Simple Online Gaming for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons

Computer Dragon

This is what I think I look like running online gaming sessions!

My first session of Hoard of the Dragon Queen was a good experience of what I hope is a long-living campaign. Since getting local friends together for consistent gaming sessions proved difficult, I decided to attempt running an online game. By doing this I was able to expand the potential pool of players, and after a week or so of organization and scheduling I found six players who could commit to weekly sessions. There is always something new to learn about running an effective gaming session in a face-to-face setting, and there are plenty of things for me to learn about running online sessions effectively. Below I discuss a few suggestions about setup, communication, combat, and space based on a few early sessions of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons as a player and DM.


When setting up a face-to-face campaign, I have found that the first session is often a combination of character creation and a brief start to an adventure. Online gaming presents a bit of a challenge because players are often creating their PC in isolation from the other players and the first session thrusts players right into the adventure. To address this, I set out to increase the amount of collaboration among the players before the sessions even started.

I initially tried to start up a conversation through a group email, but this proved to be a unsuccessful. Players responded to emails at different rates, some players replied to all and other just replied to me – so it resulted in some disjointed conversation. I switched gears and relied on Roll20, which allows the creation of various forum topics. I created three threads through Roll20 for the players to respond to. The first was a request for players to introduce themselves to the group; I started by introducing myself as the DM. The second was a request for the players to provide some information about their expectations for the campaign. For example, I asked if they prefer more combat, roleplaying, or a combination of the two. Last, I started a thread for the players to confer about character creation. It provided a hub for all discussion for the players to discuss PC builds.

When running a campaign that will be strictly online, be sure to create a foundation for the players to communicate before the first session. Whether that is through the above method, or devoting the entire first meetup online to player introduction and character creation, be sure to give the players an opportunity to bond.


The group has to decide earlier how they plan to communicate during the sessions. My initial plan was to use a group call through Skype, which is how we played the first session. The connection was fine for the majority of the session; however my end of the call dropped once or twice and that resulted in everyone getting kicked off the call. It took a few minutes to get everyone back online. We tried Roll20 during the latest session, and that seemed to work well because even if my Internet connection experienced a hiccup – the other players were not be booted from Roll20. Two sessions in, I plan to stick with Roll20 for the audio/video component.

Regardless of the connection method, online gaming presents all players with a limited amount of information compared to face-to-face gaming. In a face-to-face group, players can track and respond to both verbal and non-verbal behavior. Online gaming does not afford the group this luxury. It seems – at best – that players will have a small window of each player to see non-verbal communication cues and gestures. Earlier in my professional career, I wrote research about the differences between face-to-face and online counseling. So handling the limitation of online communication is nothing new to me.

To deal with the decreased amount of non-verbal cues during the gaming session, Dungeon Masters (and all players) can use clarifying questions and verbal check-ins more frequently. Avoid relying on assumptions regarding player actions or intentions, and be quick to address any ambiguity that arises throughout the session. All gaming sessions feature a fair amount of players talking over each other at times; DMs should be more inclined to take on the role of traffic cop during online games. For example, when several players are talking at the same time, the DM should not hesitate to step in to verbally “give the floor” to one of the players and minimize multiple players talking over each other. This is a good skill in face-to-face games, and it becomes more vital in online gaming sessions.


The grid-based combat in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons was wonderful fun in a face-to-face setting; however my efforts to play the edition online proved less than ideal. The combat system, which can be quite deliberate, bogged down when applied to a virtual tabletop. The great news is that the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons does not require a grid or miniatures to execute combat. Through two online sessions, the party has faced five combat encounters and a grid was not needed for any of them. Since all combat  in 5th Edition can be presented narratively, gaming groups do not need to feel tied to grid-maps, miniatures, and tokens.

There are ways for a DM to illustrate combat online with services such as Roll20. While I have experimented with using maps and tokens outside of gaming sessions on Roll20, I have not yet used them during a gaming session. I imagine I will use these features at some point, but I am content to run combat without these bells and whistles thus far. However, when playing online, the DM should take great pains to be specific in regard to the narrative aspect of combat by providing an even greater level of detail so the players can appropriately fill in the blanks.

Quick. Dirty. But an effective way to track combat on my end.

Quick. Dirty. But an effective way to track combat on my end.

Admittedly, I likely did not provide enough detail during some of the early combat encounters while online. One of my players asked if I was using miniatures on my end to keep track of the flow of combat – and I realized that was a great idea. During the second session, I used tokens on a grid map to help me keep track of combat encounters on my end. By doing this, I had a visual representation of the combat situation, which allowed me to easily answer questions from the players. As combat encounters increase in complexity, this method will allow me to keep track of players, monsters, hazards, and other terrain features while not slowing the game down for the players online by fumbling with a virtual tabletop. As I gain mastery with the virtual tabletop through Roll20, I will likely rely on this method less.

Exploring the Space

One of the potential drawbacks of playing in a face-to-face environment is that the physical space can be more than a bit cramped.  Though I enjoy my custom-made D&D table, it is not the largest table and it becomes rather cluttered when more than four players – including me – are playing. During face-to-face games when running sessions, I typically have to stack a variety of information behind the DM screen. My dice, rulebooks, handouts, and other materials are constrained to a small section of the table so the other players have room to breath; I often have to store books and other resources by my feet or on another stool or table.

Online Game Table Space

I can be a total slob when running sessions online. ALL THE SPACE BELONGS TO ME!

So playing online and not having to share table space with other players is so luxurious! I do not need to hide behind a DM screen. I can spread out my materials, have everything I need right in front of my face – and really explore the space. While I prefer the face-to-face gaming experience, there are some benefits to the online experience, and this is one of them. When running a gaming session online, be sure to maximize the space in front of you in ways that would not be possible when other players are at the table.


Consider the following suggestions when running a game online:

  • Give the players an opportunity to bond before the first session through email or a form like the Roll20 campaign message board.
  • Be more directive with communication to make up for the lack of non-verbal cues.
  • Use a map and tokens/miniatures in your physical space to keep track of narrative combat.
  • Be sure to maximize the space around the table when other players are not in your location.



About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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14 Responses to Simple Online Gaming for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons

  1. Nai_Calus says:

    I think I see Xarann. 😉

    Heh, funnily enough, I think you’ve hit on why it doesn’t bother me much to game online versus gaming in person; I don’t pick up on non-verbal cues well(sometimes not at all) anyway due to my Asperger’s Syndrome, so I don’t miss them when they aren’t there. (Also avoids crowded rooms at stores/cons/etc, helps the times I don’t want to/can’t make eye contact and if I can’t get what I mean out verbally or need to clarify but I’m not processing audio right there’s a little chat window right there I can say/ask things in. It’s like accessible gaming tailored to people who fail RL forever.)

    • Agreed. I sometimes have anxiety/speech issues, and am finding online play much easier in that regard than in-person play. The availability of the chat window helps as well.

      • The Id DM says:

        You both bring up an interesting thought – that online gaming could be *easier* for a certain group of gamers. This same conversation has played out in my professional life regarding online counseling. For example, if a patient is struggling with social anxiety, is it beneficial to provide online therapy – which allows the patient to stay in their home. It could be seen one of two ways. First, it perhaps reinforces the avoidance behavior because the patient doesn’t need to leave the house. Second, the patient may not seek out therapy in a face-to-face setting, so online therapy is better than nothing and perhaps can improve the symptoms. It’s a good discussion.

        I think online gaming can open up this hobby in big ways because it removes the physical barriers required to play the game.

  2. Glad my question about minis on your end helped. 🙂

  3. Krieger12 says:

    I’m a little curious. I’m having trouble finding people to play in a group myself. My last group dissolved over a year ago from various personal commitments. Where did you go to find players online, and how did you vet them to ensure that they would work in your group?

    • The Id DM says:

      Good questions. I wrote a bit about vetting players in a post a few years ago.

      The article includes a questionnaire to give players prior to starting a campaign to see if you’ll have a good match. For this group, I paired that down to simply asking about the players’ expectations for a campaign. Everyone seemed to be on board with a mix of combat, roleplaying and exploration. I didn’t have anyone who voiced a need for “all combat, all the time.”

      To find players, I threw out the question over Twitter. I’ve met many nice folks on Twitter and people responded to the request. One player is someone who I gamed with face-to-face back when I lived in Houston.

  4. John Chrysostom says:

    This is very interesting — it is very, very different from my experience. I run a weekly game online using Maptool. We recently started playing 5e, but I ran a 6 year long campaign from 1 to 30 in 4e, and it got to the point that I couldn’t imagine how anyone played 4e *without* using a virtual tabletop. If I were ever to run a 4e game again, even in person, I would absolutely use a virtual tabletop. With macros and the like, every process that normally would bog down play can be automated, like what states a token has, and when they expire. I seriously have no idea how people keep track of that stuff when playing in person in even a moderately high level campaign, where every monster and most PCs have several states at once, all with variable ending times.

    We are continuing to use our VTT for our 5e game, and have programmed a new set of macros accordingly, though it is obviously a lot simpler and straightforward.

    We found that actually using the features of a robust virtual table top can really expand the game. For example, one particularly memorable encounter took place in a library with lots of book stacks. In a robust virtual table top, players can see only what their characters can see, so flameskulls flying around shelves posed a unique problem, as each player could generally see maybe one other PC and maybe one of the five or so monsters. You really can’t replicate that on a non-virtual table b/c you can’t stop people from looking at miniatures that their character can’t see. But with vision settings and a vision-blocking layer, it works like magic.

    I’d be happy to run a demo if you’d like, or if you’d like to sit in on one of our weekly sessions — it just seems unconscionable to be running a game with a virtual table top and not availing yourself to any of the reasons to use a virtual table top…

    • John P says:

      Personally I’d love to see a VTT in action. I’ve previously tried Maptools with my old group(playing 4E) one winter. They didn’t seem to really “Get” is benefits.

      • colmarr says:

        We tried to run a maptool campaign and discovered it’s heavily reliant on internet speed (at least the Rumble framework we used is). The functionality is amazing, but large AoE attacks were taking upwards of 30 secs to update for each player.

        That’s much less time than it would take in real life to roll the dice and make notes, but for some reason it feels unsatisfactory online.

      • John Chrysostom says:

        So we play on Monday evenings, you could come watch our next session, or if that doesn’t work, I could arrange a mini-demo sometime during the weekend. Our weekly game is now 5e, and our framework is lightweight but effective. Our 4e setup was pretty impressive, given the crazy amount of things that need to be tracked in that game, and we weren’t even using anything super high tech (there are frameworks that will automatically calculate combat advantage, damage, taking into account reactions, interrupts, etc., but we went without that kind of automation, while tracking all relevant moving parts and conditions, etc. etc.). Email me at pstrait / at / g mail / dot / com, and we can make arrangements.

      • John Chrysostom says:

        The full rumble framework is kind of a beast. But we used the slimmed down version and everything was instantaneous. Also there is a new 4e framework that does even more than Rumble’s and yet is superfast, the ‘macro policebox.’ But even if one didn’t use any kind of framework, if you aren’t taking advantage of token vision / visibility, you aren’t really *using* a virtual tabletop. You might be playing D&D with a virtual tabletop turned on, but it is sort of like playing with a vinyl grid on a non-virtual table that you are using to protect the table from spilled drinks. It is there, but it might as well not be. Anyone who thinks of a virtual tabletop as an inferior version of a tabletop, used only by necessity because of distance between players, is seriously missing out. This kind of technology can enable you to conceive of playing a pen & paper RPG in totaly novel and interesting ways.

  5. John Chrysostom says:

    One other thing that is useful for an ongoing campaign — use a collaborative google spreadsheet to keep track of inventory, wealth, experience, plot items, etc. etc. Here is the document we used for our 4e campaign, as an example:

    • The Id DM says:

      My apologies for the delay in responding. It would be interesting to see what you’re talking about in action. It seems like that would take a bit of leg work to set up before the game, and I’ve tried to cut down on the prep time needed to DM each session. I’ll send you an email. Thanks!

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