Game Sessions: The Return of the Dragon


As mentioned in 2017 Preview – Gaming Goals, I have taken a very high level approach to goals related to how many games, what type of games, etc. that will hit my table this year. This is fortunate because I would have already headed down a path that probably is contrary to anything I would have imagined just 2 months ago.

About 18 months ago, I started looking hard at Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5E). An old friend who was the primary DM in my wife’s college D&D group was also looking at it, but we didn’t think we would be able to get any momentum toward playing. We are all just too busy and the old gang lives at different corners of the Denver area (Lori and I and another couple are actually “remote”), so getting together is always an ordeal. We also looked at Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds as possible tools to facilitate being able to play.

Can we pull it together to play D&D?

Some of us have been able to get together monthly to play boardgames fairly reliably, so this month we commandeered that time for a dive into The Princes of the Apocalypse. We don’t have everyone from the old gang – we only have two couples (3 in the party and a DM) – but we’re off on a new adventure. We are playing live, but are using Fantasy Grounds for DM and character management.

What follows is a discussion of how we met the challenges of playing; getting the party together, sharpening our skills, and taking advantage of the tools available. I will also report on highlights of our first session to provide some context for our experience (no spoilers). One of the players is completely new to D&D, 2 are 30 years rusty, and I played some 30 years ago, but not enough to even say that I am rusty.

Hopefully, I will have a session report occasionally to discuss my experience and impression of D&D 5E, the Fantasy Grounds service, and roleplaying in our 50s. We are also hoping to have another party play remotely using Fantasy Grounds with me as the DM, but that is probably at least several months off. This should be interesting; with me as a first-time DM and our first-time remote playing.

Round 1: Barriers to Entry

As for playing any games, but possibly harder due to the level and length of commitment, there are several challenges to getting a RPG session going, much less a campaign. Here are the barriers that we had to overcome:

  • Silly Schedules – Primarily mine
    • Though, so far we are giving up a significant portion of our regular boardgame time to play.
    • The approach we have taken has eliminated one player from the mix for now (until we can play remotely or face-to-face in a more central location).
  • Option Overload
    • There are many RPG systems and options within each.
    • Fortunately, based on our previous experience, we were set on D&D 5E from the start, so extensive comparison and evaluation wasn’t necessary.
    • Although I surveyed several systems, it was mostly to satisfy my curiosity and as a fallback if D&D 5E wasn’t the system for us.
  • Extravagant Expense
    • Though we are not independently wealthy, this isn’t a huge concern for us. However, it is a big expense to get started and there is potential to never realize the benefits of that cost. For me, this was ~6 months of my boardgame budget. One of our old and potential players has bought 2 D&D systems since he has last played regularly that have been mostly unused.
    • As game playing costs go, this is an expensive game unless you play regularly and for a long time. I breakdown the costs that we have shelled out so far in Round 4.
  • Character Commitment
    • Since we ended up with just 2 couples, we have settled this problem through a combination of peer and marital pressure. No problem…
    • With only 3 players, one discontent can make the whole thing a wash out so we are still on tenterhooks.
    • We have had only 1 session so far, so I can’t say that we have conquered these and that there won’t be more. I can see the time issue getting harder through the summer months. A closer examination of how some of these were met follow.

Perception Check: Versions and Modules

Since our history is primarily with D&D, from the start we were pretty settled on D&D 5E as the system to play – as long as it didn’t suck. A lot has happened while we were away; both to our memories as well as the system. Fortunately, D&D is more streamlined than some previous versions and is well-suited to the “theater of the mind” playing style, which is our preference.

We also figured that using a published campaign would present the lowest barrier to entry to all, the DM in particular. There are plenty of these available from WotC and other publishers, so there was another choice to be made. The campaign in the Starter Kit, The Lost Mines of Phandelver, was the obvious choice, but I already had that and wasn’t DM’ing the first campaign. So the DM had to search for something else. The initial decision was for The Crystal Shard, a quick campaign (levels 1-3), but it didn’t suit the DM. So he bought a second module, The Princes of the Apocalypse, and that is what we have started.

Skills Modifiers: Documents, Podcasts, and Videos

Satisfying whether D&D 5E was the right system (it didn’t suck) and to get an introduction and refresher to D&D required significant reading and research. The initial review consisted of reading the 2 free pdfs from WotC for players and DMs. Of course, there are the 3 main books from WotC and the campaign modules are essential reading material for DMs and the Player Handbook character sections for players to decide on the character builds.

Fortunately, there appears to be a renaissance of D&D in multimedia for additional insight and instruction. There are many podcasts and video series about the system and live/recorded plays. The ones that I found most helpful were: (in the order that I discovered them)

Tools: Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds

Since fairly early in this process we thought we might need to play remotely or at least would benefit from some software tools for DM’ing, I immediately started reviewing the software available. (Note: the other DM ran campaigns back in the day using his TRS80 and eventually an Amiga with software that he wrote. Our dungeons were digital on day 1). The two big options in this realm are Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. Both have their pros and cons and are quality products. I think the decision to use one over the other is really a personal preference. In our case, though Fantasy Grounds is more expensive, it appeared to be the most comprehensive out-of-the-box and was thought to be the fastest to implement.

Round 2: Joining the Party

With the system, schedule, and tools decisions behind us, all that was left was to form a party. We aimed for our next monthly game night and hoped that the DM would be ready.

Session 0: Rolling Characters

Since we invested in Fantasy Grounds and wanted to get a little more familiar with it before we were spending our game night minutes, we decided to go through the first character build remotely. I rolled a human ranger named Will Naught. Everything was slow, but my character took shape and we had a pretty good idea about how to go about the next one.

My wife and I rolled her high elf bard, Sariel, on my Fantasy Grounds and then exported it to the DM while he and his wife rolled her gnome druid, Nimble, on his local system. We managed to roll 3 characters using 3 different methods on Fantasy Grounds and all went ok. Now on to our first adventure.

Session 1: Our First Adventure

Will, Sariel, and Nimble (“Nim”) met in the inn at Red Larch and set out on adventure. They used several of their skills and spells in a brief encounter outside town. They earned enough gold pieces to be able to do their first upgrades.

The initial work of getting setup and getting used to the interface in an actual play situation took a bit, but by the end of the evening we were all pretty comfortable. We missed a few things along the way, but nothing drastic and talked about minor changes next time.

There isn’t much to report on D&D 5E or Fantasy Grounds yet, but the best thing I can say is that the system and the software did not get in the way of the roleplaying. However, for rolls that were not explicitly listed within the software, traditional dice made for faster resolution.

Round 3: Lethal Traps

With our regular schedule of monthly game nights, I expect that D&D is going to go very slow. We are already trying to figure out how to play more frequently… and here comes summer. Hopefully, we will be able to strike a balance and be able to make regular progress on our campaign.

Round 4: Gold Pieces

Playing D&D can be dirt cheap if you are the beneficiary of a DM who has managed all the expense or you are content to play within what is available for free from Wizards of the Coast (WotC). It is true that WotC graciously provides everything you need (short of the dice) to play a simple homebrew D&D 5E campaign for free. They also have an inexpensive Starter Set ($20) that even has the dice and a significant campaign for characters of level 1-5. This is where I started my adventure and at least saw enough to want to give D&D 5E a try.

Since we had previous experience that lead us to want more and we opted to use Fantasy Grounds, our expenses were more significant. This is what you might expect to spend to play the Starter Set (Lost Mines of Phandelver) and an additional campaign on Fantasy Grounds. This assumes that you will want both the hardcover editions and the FG versions of the manuals. I had the Player Handbook and Starter Set prior to buying Fantasy Grounds, so it wasn’t an option to forego the cost of the hardbound. I also paid full price for it and the Player Handbook to send some business to my FLGS. Even so, the hardbounds are nice to have for reading offline.

Costs to Play D&D 5E w/ or w/out  Fantasy Grounds





 Min w/FG

 Min w/out FG


Starter Set

 $    20.00

 $    13.00


 $                  13.00

Player Handbook

 $    50.00

 $    35.00


 $                  35.00

DM Guide

 $    50.00

 $    35.00


 $                  35.00

Monster Manual

 $    50.00

 $    35.00


 $                  35.00

Princes of the Apocalypse

 $    50.00

 $    27.00


 $                  27.00


Ultimate License

 $  150.00

 $  120.00

 $       120.00


Complete Core Class Pack

 $    50.00

 $    50.00

 $         50.00


Dungeon Master's Guide

 $    50.00

 $    50.00

 $         50.00


Complete Core Monster Pack

 $    50.00

 $    50.00

 $         50.00


Lost Mines of Phandelver

 $    20.00

 $    20.00

 $         20.00


Princes of the Apocalypse

 $    35.00

 $    35.00

 $         35.00




 $  575.00

 $  470.00

 $       325.00

 $               145.00

Fantasy Grounds has a pay as you go (subscription) model, but that model is not one that I care to use. We hope to be playing for a long time and may have breaks in the middle, so a permanent license was the only way to go for us. They also have a lower cost license, but that requires other players to have their own license, which in our case is just spreading the cost over the same incomes.

End Game

It has only been a week since we played and I am wishing that we could play today. It will be 3-4 more weeks before session 2 and I can’t wait. So at least the hook was set early. I continue to study up on D&D 5E and Fantasy Grounds to keep interested and, of course, am writing in-depth notes on everything which are feeding this article.

I hope the adventure is worth what it cost (times 2)!

Your Turn:

Have you been wanting to play D&D or another RPG system, but haven’t managed to pull it off? What are the barriers to your playing? The time commitment? Learning a new system? Finding enough players? Finding a DM? Have you managed to make it happen or keep it going? What are your secrets to succes