Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is an ever evolving hobby. In the past decade alone, we’ve had the introduction of its most popular iteration, 5e, and seen a massive influx of players shifting over towards online play. Consequently, this movement also sparked a whole new wave of digital services. Some of them good, and some… not so much.
Today however, I want to highlight a few of the tools that I absolutely adore. To try and keep this in line with my other D&D articles, I’ll primarily be targeting my picks with beginners in mind. If you’re interested in my other D&D content, you can find links to them in the conclusion section below.
Let’s kick things off right with a hotly debated topic! That being VTTs, otherwise known as Virtual Tabletops. The market is chock-full of different options when it comes to these, but finding the right one can be difficult task. Personally speaking, I prefer 3D environments over 2D ones, and for my money, nothing in that field has come close to Berserk Games, Tabletop Simulator.
Available through Steam, Tabletop Simulator allows you to design your own table space from the ground up. Need something that can accommodate 6 players? No problem. Want a place for a small and intimate session? Easy as pie. But the main reason I believe Tabletop Simulator is superior to all of the other VTTs is its innate mod support. This grants you immediate access to a near limitless number of minis, models, and boards, all of which can be used throughout your future sessions. Additionally, if you happen to have the technically knowledge, you yourself could even script some of your own desired features.
It’s also worth mentioning that Tabletop Simulator is remarkably intuitive to use. In fact, this is true to such an extent that, in my experience, non-PC gamers take no time at all in adjusting to the controls. With all that in mind, I cannot recommend Tabletop enough. It’s been my party’s choice of VTT for the better part of 3 years, and we’ve never looked back since adopting it.
D&D Beyond Alternatives
OGL Controversy Summary // Why would one need an alternative?
If you haven’t been keeping up with D&D news lately, then you might not be aware of the debacle surrounding the OGL (Open Game Licence). To give a brief rundown, the OGL legally permitted 3rd party publishers to develop unofficial D&D content for over 2 decades. However, Wizards of the Coast recently unveiled plans to alter this agreement, including brand new monetary fees, and the right to manipulate unofficial content in any way they want. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit too well with the fanbase.
In an act of solidarity with independent creators, a large portion of the community cancelled their D&D Beyond subscriptions. Whilst this certainly helped to stir the conversation back into a positive light, many fans, soured by the situation, have opted to seek a permeant alternative.
For those in that camp, a small collection of D&D Beyond substitutes can be found below. I’ve chosen these particular ones as they will allow you to import your pre-existing character sheets. That way, you won’t lose anything in the process either.
- Alchemy RPG
- Fantasy Grounds – Requires a 3rd party app found here. Or, if that doesn’t work, try this.
- Foundry VTT
- Roll 20 – Requires an API script found here.
- Shard Tabletop
- World Anvil
Truthfully, I myself haven’t committed to any one option as of writing this. So far, I’m leaning towards Foundry VTT as it seems to be the most rounded product. However, I implore you to check them all out, and find out which one works for you.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “What? OneNote? Really?” And yes, admittedly, it does sound rather bizarre. But for us D&D players, it genuinely offers a powerful toolset for compiling and organising our notes. This is primarily due to the manner in which OneNote is presented, which, unlike Word, is closer in style to that of a notebook. Essentially, this means we can interact with a page in any way we want, whilst also being able to properly categorise it.
For instance, you might want to create a page dedicated to a questline that you’re currently on. This page may include things like a block of text detailing the quest synopsis, a sketch of some important runic symbols, and an image of the local towns map. This page could then be appropriately renamed, and filed under a section labelled “Quest Log”.
For DMs, the exact same principles apply. You could have sections devoted to NPCs, villains, regions, loot, religions, and so on. You could even go a step further and colour code everything, or, separate your notes out into different books entirely.
Seriously, the fluidity of OneNote is second to none, and I highly suggest giving it a shot. Plus, if you already own Office, then, by extension, you already own OneNote as well.
At some point throughout your D&D tenure, you’ll probably get the itch to make a personalised mini. Of course, you might already be able to do this yourself using the likes of Blender or 3ds Max. But for those of us that aren’t that way inclined, our pals over at Hero Forge have our backs.
This is an online app that provides its users with the paraphernalia they need to create their own unique character models. It isn’t too far off of the systems you’d find in a video game, helping to give it a sense of familiarity. It’s also full of various customisation options, making it exceedingly likely that you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for. The major properties they allow you to modify include:
- Face & Body
- Stage / Tilesets
Hero Forge is also routinely updated with new content, and has been taking real strides recently to expand beyond their humanoid catalogue. It’s still early days on this front, but creatures like griffins, bears, and raptors are amongst the growing pool of choices.
You can easily spend hours upon hours perfecting your ideal design within Hero Forge, or, if you prefer, use one of the countless premade options instead. Regardless of which way you go, it’s an extremely flexible device, and one that you can use for free! Well… sort of.
Users are freely able to design their own minis, but you do have to pay to either download them, or to have it printed and shipped out to you. It is relatively affordable though, and they do offer a premium subscription service for anyone looking to do bulk purchases. Oh, and as an added bonus, the models themselves can natively be imported into many VTTs. Including the aforementioned Tabletop Simulator!
One aspect of D&D that I often find to be horrendously undervalued is audio. To be more specific, I’m talking about the combination of music and ambient soundscapes. Finding ways to incorporate these into your sessions can do wonders for player immersion. And the best way that I’ve found to do this is through Kenku.fm.
Available as a pay what you want service, Kenku allows you to control all of your audio software from within one client. It can natively be streamed through apps like Discord, and is exceptionally useful for DMs to streamline their workspace.
For example, in one tab you might have music playing from a custom Spotify playlist. Then, simultaneously in another, have ambient sounds from a YouTube video overlaying on top. For pivotal storyline moments, you might have a dedicated soundboard tab that you call on for extra dramatic flair. The possibilities here are endless.
If you do plan to use this on Discord, be warned ahead of time that you’ll have to create your own bot in order to be able to do so. Thankfully, this isn’t as difficult as it sounds, and by following this guide here, you should have it up and running in no time.
In summary, check out:
- Tabletop Simulator for your VTT needs.
- Foundry VTT as a possible replacement to D&D Beyond.
- OneNote for all your note taking and compiling.
- Hero Forge for your miniature creations.
- and Kenku.fm for an all in one audio client.
Needless to say, this is just a short glimpse of what the digital world of D&D has to offer. Still, I hope you will get as much out of these as I have over the years. At the very least, it can’t hurt to try them, right?
If you need more D&D content, you can check out my official beginner’s buyer guide here. Or, if you want something a bit more topical, you can peruse my 3rd party sourcebook suggestions here.