When thinking about Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D for short), it’s easy to imagine a group seated around a table burgeoning with papers, books, dice, burning candles, and other atmospheric paraphernalia. The game was designed as a social activity for participants that all are gathered in the same room, which makes sense given the frequent need to consult maps and rulebooks. The same is true for other, similar games – they’re usually called tabletop roleplaying games for a reason.
With the advent of the internet and online-based video meeting software, things started to change. At first, people who wanted to play D&D but were spread out geographically used widely popular tools such as Skype to meet up. This worked well in some ways as the tools were built for sharing sound and video feeds, including for groups, and given that one can share screens and send files to participants, this feature is handy for showing maps and other digital handouts.
However, there are certain severe limitations to this method that often cause problems. For example, while one can display a battle map to convey the layout of a dungeon, the player characters’ movements are more challenging to track on the map. Without a shared live of a battle scene, only the Dungeon Master (or DM for short) will know exactly where each character and monster is positioned – which isn’t ideal for making optimal brilliant moves in a combat. Theatre of the mind-style playing is all good and well, but battles in D&D can be won or lost through clever strategy and smart actions. Worse, the character sheets and all other notes are also difficult to share, which complicates the playing even more.
Enter the bespoke type of services known as VTT software! VTT is short for Virtual Table Top, and a few examples of popular ones include Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, Shard, Foundry, Tabletop Simulator, TaleSpire, and Astral. Typically browser-based and requiring no special plugins, these services enable groups of players to join in a shared virtual environment that is custom-made to cater for roleplaying games.
They usually come fully equipped with good support for audio, video, and chat, much like regular software for online conferencing. However, they also typically have many other additional useful features, such as: ways to hide and show layers in a shared view, different types of grids (which are handy for combat), libraries with tokens that represent characters and monsters, built-in tools for visual cues, and custom dynamic character sheets that are specific for the roleplaying game ruleset that is being used by the DM and the players.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic resulted in a huge uptick in online players and the use of VTT platforms – when it is unsafe to meet in your living room, but you can keep playing while in isolation, the internet is suddenly your best friend. Moreover, great numbers of new players joined the hobby as it is an excellent way to stay social and to escape an everyday world that suddenly has become restricted and hazardous. Fast forward almost three years, and the number of online games and players is still huge. That’s no surprise: throughout the pandemic, lots of people formed new friendships with other players all over the world, and many found that they wanted to keep playing together even when lockdowns lifted and social distancing was relaxed.
So playing D&D online is still immensely popular – but the equipment you have at hand can make a huge difference. Poor tools can result in frustration, confusion, and the feeling that you are greatly distanced from the other members of the group. In contrast, using good – but not necessarily expensive – equipment can almost make it feel as if you are in the same room. Here’s a list of things to consider when preparing for an online session!
Internet Service Providers
Let’s start with the most fundamental of all: your internet connection. While this isn’t exactly an item per se, I include the connection here as it comes with hardware (the modem).
Ideally, you want a fast, reliable, and stable connection for anything online-related, but it is especially important when using VTT. High-quality video and audio use up a lot of bandwidth! Some software will do its best to compensate for slow connections, but for a good experience, you don’t want your fellow players’ faces to become pixelated messes or their voices to end up distorted. It really breaks the spell!
I’ll continue with the second most important item: your microphone. What, not the camera? Nope! One would think that a perfect video feed would be better than awesome audio quality for optimal immersion in a game, but we and many others have found that it’s far better to have brilliant sound quality than flawless video resolution.
While it’s bearable to see the grainy or small video feeds of the other players’ faces, there’s something profoundly off-putting with hearing their voices sounding tinny, distant, and often clipped due to a suboptimal microphone. But it’s easy to forget about this as you don’t really hear the quality of your own sound very often.
So if you’re looking to upgrade your equipment for VTT, and still use your computer’s built-in microphone, we recommend that you start with buying a separate one. We use a Blue Yeti, and it’s been a massive improvement, but there are microphones half as expensive that do a really good job too!
On to the camera! If you’re using a build-in camera, you probably want to consider changing to a new and more advanced one. However, cameras can be rather expensive, and there are so many options on the market today that this area is a veritable jungle, so we recommend doing some proper research before buying a new one. We have two cameras that we use: one with regular HD resolution that is small, plugs right into an USB port, and doesn’t need any special software. It’s less than $100 and does a decent job.
We also have a 4K camera that we use for longer streams and for recording videos. It is more expensive, needs an external power source and special software, and is trickier to use. However, the video quality is phenomenal, so it can be well worth looking into a camera of this kind in case you aim to present yourself in the best possible way.
A pro-tip for the true enthusiasts who want to create a really nice visual environment around themselves: consider the lights in the room. A single small reorganisation of the lamps that you have at hand, such as using two or three small lamps rather than a single strong one in the ceiling, can result in a much-improved look. What you especially want to avoid is being backlit by a harsh light as this typically leads to a washed-out image.
So round up the small lamps you have available, such as desk, bedside or decorative lamps, then turn on your software and open its video settings (you’ll usually get a live preview of your feed), and spend 10 minutes experimenting by placing the lamps in different places around you. Chances are that you’ll discover an arrangement that looks really great!
And if you want to go the extra mile, you can buy a set of battery-powered LED lights that can be set to different colours and place these in the background, for example in the other end of the room in which you are playing. Professional streamers often use these as they can make a huge difference and make your video feed look truly impressive.
A secondary screen
If you have access to a secondary screen – and you probably already have, if you own a smartphone – consider having it within easy reach when you are playing. It will make it far easier to look up information, chat, send secret messages, or take notes while you’re in the middle of a game. If you happen to have an extra screen that you can hook up to your computer and have next to your ordinary screen, this is even better as you won’t have to look down at your phone all the time.
Props and costumes
Seriously? Yes! If you want to make a memorable impression or just crack your friends up, get your hands on a simple wearable prop that is fitting for the theme of the adventure that you will play. Examples of entertaining props include ludicrous wigs, silly headgear (such as helmets or horns), and full-on costumes.
Just remember that some props can become a challenge to wear during long sessions as they might be warm or itchy – especially if you’re using lots of lights! – so choose them with care.
That was a quick summary of the things you will need for VTT (and some things that aren’t necessary, or which simply are fun). Hopefully it’ll be useful for making it even more fun to meet up with other people online and join forces in solving sinister mysteries, looting dragons’ lairs, or storming enemy castles. Game on!