How to Play Dungeons and Dragons Online

I could also call this post, “How to play D&D in your Pyjamas and Get Away With It.”

There are lots of ways to play Dungeons and Dragons (or other table top role playing games) online. With Roll 20, or Fantasy Grounds, or many of the other dedicated services out there. (If you have a favourite, please leave a comment!)

For me, I wanted to keep the game going that we’ve been playing weekly for the past two years. This is our final stretch for this campaign–the lead up to fighting the Big Boss. They’ve encountered her before, once, and it was the first time the party had no choice but to retreat. Since then, they’ve been chasing her tail trying to figure out how to bring an end to her absolute rule.

This game has been a combo of homebrew, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. A war between the vampires and the Illithids–started in the early days of the campaign when the party found a machine that opened a portal to four dimensions and neglected to shut it off. This allowed both Illithids and vampires from their worlds to travel inter-dimensionally. Did I mention two of the characters are Time Lords?

Like many others practising social distancing, my goal was to get the game up and running as quickly as possible and to have it feel as normal as possible. In these times, a little normalcy is comforting.

What I needed:

(1) A way to show the battle map. I play D&D a little like chess, with 3D printed minis that represent the party and terrain pieces to immerse the characters into the plot.

(2) A way of handling my notes quickly and efficiently. I normally use my laptop, but for reasons I’ll explain below that wasn’t possible for my plan to work.

(3) Get the players (and me!) online in a way that we couldn’t talk over one another, and the connection would be stable and clear.

The resources I had open to me (where there are alternatives, I’ll mention in the longer explanation):

–my 2012 MacBook Pro
–A Raspberry Pi connected to my TV (normally used as a retro game console) running Raspbian
–an iPad mini and iPhone
–all the old-school D&D necessities, such as a battle map, minis, books, notes, dice, etc.

Longer Explanation:

(1) I chose Zoom as my “conference” tool to bring the players and myself to the “table.” It’s more stable than Skype, and is built for many voices to be present on it. I signed up for a basic account for $20 so we could play longer than 40 minutes.

–ALTERNATIVE: Skype, which is free, would probably still work.

The MacBook became my “host” computer that I signed into on Zoom. I started the meeting, and pointed the camera at the battle map. This was handy, as I could move the camera as needed, and point it anywhere necessary.

The battle map I used is actually two large pieces of laminated grid paper. This is my usual battle map, and works great with dry erase markers. (I also have one that’s three large laminated grid papers.)

I chose to sprawl this on the floor, so that the MacBook would have plenty of room to be placed around the map.

(2) For those of you unfamiliar with Raspberry Pis, these are tiny computers the size of a credit card. They can be programmed with Linux operating systems (to run applications such as Libre Office (an open source program comparable to Microsoft Word) or to surf the Web), or with operating systems such as Lakka to create retro game systems. Mine is dual programmed for Raspbian (Linux for Raspberry Pi) and Lakka.

I loaded all my notes with Libre Office and had them on the screen. (The example here is just an example. Not my notes, so as not to give away anything to my players who may read this.)

ALTERNATIVE: Obviously, paper notes. I had them as well, sprawled over the floor.

(3) My iPad mini also connected to Zoom was my way of connecting to the players. To avoid feedback, I made sure that the audio was off on my MacBook (it was only displaying video of the battle map anyway). Players could pin the MacBook display to their screen so they could see the game play, but for me I could see who was speaking as their photo displayed on my iPad each time they spoke.

ALTERNATIVE: You could use a smartphone instead. I chose to keep my iPhone free to look up any rules on Roll 20 that we needed clarified quickly. (What can’t be clarified quickly, I make a ruling on and we look it up later. My players are great at trusting my judgment.)

The game play started out feeling a little weird. I eventually realized I needed something comfy to sit on (I found a stool), but after an hour or so it just seemed to flow naturally. It wasn’t better than having everyone here, but it sure was a close second best.

After several days of solitude previous to the game, I found playing this way with my group was just healing and what I needed. Turns out, it was the same for them, too. We’re in weird, unprecedented times right now. Having something like this keeping our lives feeling somewhat normal is good.

Happy TTRPing, all.


Designing D&D Characters

I wanted to give 3D sculpting a try, so I found an open source program called Sculptgl. It has both a browser based app and a stand-alone app.

I found the app easy to learn and fun to use. My first project was a beholder from Dungeons and Dragons, which I then printed in black on an Ultimaker 2plus. After, I primed it in white, splashed it with shade, and then painted it.

I think it turned out great!

Dungeons and Dragons 3D Printed

Since July 2018, I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons game at my library. As a Digital Services tech, I’ve been trying to add digital content to the game wherever possible to make the game run smoother or to feel more immersive.

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A few weeks ago, I decided to 3D print a set of medieval and viking houses to create a village where the players were heading. At the moment, the players had found themselves in an alternate dimension where the world was engulfed with water and there was very few spots of land left. They’d just battled a creature known as the Yuan-ti, which are serpents that were once humans and now believe that they have a right to rule unchallenged.

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My players had mentioned to me that they wanted more of their character’s backstories to play a role in the game. So, as you can see from the grid paper and 3D printed items above, I began to put together a recreation of a town from one of the player’s backstories.

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Such as the medieval cottage and the viking huts. (At the library, we have Makerbot Replicator 2s and print with PLA.) The files for the buildings I found on Thingiverse, and the characters I had 3D printed were from Shapeways and Heroforge.

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This was the map when it was nearly complete. The town of Dellam is a piece of land that is slowly being swallowed by the rising oceans. Varis, an elfin ranger, brought the party here from the mountain where the Yuan-ti battle had happened.

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Of course, as what often happens, the characters decided to chase down a ship the Yuan-ti were using to escape. At this point the players had not seen the 3D printed map just yet.

So, there I was, drawing out an impromptu grid-map of two ships–one manned by the Yuan-ti and the other steered by NPC Varis and the players. They did manage to chase it down, wage a battle, and defeat the enemy. (Eventually their pyro-sorcerer unleashed a series of fireballs that sunk the enemy.)

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And that’s when they sailed into port, to the 3D printed village of Dellam. A mostly swamp terrain that is slowly sinking into the ocean.

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And what now? What comes next? The players enjoyed the ocean battle so much that they are now talking about commandeering their own ship. So, as you can see, I am 3D printing them one.

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And will sign off this post with a carton from the 80s:

Author Event at the Richmond Public Library

For you local folks, I’ll be doing an author event at the Richmond Public Library on October 3, from 4-5:00PM. Topic: Writing Dungeons and Dragons-style.
If you have the time, it would be great to see you there. Please consider registering!

You’ll have a chance to try out some of the techniques I use for crafting a story. And here are a few of the things I’ll be discussing:

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Dungeons and Dragons and Creative Writing

Over the next few months, I’ll be running workshops that connect Dungeons and Dragons to writing creatively.

Writing Your Story Dungeons and Dragons-style

Whether you write contemporary tales or fantasy epics, the popular game of Dungeons and Dragons can make you a better writer. See how modern writers have been influenced through creating characters, maps, and collaborative storytelling to work through tough plot points!

At the end of this workshop, you’ll have the tools to say goodbye to writer’s block forever and get that novel written and polished.

What does that mean, exactly?

When I was 14 years old, I ran a weekly D&D game with my friends and had to come up with stories–sometimes on the fly. The purpose of D&D is that you have a storyteller, known as the Dungeon Master, who narrates the story to the players. This includes the setting, plot, and non-essential characters. The players are the ones who tell the Dungeon Master what the essential characters do–and as any writer knows, your characters can often screw up your intentions for the plot.

So now, many years later, I have been playing D&D 5th edition as a player and messing up the well-thought out plot my Dungeon Master has created. For the last month, I have been running my own game at the library as storyteller for a group of teens who continuously challenge me as a writer. There has not been a game where the teens haven’t forced me to rewrite the story and to accept the path the characters (whom they play) want to take.

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The teen D&D game uses apps.

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We also use 3D printed characters!

How does this translate into writing?

To create a story as a Dungeon Master, I had to write and create the following things:

(1) A map of the world where the story takes place.
(2) Maps of all the towns the characters may visit.
(3) Histories of the world and of the towns. Plus, of the spaces the characters may travel between towns.
(4) A plot that would get the characters (acted out by the players) to want to go from Point A to Point Z.
(5) Sub-plots that those characters would experience along the way. (Points B to Y.)
(6) Non-essential characters (played out by me) that would challenge the players. Some are friends, some are foes. Some who are friends, turn out to be foes. Some who are thought to be foes, turn out to be friends (the players had quite a bad turn here when they thought they were rescuing a farmer’s daughter from cultists, only to discover they were freeing an evil werewolf’s daughter from a group of warriors and wizards who could have saved her. Notice the past tense there…)
(7) Constant writing and rewriting of the plot week-to-week, and sometimes during the game, when other ideas surface either through the players or through my own ideas.

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The adults also play D&D at my library!

Those seven steps are essentially what it takes to write a book. And I’ve used this technique to write several books of urban fantasy, apocalypse, and contemporary tales.

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Last of these covers for Rancour and One-Eyed King!

I’ve taught workshops before where we played D&D to inspire our stories. I even created my own “Apocalypse Survival” role-playing game for classrooms, which I did for a few years while the apocalypse still seemed like a far-fetched idea.

How about you? Do you use Dungeons and Dragons (or other role-playing games) to inspire your writing? If so, I’d love to hear about it!