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D&D General Improving your online D&D game

In a different discussion, @DM Dave1 and myself were discussing some frustrations with playing D&D online. We discussed a few tips and thought it might be worth its own Thread:

I've found the most frustrating part of online gaming is using a combat grid while exploring a dungeon - like from a published adventure, for example. People are moving their tokens one square at a time, pinging squares and asking to search whatever, or they are moving their tokens all over the board and I have to stop people and try to narrate things. It's worse when the party splits up.

To solve this, I told people to stop moving their tokens like it's a video game. Narrate to me where your character goes, what they are doing and how they do it. I then narrate the result of this action, then I or the player moves the token to the place they've indicated. This can be done as a group.

It also helps to have roles: someone declares they are searching for traps, someone else is looking for secret doors, someone else is keeping an eye out for danger. Then I use people's passive skills based on what they're doing. It makes it smoother to narrate and, I feel, it improves the flow.

What are your hints, tips or tricks?
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In a different discussion, @DM Dave1 and myself were discussing some frustrations with playing D&D online. We discussed a few tips and thought it might be worth its own Thread:

I've found the most frustrating part of online gaming is using a combat grid while exploring a dungeon - like from a published adventure, for example. People are moving their tokens one square at a time, pinging squares and asking to search whatever, or they are moving their tokens all over the board and I have to stop people and try to narrate things. It's worse when the party splits up.

To solve this, I told people to stop moving their tokens like it's a video game. Narrate to me where your character goes, what they are doing and how they do it. I then narrate the result of this action, then I or the player moves the token to the place they've indicated. This can be done as a group.
The problem I find as a player is that as only one person can be talking at a time* there's no way to show where you're going (and that you're intending to do something once there, even if just keep a lookout) in reaction to what someone else is doing/saying other than to move your token.

* - unlike in-person where if more than one person talks at once it's often possible to hear and discern what's being said, online it just gets garbled in a hurry.

There's also an argument risk with giving the DM control of tokens: if the DM puts a token 'here' where its player really wanted it 'there' and something bad happens...yeah, pass the popcorn. :)

Probably better to leave token control (except for any NPCs in the party) in the hands of the players, and just enforce that your character is where your token shows it is. (in our group we have the opposite problem: a couple of players who consistently either forget or neglect to move their tokens, meaning they always appear to be getting left behind)
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Since I use a set up with a camera pointed at a battlemat, I move all the minis based on what the players describe, but I confirm with them before moving on. If it gets a little nebulous sometimes, I think that is a fine way to emulate "fog of war" and just increases the ambience of dread. ;)
 

nevin

Adventurer
Yeah let the players control movement and if they screw it up, tough. Much better than derailing the game multiple times because the DM made a mistake.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Since I use a set up with a camera pointed at a battlemat, I move all the minis based on what the players describe,
In this case you have no choice, as you're the only person present with the minis and map.

I think the OP is referring to something like roll20 where PCs are represented by on-screen tokens and, if the DM allows, players have control over where those tokens go on the map.
If it gets a little nebulous sometimes, I think that is a fine way to emulate "fog of war" and just increases the ambience of dread. ;)
I like this part. :)
 



iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Some of what I'm saying here will be specific to Roll20, but can probably be applied to other VTTs.

Use the visual medium to its maximum effect: Include beautiful maps and images that evoke the game you're trying to present. There should never be a white screen with a grid and some art tool doodles. You can do better! This helps keep players' eyes on the screen. But also take advantage of ways to present game information to cut down on back and forth which eats up a lot of game time. As an example, make monster HP bar visible and add the monster's AC to the name plate of the token e.g. "Orc | 13." This eliminates the need for asking "How's that monster looking?" and "Did I hit?" and the DM responding. Instead the DM can just go right into narration. To that end, have all the players change their display name to their character name and passive Perception e.g. "Bruenor - PP 15." This makes it easier for the DM to scan across the bottom of the screen to check passive Perception as needed.

This doesn't necessarily need to be just in online games, but it may address one of things you were seeing in your game: Consider making a distinction between moving around the adventure location and exploring it thoroughly. While moving around, the characters (with player buy-in) are keeping alert for danger while the DM describes the environment including the basic scope of options that present themselves. But if they want to explore more thoroughly, you go into an "exploration phase" that takes 10 minutes in a given area (say 1000 sq. ft.). Each player declares what they want to do - check for traps, hide, keep watch, loot, perform a ritual, pick a lock, search for secret doors, track, work together etc. Resolve each task as normal, then make a wandering monster check (or otherwise take note of the time spent if there's a countdown to doom). Repeat as needed. Figuring out a trap or secret door and disabling a trap would, in this setup, be another 10 minute task that occurs only after the trap or secret door is detected. This means that any given trap interaction takes about 30 minutes of game time or 20 minutes for a secret door.

As well, to deal with everyone splitting up, you might have one of the party designated the point character in the marching order. Then all characters/tokens must follow that person. They move when he or she moves and stops when he or she stops. The only time they split up potentially is when they're engaged in exploration as above. Again, this requires players to buy in on this approach as a means to streamline gameplay.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I think the OP is referring to something like roll20 where PCs are represented by on-screen tokens and, if the DM allows, players have control over where those tokens go on the map.
Sure! I just thought sharing would demonstrate that it is possible for the DM to do the moving based on player description/indication (assuming the online system allows for this).

The fact that players can only barely see the actual boxes means we have a lot of "can I move far enough to get to X?" questions that I am fielding, but I don't mind - kind of a hybrid "theater of the mind" style.
 
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Quickleaf

Legend
In a different discussion, @DM Dave1 and myself were discussing some frustrations with playing D&D online. We discussed a few tips and thought it might be worth its own Thread:

I've found the most frustrating part of online gaming is using a combat grid while exploring a dungeon - like from a published adventure, for example. People are moving their tokens one square at a time, pinging squares and asking to search whatever, or they are moving their tokens all over the board and I have to stop people and try to narrate things. It's worse when the party splits up.

To solve this, I told people to stop moving their tokens like it's a video game. Narrate to me where your character goes, what they are doing and how they do it. I then narrate the result of this action, then I or the player moves the token to the place they've indicated. This can be done as a group.

It also helps to have roles: someone declares they are searching for traps, someone else is looking for secret doors, someone else is keeping an eye out for danger. Then I use people's passive skills based on what they're doing. It makes it smoother to narrate and, I feel, it improves the flow.

What are your hints, tips or tricks?
@TaranTheWanderer My (limited) experience with Roll20, AstralTabletop, and Discord has – surprisingly – led to a similar lesson I learned about using maps at a physical table.

Simply the process of setting out a map and placing minis/tokens activates a certain "board game think." This can be much stronger for some players than others – nothing wrong or right about it, just some of us are more wired to confine our thinking when presented with what visually looks like a board game.

I've observed this happen both at a physical table and when playing online.

My approach has been to not always assume that the same approach is warranted for every situation. Sometimes I'll use theater of the mind (for brief scenarios or those that don't lend themselves handily to mapping). Sometimes a vague evocative map without gridlines (for scenarios where the focus isn't on the combat, per se, but rather another objective). Sometimes I'll use a complex gridded map (for scenarios involving detailed tactical combat). And sometimes I'll even create a 3D map (for scenarios emphasizing verticality), which may be vague & evocative or gridded & detailed, depending on the needs of the scenario.

Getting a feel for which approach is best suited to each scene/scenario takes some getting used to. Sometimes I choose the wrong one, but with practice now more often than not I can sense which approach is a best fit.
 

SiCK_Boy

Explorer
Anyone ever use the option to have the DM validates character movement before the token moves? Is it as cumbersome as it sounds, and does it prevent the kinds of behaviors described by OP with players scouting large chunks of the map by moving their tokens everywhere across the screen?
 


I hope people get that I'm not, generally, looking for advice but presenting a forum for people to post their tips and tricks. I illustrated an issue I was having, both as a player and a DM, and presented the tool I used to correct it.

People don't mind if I move their tokens and then they place them in the exact square. Or if they say, "I want to move down this hallway". Then I can narrate what the find and then tell them, "Ok, you can move your token now"

If someone is randomly moving tokens all over the board, I assume they aren't searching or check or anything and they have to deal with any traps/monsters they come across without the benefit of a search/perception check.

Doing it this way prevents piles of retcons: "But I was checking for traps!"
"then you shouldn't have moved your character there"

So, I ask everyone to announce what they are doing and where they are going. Then I narrate, then people move their tokens.

I've been finding dynamic lighting slows things down since players can't often "see". So theatre of the mind narration seems to help.

I also use roll20.
 

Anyone ever use the option to have the DM validates character movement before the token moves? Is it as cumbersome as it sounds, and does it prevent the kinds of behaviors described by OP with players scouting large chunks of the map by moving their tokens everywhere across the screen?
I mean, isn't this how it's done at a non-virtual table? DM describes a scene: "you are in a cave that goes down 20 feet and splits both left and right. What do you want to do?"

players describe their actions and you continue.

Then you use the grid only when combat starts. I don't think I ever had a complete dungeon gridded out on the table and the players moved their minis to every intersection. But that's just me.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Here's one worth considering in my view:

If you have a player that has a terrible internet connection, bad microphone, computer prone to problems or the like, don't play with them. Online gaming is just not in the cards for them right now. However much you can eliminate technical glitches from your game, the better your game experience will be. Use the vast pool of players on the internet to build the best possible group you can.
 

Mannahnin

Explorer
I haven't tried using dynamic lighting yet on Roll20. This has the advantage that when using a full gridded dungeon map, players simply CAN'T drag their guys hither and yon and reveal stuff early. I manually clear the fog of war, so I can check in with their positioning or move them myself before revealing more. Usually we'll have a verbal check-in step before I do so, to make sure their formation is right.
 

Retreater

Legend
Also on Roll20.
I'm fine with giving characters control of their tokens. Dynamic lighting and the "line of sight blocks movement" feature is enough. If they trigger a trap, opportunity attack, etc, I'll tell them to back up and we'll resolve that first. That happens far less frequently than me having to stop and move every character's token every time, which would only bog down the game for me.
I now prefer online gaming. Don't know if I'll want to go back.
 

VTTs are really bad at exploring dungeons.

The way I learnt was that you had an exploration map, drawn by a player, and you might get out minis and draw the room if necessary. You could do something similar with a VTT, have some of scaling map where a single token represents the party and then scale that down, but there seems to be no interest - it's all about the battlemaps. (And I've seen this approached used on the table top too, with the party moving through photocopied maps that get laid out as they move along)

There's a few ways I've found to approach this problem. These are not all meant to be used together. Some are combinatory, but some are alternative approaches.

1) Change the way dungeons work when interacting online. Think a bit more like a computer game designer in regards to locations (especially old school ones where scale was limited). Instead of having lots of rooms with one or two things each, have fewer locations with many things each - even if some of these things seem to verge on implausibly close. A room the party pass through in five minutes on the table top is fine, but if you're prepping a map then it's a wasted map. Instead of putting something in a room, stick it in a nook or alcove. Try and give the illusion of size and scale while actually cutting back.

2) Don't put some kind of art or token to represent every single thing on the map. This tells the party that what they can see on the map is all there is. Put numbers or question marks or something to tell them that there is something there, but they need the GM to tell them exactly what is there.

3) If you want the feel of a vast sprawling dungeon - rethink what exploring means in the context of the VTT. It's tiresome and tedious to have the whole party exploring a huge mapped out dungeon, if most of the space doesn't have much in it. So intead just present the map as a whole with a single "you are here token". At the beginning use fog of war to make most of the map blank - but simply put numbers on the map to the nearest major room location and let them choose, and then skip to that map (approached like 1 above), avoiding wasting time on maps of corridors and the like - just work with assumption there's little of interest in those places. If you want wandering monsters have a separate corridor battle map you can switch to for that.

4) Consider turning off the dynamic lighting. The dynamic lighting basically prompts people to move their token around all over the place to see what's there. If you just turn it off people can basically see what's there to see (unless you've hidden) it, and the pacing actually returns to something more natural. You can always hide monsters in the GM layer and move them forward when the party tells you "we go around the corner" - instead of having one player suddenly move their token around the corner and make the discovery of the monsters through their lighting, while you are busy trying to resolve an action another player is in the middle of.

5)Just go minimalist. If you're using video you really can do away pretty much entirely with maps and go as minimalist as you like once everyone gets used to it. If you're just using voice, then it helps to have something to look at. But you can run a whole game sessions with maybe a mood board of images, that you occassionally refer to. Be aware that images can actually be problematic, because a lot of players may not be looking at the VTT if it doesn't seem urgent - they could be looking at their character sheet, or checking a rule etc.

6) Overreliance on beautfiul maps and images can be a trap. You become stuck with what you can find maps for. Good luck with that if you want to try anything that's not generic - you'll end up spending a lot of time looking for maps and images - 99% of what's there is pure generica. You want an Arabic city, or an Asian temple or castle that is not Japanese? Or even a medieval merchants house? (Go type 'merchant's house' into pinterest and you'll find a whole load of Victorian homes). Good luck!

7) On the other hand, you can run a whole wilderness adventure with just a single map of the region as your background for pretty much the entire session. Players seem happy if they have something that basic to look at and orient themselve. If you do switch to combat you just switch to a terrain based combat map (and these are pretty easy to find). Maybe consider whether on the VTT it's worth spending more time on wilderness adventures and less on Dungeons? (Especially as it's easy to put a small dungeon like a ruined temple in the wilderness and these work much better on a VTT).

8) Like on the table top not everything needs to be done with maps and minis. Theatre of the mind is still viable. (And you can use the draw function to sketch things out quickly). How are you going to handle a combat that you didn't expect and didn't prepare for if you are too reliant on prepared maps?
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I don't ever have extensively mapped out dungeons, I only use maps when combat is about to start or positioning is important for some other reason. So there's never a worry about people getting into grid mode before combat, exploration is all theater of the mind.

I do use pictures a bit more to help describe scenery, locations and creatures, but I've been using pictures for a long time. When it comes to combat, I use DndBeyond and Roll20 so I can also use Beyond20 to link the two pretty seamlessly. I don't ever bother with macros, player or monster sheets in Roll20.

Other than that
  • Have images of NPCs, special monsters or other scenery hidden on the DM layer. When I want to show players what they see, I can highlight the image and click SHIFT+Z. It will display the image to everyone.
  • I always prep maps and put tokens on where I think they will start. Monsters frequently are placed either out of sight or on the DM layer.
    • This lets me do things like changing the default vision settings, so if there's a heavy fog I can limit everyone's sight to 10 ft or whatever I want.
  • When I want people to know where something is that they can't see, I "ping" the general location.
  • If I have a map with multiple layers (typically a building) I put all layers of the building on the same map and just make sure to do a "wall" around each layer so if you are on the first floor you can't see the second. However, if they split the party and someone goes up to the second floor I can just drag their mini over, I don't have to switch between maps.
  • I use TokenStamp to make icons, using different borders. PCs have a round border that's a light tan, NPCs have a green round border and enemies have a red hexagonal border. I just keep all the tokens in a local file folder and drag and drop onto the map as needed.
  • For multiple tokens, I use the little color circle to distinguish them - especially if they're the same type of monster.
  • I have a couple of "generic" maps prepped in case the game goes off the rails (which I actually kind of encourage).
That's all I can think of off the top of my head.
 

DM Dave1

Hero
Using Roll20 over here for battle maps and visuals.
Discord or Zoom for audio.

These are Roll20 specific... but maybe apply to other VTTs...

One thing that has been helpful for me as DM is to have a "session starting screen". On that screen (assuming we didn't leave off in the middle of a scene last time) all the PC tokens are present and I encourage the players to make sure their HP totals are up to date as they arrive for the game. When we're ready to start the action, I can then easily select all of them, copy them, and plop them down on the map for the new scene.

Another tip someone shared with me recently: if you have a group of monsters that share the same initiative, use the Add Turn functionality on an extra monster token in an unseen part of the screen that is not on the map. That way, if you delete one of the monsters when it goes down in battle, you don't inadvertently end up losing the initiative in the initiative tracker.
 

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