Moving a Campaign Online

Moving a campaign online is something a lot of folks globally should be or already are considering right now, since the hellscape we are stumbling though as a planet has now brought us COVID-19. 

William will be moving an in-person campaign to Roll20 soon, and it had been a while since he'd DM'd online. What kind of guidance and wisdom does he need to remember? What tips/tricks and things to be aware of? We asked several experienced DM's and players for input.

How should a DM prepare differently for an online campaign vs in-person?

1. All the online tools have ways to introduce pre-made art onto the virtual map. Roll20.net, with the drag-and-drop icons marketplace, makes it easy to quickly bring things in to the visual space that look cool, but not whole maps. Fantasy Grounds, Table Top Simulator, and others have similar features.

You may find it more time-consuming to lay out maps, terrain than a trusty wet-erase battlemat. As we wrote years ago when we ExemplaryDM did some online D&D via Roll20, "As a DM in roll20, it is super easy to search inside the app for token, graphic, even audio assets, and immediately add them to the game. Even when Ian found a suggestion for how his sword would look, William was able to quickly upload the image to the game and place it on a table, label and all. So easy."
Try leveraging Roll20's dynamic shadows, which is so damn cool when prepped right, especially when the party is exploring. But it will be even more time consuming. Create and prep maps if you can, but don't be afraid to just create a blank map and draw a quick room layout too, with a plain white background. No harm in that.

2. You may find DM'ing for Roll20 more time consuming also because when setting up a map using dungeon tiles, dwarven forge, or other physical map objects, it's fun for the players to watch the world come into being. When creating it on the fly in Roll20, the players can't see. Time drags.

3. Some of your more code-savvy players might relish doing things in Roll20's expression language, but others might not be interested in "programming" their spells and attacks. So don't require everyone to learn how to "code" their attack rolls, don't drive that wedge. Just like at the table, try to meet every player where they are.

So you're not going to use Roll20? That's fine.

5. You should also be familiar with your online platform, its mechanics, moving the map around, how the different map layers work. And be ready to instruct players on how to do things quickly, and be forgiving and not cruel. There have been times where a game has ground to a halt while DM's or players try and figure out how to do something.

6. Lead the table to decide whether and how your players will update their tokens with graphical bars for hit points, etc. Is it worth the overhead in maintaining those?

7. You should set up NPCs tokens and other player handouts ahead of time. This cuts down on non-playing time in sessions. Prep digital assets just like you would in-person assets - you might find it more time consuming depending on your digital art skills and bar of excellence.

8. Just playing on Discord or Slack? That works too. Don't get too caught up in graphical tools if you'd rather go with "theater of the mind".

How should players prepare and play differently?

1. Depends on your players. If players are mainly using D&D as a way to socialize with friends, the transition will be painful. If they're in it for storytelling or math/combat, that should still translate well.

2. Consider having everyone agree to some table rules (perhaps after having been inspired by a podcast like our episode on Etiquette!) The first rule of table etiquette for players remains: “Be ready." Establish other norms like "No griefing" by drawing dicks on the screen or moving each others' tokens. Highly recommended.

3. Learn and share basic conference call politeness at a bare minimum, and if possible, insist on video chat (more on that later), even if you're not streaming.

The dynamics of overtalking in online communication are completely different than real life. Online audio is far more susceptible to someone dominating the conversation, interrupting someone else, or having a disruptive influence. Be more aware than usual of interruptions and conversation domination. It can be very demotivating to constantly be talked over and interrupted at a table, and it's much easier for it to happen online.

4. When people are at their computers remotely, becoming distracted is incredibly easy so being engaged is the most important thing. Make a point that players shouldn't be surfing the web or playing other games. ("Are you playing WoW right now!?") Your good players won't do this anyways and it won't need to be said for them... but it might be important for some players to hear this, and an expectation be set.

5. Otherwise players should do all the stuff they normally do: know how their character works, have access to PHB and understand most rules.

However, now players also need to know how to navigate and use the online platform as well, which has its own set of features. Make sure everyone knows this is an expectation and give them resources and a reminder/primer before each session starts if necessary.

Using a corresponding online character sheet should not be a requirement to play online. You can even use paper and pencil if you want.

7. A lot of people are learning how difficult it is to work from home these days. People are adjusting to the mixed physical space of home and work. The same will apply to D&D online. Dogs, kids, spouses, all are in the same space and have access to disrupting your campaign sessions when they didn't before. Let's be aware of 1) what we can do to minimize interruptions or at least make them planned/rare and 2) when it is appropriate to play D&D at home in a close quarters setting.

Let's face it, some people are really struggling with working from home because they cannot divorce the work from the home physical spaces. Not all of us have a dedicated office for work and dungeon delving. We might need to consider logistical alternatives or resign ourselves to logistical limitations.

What should a DM do differently?

1. Again, start with having everyone agree to some table rules (perhaps after having been inspired by a podcast like our episode on Etiquette!) The first rule of table etiquette for players remains: “Be ready." Establish other norms like "No griefing" by drawing dicks on the screen or moving eachothers' tokens. Highly recommended.

2. Make sure all your players are involved and limit the number of players you have even further than you would in real life. At an in-person table you can have side conversations or players can have small interactions between each other without interrupting the game or DM. Low-volume jokes and comments get a laugh but may not interrupt a DM at the table.

3. Online, low-volume jokes are much higher volume, much more disruptive, and it's much more likely that the someone will be forced to overtalk or stop talking for loud laughter. Online, everyone can hear everything at pretty much the same volume, and group laughter is now very loud.

If you have six players at an online table, you need some serious audio discipline and good behavior from everyone online or there probably won't really be enough time for people to enjoy having their little moments. Three players is probably ideal for online play, 4 is alright but pushing it. 5+ would be very challenging, just because the bandwidth for audio is severely compressed compared to real life.
4. You may then have more success to try and just play a bit more serious. Not because we're against having fun, but because goofy banter I think it slows the game down and is more disruptive online. You as the DM will have to be upfront about this with your players thought because anyone who gets the majority of their fun from joking, or players with impulse control, might create issues for the whole group.

Just because a platform has a map with a grid, doesn't mean you have to do more or less stuff ON the grid. In fact, overuse of the grid will be quite distracting. At the table, you probably don't have each character's figurine accurately reflected on a map at all times, especially outside of combatFeel free to blank the screen out when it's not important where tactics are. Where everyone is standing during a conversation may not be important information.

5. Sure though, take advantage of the digital medium. Get to know how to add art, use the dynamic shadows, try out background music. Just like you were 3D printing, molding, or hot-gluing your maps before, try applying your same artistic craft to digital landscapes, scenery, portals, dragons, gazebos, and cleverly hidden dick jokes.

6. Taking breaks in a session can be harder because the person isn't in the next room to yell at to get back to the table. In person, people can get up, refresh their beer or citrus-flavored caffeine, and sit back down again without missing a beat. When someone leaves the virtual space... it's total disconnect. So as a DM, be sure to schedule and offer regular bio-breaks and hydration breaks. Hourly is probably a good cadence.

Use these breaks to do things that take longer online. In addition to getting your own water and bladder situation resolves, as the DM should take the time while other people are afk (away from keyboard) to sketch maps, create encouters, write engaging whispers to players, etc.

How should the campaign story differ?

It shouldn't.

What are some D&D anti-patterns for playing online?

1. What may happen is that interactions break down to client-server relationship between the DM and each player individual. This is because of the audio dynamics. At the table, this would feel weird. The DM is supposed to be pulling the strings as the party interacts with eachother. Prompt the team for interaction, dialogue, and internal conversation. Promote the use of player-to-player whispers/chats (though not to exclusion to the action at hand.) Especially if not everyone has a camera, you'll lose out on visual cues of people wanting to contribute to eachother. You lose some of the natural "passing of the baton". As a DM, you must work to facilitate interaction between people. 

2. There is a lot of research showing that audio+video chat is far more effective at communication than just audio chat. We suggest you insist on players showing their face on a webcam. Overcome technical difficulties to make this happen, require it. Every DM or player we have spoken to has recommended requiring video chat.

Video chat contains way more information about intent and body language that make for better communication. It's not as good as in-person communication, but it's much, much more effective than audio only.  Also, D&D has a lot of acting, and not just by the DM! Most people act with their facial features and body language. Missing out on this is definitely a loss.

Plus, video chat provides added accountability for folks who need to be engaged and paying attention, especially when outside of combat. Dead giveaway - light changing/reflecting as someone browses Reddit.com (or the equally enthralling ExemplaryDM.com) instead of paying attention. :/ Stay engaged, players!

If a player doesn't like to or can't play D&D with a webcam, others who do share video might be uncomfortable since people can see them without sharing. This can spiral. Make a pre-requisite of your online campaign that video chat is required. 

Don't have your space to yourself so can't video chat comfortably? Consider an application like XSplit or others that can blur the background behind you without a green screen. And I suggest using a nice mic, preferably on a headset, as opposed to a laptop mic or webcam mic that might have a lot more background noise. Spend some time fine tuning audio settings. It'd be great if there was minimal hiss and that everyone's voice carried the same digital "weight" via volume.
3. In real life, you roll behind a screen. Online, you may be tempted to roll publicly. Why? You should retain the right to fudge dice in advancing a story. Don't roll everything publicly as the DM. The players should still roll publicly, via the online platform. Not much getting around that.