A Simple Guide to the Best Way to Play D&D Online

Dungeons and Dragons has been played in-person for many years. However, many people are unable to play the game unless they are lucky enough to know people locally that play. Fortunately Dungeons & Dragons is no longer limited to in-person only. There are numerous ways to play Dungeons and Dragons online, ranging from free to paid applications, and we’ll show you how to get started.

Get Started Quickly

When first starting out, it’s important to just get started and not become overwhelmed by the many different options available. We recommend starting with just conference call software and playing as you would in-person – players have physical character sheets and roll dice manually. If you need a map and tokens, have the Dungeon Master use software and share their screen via the video conferencing software you’re using. You can add more features to your set up later.

Our recommended setup for how to play D&D online free

If you want to play online for free, we recommend using Discord, which includes everything you need to set up a conference as well as share your screen. As you become comfortable with playing online, you can also include bots that provide additional Dungeons & Dragons specific functionality. In terms of encounters, we recommend using either theatre of the mind (all in your imagination, no maps or player and monster representation) or a very simple map program. Owlbear Rodeo is a free online map software that allows you to have a map and tokens for players and monsters and that’s it. We should point out that even though the D&D setup is free, you will still require hardware. That is a computer, a microphone, and audio (often built-in if you’re using a laptop, otherwise you should pick up a gaming headset), and preferably a webcam, though not absolutely required.

Our recommended setup for how to play D&D online paid

When it comes to playing online, if you’re willing to make a monetary investment then your experience can be greatly enhanced. For conferencing and screen sharing we recommend Zoom. It’s a monthly fee, but it’s simply a more pleasant experience than the free alternatives. Fantasy Grounds Unity is our favourite software for showing battle maps. It’s a great way to manage and share maps, and also has character management, dice rolls, and basically everything you’d have on a table in virtual form. However, the Dungeon Master has a much higher upfront cost using this (worth it if you’re going to be spending a lot of time playing Dungeons & Dragons online) and it’s a steeper learning curve than Owlbear Rodeo. Of course, you’ll still need hardware (a computer, a microphone, speakers, and a webcam), which we’ll go over in more detail below.

What you need to play D&D online

There are a variety of software and hardware options for playing D&D online.

Video Conferencing Tools

Video conferencing tools enable you to chat with players via audio and video (and, in some cases, text), as well as share your screen with them. Some of the virtual tabletop software we outline below provides this functionality as well, but it’s not as good as using dedicated conferencing software, so we recommend you use a conferencing tool and skip this functionality in the virtual tabletop software.

Zoom

Zoom is the best conferencing software, but you’re either limited to 40-minute sessions or you need to pay a monthly fee. Zoom simply runs smoothly, has the best video quality, the fewest connection issues, and can even be used for streaming. As a bonus it also includes a beauty filter for when you’re just not ready to be seen on screen in your natural state.

Discord

Discord has everything you need to play D&D – it has chat, video, and screen sharing. You can share handouts to all players or give information to only specific players via chat. You can also add bots to Discord to extend the functionality, such as Rythm for music and Avrae for D&D specific features including reading character sheets, initiative tracking, and dice rolling.

Google Meets or Skype

Both Google Meets and Skype are also good options for video chat, they’re just not as full featured as Zoom, and the connection can be a bit choppier. They are both free though (at least for the features needed to play D&D online), which is a bonus over Zoom. Nothing is really wrong with either of these, but we feel if you want to use a free tool then Discord offers more features for the price of free.

Hardware

Computer

You’ll need a computer, we assume you already have a computer so won’t be advising on the different computers you can get as there’s a lot of options depending on what else you want to use it for.

Camera

Having a camera allows you to have video chat with the other people playing Dungeons & Dragons with you. While this isn’t absolutely necessary as you can play with just voice, it’s nice to have to provide an experience that is closer to the social interaction you would get at an in-person table. If you have a laptop it probably already comes with a built in web-cam. Otherwise a popular option that is not too expensive is the Logitech C270 Webcam.

Headphones & Mic

You’ll need a mic for voice chat, and something to play audio from. If you have a laptop it possibly already has a mic and speaker built-in, but the built-in microphone may not be the clearest and will probably capture a lot of background noise. You’ll get a much better experience from using a gaming headset, something like the Razer Kraken X or the HyperX Cloud Stinger would both be good budget options.

Dice Rolling Tools

You’ll need to roll dice to play D&D. Each player could have their own set of physical dice and say what they’ve rolled over chat, but if that’s not your style or not everyone has dice there are some good virtual dice rolling tools as well.

WotC online Dice Roller

Wizards of the Coast provides an official dice roller. It’s pretty barebones and simple, but it’s online, free, and doesn’t require any login or installation. If you or your players don’t have access to dice then this is a pretty simple solution. However, like rolling physical dice you’ll have to trust your player’s rolls, or have them share their screens through the conferencing software that you are using.

Discord

You can install a discord bot called Avrae, and this provides a dice roller right within the discord chat. You need to learn the commands, but it’s nice because if you’re already using discord then it’s inbuilt into the tool that you’re already using.

Virtual Tabletop Software

Most of the virtual tabletop software outlined below has a dice rolling function that can be viewed by the players or just the DM, and lets you roll multiple dice at once if needed. So if you’re using a virtual tabletop program then it’s likely you can use the dice functionality in there as they’re all quite good.

Character Sheet Tools

To play D&D you’ll need a way to store character sheets. Like dice, each of your players could have a physical character sheet, however having them online where both the players and Dungeon Master can see the character stats is more convenient.

D&D Beyond

The best digital character sheet I’ve found so far is D&D Beyond because it’s the most user-friendly and popular. You can have up to 6 characters for free, or unlimited characters for a small monthly cost. D&D beyond has a large amount of paid tools as well, including all the official rule books and campaigns. There is also a dice roller included, so if you’re using this you may as well use the dice roller too.

Dicecloud

Dicecloud is an online character tracker that is open source (so free) and allows you to have as many characters as you’d like to track. It’s not as user friendly as D&D Beyond, but it’s more customizable and allows you to see exactly where each stat is coming from. And you’re able to share the characters, making it easy for the Dungeon Master to track the characters too.

Google Sheets

You can use a google sheet to track your character, and then have Avrae bring the data into discord if you want. This is cool because it looks just like a paper character sheet while having the advantages of being able to be shared with the Dungeon Master, but it’s definitely the least intuitive option.

Virtual Tabletop Software

Virtual tabletop (VTT) software is a tabletop simulator, which means it allows you to share a dungeon map, character tokens, and monster tokens with your characters just like you would at a table. I prefer using a map to theatre of the mind because it makes the game much more tactile and immersive (even when playing virtually). Most VTT software also includes a plethora of extra features such as encounter builders, initiative trackers, character sheets, dice rolling, and even private chats, so make sure to consider these if they’re important to you.

Roll20

Roll20 offers both a free and a paid version and is the most full featured of the free options. The free option is adequate, allowing you to interact with characters, maps, and roll dice. However, you will most likely want more features in the future, and the paid version is less feature-rich and costs more than Fantasy Grounds or Foundry in the long run. Roll20 is the most well-known option, and it also has a game search feature that can help you find a game if you don’t already have a group of friends. This is web-based software that runs in your browser, so you can use it regardless of the type of computer you have.

Fantasy Grounds Unity

Fantasy Grounds Unity is a full-featured virtual tabletop that lets you manage characters, maps, tokens, battles, basically everything you’d manage at a table. The Dungeon Master will need to purchase the software, and then players can play. You’ll also likely want to purchase the player’s handbook and possibly the monster manual, to have the rules and monsters easily built-in. This can be a sizable purchase, but it’s worth it if you’re going to play D&D a lot online. This software is a download through Steam, so you’ll need to make sure your computer is compatible, and likely that of all your players too (. Another thing to note is that you can buy the official campaigns for this, which will save you a lot of time setting things up as it has maps and combat encounters all pre-built. A lot of adventures on DMs guild also come with modules that can be used on fantasy grounds.

Owlbear Rodeo

Owlbear Rodeo is a free virtual tabletop that allows you to simply place a gridded map and tokens. It’s good for a free and basic solution but does nothing more. This software is run through your browser, so is easy and quick to get going.

Foundry

Foundry has very similar features to Fantasy grounds, but it’s really a power user’s dream. Basically, the software has a steep learning curve but as a reward for that the table can be customized however you want it. A major feature Foundry has that Fantasy Grounds doesn’t is that you can import rules and modules you have purchased on D&D Beyond, as well as import characters that have already been setup there. Much like Fantasy Grounds, many adventures also have modules you can import into Foundry. This one is also software you install on your computer, so you’ll need to make sure your computer is compatible, and that of all your players too.

Talespire

Talespire is the really cool new player on the block. Unlike the other options that are 2d maps, this is 3d and has amazing special effects. For me, this is a bit too close to a video game as even though I’m playing online I want it to feel like a tabletop game, but some people love it.

Conclusion

With the many options for playing Dungeons and Dragons online, it’s never been easier to be able to play from the comfort of your own home. If you want to play adventures with friends through the web, there is sure to be something that suits your preferences. Choose from one of the free options if money is tight or you’re just getting started, but don’t forget to come check out some of the awesome paid choices when you’re ready.

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