How to Play Virtual Dungeons & Dragons: 4 Essential Rules for Remote Campaigns

Make your quarantine campaign a natural 20 with these simple tips.

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  • Photo Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Tabletop gaming found its way into the virtual space long ago. There’s a thriving online Dungeon & Dragons community with space for both seasoned campaigners and new players dipping their toes in for the first time. 

However, the necessity of social distancing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic means moving all campaigns online for the foreseeable future (unless you're playing with your roommates). Looking to make your transition from tabletop to Internet as painless as possible? These four essential rules for remote campaigns are vital for those learning how to play virtual Dungeons & Dragons.

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There are both benefits and pitfalls to taking your game online – whether its navigating schedules and player distractions or simply finding software that works for everyone. However, there are some simple tips and guidelines to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for everyone involved. 

The Schedule

While this seems like a basic consideration, any DM (Dungeon Master) can tell you that juggling players’ schedules is a tricky proposition at the best of times in local games. Throw in time zones and various pieces of technology and it’s a recipe for disaster. 

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Getting everyone on the same page well ahead of time will save a lot of headaches and ultimately make the entire session far more enjoyable. We recommend a simple online calendar like Google Calendar – something that all players have easy access to and that allows you to send out reminders. 

Don’t be afraid to follow up and check-in with other players at reasonable intervals before the session – say a day before and then a couple of hours before. Keeping everyone on the same scheduling page (and on the same messaging thread!) is the first step to a solid online roleplaying experience. 

Proper Planning and Preparation

Planning and preparation are the hallmark of any roleplaying experience, but even more so when putting together a digital session. Are you in the middle of a campaign or starting something new? If you are using maps, how do you plan to get them to players? 

Using a simple file share service like Google Drive or Dropbox can work wonders here. Setting up a game in a virtual space puts even more onus on the DM to have their ducks in a row before the session begins. Services like Roll20 can certainly mitigate a lot of the pressure, but it's still useful to have the basics lined up where everyone can easily access them at any time. 

When I’m putting together an online campaign – particularly a new one — I like to start with a shared folder in Google Drive. I’ll drop in blank character sheets, any background I’ve written up about the world, and a spreadsheet with player contact info. It makes for a great shared space for everyone to access the tools they need to keep the game as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. 

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Finally, talk to your group and agree on the digital ground rules in advance. It’s a different experience than a local tabletop session, with different considerations. 

Decide on a platform (be it Roll20 or Discord or any of several other options). Does everyone have dice? Do the players trust one another to be honest about their rolls? 

One thing I would strongly recommend as a hard and fast rule: keep the focus on the game as much as possible. It’s really easy to fall prey to the siren call of the Internet during downtime or slow moments. It’s helpful if everyone is on the same page about keeping distractions to a minimum. 

Audio Works, But Go with Video If You Can

You can certainly make a game work entirely via audio, but using some sort of video-conferencing is ideal not only because it's the closest approximation to having everyone gathered around a table, but it simply makes every facet of roleplaying easier. 

It allows the DM to gauge how everyone is taking to the campaign. It makes it easier to avoid unnecessary distractions – you can’t hear a player checking Twitter on their phone, but you can definitely see them doing it. And most importantly, actually seeing your comrades makes it so much easier to get into character and the game itself. 

Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime are all feasible options. Roll20, however, is the one stop shop for everything you need – creating maps, audio and video, a dice roller, etc. Keep in mind that you’re dealing with technology and hiccups are likely to occur. For that reason, consider having a couple of backups in place – whether it’s a group chat, a Discord server you can switch over to easily, or a secondary videoconferencing app. Pinning your entire session to a single application is a path to folly. 

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As a note to DMs: in my experience with online sessions, you should be prepared to encourage and prod your players more than usual and this is particularly the case if someone is only appearing via audio. 

It’s much, much easier to get into character and roleplay when everyone is in the same room and face to face. When players get behind a screen there is sometimes a tendency to clam up. 

Leading by example is one way to go – if you’re into the game, it makes it that much easier for everyone else to be as well. In an online session, it may be up to you to put on more of a show than usual to keep the game moving along and everyone involved. 

Lean Into the Unique Benefits of the Digital Space

One advantage digital sessions have over their tabletop counterparts is the ease by which you can drop in visual aids, sound cues, and all manner of effects. 

Working a digital session really gives the DM the opportunity to turn up the dials in terms of immersion. Whether it’s creating soundscapes and soundtracks or adding in images and montages for various set pieces, the sky is truly the limit. 

While it obviously takes more preparation in the lead-up, it is also the perfect opportunity to really wow your adventurers with an immersive experience. If you have the opportunity to really fine-tune and put some extra polish on your campaign, it makes it that much easier to keep everyone engaged. 

Featured photo via Wizards of the Coast