Pros and cons of online play

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will have moved our D&D games online recently. Others have been playing online for a while, though, either because our friends have moved away or because modern life just makes online play easier than getting a group together in person.

Online play is not without its challenges, of course. That said, it can also bring with it certain advantages, and, done properly, it can be almost as fun as live play. In this article, I’m going to suggest some ways of making online play enjoyable and offer some reflections on the opportunities it brings.

Pros: technology

For some players, online play is the only way of making D&D happen. Over the last four years, I have played and DMed online with a group of ten other people (not all at once, of course), and it is only since January that we have all been playing regularly in the same time zone. (I think the record may have been six players in three different countries.)

Virtual tabletops (VTTs) have come on leaps and bounds in recent years. After an initial learning curve, we are now very happy with Fantasy Grounds as our platform of choice, although some of us have branched out to Roll20 on occasion and found it fairly intuitive. Fantasy Ground has the edge in terms of its ‘effects’ coding (more on this in a moment), but Roll20 benefits from built-in support for audio and video. Some of my friends have switched to Foundry, and I’ve also heard good things about Astral. Similarly, though, I have also played some really fun games with nothing but Skype, Discord, or Google Hangouts.

Once you know your way around Fantasy Grounds, you start to appreciate how much of the game can be automated. From Tier 2 onwards, D&D has the potential to become increasingly ‘tactically rich’ – ie, complicated – and even experienced players can start to overlook things. With a good VTT, more and more of the game can be left to run in the background. Conditions, spells, class features, magic item effects: with a bit of know-how, you can set these up to run in perpetuity, or even code in ‘triggers’ based on if-statements. It’s also nice to manage big dice rolls with a single click: no more waiting for the wizard to add up the eight d6s for fireball.

When I ran the finale of Tomb of Annihilation at the end of October – and if you haven’t been lucky enough to play it yet, let’s just say it happens around 10th level and there is a lot going on – two of the players joined me to play the session in person, and the other three joined us online. But here’s the thing: all six of us continued playing with Fantasy Grounds because it’s just such a useful tool at higher levels. The Avrae bot for Discord offers similar functionality, although, having started with Fantasy Grounds, we haven’t really needed to switch to something new (yet).

Playing online can also give you easy access to other technologies like virtual character sheets, searchable rulebooks, and evocative background music. Many of these tools can be employed equally effectively at the game table, of course, and you see many DMs doing exactly this in their liveplay videos on Twitch and YouTube.

Cons: technology

Make sure your IT is up to scratch

If technology is a boon, it can also be a curse. Connection difficulties, poor sound quality, slow internet speeds, unintuitive interfaces: these things can rapidly sap the fun out of online D&D, and need to be addressed preemptively, if possible.

I’m not knowledgeable enough about computer technology to start recommending webcams, microphones, ISPs, and so on. Every participant needs to test out their equipment ahead of time and find what works for them. It’s worth agreeing beforehand how you plan to handle connection issues: do you play on, pause for a few minutes, or ‘bubble’ the character until they return? It’s also worth pointing out that some players will have more luck with their phone camera than they will with their laptop’s built-in webcam. So, experiment: find the solutions that work for you. For example, we have one player in our group who cannot use Discord without his audio going haywire, for some reason. Hangouts and Roll20 work fine for him, though, so we just use that.

Playing online is also perilous because you are constantly surrounded by distractions. It can be hard to resist the temptation of emails, social media, and online shopping while you are waiting for your turn to come round. There are a number of ways to minimize this, however, as I explain below.

Tricks of the trade

For all the technological benefits a VTT can provide, online play can be slow. Really slow. It can take a while for players to click through their character sheets to the right section, and if you are playing with a grid, dragging tokens around on a map will never be as fast or as satistfying as moving miniatures across a table.

One solution: streamline the game. Yes, some players will balk at this, but at the end of the day, rule zero of D&D is having fun, and for some players, there comes a point where it’s worth sacrificing tactical depth for speed of play. Some suggestions, then:

  • Keep the group small (maybe three or four players);
  • Let players roll physical dice;
  • Switch to group initiative;
  • Tell players the AC of the enemies after one or two rounds;
  • Use static monster damage;
  • Abstract large encounters with the DMG mob rules;
  • Run more combat in theatre of the mind;
  • Fudge hit points where it satisfies the narrative;
  • Rule in the players’ favour where possible.

‘Theatre of the mind’ might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in 5th edition, playing with a grid is technically optional. I recommend theatre of the mind for online play. Gridded combat has its place, particularly with complex boss battles, but it can definitely be dispensed with for most fights when playing online. Whether it’s more enjoyable to play without a grid is something for you and your group to discuss and decide upon.

Final thoughts

Wizards of the Coast

In this article, I’ve largely focused on the issues that are unique to online play. Many of the issues that affect online D&D are just as much of a problem offline, but they do tend to be amplified when playing over the internet. In closing, then, a few words of caution for players and DMs who want to move their game online:

Players: be ready on your turn. Learn how your character’s class features work. Save rules disputes until after the session. Listen to the DM. Try not to talk over other players. Don’t hog the spotlight (and if you don’t know who the spotlight hog is in your group: could it be you?).

DMs: relax. Be generous. Listen to the players. Try not to talk over other players. Don’t hog the spotlight. And read the room! This is so much hardler online, so consider an occasional survey to gauge how you’re getting on (I plan to do an entire article on this at some point).

The issues that come with online play are largely preventable, and, handled properly, a VTT can even enhance your game. Give it a try!

Multiclassing like a boss

Her armour gleaming, the knight sheathes her longsword and stretches out her hand. Her golden eyes flash, and a mighty blast of fire surges through her veins.

Alone in the woods, the elf sends arrow after arrow into the shambling horde of ghouls. Calling down a curse upon them, she raises her holy symbol, and hot white light radiates out through the trees.  

Moving silently through the night, the assassin steps into a pool of shadow and disappears. She re-emerges from behind her target and swiftly slits his throat.   

After playing D&D for a while, you might want to go beyond the original twelve character classes. That’s where multiclassing comes in. To quote the Player’s Handbook (p 163), multiclassing allows you to gain levels in multiple classes: ‘Doing so lets you mix the abilities of those classes to realize a character concept that might not be reflected in one of the standard class options.’ Done right, multiclassing can be a brilliant way to make your character stand out from the archetype. Done badly, and it can leave you with a character that is noticeably underpowered, and ultimately, less fun to play.

A history

Before 3rd edition, multiclassing was only available to non-human characters, and you levelled up (slowly) in both classes at the same time. Only humans could change their class after 1st level, and even then they needed extremely high stats to do it.

(In fact, in 1st edition AD&D, a bard was not a core class but a very convoluted multiclass option. To start with, a human or half-elf had to have some very high ability scores: 15s or higher in Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma, an Intelligence of at least 12, and a Constitution of at least 10. They then had to take a specified number of levels in fighter and then thief before ultimately taking levels as a druid.)

In 3rd edition, multiclassing opened up considerably, and with the introduction of ‘prestige classes’ – specialist classes that came with certain prerequisites – it was almost expected. However, some races levelled up more slowly if they multiclassed outside their ‘favoured class’. Dwarves, for example, would take an experience point penalty if they multiclassed as anything other than a fighter.

In 4th edition, true multiclassing (known as hybrid classes) was only introduced in the Player’s Handbook III. Before then, there were class-specific feats that allowed characters to swap out one power for another. A character could then take additional powers from their ‘multiclass’ at 11th level, instead of a ‘paragon’ ability.

In 5th edition, multiclassing has become much easier. The only prerequisite is a minimum score of 13 in a key ability (two for rangers and paladins). However, it is worth emphasizing that multiclassing is now an optional rule, and it’s up to the DM to decide whether or not it is available in their campaign.

Why multiclass?

There are three main reasons for multiclassing in 5e: power, versatility, and flavour. Multiclassingmight be the only way to play the character concept you have in mind. However, there are definitely drawbacks to some multiclass combinations, and many players prefer to stick to one character class until the end of the game – and that’s fine!

Key principles of good multiclassing

Number one: talk to your DM. Make sure they are happy with you multiclassing in the first instance. Secondly, try to make sure that the character fits a concept and makes sense within the game world. Cherry-picking class combinations to be as powerful as possible is frowned upon in many groups and derisively referred to as min-maxing, powergaming, or munchkinnery.  

In game terms, though, there are a few pitfalls to avoid if you want to multiclass effectively.

1. Check your ability scores. Some classes are ‘SAD’: single-ability dependent. Rogues, for example, can survive with nothing but a good Dexterity score. A paladin, however, needs to have good scores in Charisma, Constitution, and Strength (or Dexterity), and is therefore ‘MAD’ (multiple-ability dependent). Multiclassing can make you more MAD, so unless your ability scores are good across the board, try to choose classes that rely on the same ability scores.

2. Don’t build to 20th level. Most campaigns never get that far, so if you’re waiting to higher levels for your character to ‘get good’, you’re going to be disappointed. Likewise, don’t worry necessarily about missing out on the ‘capstone’ each class gets at level 20. Some are cool (barbarian, druid, and fighter stand out) but some really aren’t (bard, ranger).

3. Think about which class you start with. Only fighters and paladins start with heavy armour proficiency, and the only way to get this later is to take a feat or multiclass as a cleric, and even then you have to pick the right domain. Your starting class is also the class that determines your saving throw proficiencies, so check which saves are most important to you.  

4. Consider waiting to Level 6. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but most classes get a fairly significant power boost at 5th level, like an extra attack or the ability to cast 3rd-level spells. Try to hold off multiclassing before then.

5. Don’t miss out ASIs. ASI stands for Ability Score Improvement, and they can be a nice power boost, even at higher levels. Most classes get them at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level. Fighters and rogues get a few extra. Try not to pass them up.

Fun combinations

Some multiclass options are really, really good. There are over 130 different combinations, however, and some are very difficult to pull off. Druid and monk are particularly challenging, and often better off as a single class. The combinations below are standout, solid choices that can be very fun to play.

Fighter dips

‘Dipping’ is when you take only one or two levels in a second class, and fighter is one of the best classes for doing this. 1st level gives you a fighting style and 2nd level gives you Action Surge. If you go further, 3rd level can give you manoeuvres or improved critical, 4th level an ASI, and 5th level an extra attack. Barbarians and bards, rangers and rogues, even wizards and monks: there are several character classes that gain a lot from a few levels of fighter.  

Rangers and rogues

Rangers are widely regarded as one of the weakest classes in 5e, and a well-chosen multiclass combination can pay dividends. Cleric, rogue, and fighter (see above) can all work here, and even monk is a viable ranger multiclass. Speaking of rogues, this is another class, like fighter, that offers some sweet bonuses after just a few levels, like sneak attack, cunning action, and expertise.

The mystic theurge

5e has made it easier than ever to be a multiclass spellcaster, so it is now possible to cast both arcane and divine spells with decent effectiveness. Personally, I would take one or two levels in cleric and then concentrate on wizard, but there are other ways to do it. (Of course, if you don’t want to multiclass, the arcana domain in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide can be an equally good way of capturing the same flavour.)

The sorcadin

This might be the most powerful multiclass build in 5e. They key point of synergy is the shared spell slots. Sorcerer slots can be used for divine smite, and because sorcerers are full casters, they gain access to higher level spell slots faster than a paladin. There are other goodies, too, like Quickened Spell (spells as a bonus action!), Aura of Protection (a bonus on saving throws for you and your friends!), and shield (stacks with full plate!). Truth be told, all Charisma-based spellcasters can work well when multiclassed, but the paladin-sorcerer is probably the best.

Going solo

For all that, the twelve base classes in the Player’s Handbook are solid, enjoyable choices. Subclasses offer a great opportunity to customize your character further, and with additional options in supplements like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, and Mythic Odysseys of Theros, the possibilities are endless. Only multiclass if it’s right for you.