Running online D&D: Weekly prep

I’ve talked a fair amount on my blog about macros that I’ve programmed in MapTool for my online games and recaps of adventures that I’ve run, but I realized that I haven’t spent any time talking about the prep process. Preparing to run a game online has a lot in common with an in-person game with vinyl mats and minis, but it definitely has its differences.

1 week before the game

I figure out what I’m going to be running. For my longest-running online game, this is easy; we’re running EN World’s War of the Burning Sky campaign and have been for over a year. I do still need to make sure I’ve read far enough ahead in the campaign to know what’s coming in the broad sense, but I try to be good about staying ahead of things there.

For my other online games, this might mean picking out a one-shot game (like a Living Forgotten Realms adventure) or actually writing my own adventures (a topic for another blog post).

This is also the time that I reach out to the online players about any changes they need to make to their characters. For instance, if they’ve leveled up after the last session, I remind them to tell me what choices they’re making for their characters. This is a difference between an online game and an in-person game; online, I have to maintain the tokens for the PCs and add new powers, adjust stats, etc. I also talk about magic items that the party acquired in the previous session and see which PC is going to be using them (so I can update their tokens).

3 days before the game

I send out an email to the group, announcing that there will be a session at our usual time (6:00 PM Mountain Time on Friday night for me and the person in South Dakota; 5:00 PM for the person in California; 7:00 PM for the people in Indiana and Texas, 8:00 PM for the people in New Jersey and Florida, and 9:00 AM Saturday for the person in Japan), asking who will be able to attend. I usually get a couple of responses right away and the rest trickle in over the next couple of days. Sometimes I’ll get a “maybe” (there’s a possible schedule conflict, but they might be able to come – this is usually a “no” in the end). I have a total of seven players, and we usually have 4-5 show up each week. One of the seven is almost never there, and four are almost always there; the other two are there most of the time, but not all of the time. This works for us, though I know some DMs don’t like it if players are absent irregularly. This is why I have seven players! We can still game even if three people are unavailable.

1-2 days before the game

I do my actual prep work (sometimes I get this done earlier, of course). This involves a few things:

  • Updating PC stats if the players have sent them to me after a level-up
  • Updating PC treasure if the players have decided on what they’re using
  • Setting up the maps for the next few encounters (easy for War of the Burning Sky, since decent JPG versions of the maps are available)
  • Building monsters for the next few encounters using my handy-dandy monster construction macro

For some reason, I used to procrastinate more about the PC stuff than the map and monster stuff. When the PCs hit paragon tier, I actually canceled a session so I could use that four-hour time slot to work on their PC tokens. It’s gotten better since I’ve changed my PC properties to be easier to level up (defenses now scale automatically with level, for instance), but there was a time when I almost wanted to stop running online games just because of the extra layer of work on the DM to update PC tokens. It’s better now, though.

The new monster macro has made building the monsters way easier and actually more fun. I also enjoy the process of using TokenTool to create cool-looking monster tokens from images I find online. I’m sure lots of these images are copyrighted and such, but I’m only using them in my own game (this is part of the reason I don’t distribute lots of monster tokens on my blog – well, that and laziness).

The day of the game

Since our game starts at 6:00 PM my time, I go to work early so I can leave at 4:00 PM. It only takes me 15 minutes to get home, at which point I’ll chat with my wife briefly and help take care of household tasks (feed the cats, figure out dinner). This usually leaves me at the computer by around 5:00, giving me time for last-minute prep. If there are any monsters I haven’t done yet, I’ll try to put those together quickly. If I already have a good image for the monster, it tends to take about 5 minutes per monster type to assemble.

If all goes well, I like to spend the time from 5:30 onward re-reading the material I’ll be running that evening. War of the Burning Sky is a very story-heavy adventure, and I want to make sure I understand the various NPCs and the branching points of the tale so that it all makes sense during the game.

At 5:45, I start up the MapTool server so that my players can connect. It’s not at all unusual for one or two people to be ready to go right at that time, and we might chat a bit in the text window of MapTool until start time, or they might say, “Hi, I’m here, but I’m going to be busy with something else for the next few minutes.” I also might say, “Okay, the server is up, but I’m still preppping! Please talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: A half-elf is neither a halfling nor an elf. Discuss.”

At 6:00, assuming we have at least 3 players on MapTool, I’ll start the Skype audio call so we can talk to each other… and away we go!

Game on!

After that, we play D&D for four hours. Honestly, the online experience is darn near as good as the in-person experience for me. We still get to know each other out-of-game and chat as friends. Role-playing still happens. Combat is still exciting – and pretty quick, too, thanks to the software handling a lot of the math. It’s a ton of fun, and while I also enjoy in-person games, my online game is my longest-running campaign by far.

I’ll talk in later posts about the process of running a session, but I hope this window into the online game prep process helps to show you what it’s like. Give online D&D a try sometime – it’s a ton of fun!

5 thoughts on “Running online D&D: Weekly prep

  1. At the risk of asking an obvious question, why not make the players responsible for maintaining their own tokens? (I’ve got follow-up questions I could ask, but I’ll wait for an answer to this one, since it might knock out the others.

    • It’s not an obvious question at all.

      The vast majority of my players aren’t MapTool users outside of this game. They don’t know how to program up a macro for a new power, for instance. A couple of them do, but most don’t.

      Could I teach them? Well, I COULD, but it’s been simpler for me to just handle it, especially now that I’ve made it easier.

      Note that I’m not using an off-the-shelf framework; my macros and properties and everything are home-brewed. It’s quite likely that this would all be easier in a well-known framework, but I’ve been using MapTool in part because I ENJOY the process of learning to program in a new system.

      • And that answers the follow-up questions. I was going to recommend either the most recent DN framework, or the hybrid DN/Veggiesama framework that somebody has created for use in the MapTool LFR community. The DN version is pretty simple on the player side after a very, very short learning curve (mostly dealing with items and how to enter a power & account for math feats).

        I know I couldn’t program a new macro from scratch, but I’ve gotten to where I can do a pretty good job of keeping my own LFR tokens up.

      • Yeah, I know there are great frameworks out there, and I highly recommend them to most people – normal people who don’t actively enjoy programming! But for me, the programming is interesting, so I deal with reinventing the wheel from time to time. I’m okay with that.

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