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How to play D&D online with friends and new players

How to play D&D online
(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

With many of us holding off in-person sessions until the coronavirus crisis winds down, knowing how to play D&D online seems like a pretty good idea. No matter whether you're a veteran of many campaigns or a total newcomer, it's a good compromise; you're still able to catch up with your adventuring buddies and go on grand quests, but you don't have to risk a thing by braving the real world. Plus, there's no need to leave your sofa. That's a win-win situation in our books.

Knowing how to play D&D online is also a low-effort way of getting into Dungeons and Dragons for the first time. It's easy, and anyone with a mobile device, laptop, or computer can get involved. Because D&D can be a real pick-me-up in times of social distancing, that's no bad thing.

To get you started, we've pulled together a guide on how to play Dungeons and Dragons online. That includes where to find a game, the kit you'll need, and some general advice on how it all works (for more, check out our guide on how to start playing D&D - it includes everything you need to know about rules, character creation, and beyond).

You certainly won't be alone; as revealed by Wizards of the Coast, the developers of D&D, 2019 saw a 300% increase in sales of introductory packs. It also marked the company's sixth consecutive year of growth, meaning the game is more popular than ever. What's more, a ton of celebrities are getting involved in one of the best tabletop RPGs out there; for instance, Game of Thrones cast-members Kristian Nairn, Daniel Portman, Iwan Rheon, Natalia Tena, and Gemma Whelan recently played for Red Nose Day (you can watch the stream here) and raised more than $315,000 for charity.

Ready to see what the fuss is about? You'll find our suggestions below. These tips will stand you in good stead for the Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden and Curse of Strahd Revamped campaigns, not to mention updates like Tasha's Cauldron of Everything

1. Find a good webcam

How to play D&D online

(Image credit: Razer)

The first thing you should consider when learning how to play D&D online is a webcam. Although it's not essential, being visible on-screen will make for a much better experience overall. And not just for you; it's much easier to gauge emotion through facial expressions than text chat. Even if you're not 'performing' roleplay, it can add real depth to your character. 

It's also a great boost if you've not seen your friends in person for a while. Being able to chat 'face to face' is therapeutic, and we'd highly recommend doing so whenever possible.

If you don't already have a webcam attached to your computer or laptop, you'll find the best options below at the cheapest prices. 

The following deals are updated every day, so be sure to check back later if you don't have any luck now.

2. Grab a headset

How to play D&D online

(Image credit: HyperX)

Using the mic included with your laptop or tablet is totally fine when regardless of whether you're an expert or are learning how to play D&D online, but I'd always recommend a headset of some kind. They usually provide clearer audio, avoid weird echoes, and are often a bit more stable. 

They don't need to cost a bomb, either. Anything from simple earbuds with an inline mic - including the ones you get with a cell phone - to the best gaming headsets will do. As with webcams, it's generally a better experience for everyone.

If you've already got one of the above, great! You're good to go. If not, don't panic. Again, this is a bonus rather than an essential bit of kit. And hey, headsets aren't too difficult to get hold of these days. With that in mind, we've listed some options below alongside any deals we could find.

3. Get video conferencing software

How to play D&D online

(Image credit: Logitech)

OK, so now you're set up with a webcam and/or headset. What next? It's time to decide how to play D&D online.

There are a few options available to you, but the easiest would be conference software. For those who are keen to go down the route of minimum effort and cost (which is entirely fair), look no further than GoToMeeting, Skype, Zoom, Discord, or Google Hangouts. They're all free, user-friendly, and allow you to connect with other players easily. 

The problem is, there aren't going to be any visual prompts or props unless the person running your game is technically savvy (and willing to screen-share a ton of resources). As such, these services are best used for 'theatre of the mind' games. That means the action lives entirely in your imagination. 

Which will work for a lot of people, but not for others. If you'd prefer something a little more tangible, good news! There are free and paid-for services to try out. We've listed our favorites below.

4. Save money with the best free virtual tabletop...

How to play D&D online

(Image credit: Roll20)

Roll20

Roll20 | Free
Roll20 Plus
| $4.16 per month / $49.99 per year
Roll20 Pro |
$8.33 per month / $99.99 per year

If I had to point you in the direction of online D&D software, Roll20 would be my first choice. To begin with, it's free. Price can be a huge barrier to entry, so being able to play D&D online without paying a penny is very appealing. Sure, this version may be a little more limited than the premium options. It'll do the job just fine, though.

Regardless of the version you choose, Roll20 earns its keep with built-in dice-rolls, character sheets, tokens, maps, and more. That means you'll end up playing via boards displayed on-screen with markers representing you characters. What's more, it's possible to upload your own art assets should you choose to do so (but remember, there's a limit unless you've got a subscription - it'll be fine if you're just adding some tokens, but bigger uploads will quickly fill that space).

If you don't have a group to play with, Roll20 also has you covered. It's easy to seek out a party and play remotely; because the process is similar to a forum, it's not hard to navigate. The website's broad range of supported games - be it classic D&D, Pathfinder, Call of Chtulhu, or something else - gives you plenty of choice as well.

As for Dungeon Masters, Roll20 is great. There's a staggering amount of customization on offer here, not to mention a cool fog of war to hide parts of the map. It'll take time to learn, but that investment is worthwhile - particularly because official campaign modules can be bought separately. These include all the resources you need, cutting down on prep-time significantly. 

The main issue? Roll20 can be a bit complicated to get your head around. If you're new to the hobby or online D&D, we'd recommend playing with someone who can show you the ropes first - it'll make your life a whole lot easier. 

5. ... Or get the best paid virtual tabletop

How to play D&D online

(Image credit: Fantasy Grounds, Steam)

Fantasy Grounds

Fantasy Grounds Demo | Free
Standard | $3.99 per month / $39 one-off payment
Ultimate |
$9.99 per month / $149 one-off payment

I've heard a lot of good things about Fantasy Grounds, and it sounds like the superior choice if you're familiar with how to play D&D online - or want to keep it going in the long-term.

Functionally, it boasts a similar offering to Roll20; you'll get virtual maps to use and official modules to plug in. However, it pulls ahead in the looks department. Custom menus and fonts for the likes of D&D help it stand out, offering a premium feel that its rivals can't match. It's a little more 'video-gamey' than Roll20, too. For example, there are in-depth combat trackers on offer. Meanwhile, the new Fantasy Grounds Unity system throws in fancy new effects, lighting, and beyond. 

A potential downside? Fantasy Grounds doesn't feature in-game video chat. You'll need to use extra software to talk with your fellow players as a result. Fortunately, that issue is easy enough to overcome. Just boot up Zoom, Discord, Google Hangouts, and the like.

As for price, it's more of an investment than the competition... but the payoff is arguably larger. Although the demo version is a bit basic, certain memberships are cheaper than Roll20 (official, pre-made campaigns are usually less expensive too). And even though players will either need to have a subscription themselves or access to a DM with the $149 Ultimate pass to play - which is quite a commitment - it is a one-off payment as apposed to a per-month fee. That makes Fantasy Grounds cheaper in the long run if you're going to be using it for months or years to come.

It does have a good system for storing data, too. Everything's kept on your computer rather than a server, so you don't have to worry about filling up your limit - or server failures due to your internet connection, for that matter.

6. Pick up rulebooks and resources

How to play D&D online

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

Regardless of whether you're an old hand or a newcomer in terms of how to play D&D online, certain rulebooks are well worth considering. To begin with, get yourself the Basic Rules. It's free, surprisingly deep, and teaches you how to play. It's a handy reference to have at your side during games, too. 

Next, pre-generated characters can be found on the D&D website. Character creation is something of a pain in the butt at first, so not having to worry about it makes things a little easier - particularly if it's your first time. 

In much the same vein, I'd suggest taking a look at the official D&D Beyond website. It's got more than a few helpful resources under its belt, and will be a great help in getting you started.

Meanwhile, it's not a bad shout to pick up the Player's Handbook if possible. It expands on the Basic Rules to give you a more well-rounded view of character creation, classes, and spell-casting. For those who've got a few sessions under their belt and would like to take things further, it's essential. Having an exhaustive list of spells at your fingertips isn't a bad idea, either - there are a lot.

As for those hoping to run their own games, they should make a bee-line for either the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set or the Dungeon Master's Guide (the Monster Manual wouldn't hurt either). While the former has all the resources necessary to run a pre-written campaign, the other two provide inspiration to make worlds of your own. We've listed the best prices for these below. Meanwhile, fans of Critical Role should check out Explorer's Guide to Wildemount - it's crammed with details on that world.

Remember, all D&D rulebooks can be bought digitally if you'd prefer!

Dungeons and Dragons Player's Handbook | $33.41 on Amazon
This is the official D&D rulebook, telling you how to play and create characters in depth (not to mention the lore behind the various D&D worlds). It's a great next step once you've gotten your head around the Basic Rules. As with all the other books on this list, it can be purchased via D&D Beyond in digital form.
UK price: £28.46 on AmazonView Deal

Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide | $26.48 on Amazon
Ever been tempted to run your own D&D games? You'll need this essential book. It's crammed with details on how to create your own games, worlds, maps, characters, pantheons, rules, and more. Seriously, this is the motherlode when it comes to inspiration. It's not all that expensive, either.
UK price: £27.19 on AmazonView Deal

Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual | $33.61 on Amazon
A companion to the Dungeon Master's Guide that's packed to the brim with cool creatures. You can use this to fill your dungeons with all sorts of nasties drawn from the hobby's long history, or get to grips with D&D's weirder foes. Like a Gelatinous Cube, which is basically killer jelly. Yes, really. Look it up.
UK price: £31.51 on Amazon View Deal

Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set | $12.49 at Target
This is the perfect introduction to D&D - you'll get everything you need inside this one small and very affordable box. Although those dice aren't going to be much use right now, it does have a pre-built campaign you can use if you want to try your hand at being a Dungeon Master. I'd highly recommend it if you're new to the hobby.
UK price: £16.82 on AmazonView Deal

7. Collect free stuff whenever you can

How to play D&D online

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

If you want to start D&D, you can take a look at how it works via the Basic Rules. This booklet is absolutely free, easy to understand, and stuffed with helpful content. It's probably the best introduction to the game you could hope for. There are loads of pre-generated characters for you to use as well if you don't fancy making one, too.

We've put a link to both below.

Fortunately, that's not where the freebies end. Things are hard right now for so many of us, and D&D-publisher Wizards of the Coast knows this. As a result, they spent much of the lockdown putting out free resources every day to help flatten the curve. That included free missions, coloring packs, and more. Although this initiative  seems to have wound down now, a couple of items are still available via the link below.

If there's a particular free mission on the site that you want to try, make sure you grab it sooner than later - some of them are only available for a limited time, and we suspect they'll all vanish before long.

Basically, move fast to avoid disappointment. A good example would be the D&D Starter Set campaign, Lost Mine of Phandelver. It was available for free on D&D Beyond until May 5 2020, at which point it disappeared back into the ether. As they say, the early bird gets the worm.

Homeschooling resources

To help parents and guardians who are homeschooling their kids during lockdown, Wizards of the Coast have released six free worksheets, coloring exercises, and more. These all have a Magic: The Gathering flavor, as per the trading card game and the recent D&D sourcebook Mythic Odysseys of Theros

We've put links to all of the available resources below.

We'll keep this page updated if anything else becomes available. Until then, have fun playing D&D online!

How do you write a Dungeons and Dragons campaign? We've got the answer in our exclusive interview with a D&D writer. Want more tabletop recommendations, on the other hand? Don't forget to check out our guides to the best board games, board games for 2 players, and the best card games. Stay safe out there!

As one of our Hardware Editors, Benjamin looks after many of the tech reviews, board game features, deals, and buying guides you’ll see on GamesRadar+.