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Forget Zoom Happy Hours. My Family’s Online D&D Sessions Are the Most Fun We’ve Had in Years.
Photo: James Austin

Forget Zoom Happy Hours. My Family’s Online D&D Sessions Are the Most Fun We’ve Had in Years.

Amid the endless well-meaning virtual happy hours, ad hoc game nights, and nonstop work meetings, there is just one Zoom call that I actually look forward to in these pandemic-altered times. Every other Saturday, six members of my family and I sit in front of our screens in three different states, and together we build a world.

Dungeons & Dragons has been enjoying a renaissance, emerging from the stereotype of a nerdy basement pastime and moving into the mainstream thanks to pop culture touchstones like Stranger Things and Twitch streaming stars, talented performers who use narrative tools from the decades-old role-playing game to craft compelling stories full of action and diverse characters. If you’ve always wanted to try the game but felt intimidated by its seemingly opaque rules and the difficulty of wrangling a group of friends into the same block of free time, let me assure you: There’s no better time than now.

At its core, D&D is a game in which players create their own characters and are led through adventures together by an appointed Dungeon Master, or DM, the person responsible for adjudicating the proceedings and enforcing the rules underlying elaborate quests and battles. An ongoing series of adventures is called a campaign, and as a campaign advances over time, the characters gain experience, abilities, powers, weapons, and more, all of which allow them to take on tougher odysseys and battle fiercer enemies.

To complete these actions, your group’s members need to talk to one another and keep track of information about their characters and the environments they find themselves in. At a physical table, that’s easy (it’s called tabletop gaming for a reason), but translating the experience to a virtual space to accommodate for social distancing, as well as people in different locations, can be tricky. Luckily, nowadays you have many digital tools that can connect the DM to the players and connect the players to their characters.

You could easily run a full campaign without buying a thing—the basic D&D rules are available for free, our recommended videoconferencing software options both offer free versions (as does the ubiquitous Zoom), and you can find a host of random number generators online that you can use instead of physical dice. In the months I’ve been running our family’s virtual campaign as DM, though, I’ve found a few things worth picking up that enrich the experience.

A quick side note: If you like the idea of a role-playing game but swords and sorcery isn’t your thing, you can find all kinds of other RPGs that use the same principles as D&D, if slightly different mechanics, and much of the advice and gear here apply to those other games, as well. A few Wirecutter staff favorites include Monster of the Week, a modern-day fantasy that works a bit like the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Kids on Bikes, stories of small towns with big secrets to uncover. 7th Sea is a fantasy world like D&D but with more swashbuckling than spell-slinging, and Shadowrun takes place in a dystopian sci-fi future.

Whichever world you choose to visit, here’s some wisdom I’ve gained to help guide your adventure.

Level one: Communication

In a simple gameplay example, the Dungeon Master describes an environment, the players take actions within that environment, and the DM narrates the results. Sometimes, players need to roll dice and land above a certain number to determine whether their choices succeed or fail, creating interactions like this:

DM: “As you attempt to sneak past the slumbering dragon with pilfered treasure in hand, you slip on a pile of gold coins, scattering them and waking the beast. Her eyes narrow as she sees you near the door. ‘Are you stealing from me, young halfling?’ she asks groggily.
Player: “Um … no?”
DM: “Roll for a deception check.”
Player: “I got a 25!”
DM: “The dragon relaxes and tells you to continue on your way, and you dash off with your ill-gotten riches.”

When you’re playing the game virtually, here are the things you’ll need to communicate these actions effectively.

four people video chat usign jitsi
Guess which of these Wirecutter staffers also goes by Lord Marty Harkensense, dragonborn ranger.
Photo: Michael Hession

Get these:

Videoconferencing software: I use Zoom for the family game that I run because, well, everyone has it now. I also play in another game run exclusively on Discord, which can be described as either a less polished Slack or AOL Instant Messenger with a video-chat function depending on your frame of reference. Really, any videoconferencing software that gets people connected, talking, and working together is fine.

Character sheets: Throughout the course of a campaign, a player can take their character through many different iterations as they embark on new challenges, gain new abilities, and collect bags of loot. The character sheet is where a player keeps track of their stats, health, inventory, and any backstory or history they’ve created. For DMs, character sheets are useful for keeping track of the players and for building encounters and storylines that will challenge them without necessarily, er, killing them.

D&D’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, has PDFs online that players can easily fill out and send to the DM, but I’ve found its online tool, D&D Beyond, a virtual information manager for all things D&D, particularly useful for online play. After setting up a free account, players can access tools to build characters, and DMs can craft stories and encounters. You can even create your own unofficial D&D content, called “homebrew.” (Think monsters and fantastical lands that, as of now, exist solely in your imagination.)

If you prefer something tactile, you can always go the pen-and-paper route. Field Notes—one of our favorite notebook brands—has a great D&D character journal that lets a player keep track the old-fashioned way. If you use it for your character, just be sure to communicate any changes you make in it with the DM.

A virtual tabletop: These are applications designed to simulate items you’d put on the table in an in-person game, anything from dungeon maps to a picture of a serene village that players find themselves visiting. Images aren’t necessary for a campaign—often, groups can just use the DM’s description and their imaginations—but sometimes these things help players better visualize the challenge in front of them.

Virtual tabletops usually come with some version of a map builder and several environments—a brewery where a brawl has just broken out, a massive gladiator arena, a forest filled with mysterious creatures—but also offer additional scenes and genre elements you can purchase for different kinds of RPGs or campaigns. Roll20 is the most popular iteration, and what I use, but competitors like Tableplop and Astral are popping up all the time with different styles and in various stages of development. (They all have idiosyncrasies and take a bit of time to learn how to use.)

Although Roll20 works well enough for my purposes, I do find it a bit clunky. Its user interface isn’t all that intuitive to me, and the screen can get bogged down by too much unnecessary information too fast. I suggest playing around with a couple of virtual tabletops first and then picking the one you find easiest to navigate.

Whatever tech you use for a virtual tabletop, don’t let it get in the way of engaging with and communicating among your group. Satine Phoenix, a professional DM and former community manager for Wizards of the Coast, has been live-streaming games for years and runs a host of virtual games monthly over Zoom. She uses Roll20, as well, but more as a slideshow to convey the idea or scale of an environment. “What I find is that most of it has to be theater of the mind because of attention [spans],” Phoenix told me. “If you have a screen up all the time, then that’s what the players are going to look at.” Try to keep everyone on screen interacting with one another as much as possible. After all, you’re there to have fun with your friends, not stare at a dungeon map on a screen.

Nice to have:

Once you’ve settled into a campaign, you might want to invest in an external microphone, a webcam, or a USB headset to make your (usually long) gaming sessions more comfortable, but the built-in microphone and webcam on most computers, along with headphones if needed, work fine to start.

Level two: Rolling the dice

Rolling dice is the main way to determine if a player succeeds or fails at something they attempt, and each player uses a set of seven, with sides ranging from four to 20. Whether a player is trying to slay a dragon or to act cool to impress a mysterious elf they just met at a bar, if they attempt to make any move that might fail, they roll a die (or dice, depending on the situation) from their set and add bonus points from their character sheet to see if they meet, or exceed, whatever threshold the DM sets for success. For me, one of the great joys of picking up this hobby is collecting as many of the small, colorful icosahedrons, 20-sided dice, as possible. But when you’re playing online, you have a number of ways to roll dice—really, just generate random numbers—virtually. Both methods have their advantages, and either approach works as long as all the players have a way to produce their numbers.

A short video of the digital dice mechanic on the D&D Beyond platform.
Everybody knows the dice are loaded … with fun!

Dice options:

Digital: Most virtual tabletops come with some version of a dice-rolling function built in, and when integrated with character sheets they can even do all the math for you, taking into account your stats and any modifiers that may apply—such as the stealthiness our halfling used to sneak by that dragon earlier—on any particular roll. D&D Beyond has this feature built right into the character sheets, complete with animation, and you can even purchase different digital dice skins.

If you’re playing in Discord, you can integrate a D&D rule bot called Avrae to “roll” in a similar way. Instead of rolling a die, the player types a command into the text box and gets a result. For instance, if a player wants to attack an enemy with their warhammer, they’d type “!a warhammer” and the bot would return a number. If it’s high enough to hit, the player deals the damage associated with that particular weapon. The commands can be tricky to remember, and it feels more The Matrix than Casino Royale since typing and watching a text box just hits differently than watching a die spin as you wait to discover your fate. But using this method does mean that everyone sees the results at the same time, and again, it takes care of all the math for you.

Physical dice: I prefer these, both because I appreciate collecting things and because, as Phoenix pointed out, making the game as tangible as possible encourages players to engage with one another and the DM instead of staring at a text-input box waiting for a result. “I get to hear them, I get to watch them count, and I get to see the look on their face when they roll low,” Phoenix said. (Maniacal DM chuckle implied.)

I got all my dice as gifts on various occasions, but if you want to pick up a set, I highly recommend visiting your nearest game store (whenever it’s safe to shop in person) and exploring the range of colors, materials, and designs to find what you like best. Whether that’s colorful swirls of acrylic, dark glittery metallics, or handcrafted wood, you’ll find tons of options to choose from. Until then, some of my Wirecutter co-workers recommend shopping at online stores CozyGamer and Wyrmwood, as well as Wiz Dice for its bulk options and normal sets.

Level three: Story inspiration

If becoming a Dungeon Master sounds fun to you but you’re not sure what kinds of adventures to offer your players, live streams of games or podcasts of other people playing are an excellent source for story and character ideas. Watching or listening is also a fun way to get a feel for the rules, and the games are just great entertainment in general. If you’re more of a reader, you can find tons of books to explore.

Screenshots from the "Sirens of the Realms" game, GM'd by Satine Phoenix.
Satine Phoenix leads her Sirens through epic (and epically funny) adventures. Photo:

Where to look:

Source books: Covering everything from character and story creation to full adventure settings and magic items, the D&D source books are a veritable toy box of useful info for players and DMs. Most players will want to at least pick up the Player’s Handbook, which can answer any questions you might have about your character’s background and base stats. DMs should also get the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual for advice on building your world and populating it with all manner of wicked mages, dragons, and other villains for players to overcome. After you’ve gotten used to the basics, consider Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, as well as the newly announced Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, all of which add even more story tools for players and items a DM can bestow. My players have had way too much fun with the Cloak of Billowing, a magical hooded cape that serves no other purpose than to billow dramatically on command.

Real plays: Watching other people play a game may not sound like much fun, but the shows listed here are wonderful examples to pull ideas from (my family will recognize a lot of storylines that have shown up in our game in one way or another). They’re also just damn good entertainment. The Adventure Zone is a hilarious and occasionally touching podcast that the McElroy family has been running since 2014, so there are plenty of back episodes to listen to. Dimension 20 is a heavily produced affair full of custom-built battle sets and carefully designed minifigures for the players, a talented crew of improv actors. And Satine Phoenix’s own Sirens of the Realms follows the adventures of a band of bards (and their manager) as they tour the Forgotten Realms and fight evil, such as the time they took down the masterminds behind a fountain-of-youth elixir made from crushed exotic animals and peddled in a pyramid scheme to nobles.

Level four: Atmosphere

A subterranean dungeon doesn’t have to be filled with the sound of skittering creatures and the wails of lost souls to feel real to players, but those things don’t hurt. Adding small audio and visual cues to your game is a fun way to make sessions a bit more immersive, and it can keep the excitement up in a group. They’re fun for in-person campaigns, too, but they’re especially effective when you’re playing long-distance.

A video of the author saying "roll for initiative" and the Philips Hue bulb shifting to a red tone.
What my players see when a battle breaks out. Video: James Austin

Get these:

Music and sound effects: In my game, I mostly use Zoom’s audio share feature to pipe in a dramatic Spotify playlist during battles, but if you want to take it up a notch, consider apps like Syrinscape and Tabletop Audio, which also incorporate sound effects the DM can trigger when thematically appropriate, such as the roar of fire as a dragon tries to barbecue the players or soft chimes and barely-there whispers in an elven glade.

Lighting: I also like to use the Philips Hue bulbs installed throughout my apartment, triggered from the app on my phone, to light my face and background just before battles as a sign to players that something is about to go down. Wirecutter has a whole guide to smart bulbs with recommendations, or you could use Zoom’s digital background feature for a similar effect. Search online for any number of fantasy-themed images or download official Dungeon & Dragons wallpapers.

The real world is a pretty stressful place to exist in right now, but playing D&D with my family, even though we’re stuck thousands of miles away from one another, has helped all of us cope. Ironically, one of the most common ways to kick off a D&D campaign is also one of the many things the pandemic has made impossible in daily life: You and your friends meet in a tavern. What do you do next?