Online Solo D&D Campaign Thoughts

I’ve been running a solo D&D game for a longtime friend who’s never played despite it being a self-described “lifelong dream.” (She actually reached out to me a couple years ago when I posted about the game I was DMing then, but we’ve finally gotten around to it.) I thought I’d share some thoughts.

First of all, my friend lives in Devonshire so there’s a massive time difference (though it got one hour better last week, one small benefit of the nonsense way our species deals with time). Scheduling an online gaming session turned out to be less of a hassle than I’d expect, and that is partly down to the whole pandemic-turned-my-life-upside-down aspect of our current times. I have little else to do, you see.

So, first thing to figure out was a platform. There’s a number of Virtual Tabletop platforms out there, notably Roll20 and GMForge. The only one I’d ever messed with before is Roll20, which I spent some time tinkering with the last time I ran a game. That was an in-person campaign with three players. I looked into virtual when one of those players was going to be out of the country for two months.

Roll20 was … too much for me. It looks pretty slick, and I’d love to see it in the hands of a DM who really knows what they’re doing with it, but that’s not me. So I looked into alternatives and landed on Shard Tabletop.

Shard might not be right for you — it has a somewhat minimalist approach. There is no communication feature, so using it means also using some other app to talk (we actually settled on just making a Discord server and running the game with text because we are both writerly sorts). Shard’s virtual table is essentially just that: a virtual table on which to display the visual aspect of your campaign, and little else.

But it’s, in my opinion, very good at being that. Displaying maps, handouts, images, whatever else — it’s a snap. So easy. The integrated character sheet is fantastically useful. The player can roll any combination fo dice from a dice menu on one side of the screen; they can also make specific rolls by clicking an ability, skill, proficiency, weapon, or inventory item directly on the character sheet – and Shard will add any appropriate modifiers based on the sheet. Which is solidly useful when I have a player who is completely new to the mechanics of the game.

Maps are a breeze. There are a good number you can access for free, but you can also painlessly upload your own images to use as maps or do a Google image search from within the Shard platform. So that’s nice. Removing areas of fog when the player moves around has to be done manually, and there are several tools for doing so — too many, honestly, and Fog editing seems to be the default map function. I tried to click and drag a zombie to move it on the map and instead just made a weird line 30ft long of random visibility to the player.

There’s a small library of sourcebooks available free on Shard (the platform is still being developed, and may not be free forever — though they promise there will always be a free version).

There’s very little in the way of tutorial or instruction manual, so there was a good bit of trial and error. However! Going through their library of sourcebooks, specifically looking at the adventure modules, I discovered what might be my favorite feature: creating your own module sourcebook is incredibly easy and user-friendly. The template is thoroughly complete and allows you to create a whole book in the familiar format and style, with existing or custom NPCs and monsters. That’s been very useful.

My friend is playing a level 1 Rogue, and wanted a story wherein her character is a (somewhat reluctant) thief. It’s hard enough to find any adventures for single players, but I knew from the start we’d be creating something completely new for this. So, after agreeing to DM for her, I spent about a week tinkering on Shard in my free time and built the beginnings of a story with a few encounters ready to go – mostly different people and places she might rob around the city, and a shady fence who tips her on specific jobs.

We haven’t really put an endpoint on this. She envisions a series of adventures for the character, not necessarily interconnected. So, the background I’m building – it’s background really, or worldbuilding, not story itself because that’s what she’ll do when she wanders around my clues and prompts – is a 1-5 mystery/crime thriller that I’ve tried to tie to her character motivations and backstory to provide a climax that seriously challenges the character and presents them with a personally difficult choice. (I’m kind of hoping she takes the “wrong” choice!) After that, we’ll see what’s next.

She surprised me last week, leaping from the task she’d been given by the fence – delivering a message – straight into robbing the recipient’s manor house. (Luckily I’d always planned for her to eventually rob the house, just much later. But I had the maps and treasure and enemies ready to go, and pulling them up on Shard unexpectedly still only took about 30 seconds.)

That was our second session, and although the house she robbed was full of servants and guards, she managed to get in and out with the loot without being spotted. The entire 5.5 hour session had no combat – it comprised about half searching/investigating and half pure roleplay. At the end, she reached level 2.

The first session was less smooth, both of us still learning the platform itself and working out the kinks of our Discord + Shard arrangement. Tomorrow is our third session and we’re both looking forward to it. (Between sessions, she sends me short, one-page “diary entries” that flesh out what we’ve done with more detailed reactions and reflections from her character – a very motivated player she is.)

So running a game online is weird, and running one for a solo player unusual – but it’s actually vastly rewarding, having only one player to work with. It is both much easier and much harder than a traditional group setup. I have only the one character to cater to with the story, meaning I don’t have to weave different elements into the plot to keep each character invested.

On the other end, and especially starting with a level 1 character, building combat encounters is fucking tricky. Fortunate then that our campaign is built more on role play scenes and sneaking and thieving. Although no way am I letting it go all the way to the end without at least one big holy-shit combat encounter…

So anyway, just some musings. More to come, I’m sure.

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