Virtual D&D: Playing Dungeons and Dragons online

Virtual D&D using Roll20

In times of a global pandemic, it’s only natural to try to find a safer way to play D&D with your friends (or potential new friends). In this article we will look at how to set up a game to play virtual D&D online — for free. There are several ways to play Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition online, but one of the most convenient ones is Roll20.net.

Roll20 does a great job and, to be honest, I have never found the need to go to the paid version – you can do pretty much all you need with a free account.

So, without further delay, here is a step-by-step on how to get started:

Step 1: Make a new account

Go to https://roll20.net/ and click on “Create Free Account”

Step 2: Set up your account

Once you registered your email address, you’ll be greeted with a welcome screen and a guided setup. Click on “get started” and pick your language and your display name (you can change this later). Then click “Start playing”.

Now we have two options depending on if you just want to play a game online or if you would like to create one yourself (as the Dungeon Master).

AS A PLAYER:

If you would like to join an already existing game that someone else is DM-ing then click the “Join a Game” button on the right next to “Recent Games”.

Once you are clicked you are greeted by the Code of Conduct page that explains what’s OK and what isn’t in a game. The Code of Conduct, in short, says: play nice. No harassment of others, no abusive language, personal attacks, illegal activities, docking, trolling, spamming and no posting of sexually explicit or extremely violent content.

I suppose that last bit will be tricky, considering how dark some games can get – but at least you are aware.

Click “I Agree” at the bottom of the page and you’ll see the matchmaking tool where you can browse games looking for players.

To do that, enter “D&D 5E” into the box that says “Playing Any of These Games” (Roll20 also supports many other roleplaying systems like MERP, GURPS, Vampire, Palladium..).

Then click “Only find games that welcome new players” to make sure you have a smooth, beginner-friendly, experience.

Finally, I would recommend to click “Only find games that are Free to Play”. There are DMs on Roll20 that host games you need to pay for, but to begin with and to get familiar it’s probably best to go with a non-paid game.

As you can see you can also add some additional search terms and sort by games that either start soon or that are closer matches to your search. If you want to get started right away “start soon” is a good choice.

Then click on “Find Games” at the bottom and you will see a list below that shows you potential games you can join.

Some things to look at when choosing a game:

Language: make sure the game matches the language you would like to play in. The second game here for instance is run in French, not English.

Number of Players: to get an experience similar to a regular pen and paper in-person game, you might want to skip games that have more than 6 players.

Type of game: You will see the name & description of a particular session which you can expand by clicking on “Read More”.

Time: have a look at when the game will start under “Next Game” in the rightmost column.

Participation: Some games are run with webcams (video and audio), most with just voice and some with text only. Pick what fits best to your personal preference. I find voice-only games usually offer the best experience, but that’s just me.

If you click on a particular game (in our case I clicked on “Autumn of Dreams”) you will be able to read the introduction and see many more details about the plot, limitations on which characters you can make, how the game is run etc.

To join a game, often you have to get in touch with the DM first. You can do this by scrolling at the bottom of the page.

Some games you can join while they are going on and these are called “Pick Up Games”. They require no prior posts on the game’s message board.

Once you have been admitted to a game, you will see a screen that looks a bit like this:

On the left side, taking most of the space, is the map area. Here you will typically see a region or combat map or some other information. This basically represents the virtual game table.

At the bottom of the table you will see who has joined the game so far. In our example, it’s only me “Mark” who’s in the game.

At the top left in the map area you can see the toolbar. This allows you to move your character on the map, draw, zoom, measure distance and roll dice, respectively. It also has a help function in case you get lost.

Just to get one of the common tasks out of the way, here is how you would roll a regular d20 using this menu.

There is another way to make a dice roll, and that’s by entering a specific code in the text window there to the right of the map window.

Whenever you join a game you will see some text on green background that will show you the types of commands you can use here but pretty much the only thing you will ever need is:

/roll

You can just enter this command followed by the dice (and bonus if any) and press enter. Roll20 will then roll the dice for you and display the result in the chat window. For example:

/roll 3d6+2

.. here we rolled a 12 total. The dice were 2, 3 and 5. Very simple.

Now in case you are playing with characters you made on paper this is all you need to play. If you are playing with digital character sheets, there is one more step we need to look at, and that is how to create a character in Roll20:

Once you’ve done that, you will see a character sheet pop up in front of you that you can fill out.

If the GM activated “Charactermancer” you will even have a guided step-by-step approach to click through to make your character. Note that not all potential options for D&D 5E characters may be available – this is because only the core content of the Player’s Handbook has been added to Roll20 and additional content requires a purchase. You can however often get away with just filling out the sheet on your own (without the Charactermancer) and that typically solves the problem.

I hope this little guide was helpful and if you would like to host your own game on Roll20, stay tuned – there will be a follow-up article on that soon.

3 Replies to “Virtual D&D: Playing Dungeons and Dragons online”

  1. I noticed that you didn’t mention any of the other Virtual Tabletop (VTT) systems/applications/websites available, just Roll20. I think it would be worth mentioning the others so your readers can explore what works for them and make informed decisions, much like a well written campaign that lets players explore the world instead of railroading them towards the final encounter with the BBEG.

    Here are a few that are worth checking out:
    Fantasy Grounds
    Astral VTT
    Foundry VTT
    D&D Beyond
    GM Forge (on Steam)
    D20Pro
    Tabletop Simulator (on Steam)

    1. Hey, thanks for your comment. I am most familiar with Roll20 (which afaik is also the most popular choice) and it does the job. I am reluctant talking about something I am not overly familiar with.

      Do you miss something in Roll20 that the other options provide?

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