How to Play RPGs Online

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The streaming site Twitch has more than 100 channels devoted to Dungeons & Dragons. Critical Role, a live-play campaign executed by voice actors, has become a YouTube hit that recently raised more than $11 million for an animated special. R.P.G.s have also inspired dozens of podcasts, both fictional and live play, like “The Adventure Zone” and “You Meet in a Tavern.” The Netflix show “Stranger Things” has made Dungeons & Dragons a central theme: The boy characters play the game and use its vocabulary to understand their town’s bizarre goings-on. (You can even buy a “Stranger Things”-inspired D&D starter set.)

Before the pandemic, when people already seemed to live mostly online, tabletop R.P.G.s were seen as a respite from multiscreen life, a more artisanal and analog way to connect. “The ability to get together with friends and put on a show, that’s a pretty amazing experience,” Mr. Sell said.During lockdown, when the ability to get together went away, RPGs stayed. Many of the most popular games had already found a home online. Sites and apps like Roll20, Role Gate, World Anvil, Astral, Fantasy Grounds and D&D Beyond have created platforms to make online play possible. Many have tools — like character generators — that simplify a campaign.

R.P.G.s don’t require tactile experience (apologies to those who hand-paints miniatures for their characters), so they adapt well to online play. “Almost everything that happens in Dungeons & Dragons happens in your imagination,” Mr. Winninger said. “It makes the transition to virtual play easier.”

If you have Wi-Fi, you’re in, and you don’t even need dice: Wizards of the Coast has a page that will roll the dice for you virtually. Other sites feature game enhancements, like virtual maps, and the ability to sync your game to a selection of creepy music. Want to run your own game? Gather a group on Zoom, Skype or Discord. Don’t have any like-minded friends? Wizards of the Coast released the Yawning Portal, a site that matches players with virtual games. Other sites run message boards and marketplaces that connect individuals with groups and groups with games masters. Newbies can easily find experienced players to show them the ropes and chains and dimensional shackles. After-school programs and local libraries run games catering to children and teenagers.

And yet, we lose something when we can’t play in person or share Cheetos. Because R.P.G.s depends on storytelling, the experience dwindles when we’re no longer face to face with our fellow tellers. “It’s all about looking at people in the eye and performing with your body,” Mr. Fortugno said. “When you lose all of that, the game becomes more stilted.”

But questing through darkened forests or perilous caves from the comfort of your couch can still thrill. And because R.P.G.s have an inherent structure and turn-taking, they may offer more natural engagement than the average Zoom cocktail hour. Having a mutual goal — maiden rescuing, treasure acquiring, sphere of annihilation avoidance — makes the conversation flow. And players can now meet across the country and across the continents.

Avery Alder, a game designer (Monsterhearts 2, Dream Askew) who lives in rural British Columbia, used to host weekly in-person role-playing games in a nearby post-and-beam town hall. The pandemic ended that, but she still plays when work and child care allow, which isn’t often. She argues that maybe we need R.P.G.s now more than ever.