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Smart Home

How to smarten up your next DnD night with lights, gadgets and voice assistants

Wanna spice up a Dungeons & Dragons campaign? Try casting voice assistants, smart lights and other connected gadgets in a critical role.

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Don't worry, you don't need to replace your trusty d12.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Dungeons & Dragons makes for good, geeky fun, and I should know -- I've been playing with a group of co-workers from the CNET Smart Home team for the past two years or so. And, whether it's the craft beer we bring to share or the 3D-printed dice-roll tower our lead lab technician Steve kindly fabricated for us, we're always looking for ways to keep the campaigns feeling fresh and fun.

And, wouldn't you know it, some of the very smart home gadgets we test and write about on a daily basis here at the office can actually come into play whenever we're rolling for initiative in the off hours, too. We already use some of these tricks just about every time we play -- and if you want to push things even further, we've got a couple ideas on how you might level up your approach.?

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"Hey Google, roll six d8."

Chris Monroe/CNET

Let your smart assistant handle complicated dice rolls

D&D and dice go hand-in-hand -- and honestly, watching a make-or-break roll bounce across the table at a pivotal point in a big fight is a huge point of appeal for a lot of D&D players, myself included.

So no, I'm not telling you to ditch the dice and roll using voice commands, instead. That said, D&D will sometimes require you to roll a die several times and add up the results, like rolling a d6 10 times to determine how many hit points a healing spell will restore. That gets tedious fast, and it forces you to simultaneously track the running total and the number of times you've rolled as you go.

Read more: The right way to set up your Google Home smart speaker

Alexa and Google Assistant each offer a much better way. Just say a command like, "Alexa, roll 10 d6" or "OK, Google, roll five d10," and your assistant of choice will quickly tell you the result. It works the same with either one, but I give the tiniest of edges to Google for adding in a quick dice roll sound effect before Assistant responds. It's the little things!

You can access either assistant on your Android or iOS device (and by the way, it doesn't work with Siri), but I say keep your phones in your pocket and just play within earshot of a dedicated smart speaker. If you're going the Google route, you'd be well-served with the Google Home Mini, which you can usually get for less than $50.

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A smart speaker like this Amazon Echo Plus can be a versatile sidekick on D&D night.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Alexa can look other stuff up, too

I'll confess that my compatriots and I aren't D&D die-hards. We were all curious newbies when we started playing a few years ago. We're currently wrapping up our third campaign, and for the most part, we all have the gist of it by now, but it definitely took some getting used to, with lots of time spent poring through the Player's Handbook to look up the particulars of different spells, weapons and rules.

Those pauses can really kill the flow of a campaign, especially in the early goings -- so why not ask Alexa instead??

You'll find plenty of Dungeons & Dragons skills to tinker around with in the Alexa app's Skills Store.

Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Read more: The 10 best things to do with your Amazon Echo

To do so, just open the Alexa app and head to the skills store, where you'll find a number of free, D&D-specific skills that can pull up info about the game with a quick voice command. Some that I tested, like "Dungeon Master" and "Ask the DM," offer a fairly comprehensive catalog of answers to common questions, though they can admittedly be a little clunky to use.

Skills that are more focused and narrow in scope are typically a lot easier to use. One good example is "Dungeon Assistant," which sticks to looking up info about spellcasting and can answer commands like "describe magic missile" and "list warlock spells."

You'll need one of Amazon's Echo smart speakers, of course. Any of them will do, but your best bet is probably the third-gen Echo Dot, which only costs $50 and frequently goes on sale. With sound quality that's stronger than previous versions (and stronger than the Google Home Mini, too), it'll definitely get the job done.

One other Alexa skill worth checking out is called "Vicious Mockery." It's dedicated entirely to the bard's spell of the same name that involves hurling a magic insult at an opponent. Just enable it and say "Alexa, Vicious Mockery" and Amazon's assistant will come up with the insult for you. It's nothing too fancy, but it's fun for kids and easy to use, and it features hundreds of tongue-in-cheek insults read by an actual human (one example: "Your lack of personal hygiene doesn't require a perception check.")

If you host a lot of game nights, then color-changing lights might be a smart investment.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Consider color-changing light

Dungeons & Dragons is a collaborative role-playing game that usually plays like a group storytelling exercise. To that end, you'll often see players crafting custom figurines of their characters that include specific details from their backstory, or dungeon masters (DMs) who use a playlist with different background music for different settings and encounters.

Color-changing smart lights can help set a mood, too. With just a couple of smart bulbs, you could program fun, colorful scenes for different situations your group's characters might encounter -- bold greens as they trek through a forest, flickering reds as they explore a dungeon, stark, icy blues as they brave the wintry north... you get the idea.

Read more: The complete guide to Philips Hue

The good news is that you've got more options than ever these days if you're looking to buy in. From fancy, full-featured bulbs from?Philips Hue and Lifx to less expensive alternatives from names like GE, Sengled and Sylvania, you shouldn't have much trouble finding a couple of good color-changers that'll work with your smart home platform or voice assistant of choice.?

Dollar for dollar, I think GE's new color-changing smart lights, which sell in a two-pack for just a few dollars more than a single Philips Hue bulb, are a great pick, especially if you use Google Home smart speakers or Google Nest smart displays. Need help picking bulbs for another platform? That's what I'm here for.

Once you've got the lights you need, just use whatever app you're using to control them to set up different scenes you might like to trigger. Then, decide how you'd like to trigger those scenes in game. Voice commands from Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant will work well, but you could also just keep your phone handy and trigger things with a tap right in the app.

Don't have enough lamps to go around? Consider using color-changing LED light strips. The?Lifx Z light strips are my go-to favorite since they can put out multiple colors at once, but single-color strips from names like Sylvania and Sengled that cost less will work well hidden behind your furniture, too.?

Nanoleaf's color-changing wall panels can take your smart lighting scenes to the next level -- and Nanoleaf's 12-sided remote control is about as appropriate for D&D night as it gets.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Go all out

Want to go bigger? Hey, don't let me stop you.

One relatively easy way to take your D&D lighting scenes to the next level would be to invest in color-changing LED wall panels for your wall. Your main options are the square-shaped Lifx Tile panels and the growing variety of panels from Nanoleaf, which are available as triangles, squares or, later this year, hexagons.

Both support voice controls via Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, but between the two of them, I would definitely lean toward Nanoleaf. They can't put out multiple colors per panel like the Lifx Tiles can, but you get more panels in the starter kit and more room to expand, too. Plus, Nanoleaf's panels are easier to animate, they feature a built-in microphone that can sync those animated effects with the sounds of your campaign, and they cost a little less than Lifx, too.

Another reason I like Nanoleaf: They offer one of the niftiest (and most D&D-appropriate) remote control accessories on the market.?

It's called the Nanoleaf Remote and it's basically a big, twelve-sided die that lets you assign different lighting scenes to each side. A built-in accelerometer tracks the Remote's movement, so you can trigger those scenes just by rotating that side to the top. Lights too bright? Just turn the Remote counter-clockwise on the table to dim things down. On top of that, it can trigger your Apple HomeKit scenes, too.