During this unprecedented time, when most of us are in complete lockdown and providing we’re not working on the front lines, we’re all looking for ways to connect with our friends and family remotely. We need activities and practices that bring us together.
For most people, the default activity seems to be quizzes. Social media feeds are filled with silly questionnaires or trivia, but by now most of us are pretty tired of them. Here’s an idea: why not throw them out and start running role-play sessions for a real bonding experience? Role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons, can be the perfect way to gather a group of friends and go on memorable adventures together.
Typically, D&D is played with your friends gathered around the same table – but thanks to technology readily available to us, it’s easy to play remotely without having to leave your home. There’s never been a better time. So, buckle up, and learn how to run a masterful Dungeons & Dragons campaign online.
Gather your tools
Firstly, what tools will you need to play D&D remotely?
- Preferably you’ll need a premium Zoom account, or other unlimited call service, otherwise you’ll be dropping the call every 40 minutes.
- You’ll need to choose a role-play system (and get a copy of the rulebook). I recommend Dungeons & Dragons 5e or Dead World: Reborn (okay, I’m biased on that last one as I had a hand in creating it). Both are very narrative in their focus, which means epic storytelling.
- You’ll need dice, including d20s, d12s, d8s, d6s, d4s. You probably will also need a d10 and d100!
- Character sheets. I recommend creating digital ones in Google Docs or using D&D Beyond. This way, you can keep track of players’ progress, inventory, and stats, and retain master-copies of the sheets, so they can’t surreptitiously add items while you’re not looking… You can update them as you go.
- A tiled map, such as a Pathfinder Flip Map, that allows you to draw on it with water-soluble pens. This will need to be fairly big, at least 20 tiles by 20. The pens must be water-soluble, or removable easily, so you can delete and re-write. If you don’t have a specifically-purposed tiled map to hand, you could use a whiteboard.
- Some miniatures to represent players. If you don’t have D&D-specific miniatures, don’t worry. Any counters will do. Or LEGO minifigures. Get creative!
Plan your campaign
The secret to a good campaign is this: freedom. Most Dungeon Masters spend a great deal of time and energy trying to steer their players into certain encounters or narrative events. They view their players as guests at a museum, filtering them down the hallways in order to passively observe different occurrences. That doesn’t always make for the most enjoyable game of Dungeons & Dragons. The best Dungeon Master views their players as collaborative storytellers. They drop their players into a mysterious world and allow them to wreak whatever havoc they wish. The players are the heroes of their own story after all, so let them take centre stage.
To achieve this, I tend to create my campaigns as sandboxes. This is where your rewritable tiled map comes in! Design a sandbox world that has clear boundaries, the same way a videogame world does. The world you create, whether it’s one city, or a series of towns and villages, a dark forest, a mountain, a cave-system, or a combination of all of these, should have challenging areas but also areas of respite and reprieve. The reprieve is equally as important as the encounters and dangers, because this is often the space in which real character development and storytelling takes place. There’s no time for characters to develop when they’re fighting for their lives, but there is in the aftermath as they regroup at the inn.
In terms of NPCs – or non-player characters, the denizens of this world that your players may meet – I always ask myself a single question when designing them: “How will they challenge or hinder the player?” Actually, it’s possible for one NPC to do both. I also give each NPC one objective. One NPC’s objective might be to sell the player items. Another NPC’s objective might be to reach the other side of the map, and they will ask the player to help them do that. If every NPC has one clear objective, you can easily determine their behaviour. It’s also easier to understand what they want from the player, and how that might help or hinder them.
Finally, and critically: do not let your players see your map. Use your words and detailed description to set the scene, but don’t give them the free-pass of the map, because it takes away the surprises you have in store.
Get the right story
Playing D&D remotely is very different to playing in your best mate’s basement or living room. It has a different feeling about it. So, rather than trying to recreate the chemistry of having six or seven excited people in a room, you need to lean into the difference and harness the power of running the campaign online.
I recommend making your campaign objective based. And, I recommend making it competitive. I’ll talk more about the competitive element later on, but suffice to say that when you make it competitive, you shift the focus (and some of the pressure) from yourself to the players interacting with each other. That is where the real storytelling magic happens. Let me give you an example of a campaign I’m running at the moment:
- There are two teams of four players. A “North” team and a “South” team. These were randomly determined, so awkward people have to find a way to work together.
- Each team starts on opposite sides of a vast map. This map is a ruined citadel, known as Sentinel, because it guards a terrible secret…
- Both teams are seeking this secret: a legendary god-level sword known as the End of Empires (and yes, special thanks to Aaron Dembski-Bowden for that). The person who wields it will achieve the ultimate power (power is always a good motivator in D&D because it appeals to both righteous and evil players: the good want it to do more good, the bad want it because they’re bad).
- In order to acquire the sword, however, they have to collect certain key items.
- However, the teams have incomplete information, only a piece of the puzzle. Each knows where half of the key items are, but not the other half. At some point, they inevitably have to cross paths…
This has created one of the most dynamic campaigns I’ve ever played. As players and teams make choices, their actions have consequences in the world that then affect the other players. Many MMORPGs promise this level of interactivity, but none have truly delivered it. But with role-play, you can. You can create a world with profound and powerful consequences that feels alive.
If the North team was to massacre the inhabitants of a village, and then the South team was to arrive afterwards, they would see the devastation the other team had caused. This is where the game gets psychologically interesting. They wouldn’t know for certain it was the other team, or something cooked up by the DM. This is again where a rewritable (and hidden) map is essential. Neither team can see where the other one is, but they might be getting clues via NPCs, left-behind tracks or, if they’re very close, sounds heard. When dramatic events take place, you can write directly onto the map, so you don’t forget what’s changed. You can keep transforming this “living world” as you go.
You should also make use of the features unique to hosting a Dungeons & Dragons game remotely. For example, if a player can speak a language that only one person on the other team can understand, they can use one-to-one chat to communicate messages to them without the others seeing. This can mean that betrayals, hidden alliances, pacts, and information-as-currency become an incredibly vibrant factor in your campaign without you having to pre-plan or engineer it. That wouldn’t be possible in a situation where all players are in the same room.
Don’t focus on the dice
There’s nothing more boring than watching someone else endlessly roll dice and calculate numbers and percentages. Of course, D&D requires an element of that, but it shouldn’t be the focus. In the words of Abed from Community: “If I don’t follow the rules, the game has no meaning”. However, rules and stats are there as a guide to create logic and “physics” within the world. Over-emphasis on attack damage, stats, and dice-rolling will dampen the spirits of your campaign.
I recommend leaning more into the role-play. If you have a very strong warrior, for example, don’t make her roll every time she needs to do a basic strength task such as bashing down a door, or lifting a heavy object. This also empowers the player, because rather than having their heroic moment killed by a roll, they can simply tell the story they want to tell. The dice need to come out only when players want to do something extreme, or when they want to affect another player. Rolling dice less frequently also makes the stakes of those rolls feel greater and more intense.
When it comes to combat with monsters, I recommend easing up the dial on fighting. Endless monster fights can be quite boring, in the same way that movies with too many action scenes can become tiresome. The fewer monster encounters players face, the more there is at stake when they do have to fight. It’s also worth making fights shorter. I recommend increasing enemy attack damage (so if the player takes a hit, they know it); and lowering enemy health (so it’s easier for players to kill monsters/enemies). This way, a fight might be over in only a couple of turns but there is still sufficient tension.
Little and often is the way forward
I’ve known D&D sessions to go on for eight, nine, or even ten hours – sometimes two whole days. It can get pretty crazy. But playing Dungeons & Dragons remotely means it needs to be different. Whilst people may have the time, being furloughed, to commit to such lengthy adventures, the lack of actual physical company (and the fact you’re staring at a computer screen) makes a big difference to energy levels. It’s also more fun to stretch out of the campaign and create the “dead space” between sessions. That way, your teams of players will be talking about what might be coming next, what the other team is getting up to, and concocting plans to trap or outmanoeuvre them.
The frequency and length of sessions will depend on you and your fellow players, but a two-hour session once a week has worked very well for me. Two hours is a good length; it gives time for people to get settled and allows for a few major events to occur. It also leaves the potential of ending the session on a cliffhanger. Make sure you keep detailed notes on where your players get to and keep those character sheets updated, for your own sanity’s sake! If you have space, it’s also a good idea to leave the map laid out, with the miniatures on it, so you have an overview of where every player or team is at at one time.
Make it competitive and rewarding
The issue of “competition” within D&D is actually one that is surprisingly touchy for many. There are some Dungeon Masters who will actively kick players out if they’re too disruptive. My philosophy has always been the opposite: let players do what they’re going to do, provided it is in character and doesn’t overstep the mark to bullying.
That way, when you build competition into the game from the get-go, you achieve two things: one, you give players more of a reason to play: they want to win; and two, you give them an adversary that is unpredictable. A little like Mr X in Resident Evil 2, a roaming threat that might be behind any closed door.
My recommendation is to be generous to both teams at the start. Power them up. Provide opportunities for them to easily get loot, items and equipment. Then, after both teams have gained a level of power, that’s when you throw tougher monsters and encounters at them. But more than that, you’ll instil a sense of paranoia: We’ve gotten these items, but what have the other team got? Inevitably, it will drive them towards seeking the other team.
Like a dark god, laugh as your players destroy decade-long friendships for the sake of an imaginary sword and the illusionary concept of “glory”. Or, you know, just make sure everyone’s having fun.