As our community members reconsider meeting in person for their weekly games and larger events, we’re encouraging our players to meet for their Adventurers League games online, if possible. Noah Grand, AL adventure author and event organizer, has shared with us an overview of how to get started in online gaming.
With the spread of Covid-19, people across the world are discussing how to move activities online as a way to slow the spread of this virus. As someone who helped organize Adventurers League games for some of the largest online conventions last year and also regularly plays at stores face-to-face, I wanted to go over a few basics about playing AL games online.
1) Goals: For starters, think about what you are looking for. Are you looking to move a weekly Descent Into Avernus game online? Move your store’s regular game day? Or are you more interested in finding some game – ANY GAME – and open to gaming with new people? Different games have different needs. It’s a lot more important for me to see the faces of people who I play with every week, even if we can’t meet in person.
2) Technical Basics: Now let’s start talking about a few technical details. The bare minimum you need to play online is a program that does voice chat, like Discord. Many TTRPG streamers who play online don’t use any special software besides Zoom for video. When I ran the epic special tables for Hellfire Requiem at AetherCon in November, I used my monster manual, pen and paper to track things, and physical dice. But since I couldn’t roll below a 14 on my d20s, players probably wish I used virtual dice!
3) Programs: Most games use some kind of Virtual Tabletop program, called a VTT for short. These programs offer a battle map, dice, and integrated character sheet. When set up correctly, I can press one button and roll my barbarian Lucinda’s Athletics check. I can click one button and get Glum Jodi Smokeshifter’s attack roll, damage if she hits, and double the damage when she crits. (That’s a when, not an if; Jodi went on a rampage at Roll20CON!) Setting up character sheets does not require any special knowledge of computer programming or how to write code. There are three main VTTs, presented in alphabetical order:
- Astral: The newest entrant to the market, with greater emphasis on graphics and background music available through their store. Browser-based.
- Fantasy Grounds: An installable program, with more adventures converted in to downloadable files so users do not have to enter everything.
- Roll20: Browser-based, and app compatible depending on your bandwidth. Probably the most commonly used program and the easiest to learn as a player.Full Disclosure: I have worked with Astral and Roll20 before.
If you’re moving an existing game online, you may not need one of these programs. If you’re looking for a new game, you’re going to need one. Most people have a favorite and then get frustrated with others. In terms of “can my computer run this program?” the main issue is visual bells and whistles. VTTs can include lots of fancy graphics to make sure characters can’t see around walls and can’t see beyond their 60 feet of darkvision, but these can start bogging down a browser-based VTT.
4) Mic Check! More than anything else, the quality of a player’s microphone affects how well they can participate in online games. With fewer face-to-face visual cues, background noise and cross talk are far more distracting. If you are using a built in microphone, it may pick up when you are typing. The best way to resolve all of these issues is to mute yourself whenever you aren’t talking. Also make sure you aren’t broadcasting additional sound, which can produce an echo. Most players use Discord or Zoom for audio, not the virtual tabletop.
5) Learning programs: Astral and Fantasy Grounds have tutorials aimed at people who can be players or DMs, while Roll20’s is far more DM focused. My recommendation is to try and focus on the essentials and ignore any of the bells and whistles. VTTs all love to show off the things they can do better than face-to-face DMing, so their tutorials aren’t fully optimized for learning the basics. As someone who used to teach statistical programming, I know there’s a limit to how much we can learn without getting our hands on the program. So at a certain point you will want to make a private game for yourself to play around with how the program works. Depending on the VTT, you will have to tell it to make a D&D 5e game immediately or make the game, then go through the settings to tell the program that it is using D&D 5e character sheets. Practice a little so you feel comfortable with the visual interface and how to use the text chat to roll dice as a backup plan.
6) Finding games: If you aren’t moving your entire group online, you’ll need to find one! Most players find games via Discord, which is both a text chat program and has audio capabilities. Look for a list of servers. Each server has its own rules. Many have Codes of Conduct similar to a convention. But AL Discord servers tend to have additional rules, number one being “don’t ask for someone to DM for you.” Online, these requests can come off like demands and impositions on a DM’s time. Historically, schedules have been more ad hoc than game stores, with fewer days of planning between announcing a game and starting it. When the leadup time is longer, people are much more likely to change plans online.
7) Playing games: Without visual cues, it takes a little bit to learn when to jump in to conversation. Speaking over other people is a real concern, and people need to learn to self-regulate. There’s also a tendency for people to tune out a bit when it isn’t their turn, because we are all sitting in front of potential distractions. Planning combat turns in advance is essential, because if you space out a bit then the next player in initiative will probably space out even more!
Some character builds are a bit easier to play. Computers are very good at counting sneak attack dice, fireballs, etc. But it takes time to upload your spell book, etc. Druids, this is a big issue with summons and wild shapes.
8) DMing: No easy way around it, DMing online often takes more prep. Don’t try to copy/paste how you prep face-to-face. It’s much harder to draw a battle map during a game, so they are all pre-drawn beforehand. Monsters are usually put in the map beforehand. You also need to put all the monsters, handouts, etc. in to the VTT if you are using one. If you are the type of DM who likes to prepare a lot, lean in to this and start playing around with VTT tools because you will probably enjoy them.
If you are more of an improv-heavy DM, it’s easy to get bogged down with all the available tools and feel like you have to conform to the fancy maps and stuff. Don’t change your basic style! Some of the most experienced online AL DMs are largely theatre of the mind, improv heavy DMs. Players will adjust.
All VTTs give DMs the option to roll in the open or hide their rolls so players cannot see, essentially rolling behind a screen. Look for a point and click option.
9) Video: Talk to people up front about what you want. Communication solves most problems! The lack of visual cues is a real adjustment, so players coming from face-to-face groups may want video. However, many in the AL community who mostly play online don’t do video and don’t want to.