Role-playing in a Pandemic


I do a lot of pen-and-paper role-playing. If you think that means I dress up all kinky… then no, get your mind out of the gutter and read this first. Normally, I meet up with friends, we sit around a table and play. With a pandemic on, this has become an interesting challenge.

Quick refresher on role-playing

Let’s start with a quick intro, in case you’re not a hard-core Dungeons & Dragons player or Vampire: The Masquerade enthusiast. With a pen-and-paper role-playing game, you gather with a group of people. Each player takes on the role of one character in an imaginary world, and one takes on the heavy mantle of being the Dungeon Master (or gamemaster, or whatever your choice of setting calls it).

The Dungeon Master explains what happens, and the players role-play how their characters react. To give this some structure, characters each have abilities in the form of numbers on a form. This helps differentiate between the characters and allows balance in the super-hero-like powers they may have.

The setting you play in can vary. Dungeons & Dragons is a Lord-of-the-Rings style fantasy world, but you can play as vampires (Vampire: the Masquerade), Cyberpunk mercenaries (Shadowrun), or just about anything you can imagine.

Still not a clue how this works? Have a look at Vin Diesel (yes, the actor, he’s a D&D fan) and Matt Mercer (famous online Dungeon Master) playing a game of D&D with some voice actors. This is basically a regular D&D game, although my party uses a less fancy table.

So, the pandemic?

I’ve played D&D, Legend of the Five Rings and a bazillion other settings and systems for twenty-five years. What I have not done before this year, is do these thing over a remote video or audio connection.

My first thought was, ‘well, this shouldn’t be a problem.’ Role-playing are mostly in your head anyway. You talk, others talk, and a dungeon master talks. You don’t even need a video connection. So, we switched to Discord. And…

Whoops, it wasn’t really the same, at all.

All of us humans are trained to pick up non-verbal queues in conversations. When you switch to video conferencing, you miss those queues. Having done a gazillion meetings that way this year, I’ve noticed the results of this become increasingly worse as the number of participants grows. One-on-one works okay, with about four it still works reasonably well, but with ten people it’s very hard to have a proper meeting. Unfortunately, the optimum party-size for a role-playing game is four or five players and a dungeon master. And one of my groups is bigger, with seven of us.

Not being at the same table with seven people is really hard. When you’re all behind your computers, and only use audio, you can sometimes lose the thread of what the Dungeon Master is saying, or not pick up on other people wanting to speak. As Dungeon Master I always try to engage directly with people when I see their attention sag, but you can’t see that with audio only. And then there’s the distractions of social media, internet, and whatever there is on people’s computers.

It turns out: role-playing isn’t so simple to transfer online.

Enter D&D Beyond and Roll20

In the before times, when the pandemic was just a bat cold that pangolins were picking up in a Chinese market, I was already looking at online tooling. Heck, I’ve been writing software to support D&D since I learned how to program.

However, writing software for role-playing games is hard. The rules are usually not very complicated, but most systems are designed around a core set of rules, which are changed, expanded, or broken by specific types of characters. For example, normally, if a character fights with two weapons they get a penalty. Except a character trained in two-weapon fighting. Proper D&D software has to support literally hundreds of these kind of exceptions. That is hard to program, and even harder to create a good UI for.

Luckily, there are two tools that do a good of it: D&D Beyond and Roll20. The first is the official toolset from the makers of D&D, and the second is the company that grew from a desire of three friends to keep playing D&D when they were no longer in the same city.

I initially started using D&D Beyond because it really helped manage character sheets, and helped me search for stuff in rule books (a large part of role-playing seems to be looking up obscure rules because weird stuff happens in-game). I liked it.

Then, the pandemic hit, and I was asked to run a campaign – our Dungeon Master at that time has two young children and the closing of schools hit him hard. So I turned to Roll20.

Roll20 and the Pandemic

I was a bit skeptical when I started on my campaign, but a friend of mine was using Roll20, and it seemed to provide something I was really missing: visual aids for role-playing.

For my pandemic campaign I really wanted to go beyond the talking: with visuals, and preferably sound-effects and music. Roll20 turned out to be a very useful tool for that. A side-effect that I had not anticipated is that it also improves combat remarkably. A player performing a combat action means rolling several dice, adding some modifiers, and usually some back-and-forth. That became worse in an audio-only online setting. Roll20 reduces that to two clicks. And everybody has a top-down view of the combat, so that helps players understand what the battlefield looks like. Ever since D&D third edition, position in combat has become a thing.

As an example of what it looks like, here is the overview map of my campaign (yes, it’s the Ravnica setting). It has some doodles and notes written on it.

All in all, I’m very happy with roll20. I don’t know what will happen after the pandemic, but until everybody is vaccinated a couple of months from now, this should hold up.

My addition of sound-effects and music did not pan out so well. The feedback over discord for the players without a headset made it practically unusable. Although, I must say, RythmBot is pretty awesome. Ah well, can’t have it all, I guess.


The pandemic makes a lot of things different. Luckily, technology has come to the point where a lot of things can be done in a pandemic-friendly way. Happy role-playing.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands