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Online or In-Person: Where to Play D&D

The twenty-first century is the age of internet, and with each year, new digital resources spawn to replace traditional alternatives. Netflix instead of DVDs; eBooks instead of paperbacks; M.S. Word instead of a notebook; texting instead of passing notes or writing letters or whatever I did to get by (I think I just randomly called my friends on the phone?). The internet has made it easy to do all the things that make us human, so it’s no surprise that with the rise of Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition, a slew of online resources have been cultivated to make D&D easier, more accessible, and more fun for all of us nerds.

You can now play D&D without ever needing to leave your house.

Roll20 is one of the biggest platforms for online tabletop games. It features a digital tabletop that you can import maps onto, a tactical grid that you can scale to your needs, tokens and trackers for characters, and integrated character sheets for tons of different TTRPGs. It’s versatile enough that you could play a completely homebrewed game system on it.

I DM Colourful Morons on Roll20. We started Colourful Morons with the Lost Mine of Phandelver, D&D 5e’s introductory adventure—which you’ll recognize if you’ve listened to the Adventure Zone. Now we’re working through Princes of the Apocalypse, which, honestly, I picked because it looked really cool.

Princes of the Apocalypse cover art via Roll20

Like, how could you look at this and not want to play it?

It turned out that Princes of the Apocalypse is a massive dungeon crawl.

Digital format is super effective for dungeon crawls!

My D&D group had never done anything so combat-oriented—but Princes of the Apocalypse was perfect for the online medium. It’s very heavy with tactical maps—there are thirteen interconnected dungeons that make up the main campaign.

If I was DMing this game in person, I’d have four options:

  1. Spend a fortune printing out the maps at Staples.
  2. Spend tedious amounts of time transcribing the maps I think we’ll need onto our reusable grid before each session.
  3. Describe the areas to my players who are all poor at auditory comprehension and then just randomly guess tactical details like whether or not these foes are lined up in a way that they can get hit by a certain spell.
  4. Put the maps on Roll20 and have everyone use their computer at the table.
Line of Sight via Roll20

These options all kind of suck. In my digital game, I don’t have to settle! Each of my players can look at the map in live time, and they can even have their view restricted by the line of sight of their characters. I don’t have to worry about the “drawbacks of computers at the table” because in an online campaign, computers are there anyway.

I can track the hit points and status effects of every monster right on the token, so I don’t have to worry about “oh which goblin is goblin number 2?” or “which orc was engaged with Zephyr?” Digital tabletop gaming is every tactician’s dream.

An additional benefit—which most people would probably say is the best part—is that playing D&D online means that you don’t have to leave your house, and you can play with people all over the world. One of my players lives in England, but she can play D&D with Canadians thanks to the internet.

If you want to play D&D with people that live far away or play a campaign that is very heavy with combat and tactics, digital tabletop is the way to go!

But, digital tabletops take away the most defining feature of D&D.

Community. Connection. Intimacy. D&D nights are a night where I get to hang out with my friends, munch on some snacks, and have a great time. We all get into roleplaying, and we can hear and see each other in full. We can read each other’s facial expressions, and it really helps with the roleplay part of D&D. It’s like we are our characters, and we’re all together on an adventure. The internet just … doesn’t have that.

Playing D&D in person also solves technical problems: no repeating the same line over and over again because your mic cut out; no pausing the game for an hour because your internet fucked up; no wondering where a player suddenly went in the middle of a conversation. If people are physically in your presence, internet fuckups can’t take them away from you.

If you want your game to really feel like home—to have that nostalgia when you look back on it—then you’ve gotta make the effort to play in person. Playing through a screen doesn’t make the same emotional connections in your brain.

If you can play in person, you should.

Obviously, there are hurdles for playing in person: sometimes your friends live across the world from you, or your campaign is so map heavy that you need to pull out the computers anyway. Online resources can be wonderful in making it possible to play the game when you otherwise wouldn’t be able to play at all. But if it’s feasible for you and your friends to get together in person to play D&D, you really should! It’s great for emotional bonding and that sense of community—trust me!

Of course, feel free to disagree! I want to know what you think about playing online versus playing in person. Have any thoughts that I didn’t mention in this post? Please share them in a comment!

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