My virtual tabletop gaming tips

I’m starting to see discussions online about replacing, short-term at least, round the table roleplaying (rpg) sessions with virtual ones. It’s a sad reality that “social distancing” is becoming a necessity in many countries, and that will inevitably impact the rpg gaming hobby as well. Personally, I’ve gamed more through virtual tabletops than in-person for years now, because the friends and family that I play Dungeons & Dragons, Starfinder or other rpgs with live in different towns from me. As an aside I’ve also accumulated a lot of experience in teleconferencing tech, having worked for years now in IT for international organisations. There’s a clear overlap here, so I’m sharing a few thoughts in this post that are relevant to virtual tabletop gaming.

Firstly some definitions for clarity, when I write virtual tabletop here I mean broadly any software used to replace the face-to-face experience of traditional rpg gaming. Recently we’ve used Fantasy Grounds a lot for our gaming needs – I’ve no experience of Roll20, but that’s another major competitor platform. Such software offers a shared visual space for the referee to share maps, keep digital character sheets, encounter information and tools for automating and sharing the results of dice rolls or other actions. In the past we’ve also used Fantasy Grounds in a much more basic fashion: using the software for maps and moving counters on them to represent encounters, but everything else being done with paper character sheets and real dice.  Going back further my early virtual gaming experiences were limited to a Skype call or text chat while roleplaying, everything else was verbal description and paper based.

The key point here is that technology can bring people together for roleplaying, but it also has an “overhead” – it places extra burdens on the referee and the players that are non-issues for face-to-face gaming. Does everyone have a capable computer with reliable Internet? Does everyone have a headset with a microphone? What about a webcam? Below I address some specifics that I think every group should discuss before playing or cover in their “session zero” before they even start character creation. I’ve watched a lot of streamed games where early sessions are dogged by technical issues outside of the actual game they are playing; things that could mostly have been avoided if some prep work was done by all.

1. Test and familiarise with software

I learned quickly that any web based teleconference is only going to be successful if *all* participants have tested their connection and are familiar with the basics of the software. However easy to use Webex, Skype, Google Hangouts may claim to be, someone will inevitably have a problem connecting or using the software if they’ve not personally tried it at least once. I used to take time before an important teleconf to offer to run 1-2-1 test calls with anyone who needed to speak or  present on such a call.

I’d do the same if I were to run games for strangers via a virtual tabletop (VTT). As DM I would expect to more or less dictate the platform used, a bit heavy-handed perhaps, but I’m the one setting up and running the game, so I need to be very familiar with the platform. The flipside of that is that I’d make sure to ask and offer some quick help familiarising new players with this software. As mentioned, I’ve never run Roll20, so I’d not want to run a game using it before I’d played in someone else’s game. Referees *must* know their software well, I find it painful to watch a streamed game where the poor DM is struggling with the software. But, players do not get a completely free pass either: if they can’t do basic things like roll a skill check or use the private messaging system, then they should have learned that before gaming. Youtube has guides for eveything these days, I’d recommend researching the basics at least.

2. Prepare to avoid audio issues

I’ve run so many web conferences where I’ve had to discretely mute someone because their lack awareness of background noises was beind disruptive; dogs barking, traffic noises through an open window, their computer mic picking up the loud keyboard sounds of them typing notes, it can all be problematic. It can be annoying for other players trying to concentrate on what’s being said if such background noises are frequent or loud. Ideally, everyone should use a headset with a microphone – the in-built mic on a laptop is rarely very good and will often pick up background noises. The cheap set that comes with most mobile phones for hands-free calls would usually be better than using the in-built mic on your computer. If two people use such an open in-built mic then the call may suffer from feedback noise – these can quickly stop a session dead.

Sound is one of the biggest issues technically; always test that your setup works before each session. Even if they worked last week, you might have accidentally changed something in-between or a system update could have changed default settings. Skype and other web conferencing software usually has a sound self-test option. There’s nothing like sound or connectivity problems to waste time at the start of a gaming session or make playing more pain than pleasure.

3. Having social rules for the game

There’s a social dimension to this style of gaming as well. During larger web conferences at work, I would normally ask all participants to use “push to talk” or to toggle mute on when not talking. This is vital if you have temporary (or regular) sound issues, such as the feedback or loud background sounds mentioned above. The low-tech solution is to mute people’s mics if headsets with mics aren’t available. People should learn how to find these options or settings as part of the test and familiarisation step.

Web conferences of any kind require a different set of social conventions from a round-the-table session. If the players talk over the DM, or each other in person it’s not necessarily such an issue. On a web conference, with less than perfect audio and the potential for latency causing delays between speaking and others hearing your words, this issue can really disrupt a game. DMs should be mindful that everyone needs to be given a turn to speak, it’s harder to keep all players equally engaged if they can’t get a word in edgeways – there are no visual clues to follow on an audio-only chat. For example: you might need to introduce a stricter “only you and DM talk on your initative turn” style rule if this is a problem.

Chat openly about this with your players in the session zero, or offline before you start. If you’re playing with a mixed group internationally then some cultural sensitivity might be needed – in my experience it is more acceptable to talk over others in some cultures versus others. In audio conferences that rarely works due to all the audio issues mentioned above; as DM try to be diplomatic, there’s no need to offend people in resolving any differences.

4. Keeping the group engaged

This is the hardest social convention to manage as a DM. It’s an issue for face-to-face games as well, but I have found VTT gaming to often be a bit slower. If the pace of play is interrupted because of technical problems or lack of preparation, then the group may loose focus quicker. One thing I’m guilty of in this regard is forgetting to prep resources in the VTT, it can really slow a game down if you have to prepare anything during the session. Unless you buy a module pre-prepared for your software, you have to import and setup maps for encounters, create the encounter within the VTT software, even create NPCs or monster stat blocks. None of that is feasible during a game I find, if its not prepared in advance I fall back on non-automated alternatives to avoid the game stalling.

Much is made nowadays of the social contract around gaming – players and referee all have to understand and agree to the type of game being played and that it should be fun for all. That applies to engagement I would argue. In a virtual game, where the referee can’t necessarily see the players and what they have in front of them, it can be much harder to gauge engagement levels. Even if you have webcams switched on, if a player is looking at Facebook or a webpage or chat client, you won’t necessarily know. It’s not realistic to expect 100% engagement from everyone all the time, but I personally wouldn’t be happy if a player was obviously not paying attention repeatedly. It is not an easy problem to solve, or solely an issue for virtual gaming, but I imagine referees are more likely to face this when gaming virtually. Planning in breaks is one way to combat this, possibly taking more shorter breaks than you’d allow when gaming in-person.

5. Offline admin

If you are using virtual tabletop software like Fantasy Grounds, you can take advantage of the system’s automation of rules to speed up some aspects of the game. Handle character development ‘admin’ such as leveling outside of scheduled sessions. In the past I have organised to load up Fantasy Grounds and leave my campaign loaded for a player to connect and level up their character on a non-game evening. I can be doing something else in the meantime, but if they have any questions they can message me to get a quick answer. That saved so much time that would otherwise have been lost during the next session. You could also use a group chat on your preferred messenger client to allow players to discuss the game and their characters plans and goals in-between sessions. Its a low-tech solution to keep excitement for the game up and to allow the players to coordinate when doing this kind of offline admin (e.g. when levelling if they want to avoid duplicating skills).

6. Shared notes document

We normally use a Google Drive document as a shared notes file for each campaign. One player volunteers to be the ‘scribe’ to keep notes on what’s happening in game, and importantly to record anything to remember for next time before the end of each session. As DM, I find this invaluable as a record of what the players have done from their perspective. It helps clarify my own notes on what the players characters know or do not know. It also avoids me making assumptions about what they have understood or not from a given gaming session’s events. With this file in place, I also usually ask players to help each other remember things by default – it pushes this file to be kept up to date and with enough detail to be useful and saves me a ton of work in answering all the questions of what player characters should remember.

So that is my list of tech-related tips for virtual tabletop gaming. I hope they are of help to you in your games!

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