D&D Online vs IRL
“Are we meeting in person, or are we doing this online?”
It’s been asked time and time again, with the argument never really reaching a full conclusion. And with the impending release of D&D Digital, it feels important to invoke the same question that has plagued the TTRPG community for decades.
Of course, we all have our preferences, and D&D has had many different incarnations in both in-person and remote form. It is not a new concept by any means, one of the earliest to my knowledge is one veteran player who used to run his games over landline calls with the help of some Excel spreadsheets. As technology advances, each new method makes playing remotely more and more accessible. It has never been easier to play D&D wherever, whenever, and with whomever you want.
However, there is still a remarkable difference when playing in person. So which is better?
To get the obvious out of the way: you get to stay in your own home and be comfortable. That’s worth the price of admission alone. More than that, you get the unrestrained freedom to pick up your laptop, log on, and play a game with any of your friends anywhere in the world. You are not restricted to city, state, or even national borders. I was fortunate enough to at one point run a successful campaign while two of my players were in Canada, and I was living in New Jersey. That experience was something we all needed, especially during the pandemic.
All it took was importing a couple JPEGs to the virtual map, setting up a dungeon layout the day before the session, ensuring a stable internet connection, and we were off to the races! Dice rolls were instantly calculated with no worries over weighted dice (or liars), everyone could see the map clearly and didn’t have to worry about figuring out ranges. It was great to just be able to hop online and start playing. That sheer utility coupled with the fact that any one of us could get up and grab food from our own kitchens was wonderful.
However, there are a few drawbacks. Sometimes we would start off strong, our characters full of vim and vigor, everyone role-playing their part to their fullest, only to drop off a few sessions in. Nilgar, our dwarven sorcerer, started the campaign whining about the quality of food and searching for opportunities to mention that his father owned a chain of smithies all throughout Neverwinter. Five sessions later, the player was reduced to saying “Firebolt,” “I roll to bluff,” or “I have darkvision,” leaving the majority of the role-playing behind. Uragh, our half-orc bard, and Silfaine, our elven ranger went through similar downgrades. By session six, it began to feel less like we were playing D&D and more like we were playing a text-to-speech version of Zork. Now, it was a very nice version of Zork. With maps, custom campaigns, a nice narrator, and an easier way to manage inventory. But even the best version of that game is not the same as D&D.
Zork: The Great Underground Empire is a text adventure RPG released in 1977 for MSDOS
In-person play is always going to be a time sink. You have to decide who’s going to host the session, figure out when everyone is going to be there (factoring in traffic), get some minis, sort out the food situation, and maybe start playing after about two hours of prep time because Harry forgot the fold-out table and Jenny wanted to show off her new character sheet she plans on using for the next campaign.
In spite of the negatives, I have never been more emotionally invested in a campaign than when playing in person. I won’t forget the look of shock and terror on everyone’s face when the Dungeon Master (DM) pulled out three mindflayer figures and plopped them onto the map at the end of a long dungeon crawl, or the hunched-over anticipation we shared when our wizard rolled a saving throw, or the palpable silence as our DM described the death of our favorite NPC. It’s partially because of the time it takes to set up that the emotional investment is greater. The extra seconds it takes to physically roll a d20 isn’t something you really think about, but it does improve the immersion. Pressing a button and receiving an instant result don’t really give you that same level of anticipation.
Role-playing together was easy because everyone had someone to look at when speaking and could read their expressions and body language. It's harder to do that remotely because not everyone has access to webcams or a strong enough internet connection to handle long video calls. Not impossible, just harder.
Playing in person, we would go all the way through session twenty with the same sort of energy as the first. We went through entire character arcs, side quests, and many, many pizzas without ever getting sick of it.
If you’re looking to get immersed in someone’s story and have the stress of a really bad day at work melt right off, then there is no real substitution.
There have never been more to play Dungeons & Dragons, and there is no grand arbitrator of what the “correct” way to play is. Thankfully, there never will be. Maybe there is some glorious hybrid that appeals to both convenience and immersion, but that hasn’t been made fully available just yet.
That said, I’d like to give a recommendation for those just starting out:
If you want to get together with some old friends who live a bit far from you, kick back, and play a fun one-shot adventure, then go digital. It’s quick, easy, and free. And fun!
If you and some buddies are looking to play a full campaign that’s heavy on the roleplay, especially if you all live in the same general area, then the time it takes to set up an in-person campaign is worth the payoff.
That’s my experience with virtual and IRL games. What’s yours? Do you experience the same sort of fatigue in a long online campaign? If not, how would you recommend new players avoid that feeling? Let us know your stories by clicking our socials HERE!
Hunter Fox is a long time fantasy nerd, caffeine addict, and amateur game designer. He has some large ambitions of being a fantasy author in his own right and loves to go on diatribes about worldbuilding and magic systems. When he’s not managing his group’s campaigns, he’s working on his writing skills, cooking for himself and his roommates, or brewing mead.
I gotta try this online d&d seems fun used to our traditional d&d set up with my old buds definitely gonna give this a try thanks for such a thorough breakdown.