Because adulting makes scheduling into a nightmare hellscape, many gamers have been looking to online platforms to ease scheduling pains and expand their potential player pool. Going virtual cuts out travel woes and having to get a babysitter in some cases, plus including those impossibly distant for a face-to-face game increases the chances you have enough people who are able to collectively align their free time, so it seems like a natural direction for a lot of us to take.
But after having run and played in a few online and hybrid campaigns, I’m beginning to see real patterns in terms of what works and what doesn’t in the online gaming format, and it wasn’t at all what I expected.
Initially I thought online gaming would favor more freeform styles of gameplay. It seemed like gaming that leaned more heavily on positioning and exactitude wouldn’t work online where you can’t quickly scribble on a whiteboard or gesture with miniatures to clarify the particulars of a scene.
In fact the opposite is true. Giving everyone their own view on the same grid map means a lot more freedom for everyone to get a sense of what’s going on around their character without costing anyone else. You can measure distance without counting squares or draw actual circles for auras or other area effects. Macros make it easy to load complex rules without having to look them up and recalculate every time. With enough prep time, things like vision and light sources can be loaded to create a much more realistic map experience than you can get with face-to-face miniatures.
So gaming where position and exact numbers matter is actually easier online than off, in my experience. It can take a lot of prep, but that was true already – the difference is that the prep is now virtual and doesn’t occupy your dining room table between week. Really, benefits all around.
What was surprising to me was that freeform RP is oddly more difficult online than off.
When you game online using a mic, the lag between when you say something, when it reaches the group and when their reactions reach you can make the natural hand-offs between speakers longer and noticeably more awkward than when you’re gaming in person. That means players have to be very disciplined about taking turns speaking, which can be very frustrating, especially if any of your players are already on the socially awkward end of the spectrum.
Until I played it online, I didn’t realize just how much freeform gaming relies on in-character inter-player chatter to fill the void where rules and rolling would normally pad a session. Side conversations and roleplay are at the core of freeform gaming. But online, all speakers are at the same volume, so there’s no chance to have a quiet side conversation without disrupting the center of the action. Without that, the game begins to feel very “airy” and empty, with large gaps that were once filled by the side RP that’s now missing.
There are a few solutions to fill those holes in an online freeform game. The easiest for most gamers is hosting side RP in text chat format while the main action uses the mic in the room. Typing side conversations means players will have to be a lot briefer than usual, typically, but it’s often enough to fill the space between more action-packed sequences.
That the chat is public to the room means the other players can at least know what was discussed out of character, which can often be more enjoyable for the room at large and avoid anyone feeling like they’re missing out on the rapport just because they’re playing the group’s scout who was out surveilling while the rest roasted marshmallows around the metaphorical campfire.
Another option is having a side room set up specifically for side RP. Still audio, open to pairs or small groups to discuss over audio while the main room focuses on whatever the primary scene is. Unfortunately, side rooms can be tricky to set up and get into, and they separate the group out of character, leaving both halves to require a recap when they regroup. Turns out splitting the party is just as bad an idea in real life.
The only other option as a GM is to plan around the gap, including specific times in your session outline just for side RP planning and reflection, stepping completely aside to let the players chat and only helping to moderate the many speakers if it gets chaotic. Face to face, most players can stop you when they want to do brief side RP – online, you’ll have to give them obvious space to do just that and time to switch modes between when you’re narrating and when they’re chatting in character.
Since going online automatically means fiddling with technology and being patient through network and hardware issues, it’s a good idea to look for opportunities to make your players’ lives easier now that they’re already going to be on their computers.
Look for sites with setting or system information relevant to your game so that players can search for rules or details without having to page through an index. There may be more than one, so make sure your players are using the same one so you won’t have to worry about any discrepancies.
Rather than having everyone taking their own session notes (or unofficially relying on That One Player to do all the notetaking), start a Google Doc and share it with the group at the start to let them all contribute. Whoever isn’t active can be on point for doing the notetaking, which also keeps them involved in the scene even if their character isn’t.
There may be other features (online character sheets with leveling assistance, for instance) that can make the online environment that much more player-friendly, but nothing quite so much as a GM who goes into the experience knowing what sort of prep they need to do to ensure the technical bits are the only thing in doubt when it comes time to game.