The Best Way to Run an Online DnD Session
Published on March 18, 2020, Last modified on March 20th, 2020
Sometimes online DnD is necessary because of timing, geography, or global pandemics
Svetlin Velinov - Wizards of the Coast - Preordain
Why Run DnD Sessions Online?
Running online sessions can be hard. DnD is all about immersion and cooperative storytelling, and not being in the same room can certainly negatively impact your ability to connect with the other players.
With that in mind, sometimes party members cannot get together because of timing, geography, or illnesses. Getting comfortable with running online sessions can drastically improve your scheduling flexibility and allow for more consistent and frequent sessions.
In this article, we will be covering a couple of tips to run the best online sessions possible.
Online DnD Sessions VS In Person
Online Battlemaps are less expensive
More space for DMs
As a DM that runs games using Google Docs and other online software, being able to play on my desktop with multiple monitors is a godsend.
Easier to schedule
Not having to account for travel time and being able to play from the comfort of their own homes typically makes players more available.
Easier to stay focused on the game
When playing virtually, it is very easy to open up a screen and browse Reddit when you have some downtime in the game. This more than ANYTHING is the biggest issue when it comes to running online sessions.
Having a conversation with players ahead of time to relay the importance of focusing on the game is very important when you are planning on running an online session.
Other things you can suggest to your players to keep their hands busy, while being able to focus on the game are:
- Drawing scenes or characters
- Stacking dice
- Playing with a fidget toy
The tendency for players to get distracted while playing online also makes your pacing as the DM particularly important.
The moment you start the session you have to keep your players focused and moving. In a typical 2.5-3 hour session, plan to lose an hour to shenanigans and debating. With the remaining time, resolve the cliffhanger from last session and then end right as your players walk off another cliff to generate excitement for next time.
When prepping, do everything possible to minimize delays on your end. This means: pre-populating and rolling initiative for creatures in Initiative, having your maps created, and having session notes organized and on hand.
Another great tip to keep players focused is to occasionally force a real time clock on your players. This can keep you players on their toes and even cause them to make suboptimal choices due to indecisiveness.
Easier to read the room
For anybody that has played in an online DnD session, there will definitely have been a time where the DM finishes an NPC’s sentence and is met with an awkward silence. This is because players cannot easily see how other players are reacting via visual and postural cues.
To help mitigate this, it is best for players to have their webcams on and to be playing distraction free. Check out recommended video chat software here [anchor link].
Sense of comradery
Being able to sit around a table while sharing snacks has a cozy, classic feel that is hard to replicate in an online environment. Make sure to help set the scene by providing atmospheric music. Check out our guide on choosing the right music for your campaign for some suggestions on where to find some good tunes.
Playing with physical miniatures and battlemaps allows for more immersion
There is no doubt that technology has gotten to a point where online battlemaps can be used more effectively than physical battlemaps. That being said, being able to create your own miniature, feel its weight in your hands, paint it exactly how you imagine your character to look, and physically move it across the board is something that will never be able to be achieved by online means.
With that in mind, if you are feeling like flat Roll20 maps aren’t immersive enough for your online group, try using Tabletop Simulator on Steam as it’s as close as you can get to a real life tabletop feel online.
Best Software for Running Online DnD Sessions
Roll20 is an amazing, free to use piece of software that provides interactive and intuitive battlemaps. You can also import tokens and maps from premade modules, if you run them.
Tabletop Simulator is a physics engine that allows you to play virtually any board game online. Although it takes a fair bit of work to set up correctly for DnD, it is easily the closest you can get to playing in person.
Reddit user u/acconartist made a great comment that provides a list of resources to help you get started when using Tabletop Simulator.
It is available on Steam for 20USD and a 4-pack is available for 66USD. If you wait for a sale you can usually get it considerably cheaper.
See our article “What’s the Best DnD 5e Initiative Tracker?”.
There are a number of video chat platforms out there, most notably:
- Google Hangouts
I have used Hangouts, Discord, and Zoom in the past. Here is my personal, completely anecdotal experience.
Zoom – I run one session with a player in Nunavut, Canada and a player in New Zealand. Zoom has never had a single issue with video dropping, but it is a more expensive option. Calls lasting longer than 40 minutes are only available with a$20/month subscription. It also is great for playing while navigating multiple tabs because of the video pop out feature.
Discord – Discord’s bots are absolutely awesome. My personal favorite is the GroovyBot for music. It is known to be a bit CPU heavy and doesn’t have a pop out video panel for minimized windows which makes it a tough choice for online sessions where you want to be able to see your other players.
Hangouts – Hangouts is the “nothing special” choice. It’s free, has decent video/call quality and has pretty decent connectivity, although I do notice more call drops and lags here than on the other two options. It also lacks a pop out video panel.
If you are planning on running an online session over a long period of time, you might want to invest in some hardware to increase the quality of your audio or video. For suggestions around what different mics and webcams will be right for your situation, check out our article “What’s the Best Mic for Online DnD Sessions?”.
DnDBeyond is as good as it gets when it comes to online character sheets. They have all published material available for purchase and their UI is intuitive and easy to use.
Hope you liked the article! If you have any questions or some other tips on playing online DnD, go ahead and post a comment below. If you like our content subscribe to Arcane Eye!