Right now there is a debate happening in the Dungeons & Dragons community. The topic of the debate is simple: which one is better, in-person or online D&D? In the past, everyone agreed that in-person D&D provides a better experience, but is this really the case today?
Many people want to know whether in-person or online D&D is better for their group. The pandemic has boosted the quality of online D&D to the point where online can provide a high quality experience. In some cases, online might be a better option even if the group can meet in person.
But is that the case for your group? Is online D&D just better overall, or does in-person D&D provide something that can’t be replicated online? We are going to break down the pros and cons of each playstyle to find out whether online or in-person is best suited for you and your table.
Which is Better: In-Person or Online D&D?
Unlike some questions, this one doesn’t have a black and white answer. Since you are trying to figure out whether in-person vs online D&D is better for your table, we will give a brief summarization of the pros and cons for both sides, followed by a more in-depth analysis. There is also a third option that you may not have considered that we will talk about later in the article.
Pros of in-person D&D:
There is a big pro of in-person D&D, and that’s human contact. Online games simply can’t replicate the socialization style of in-person D&D. It’s also easier to read people’s body language when you are physically present in a room with them.
For the Dungeon Master, in-person might be a bit easier when it comes to getting people’s attention and effectively communicating with them. In-person games can also be very cheap, and you do not need to worry about potential IT issues. This style of play is amazing for a group of close friends.
Cons of in-person D&D:
Commuting to games can cause frustration, especially if the host lives far away. Last-minute cancelations also happen more often compared to online D&D.
In terms of preparation, you have to purchase physical items like battle mats, figurines, character sheets, dice, and more. Visuals for in-person games generally aren’t that great or are very expensive. All calculations have to be done manually, which can be an issue if your players struggle with basic math.
Pros of online D&D:
One big pro is that you do not have to look up monsters from a book. Instead, you can put monsters with pre-arranged statistics right into your online world, which means less work for you. In addition to this, you can have set up maps and music pretty easily.
Online play looks more professional, polished, and cleaner. It is also easier to use macros and to navigate characters sheets with a lot of things becoming automated. You can play with anyone, anywhere, and have almost unlimited resources to help you without having to pause the session to look up information.
Cons of online D&D:
You lose that personal human touch and physical connection to others with online D&D. Players find these games easier to drop, and you have to know the VTT (virtual table top) extremely well or else the game becomes extremely difficult to play. This means that DMs have even more work before they start their campaigns. This barrier to entry makes online D&D more tricky to get started with than in-person D&D.
These are the summarized points for each style of play. Next we will look at the pros and cons more in-depth. Then, we will present a third style of play that you may not have thought of.
Pros of In-Person D&D
The biggest benefit of in-person D&D is that personal touch, better known as human contact. Most advocates of in-person vs online D&D use this as their first, and primary argument to fall back on. The reason for this is simple – it’s a completely valid point.
During the pandemic, people realized how much they need human interaction. Even those who didn’t think they ever wanted to deal with people came to terms with the fact that we are social creatures. We need human interaction, and talking with someone face to face is a completely different experience than speaking with them over an instant messenger or even face chat.
This point is even more important when you consider the job of a DM. A DM is expected to tell a story to the players and act out different characters. This means using gestures, different facial expressions, and body language to help craft a believable narrative. This really done best with human-to-human contact, since doing this over video just doesn’t feel the same.
In-person D&D is also cheaper than any alternative. Do you remember a time where a DM used a d4 to represent a minion? How about a time the DM was flustered and just drew something on a piece of paper? These props are not elegant, but they are extremely cheap. You do not need anything fancy to play D&D, and you can get away with a lot. Admittedly, your game will not look like a professional game that you see on YouTube or Twitch, but it doesn’t have to be. You just need enough for you and your friends to know what is happening and have a great time.
If you have a close group of friends, your jokes will hit home more often when you play together in person. This goes back to the strength of having a personal touch. While a personal touch does help the DM craft a story, it also assists players. Players can use facial expressions to motion toward another player to get a point across. Being in close proximity makes it easier to plan since you don’t need to say your piece and wait over a mic for someone else to respond. It increases your comfort level and ability to communicate when you are in-person.
Cons of In-Person D&D
One of the biggest negatives of in-person D&D is getting your group started. While players might arrive a little late in online D&D, this is nothing compared to in-person D&D. Players get stuck in traffic, at a commitment, or end up cancelling altogether. These potential problems are multiplied when everyone has to get to the host’s house for the first time. Logging into the game from home is always more reliable and easier than going to a foreign place.
This leads to cancelations. Cancelations happen in both online and in-person D&D, but there are many times that players don’t let the others know that they can’t make it. This happens online too, but players are usually used to communicating quickly via instant messaging platforms and will usually say something before hand. It is also far more punishing when players don’t make it to an in-person session since everyone has commuted and committed time to meeting in person.
When everyone finally gets to the table, you still need to get the battle mats, character sheets, and equipment set up. Pray that no one forgot their character sheet or an insurmountable amount of time might be taken up.
When you finally get everything set up, the battle mats and settings are still inferior to free online D&D maps most of the time. For those rare times that you have a better presentation than a 2d map online, you have to pay quite a bit. You can end up paying a high amount to make one scene look great, and then never use that map again.
Lastly, there are players that have issues with doing basic math. This is understandable for new players when they have to deal with quick rolls and calculations for the first time. This slow down can be frustrating, and some players never really get the hang of it. Manually calculating everything can be difficult and definitely slows down the game. When players have character sheets that show what everything does in detail, it is overwhelming. Players may also have pages of notes to keep track of, taking up even more mental effort. Soon, they have so much information to remember that a trained scribe might be unable to find what they need!
Pros of Online D&D
One of the biggest reasons to have D&D online is convenience. The biggest form of convenience here is for the DM. No longer must you take in-session time to set up the game! It is already pre-set up with monsters, notes, maps, music, NPCs, and more. This convenience doesn’t stop there.
We already talked about how in-person, players might have issues with calculating rolls. Luckily this isn’t an issue online thanks to macros, which calculate all your rolls and abilities for you.
Online, theater of the mind isn’t as necessary. When a DM describes a scene, visual aids are at the ready to help the players see what is happening. There is far less, ‘Oh I didn’t know that was happening. Can I take it back?’ from the player who didn’t understand the scene. They can see everything that you have laid out, right there on their screen.
Having these aids makes the game look more professional. While most of us are amateurs, we can give the illusion that we have our stuff together.
In keeping up that illusion, you can look up monsters, have separate tabs open, and notes on another screen with your players being none the wiser. These extra resources could be a monster chart, a random name generator, detailed campaign notes, and anything else that you can think of. Availability of resources is nice for a DM, and you don’t have to worry about your players watching your every move. This makes you more versatile with narration, and less self-conscious about pulling up information during a session. No DM wants to pull out the Monster Manual and have the players ask why you are pulling it up.
Lastly, you can play with anyone, anywhere, even if they are on the other side of the world. Playing with anyone is a huge draw since your friends might not be interested or able to make the time. If you are having trouble getting a group together, why not look online? Finding someone to join your game is now easier than ever. This option also lets players choose your game only if they can make the time commitment, which leads to fewer cancelations.
Cons of Online D&D
The biggest drawback of online D&D is the lack of physical presence. No matter how convenient online D&D may be, there is something lost when you are not playing in-person.
While it is great to be able to play with anyone, anywhere, it can be difficult to get someone to fully commit to your online game. If you are playing with total strangers, it can be challenging to find people that work well together. For these reasons, players tend to drop out of online games more frequently than in-person games. In-person games have more accountability, since your players may already be friends or see each other outside of the game. Online, you will likely never see or hear from that person again, so dropping has fewer personal consequences.
Lastly, one of the most important negatives is the VTT that you choose. Choosing a VTT is a big decision that will take a lot of the DM’s time. Once you choose a VTT to play on, you will have to learn how to use that VTT. Figuring out the basics of how to run a game on a VTT can be challenging, especially when it comes to IT issues. The work it takes to set up maps, tokens, monsters, players with their character sheets, and more is a lot on the DM’s shoulders.
If you do not know your VTT extremely well, your sessions will suffer. This isn’t like in-person where you can play on a countertop with d4s representing enemies. Your players expect more, and you have to deliver or the experience is extremely sub-par.
A Third Option: Combining Them Together
Why get caught up in the debate? Why consider choosing between in-person or online D&D when you can have both? In this third option, you can combine both playstyles to get the best out of both.
Optimally, the best way to do this is to have a table with a built-in tablet. That way you can have your players see the visual representation you have set up on your computer. When using your computer, you can check multiple tabs, monster tables, and so on without alerting your players to what you are doing.
When you need to describe any human interactions, you can do so with gesticulations and body language since you have all the benefits of an in-person game.
Of course this third method also suffers from some of the cons of in-person play, like having players cancel on you at the last minute or struggling to find people to join your game. But you can’t have everything, right?
If you cannot afford a table with a built-in tablet, you can use a projector, or hook up a computer to a television.
The main benefit of this combination is to provide the players with a complete visual experience, have access to quick macros to minimize math confusion, and computers to have orderly management of resources.
This third option may seem obvious, but many in-person groups either don’t consider this or don’t understand that they are already doing a form of this with apps like D&D beyond. Integrating parts of online and in-person D&D can really help improve your game. If you are frustrated with some of the cons of in-person play, look towards what online elements you can use to make your in-person game run smoother.
The debate of in-person or online D&D will likely continue for years to come. It is unlikely that either style will be universally acclaimed as the ‘better way to play.’ I hope that this article has helped you decide what is best for your group.
If you are looking for a new group, I would highly suggest online D&D. The reason is simple: most people are introduced to D&D through an online platform and you can meet more people that way. In addition to this, learning to play online can help extremely good DMs make a living. We recently wrote an article on how to become a professional dungeon master if you are curious, so check it out!
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