Growing up in the middle of nowhere as a first-born son in a ranching family, I spent a lot of summer days in the hay fields. Once hay season was over, or on those lucky days that rain was likely, I spent all the time I could playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends. I’d walk to my friend’s house, cutting across a couple of our neighbors pastures and avoiding one particularly aggressive bull to get there, and meet about half-a-dozen high school friends for untold hours of epic adventure.
Of course, for many in that rural part of the country, D&D was a gateway to witchcraft and worship of Old Scratch, but for those who’d actually played it, there was no question that we were engaged in nothing more than an imaginative game of chance and storytelling. Lifelong friendships were formed through those long gaming sessions and there are definitely days I miss it. Thus, when the chance came to introduce my niece to the time-honored tradition of rolling for initiative, I had to take it.
The challenge was that we’re doing this in the time of COVID-19. Also, since many of her friends live in another State anyway, this seemed a great opportunity to try running a game online. One of my old D&D buddies was already running a couple online sessions, so I called for some advice. That’s how I learned about the two online tools I’m going to be talking about today, DNDBeyond.com and Avrae.
Today’s article is going to be a little different. I’m going to talk about the tools I used to put together and run my first online session of D&D. I’m going to point out some of the things I tried that didn’t work, and some of the things I thought worked well. For those of you who are separated from friends and family, maybe this’ll be a good way to come back together and enjoy a fun experience.
I’ll probably still buy physical copies of the books, but I’m actually really glad that I got online copies, too.
The site DNDBeyond.com is an online resource for D&D with all the guides, manuals, and boxsets you might need for any campaign. Just as a general resource, I think there’s something to acknowledge there, even if it weren’t for online game I was about to run. I’d say that in part it’s my time in the Army that gives me a particular appreciation for digital content like this, despite the fact that I would personally really rather have the paper copy in front of me.
In this case, I haven’t played D&D since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D2E as the kids like to call it these days. Thus, I needed the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual at a minimum to get started. I’d planned to purchase them from a local game store originally, but finding everything I needed online, I elected to go that route instead. I still plan to buy physical copies when I get a chance just because I really prefer the heft of actual books, but the online version is what I used to prepare the campaign and help everyone get started.
Since this was my first run through a new edition and this edition being significantly different from what I remembered, I elected to purchase a box adventure, as well. I’ll keep the specifics of that one close-hold for now in case my niece happens to read this article. I did like that everything was purchasable through the same store and that it was all available through either the web interface or the app I found for my tablet.
D&D Beyond is true to their name and doesn’t stop with just material, however. In addition to the books and modules you can purchase through their store, they also have tools on their website designed to help DMs and players. This is really where they earned some serious respect from me, because I was able to purchase the books I needed, add my players to my campaign through the website, and now those players all have free access to the online sourcebooks that I purchased. Just like back when I was learning the game and borrowed the needed books from my friends, these players are getting to borrow those same books from me. It seems a little cheesy, but that really struck me as being something kind of special.
Another thing I liked about the site is the character generator. There is a deep set of options for creating characters through the website. I used the Quick Build option to generate a handful of NPCs and the Randomize option will probably come in useful if I need stats for random characters in the future. My players used the Standard character generation system, and I really liked how that worked.
D&D Beyond was a way better tool for the game that I had expected. In fact, I think it’s a tool I’d recommend even outside of online sessions just for tracking player character sheets and such.
I created a campaign through the web interface and then sent a link to each of the players to join the campaign along with basic character generation instructions. The character generation tool allows you to enable or disable several sources for character generation, including homebrew content, which is awesome. There are certainly more races, and a few more classes, to choose from than there had been 20 years ago when I was playing with my friends in high school. Abilities can be set manually, randomly rolled, allocated from a standard array of scores, or you could use the point-buy system. I elected for the standard array just for simplicity since we had a couple new players and I was new to this edition.
I also liked that you can select a generic background for the character and the system will prepopulate a number of options for you, streamlining the character creation process a lot. It made it really easy to put the character together and I couldn’t think of a better new-player experience. It was infinitely easier than my first AD&D character, which required flipping back and forth through the various books constantly to reference random rules and definitions.
There are other features in the player sheet that we didn’t use, such as the ability to make various rolls just by clicking on the given feature of the sheet. That was super cool and I could definitely see how that’d open the game up to a lot of people who might not otherwise be able to play.
I debated on communication medium and eventually settled on Discord. I have video conference software for my company, and I started to use it since the screensharing and video quality was a lot better. After thinking on it, I ended up going with Discord. In part, it was so I could use Avrae (which I’ll discuss more later). I also liked that Discord would give me a little flexibility in creating extra channels that typical teleconference software wouldn’t.
Specifically, I setup a pair of audio channels. The general channel for normal comms during the game, and I also created a private DM channel for those times where I needed to talk with players privately. This was one thing I did like about Discord, because it beat the old system of writing and passing notes to players about things they’d noticed or needed to know that other players didn’t.
I also created a few separate text channels. I created a private DM channel and restricted view to myself in order to be able to post notes and use bot commands that the users didn’t need to see. I had the general channel that everyone could type in and that we mostly used for rolls and combat. I created a handouts channel for posting maps, pictures, and other things I wanted the players to have access to for the game. I also added a bot-test channel where players could play around with the bot and test various commands.
I liked the segmentation and channels I could create in Discord, but the whole “Boost” thing has really left a bad taste in my mouth about the product.
On the whole, I think Discord worked out pretty well. It has a video option so that those with webcams could use them if they wanted. The quality wasn’t great, but it was sufficient. The audio quality was similarly okay, but the push to talk functionality was a blessing and combined with the ability to send private chats to really help cut down on cross-table chat that plagues most games. I liked that a lot.
What I didn’t like was the limitations in file size. I get it and I don’t really have a problem with having limitations, but then I saw that I could boost the server and that’s where my frustrations really started. I went ahead and subscribed so that I could boost my own server, only to find out that the advertised boost was actually some sort of ticket system. I got 2 tickets for subscribing, and it takes 15 to actually upgrade my server to allow for higher quality video and larger files.
Thus, I spent $100 or whatever for a bloody icon next to my bot’s name. I am not a very happy guy right now. I feel like the Discord system is a complete ripoff and is objectively predatory. I’m a businessman and have zero issue with folks making a profit off their own ideas and work, but I have low tolerance for systems that feel intentionally obfuscative and predatory. I use Discord to access a whole lot of servers, but they’ll never get another dime out of me. I’d have dropped hundreds of dollars a year to get my server to work the way I wanted without blinking an eye, but I’m not going to support a system that tricks people into spending money for a stupid pink badge.
Let me cool off a bit by bringing it back to something that really impressed me, and that’s this Avrae bot for Discord. This cool little bot ties with DNDBeyond.com to automate a lot of the data tracking that goes into playing D&D, and I was pretty dang impressed by this free utility. I was even more impressed that D&D Beyond specifically worked with them to improve their API and make it more functional.
The net result is a fantastic tool for playing D&D with remote friends online through Discord. The bot will obviously take care of basic rolls for you, but you can also sync your D&D Beyond account with it and import your characters. The bot allows you to control and switch between multiple characters and, based on who registered them, knows which characters belong to which player. This works with the initiative system to allow players to enter simple commands on their turn to take actions, like attacks.
What was super cool about it, is that Avrae reads your character sheet and even adds your modifiers to the roll for you automatically. It also allows shortened commands and targets, so you could roll a stealth check with ‘!check stealth’ or you could just use ‘!c stea’ to do the same thing. Either way, Avrae reads the character sheet for the player checking, adds the appropriate modifiers, and presents the results. You can also write custom alias commands, for instance my !hoody-hoo command initiates combat and automatically rolls initiative for all my players.
You can also update your D&D Beyond character with the Avrae bot to add experience, items, or adjust health. The two systems combine incredibly well to create a fantastic system that I think is ideal for groups trying to enjoy regularly scheduled game nights while also attempting to social distance. For military types and those of us who occasionally out of town on business, I think this might be one of the best solutions that I’ve seen for old school gaming online.
I printed the cheat-sheet for Avrae’s command list and had it on hand. It was still a little wonky to figure out initially, but once we got it down, it was super easy.
My Setup and a Bad Idea
My setup is pretty straight forward. My PC with three monitors, which is my combination work/gaming PC in my home office, was my main station for running the campaign. Most of my tools, notes, and documentation was up on one of the three screens, including discord. I had my tablet with the D&D Beyond app open so that I could reference the module I was running independent of my various notes on the main screen. I also had a laptop running a bot account, which was connected to Discord.
In general, I think the setup worked out really well, giving me a lot of space to move notes around and have them available to me. I also liked having the tablet with the module open so that I could follow the narrative. This allowed me to keep tabs on where we were story-wise, while the NPCs, maps, and other information was open on my main screens.
The laptop was a total fail, though. In part, I’m still ticked every time I see that bot with the bloody boosted icon in Discord, but also because what I was trying to do with it just didn’t work well. I’d setup a digital soundboard and opened a bunch of Youtube videos with environmental sounds. I thought it’d be cool for the players to hear a rain and thunder in the background if that was the weather during that particular scene. Otherwise, the sound of birds chirping and wind blowing through the trees would give a good ambiance to their trek through the forest.
That just didn’t work well, though. If I’d setup an actual sound board so I could just tap to switch channels, that would probably work. As it was, I was constantly turning from the players to find the right tab, praying there weren’t any commercials, and starting the background sounds. It just never really worked well for me and never felt comfortable. I also suspect it detracted from the pacing of the game and ended up hurting more than helping.
In the end, I think online D&D is viable. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan, because there’s just something about being around the table with friends, the feel of the dice in your hand, and the smell of a brand-new Player’s Handbook. Those are things I constantly miss while playing the online sessions. Maybe that pang will lessen in time, but it’s been 20 years since I really played and it’s still something that I find myself missing. It seems unlikely that this is something that will change with time.
Importing characters from D&D Beyond made Avrae an absolutely brilliant tool for online D&D.
I think that where some folks might have a more challenging experience is on the combat. When I played, we didn’t really have rules for miniatures. We had them and used them, but more for reference than as a tabletop wargame. The modern gaming system of using squares and rules for combat that include templates for area effect spells and grid-per-turn movement isn’t something I had experienced back when I played a lot.
My experience with D&D has always been theater of the mind combat, which I think I enjoy more. Grids and maps don’t have to constrain you, but I feel that just by its nature it sort of sets bounds on what the players can do. I like my games to be a little more open and a little more creative, which worked out for us and was system that happened to fit well in our current situation.
You could do maps online and I know there are a few tools for making that easier, but I do think that might be one aspect of the modern D&D system that doesn’t translate as well to the online medium. Otherwise, I felt like it was an absolute blast.
Our group spent a great deal of time laughing and enjoying the company of fellow nerds. I also noticed that barely into the first session, characters started developing the unique quirks that make every group distinct and fun to play. My niece came away from her first game of D&D with stories of rolling both natural 1s and natural 20s, and the hilarity that ensued with both.
In the end, that’s what D&D is. It’s a chance for some of us to step out of ourselves and be someone else for a while. It’s a chance to experience strong emotions beyond the mundane experiences of the everyday, and the chance to explore the limits of our imaginations. D&D is an escape from our troubles and a deeply felt bond among mutual adventures. D&D is above all other things, a Fellowship of Friendship.
Featured image via Wizards of the Coast