Now more than ever people are learning to play D&D online. Content creators have created numerous YouTube videos and Twitch Streams about how to play the actual game of D&D, so we’re not going to cover that here. What we are going to talk about is what tools you might use to play D&D online.
As with the RPG itself it can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like. For some people playing D&D is sitting at a table with pencil, paper, dice, and books and that’s it. But for others they also have miniatures, terrain, digital tools, gaming tables, and the list goes on. The Same can be said for playing online D&D. Online games can be as simple as adding voice communication, a little more complex by adding video, then more with virtual table tops.
If you have a group the group can decide how involved and complicated they want their online play. However, if you’re joining a group or you have a group joining a Dungeon Master, the DM is usually (but not always)responsible for most of these decisions. So part of finding a group or DM that you mesh well with is also finding one that uses the tools you want to use.
The Basics: Voice and Video
As stated above an online game can be as simple as a voice connection. In this kind of scenario everyone connects via Zoom, Discord, or some other voice app or phone call and players roll physical dice and report their numbers. This is the easiest solution and can work for the most people, especially a phone call for people who don’t have great internet connections.However, not having video really diminished the experience since so much communication is visual. This works well for games that don’t use maps and minis, but lots if not most D&D games do.
Adding a video component is usually pretty easy, most apps that have audio functionality also have video, such as Zoom or Discord, which are both very popular with D&D gamers. Having a video component really helps the game feel more like you’re in the room with everyone. With video DMs can hold up maps or images to show players.
Enhancing the Online D&D Game
The beauty of playing online is that you can use your computer and internet to enhance the game now that it’s in a digital format. If players are on computers or internet connected devices the DM and players can share links to images found on the internet. Some DMs use productivity apps and websites to add game aids. For example a DM could create a map in a Google Doc And could even use layered tokens for PCs and monsters to move across the map, or a shared document for the group to keep notes. Most games have digital character sheets that are often form fillable PDFs that a free PDF reader can read and fill in.
All of the above are free and with the addition of the free basic D&D rules on D&D Beyond you can play a serviceable D&D game online using only free tools. However, the basic tools and rules are likes standard leather armor, who wants standard leather when you can have GlamouredLeather or Red Dragon Hide armor? In this case the Glamoured or Red Dragon Hide armor are known as Virtual Table Tops (VTTs)
Virtual Table Tops
Virtual Table Tops have been around since late 90’s (anyone remember WebRPG?).However; they have only gotten really playable in the past several years and in the past few months we’ve seen a huge surge of online play across all VTTs due to the current global crisis. So, what is a VTT?
A VTT is as the moniker describes a virtual table, a standalone program or website, that’s used to play games online. For this article we’ll focus on those VTTs that are specifically used for RPGs (there are others out there that are fantastic for board games). Each VTT has a host of pros and cons and this article only mentions those that are officially licensed to hostD&D content. With officially licensed content comes cost. While many of the following VTTs have some cost for their base versions all have costs associated with D&D content. Converting products to be used in the digital space takes time and energy and many VTTs give you the ability to enter your own content, so you don’t have to purchase official content, but the time you’ll save by having it at your fingertips is worth the costs.
Each officially licensed VTT has the ability to show and implement art and maps, and usually tokens for an easy, more immersive experience. Other VTTs have the capability to show similar content, but you’ll have to import images and maps that you find online. You can find a comprehensive list of all Virtual Tabletops here.
The Big 3
Fantasy Grounds, Roll20 and D20 Pro, all have official licenses to host D&D digital content. Fantasy Grounds andD20 Pro are programs that you need a computer to run and are available for a one time purchase or subscription. Roll20 has some free options, but their pro option needs a subscription.
Not Quite a VTT
D&D Beyond is not quite a VTT, but deserves mention since it has official D&D content and they’re working hard to make it VTT like. They now have digital dice, a player app, and recently added an encounter builder in beta, so it’s getting there.
The above VTTs all have licenses for official D&D content but there are a number of other VTTs that are either system agnostic or have the free 5e SRD rules. These solutions can work well, but require a bit more work by DMs to get content into the game.