How to play Dungeons & Dragons and other pen-and-paper games without leaving home

Humans are at their best when they’re working together to solve a common problem. So are halflings, elves, dwarves, and dragonborn. Even with social distancing measures in place during the coronavirus outbreak, there’s no reason to stop playing your favorite tabletop role-playing games with friends. And, if you aren’t already, it might even be the great time to start.

Here’s how to play pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons online, using tools that are either completely free or fairly low price. Many publishers also offer rulebooks, quick start guides, and character sheets free of charge.

As a special note: Be aware that local independent retailers are encountering huge challenges at this time. Many of the products below are available just a short drive away from your home or apartment. Where possible, try to shop locally and support your community.

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Video conferencing

You don’t actually need a feature-rich piece of software to play modern tabletop RPGs. Many systems encourage a “theater of the mind” style that doesn’t require things like miniatures or even a table to sit around. Everything that happens in a game, up to and including combat, can be talked through. That means you can get away with something like Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, or even Discord and have an excellent experience.

This style of play does require some consideration from the game master, however. You’ll need to take special care to keep everyone in your session involved as much as possible. For remote play, I like to keep a loose initiative order going at all times — even when outside of combat. That helps to ensure that no one feels left out of the fun.

Can’t find your dice or just don’t have any? You can roll ’em on Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons dice roller, Google, or Random.org.

Virtual tabletops

https://youtube.com/watch?v=I4XvWI2aabk%3Frel%3D0

The most full-featured clients currently available for playing tabletop RPGs online are called “virtual tabletops.” They simulate every aspect of the pen-and-paper experience, right down the the character sheets and the dice. Two of the most popular are called Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. Both can also be fairly complicated to use.

Roll20 might be the best bet for newcomers. The web-based client works on just about any device you can think of, including smartphones, tablets, and desktop PCs. It also features a complete audio and video solution, including text-based chat. That way you and your fellow players can simulate sitting across the table from one another.

Fantasy Grounds is another comparable solution, and it also has the benefit of being available on Steam. It does require a fair bit of tinkering to make it all work, but if you’re looking for bells and whistles of a more tactical miniatures experience, it’s definitely the way to go.

Both Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds include licensed content from the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as many other RPG systems, including Paizo’s Pathfinder, Vampire: The Masquerade, Call of Cthulhu, and more.

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Games to try

A great way to start a new gaming group is with a “one-shot.” These are two- to four-hour adventures that can be played in a single sitting. They go great with pre-generated characters, and serve as an excellent introduction to the hobby.

Here are some popular systems to try, plus links to all the materials you need to get started.

Cyberpunk Red

Image: Alexander Dudar/R. Talsorian Games

R. Talsorian Games, the creators of the Cyberpunk role-playing universe, are working with the team at CD Projekt Red to create Cyberpunk 2077. Part of that work was creating a single unified timeline for the universe. The result is a prequel RPG system called Cyberpunk Red. The Cyberpunk Red: Jumpstart Kit is on sale now, and there are also some free resources available online to help get you started, including pre-generated characters.

Cyberpunk Red: Jumpstart Kit

Dungeons & Dragons

Illustration: Tyler Jacobson/ Wizards of the Coast

For Dungeons & Dragons, a good place to start is with D&D Beyond’s free online character builder. You can also find pre-generated character sheets, including the same ones found in the official Starter Set.

For one-shots, check out the online storefront called the Dungeon Master’s Guild. That’s where many designers post free adventures for fans to download. One of my personal favorites is called The Wild Sheep Chase, because it’s very easy to run and suitable for groups of any age — even kids.

Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook

Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide

The Expanse RPG

Founder and president of Green Ronin Publishing Chris Pramas, authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, and lead designer Steve Kenson at Gen Con 2018.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Fans of Amazon’s The Expanse should already know that their favorite science-fiction series is also a pen-and-paper game. Oddly enough, the universe itself was originally created for a video game before transitioning into a homebrew tabletop RPG. Now it’s come full circle with a new system by the team at Green Ronin. The core rulebook is all you need to run the game. There’s a quick start set available for free online, as well as a set of character sheets available for download.

The Expanse Roleplaying Game

Pathfinder

Paizo

For the Pathfinder system, you can download everything you need from Paizo, the game’s publisher. They offer blank character sheets (including ones to print in color) as well as pre-generated “iconic” characters. You can also grab a wider selection of pre-generated characters for a nominal fee. For an introductory adventure, check out Torment and Legacy.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook

Starfinder

Image: Paizo Publishing

For Starfinder — Paizo’s science-fiction setting — you can also find most everything you need to run a game for free. Paizo offers free character and ship sheets for players, or you can purchase the character folio as a digital download. Pre-generated characters are also available as a free download from both the Starfinder Beginner Box and the Starfinder organized play network. For your first outing, try the quick adventure called Skitter Shot.

Starfinder Core Rulebook

Star Trek Adventures

Photo: Modiphius Entertainment

Fans of just about any era of the United Federation of Planets should look into Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures system. The game has been out for a few years now, and is extremely robust. You can pick up a free quick start edition at the official website. You can even play as a tribble.

Star Trek Adventures Core Rulebook

Vampire: The Masquerade

White Wolf Publishing

The 5th edition of Vampire: The Masquerade launched in 2018 and, despite some significant hiccups, is rapidly being adopted by the community. Publisher Modiphius offers a free quick start edition that you can download and play right now.

Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition

The Witcher tabletop RPG

CD Projekt Red/CD Projekt

R. Talsorian also partnered with CD Projekt for The Witcher Role-Playing Game, which was published as a single book in 2018. Using that system you can role-play extended adventures within the Witcher video game universe. Free resources are also available online, including pre-generated characters.

The Witcher Role-Playing Game

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