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Social Distancing? Play D&D Online, Instead!

D&D Feature Players

Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic has us undertaking social distancing. This has meant severe cancellations to board game nights across the world. Dungeons & Dragons campaigns are being put on hiatus, too. There’s good news, though. Individual isolation doesn’t mean the end of playing D&D. We have a saviour, in the form of the internet!

That’s right, you can play D&D online. In fact, many people have played in this manner for years. It’s an alternative method to experiencing the role-playing game we all love. You can play alongside people based in different cities, countries, or even continents. It’s still D&D, and it’s still loads of fun!

Roll20 To The D&D Rescue

The online software in question is Roll20. By definition, it’s a virtual tabletop experience. It’s free to sign up and become a Roll20 member, which is a massive bonus over rival software packages such as Fantasy Grounds. It’s like being part of a ‘fun’ conference call!

Like regular, face-to-face D&D, Roll20 has a greater onus on the Dungeon Master (DM) to get the ball rolling. You can create a new game in Roll20 and attach Character Sheets. Playing online means no pencil and paper. Here you can click and type in character details. These sheets are superb at working out any modifiers. The system auto-calculates any bonuses you might gain, on the go. This makes them simple for new players to grasp. Even for D&D veterans, working out the maths involved can be a bugbear (pun definitely intended). But here: voilà! Instant results.

Let’s Get This Party Started

Creating a game? You can invite your regular dungeon-crawlin’ gang along for the ride, or look for new friends. Reddit has a massive D&D crowd, and there are constant ‘adverts’ on there looking for new players. Twitter works, too – consider using a strong hashtag so your tweets get picked up.

Looking to join a new game yourself, as a player? You’ll no doubt find a game that suits your needs. Each game has a series of posts attached with it, so have a skim-read and see if this party feels right for you. Do they seem to share your sense of humour? Is the theme of the campaign up your street? Is their tone and starting level akin to your own ideals? Are they playing 5th Edition? Or an older variant?

Roll20's Interface
Roll20's Interface

Digesting Roll20’s User Interface

So, you’re a DM and you’ve set up a game on Roll20. What prep can you do? The user interface is pretty clean, and logical to digest.  On the left-hand side, a vertical menu offers a medley of design options. These include the likes of: 

• Layer selection

• Doodle and text tools 

• Effects (like spell FX shooting in a direction!) 

• Zoom

• Ruler tool (for creating straight lines during dungeon/walls design)

• Reveal and hide (for a ‘fog of war’ system, drip-feeding hidden information)

• Initiative Tracker

• Virtual dice roller

These options will assist any DM construct the battle scene of their dreams! You can load as many maps as you want, mid-session. There are options to also decide upon map and grid size, as well as colours and visual details. You can click-and-drag players, represented in the form of their character sheets, across onto the map. Their character avatar then appears in the scene! (Make sure they apply an image during their character creation, in order for this to work.)  

On the right-hand side of the screen sits a chat window, with tabs along the top. As well as live chat, these tabs provide:

• Art Library – You can upload your own content, or pick files from Roll20’s library. 

• Journal – A place to create campaign handouts, explaining lore, history and geography.

• Compendium – An information hub. Players can look up monsters, rules, equipment, magic items and spells. Drag-and-drop info from the Compendium into the main window, or direct onto character sheets. The sheets are smart. Usually, they calculate any attached bonuses for you (spell attacks, for example). 

• Jukebox – You can add music and SFX! Again, use your own, or Roll20’s catalogue.

• Macros – Set buttons to perform commands (like shortcuts).

Settings – All manner of visual and practical tweaks.

What About Dice?

There’s a dice-rolling tool that’s available to use within Roll20, itself. Select how many dice you need to roll with a click of your mouse. The software then generates a random output. I appreciate this isn’t going to be as satisfying as real-life dice-chucking. Nothing compares. 

You can perform manual die rolls in the communal chat window by typing a simple code. This feels ‘public’. It’s like everyone leaning in around an actual dice tray to read the result! Type /r 1dx (x being the die you wish to roll, so ‘d8’ if you’re rolling the eight-sided die) and then hit Return. The magical hamster runs in its coding wheel and a random die roll occurs in the chat. Oooh! Aahh!

This also eliminates the player that rolls an actual d20 their end, and then types into the chat, “Ooh! Natural 20!” (when they rolled a 4). That’s not cool. That’s not the spirit of D&D. 

Roll20 Aside… What Else Should I Use?

There’s built-in audio and voice software for Roll20. You and your friends might prefer to play using Skype or Discord, though. Your laptop will have a built-in webcam and microphone, no doubt. (It’s also possible to play using a tablet.) You can, of course, invest in a better mic if you want. 

You could consider using a sharable document using something like Google Drive, too. Editable by all players, or the DM only? Your choice.  

The one thing you shouldn’t do is give into temptation and browse the web while playing. Multiple windows open? Subtle procrastination mid-session? That’s kind of a big no-no. Doing that face-to-face at the table is rude; it’s no different doing it via Skype. 

Playing D&D in houses – or even countries – apart is more than A Thing. All that’s stopping you is the power of your own imagination… and maybe your computer’s capacity!

Read Tom's D&D Guide for Players.

Read Tom's D&D Guide from DMs.