Your Experiences Playing D&D (etc.) Online?

Hi. I am considering buying a webcam and and microphone, so that I can play D&D online. I would prefer to play in person but due to Covid, that is not prudent at this time.

Before I invest the money, I would like to hear your experiences with playing D&D (any edition) and other RPGs online. What was it like? Was it worth it? Did you have a good time? Things to know? Thanks!

I’ve done very little, but my kids have a weekly game and enjoy it. 2 of the players are down in Texas. The rest here in NJ.

My son also ref’s an online game with college kids all over the place. They have a lot of fun with it.

Did you have specific questions? I can pass them on to my kids and get their answers.

BTW: Love your avatar & thread Title combo.

I switched all my campaigns to online at the start of the pandemic, and then started playing a lot more frequently, because it turns out pandemics make scheduling D&D games super easy.

I found the experience to be really good overall. The major drawback is that you’re adding a lot of tech debt to your game. We spent a lot of time trying to resolve sound issues, for example. Also, if you’re planning on using something like Role20 or Fantasy Grounds, there’s a definite learning curve for the software. But technical stuff aside, general experience ported over excellently, to the extent that when in-person games became feasible again, we bought a half-dozen cheap laptops so our in-person games are still online. We played last week with five people around the table, using miniatures on a hand-drawn map, while tracking everything else in Fantasy Grounds, and it was fantastic.

Tell more please. What’s the cost? What does it allow?

I’ve only used Role20 and that is the one my kids use.

This is funny - you and I had almost identical circumstances but completely different experiences.

When the pandemic hit and our in-person game was put on hiatus, I started a game for my group. We scrapped Roll20’s embedded voice/video immediately because it was buggy as hell and switched to discord, mainly so that people could use their phones for voice chat if they wanted. We didn’t bother with video at all.

I hated the amount of setup necessary, even when using premade stuff. I found that my friends were more likely to lose the thread of my story or just get distracted than in person. I hated being at the whim of half a dozen internet connections, especially since one of my friends lives out in the sticks.

Buuuuut thank god for it. Like using a chopstick to scratch at an itch under a cast, it’s not really what you want but is infinitely better than nothing. We played at least once a week, every week, until restrictions eased and we were able to start playing in-person again. Flawed though it was, it was an indispensable lifeline during the pandemic.

For what it’s worth, my players enjoyed it much more than I did. I sprung for the baseline paid subscription so that I could use dynamic lighting and did my best to make entertaining battle maps with animated gifs and clever bits and bobs. I had lots of digital handouts with cool pictures to illustrate what they were doing or seeing. But I’m not a prepper DM. I’m a “sketch a skeleton of a story, have a list of proper nouns handy for naming NPCs and taverns, and wing it” sort. So it felt very burdensome to me.

When I ended my virtual game, the only one of my players not in town started his own (because, again, better than nothing). We’re using Roll20 strictly for dice rolling and character sheets. We keep notes in the discord channel and do most everything else “theater of the mind.” It’s going beautifully, but I chalk it up mostly to this friend being an astonishingly talented DM more than anything else.

I’ve been using roll20 for the past 18 months, and overall have really enjoyed the experience.

The bad:

  • As Miller says, the “tech debt” (I love that phrase) is high. I added my nephew to the game, and his tech isn’t especially good, and the result was a lot of frustration as we tried to figure out how to keep him in the game. roll20 does not have good audio/visual integration. If you have a midlevel machine or better, it’ll still work; but if you have a budget machine like Chromebook, look out. We’ve finally taken everyone’s advice and set up a Discord channel for audio/visual, and that seems to work better.
  • I also agree that the learning curve is high. This is the sort of learning that’s my jam, so I don’t mind that, but it took me forever to figure out how to bind tokens to character sheets, for example, or how to give darkvision to tokens, and there are still places where I’m not sure I’m doing things in the best fashion. Roll20 is not as user-friendly as Fantasy Grounds, I think, but its base form is free, and it’s a lower entry-point even for the advanced version (although if I could go back in time I’d just shell out for Fantasy Grounds to begin with: from what I hear it’s the better product and is worth the up-front cost).
  • It’s easy for some players to deprioritize the game. Two of my players decided they’d use the gaming time to multitask, doing laundry or completing a work spreadsheet, and it got bad enough that eventually (after some conversations) I gently uninvited them from the game. In-person gaming sets some different social expectations and encourages people to be more fully present.
  • I miss the camaraderie of all being around the table.
  • I miss bringing snacks.

The good:

  • It’s really easy to have gorgeous battlemaps. In in-person games, I usually used wet-erase markers and a gridded battlemap to make crude sketches. For roll20, I browse the thousands of free gorgeous maps out there. When my group was infiltrating the military complex and was going to find prototype airships, only to be confronted by the powerful artificer behind the project, I googled “Airship dock battlemap” and came up with this beauty. I mean, how cool is it that you can find resources like this? In person I’d never print these out, but on roll20, I might have three different gorgeous maps for a single session.
  • It’s fun to roll dice, but it’s super-nice having the computer do it for you. I can click the “advantage” button and click “cutlass attack” nine times, and hey presto, all my rolls for the undead pirates surrounding the PCs are right there, along with the damage they’ll do on a hit. It can speed the game up something fierce.
  • It’s great being able to show other visuals online. I make a folder with pictures I’ve found of the castle they’re exploring, or of the weird old lady who answers the door, or of the entrance to the mine, and pop them up on the screen. Worth a thousand words and all.
  • Similarly, replacing minis with tokens has been fun. The website Token stamp will turn any graphic file into a .png with a border, perfect for a token on your map. Or you can download an app like Tokentool (I think this is the one I have at home), for a lot more cool borders and other bells and whistles.

So after 11.5 months of making my own tokens in Photoshop, I thought to myself, “hey, why not see if there are any websites that will do it for me?” I found that exact site.

Not enough :woman_facepalming: :man_facepalming: :woman_facepalming: :man_facepalming: in the world for how I felt.

Hah! Yeah, I loved that site, until I found and downloaded an app that was even easier (and gave me some righteous borders, like spiky rune borders or steampunk gear borders).

This is precisely what one of my groups did, as well. Roll20’s voice and video functions are buggy, and are bandwidth hogs, so we only use Roll20 for the battle map, and only on games that really work better when everyone knows exactly where each character is (like D&D), and then use Discord or Zoom for voice (and sometimes video).

For games like the Fate Core games that I run, that are a lot less dependent on a battle map, we just go with Discord.

For the OP: while it’s not the same as being face-to-face, and while dealing with tech issues is always part of an online game, it sure beats not playing at all.

We play Pathfinder, and picked FG because it has a lot of Pathfinder support - in particular, all three campaigns I was running at the time had been ported over. It’s got map support, including ranges and area effect, and a combat tracker that handles hit points, saving throws, combat rolls, and bonuses/debuffs. The combat tracker in particular is what we’re carrying over to our in person game. Pathfinder uses a ton of modifiers, and keeping track of which ones are active, and which ones stack or do not stack with other bonuses, is a huge headache, especially at high level.

Upfront cost is only about $40 bucks on Steam, cheaper if you catch a sale, but that only gets you the bare bones. I ended up rebuying almost my entire Pathfinder library in Fantasy Grounds, and most of them (outside of some sales) at physical book prices. On the bright side, only one person needs to pay for something for the whole group to use it, including the FG license itself.

I’ve never use Roll20, so I don’t know how it compares with Fantasy Grounds. FG is, admittedly, pretty janky. It’s not buggy, it’s just got some really weird, often counter-intuitive design choices. It’s pretty powerful and flexible once you learn it, but it’s a fairly steep curve. It helped a lot that two of my groups are composed entirely of techies.

Oh, I forgot one huge advantage of online: when my brother and his girlfriend moved from my hometown to a town four hours away, it didn’t disrupt the game in the slightest. I’ve toyed with the idea of inviting some of my friends from across the country, but just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Roll20 is one of the most minimalist ones out there. It kinda does the job, you don’t need to learn much (if you are not a DM), and its free. But it is kneecapped by lag issues.

In all my games I suffer lag, everyone does too. Its not always severe but it can be. Give it a try with a test game.

Also of note. We do video/audio through discord, not roll20 (I had no idea it was possible outside of ambiance audio).

I’m curious how others use, or feel about, ambient audio in roll20. I’ve used it a little bit, but worry that it’s more detracting than mood-setting.

I tried it a few times, there would always be one or two people who couldn’t hear it either because if bugs or settings. Having to point out that you’ve got ambient music kind of defeats the purpose.

My group went virtual fairly early on in the pandemic. We used Zoom entirely (in fact, it was how I was first exposed to Zoom, so that a month or two later when everyone started using it for everything, I was the guy who knew everything). For maps, the DM just pasted them into a document (I used Google Slides; I think the other DM used Word), with a bunch of opaque rectangles covering various rooms that could be removed as the party explored, and then screen-shared that document. Everyone was responsible for their own rolls and character sheets, using whatever method they preferred (if I didn’t trust them, I wouldn’t be playing with them).

Once we were all fully vaccinated, we went back to face-to-face. One of the players got used to using a program on her laptop (I’m not sure which one) for her character sheet and rolls, so now she brings her laptop to the sessions.

I’ve played Pathfinder using Roll20, OpenRPG and another virtual tabletop system whose name escapes me. We never used webcams, just the software and sometimes a separate audio system.

I basically agree with LHoD’s “good” list and most of his “bad” list (I don’t care about snacks :upside_down_face:). Roll20 was a step up from the system(s) where I had to mess around with port forwarding and firewalls and whatnot. The only features we really needed were a battle map, the ability to drag around tokens, the ability to write on the map, and a dice roller; some GMs were into lighting, fog of war, spell templates, etc. but it didn’t make much difference as far as I was concerned.

I’m not a big fan of background music, whether it’s face-to-face or online.

I run a D&D game for my friends back in Hawaii weekly for the last four years, and since the pandemic my in-person group has been running online as well.

I use Roll20, which works well enough, and FoundryVTT which has a moderate learning curve, but is better, IMHO, in a lot of little ways (for instance, you can run a motion video background over 10MB). It’s occasionally choppy because of constant updates, and numerous modules that you can turn on and off, but it’s worth the money for me. Roll20 just works, so that’s a plus for that.

I’d highly, highly, suggest using DNDBeyond, and using a Firefox/Chrome plug-in called Beyond 20. It lets you click on your DnDBeyond character sheet, and see rolls on your Roll20 or FoundryVTT screen. I can’t overstate how useful this is. I also run a Savage Worlds game, and not having that ability is a noticeable drag.

We moved our game online just over a year ago and have been using roll20 and zoom, as well as slack for asynchronous communication (scheduling sessions, private communications, session summaries and trash talk).

Since I moved a lot last year this would have been the only way to keep playing anyway, but I prefer it to having to print out maps and characters.

I’ve sprung for a paid subscription to roll20 as well as the monster manual to simplify things a bit for myself, but I only use the basic fog of war, no dynamic lightning. Some of my players insist on using DnD Beyond for their character sheet and a browser plugin to roll dice, which I find annoying, but it works relatively well.

Haven’t had much of a tech problem, since everyone involved were already using zoom for school/work. But I wish I didn’t have to pay twice for books if I want easy integration as well as keeping them forever.

And some of the players miss the social aspect of being around a table with piles of snacks more than me, but everyone is pretty into it, despite me doing a TPK five months into our first campaign.

I find audio great with mood. Makes the scary parts more scary, the funny parts more funny, cues us to dangerous areas, or safe ones. Not required but a nice touch.

My DM uses tabletop audio and sometimes OST from games or movies. Whatever fits the vibe they want.

My in person game moved to Fantasy Grounds when Covid locked us down and pretty much everyone hated it. Transferring characters was a pain, homebrew stuff was a pain, people without decent desktops were trying to follow along on phones and tablets and getting frustrated and people started dropping off in a hurry. Eventually I just used FG for moving my character around on the map and rolling dice but tracked everything else on paper. A handful of us stuck the game out for a year to its end (DM got accepted to a program that was going to eat all his time) but we tolerated it for the sake of playing. As already pointed out, people put less priority on the game – myself included – because sitting in your home dinking on the computer is a different social feeling than meeting up at a table in person. It felt less like I was blocking time off for an independent activity vs “things I do at home in the evening”.

On a more positive note, one of the guys from the Fantasy Grounds group invited me into a Starfinder game on Roll20. That’s gone considerably smoother though it’s in large part due to a couple of the guys being coding nerds and willing to write the macros and formulas to make the character sheets run smooth. But, since the game started online, I guess I feel the loss of the in-person aspects less and wouldn’t be playing at all otherwise since half the guys live a couple states away.

I have a 5e campaign brewing to run but already know that I’m either going to run it in person or not at all. As rocky as my player experience has been, I have zero interest in trying to run the game online. On the flip side, once my Kickstarted copy of Twilight:2000 arrives and I get a chance to read through it, I might consider running a game of that online. It feels more tactical and action/survival oriented than trying to do emotive roleplaying into my headset.