deciding where the characters are going to play, you have to decide how those characters are going to be tracked.
Many people were already tracking character info online or at least in electronic format even during in-person games, so most people are well acquainted with the various options there, but we’ll mention D&D Beyond as an obvious solution for that. There is also a Chrome extension that allows a D&D Beyond character to integrate with the Roll 20 VTT system, however all three virtual tabletops we mentioned have built-in character sheet functionality.
If you aren’t buying the official content from the virtual tabletops, you need some maps to display. In various adventurer’s packs we’ve mentioned a few options such as Dyson Logos’ site or blog and the /r/battlemaps section of imgur/reddit. You can also often get results by just Google searching “place you want” and battlemap in the search bar, though quality may vary. Also anecdotally uploading a custom map to any tabletop system and getting it to fit right with the grids has been an exercise in frustration for many, so be prepared for that.
If you or the players want to monitor it publically, dice rolling is something that’s integrated into both virtual tabletop solutions, although Fantasy Grounds is a bit more intuitive for the average player and, as mentioned, includes some specialty rolls like advantage by default. There are a few different bots that can be installed in Discord to allow die rolling (one called Avrae is the most recommended one) but installing it requires more technical work that may not be present in your group.
Finally we have sound. Many people don’t bother with ambiance or sound effects in their games, and unfortunately doing it in virtual games isn’t the easiest thing right now for people not comfortable with technology. Roll20 has a music player where you can upload songs and create playlists, but you have to find all the sound files yourself. Fantasy Grounds doesn’t have anything integrated, but there are some browser extensions trying to address that issue. Astral, is again midway between the two; you can upload and play music, but it doesn’t seem to have the ability to do playlists.
As for dedicated sound programs, the site Tabletop Audio has a feature whereby it can generate a link for other players to go to, and then they will be able to hear any sound effects or music you are playing through their interface, however it has to be one of the existing sound sets Tabletop Audio has.
Syrinscape probably has the most versatile shared audio system available at the moment, but you have to pay to get the bells and whistles. Right now they have a functional, albeit beta version, of an online player that gives you access to any Syrinscape sound sets you own through your Syrinscape account, including any that you’ve custom created. However, everyone needs an account with Syrinscape (though free ones are fine), everyone has to download and install an app to use it, and whoever’s running the sound board has to pay if they want anything beyond the free sound sets.
We know that’s a lot of options, and that’s only touching on the more well-known ones. The current climate has inspired a lot of creators to start kickstarting or just freely developing additional solutions for virtual gaming, so if nothing we mentioned strikes your fancy, you may want to look around.
Lennon: arou-ow ow! Hey! Cinder!
Lennon: Branwen has your food! This isn’t even a real burger, shoo!
Ryu: You were eating during this?
Lennon (mouth full): …maybe.
Ryu: Do we have time to cover mic etiquette?…Ostron?
ROSTRO (over comm channel): Please state the nature of the mathematical inquiry.
Ryu: What…why are you here now?!
ROSTRO: Decontamination of the workshop can most efficiently be achieved by establishing a pressure differential in a trans-dimensional portal-
Ryu: No, You know what, I’m done. I’m just done here. I’m turning this off, I’m going to the scrying pool, I’m going to start reading messages. If anyone wants to join me, fine.
ROSTRO: I am still incapable-
Ryu: NOT YOU!