When I came to D&D as a hobby I didn’t have a lot of money for gaming. I spent years as a student so I didn’t have a lot of money for gaming. Now I have a family and significant demands on my finances, so I don’t have a lot of money for gaming.
So whenever I do D&D, I do it on the cheap.
I recently migrated my game online. I spent some time with Roll 20 and Fantasy Grounds, and in short, both required me to plug into something pre created, from either an adjacent rule set to what I use or something else. I run a home brew campaign heavy with house rules for combat and spells. So none of the interfaces are a good fit, as all will require me to either convert or adjust a lot of my game.
So I thought it through, and here’s the thing. At the table, you hear voices, and you see props. You consult tables and such. You roll dice. You look at your character sheet. All online has to do is emulate that relatively well.
Really, the only thing I don’t have is a virtual tabletop, where I can move things in real time, and so can the players.
But in reality that’s not really what you do with maps and minis, you really just lay them down, fiddle with them and leave them there. You don’t need real time adjustments.
Here is what I do.
1. I use an online roller through Discord. That avoids the need for individual video feeds to show dice rolling if the players don’t want them. I have offered people the ability to roll in front of their camera for video enabled games as well.
2. Use online chat through Discord. I use my voice, but a text gets through when everyone is talking. I use both. When the din from side talk or background noise gets too much I have bailed with a, “I’m on text only, I have muted everyone”, and after a few minutes of that they are generally more aware of their noise levels.
3. Group dependent, but self-muting is sometimes required. Two of my after school kids hum or sing all the time, so they mute their audio so they can do so. They turn it back on to comment.
4. I use Zoom for the game, you can link to it directly through your discord feed. It allows multiple screens to be up on the side. I often mute the audio on Discord and just use Zoom for that. Some people on Zoom disable the video and enable the audio as well. You can tailor this to your group.
5. I have a main map for the area of interest (if there is one), when we play I will upload that to the server for everyone, and suggest that they download it to their computer to look at separately. Some will, some won’t.
6. I use a lot of visual aids, so if they are fighting something I will sometimes just show a picture and say nothing descriptive, or I might add to a picture. A two second Google image search will turn up pretty much anything in the monster tomes from early editions up.
7. Players are sent their character sheets separately, and I can upload them directly to Discord if the player can’t find their sheet. There is no need to use the interface to manage the characters, and as I mentioned, I home brew everything so using my own character sheets is best. It also helps that you are giving your players something to do and not allowing the game to track everything for them.
8. If you want maps, you can upload them without any minis or counters on them. Or, you can sketch out maps as you need and upload them to discord from your phone. In person I will often sketch out the scene on a wipeable grid map and place the minis, as I don’t use a lot of props. On discord I can place everyone and take a photo with the phone and upload it.
If the players suggest moving around they can direct me to move their pieces if needed. I can also direct my camera to be on the maps and minis when I present and change things.
The players have to direct me, but that’s manageable. I have also had people download the map photo with minis on it, open it in Paint, mark an x where they want their character to go, and reupload it to Discord
For the most part just giving them the map of the space with some reference points on it is enough to let them tell you whatever they need to, and ask you what they need, to direct their characters.
9. In conditions of limited visibility (like a dark dungeon with torches, what they are exploring right now in my Thursday game) I take the main map and chop it into pieces, as they move through the dungeon I send through the next chunk of the map. It works really well.
I repurpose maps from old modules, and make minor changes in Paint to make them look different. Otherwise I downloaded some grids, and I can take one and use Paint to draw some basic shapes to represent things (pool, statue, table, etc.) They don’t look slick, but they have an old school charm. Otherwise I can just draw something out and upload a photo.
10. Zoom audio doesn’t allow side discussions between players, so if two players want to talk outside the game they have to do so on text through their phones. This means you get less cross chatter delaying the game.
11. However, since all of your players could have distractions that you can’t even see, you need to keep things ticking along, so for example:
- Regularly ask what people are doing
- I have sent screenshots of the rule books to players before, works well and easily from the phone or desktop. I send PDFs of the rule books to the PCs as well.
- Use text prompts to add to the discussion, e.g. when the players are debating what to do with the guard they have caught, you text to the group, “your interrogation has taken about 5 minutes so far”, that sort of thing.
- I ask players to roll dice for me a lot, they love doing it.
- Have your player’s sheets handy so you can help prompt them or remind them about things. They are used to you being there to help
- Freely use the ability to delete posts as players will sometimes post silly memes and such that take up the stream and make it harder to go back and find things you posted earlier
- I try to ensure that I have a few random maps for wilderness encounters, images of all of the monsters on the wandering monster table and if you are running a module or adventure art for all the monsters as well.
There is nothing wrong with letting Roll 20 populate things for you, and with downloading tokens and token sets and such. I just find that once you start you end up getting a lot of stuff that is essentially just flair, and the costs can increase.
Really the only thing you lose without these platforms is the interactive map and bonus lighting features and such, and it is fun to move things around a map, but you certainly don’t need it, and without it I can use whatever custom content I want.
Discord is free, Zoom is free, and I’m not doing any more prep than I did before, I have Googled images in game no problem, and as long as I spend a bit of time prepping the maps beforehand I can give the players enough information to make decisions about what to do.
So far we have had some terrific sessions on Discord, the cross chat is reduced and we get a lot more done, I can zap documents and pictures to the players with ease, and using the phone allows me to improvise maps and visuals as I would in person on a wipeable map if the players want visualization. I am usually logged in on the phone and on the computer so I can minimize delays sending in photos taken from the phone.
Cheap and easy, there’s no reason to avoid online gaming if you are concerned about money, and you can create an experience very much like the table top.