Story Games Online: What I’ve Learned So Far

I’ve spent most of my life playing roleplaying games at the table, in person. I’ve only started playing online much in the last few years, so I’m no expert, but here are some things I’ve learned so far.

I follow the “simpler is better” approach with technology. I want no bells and whistles, unless those bells and whistles are doing something useful. The simpler your technology, the less likely you are to waste a bunch of time sorting out connection or UI problems when you could be playing. I measure an app by how much you don’t notice it and it doesn’t get in your way. Technical hurdles kill the fun.

When we play online, we use just two tech components:

  1. Video chat (Skype, FaceTime, Google chat, whatever)
  2. A shared text document that everyone can see in their web browser and edit (usually Google docs but many alternatives could work)

The games we’re playing don’t have complex graphics like battlemaps that need to be shared so that’s all it takes. And there’s no need to use the same platform for both: just because we’re using Google for our shared text doesn’t mean we need to use Google for video.

Anything that can be handled offline, is. I might be reading the rules from a physical book or a PDF I have up on my screen, but we don’t need the rules to be shared onscreen. If I want to send players handouts or summaries, those can go out in email/messages/chat/etc (however you normally communicate with these people when you’re not playing). If there are sections I want people to see or read aloud to explain the game, I just copy and paste them into the shared doc, have someone read it, and then delete it or move it to the bottom to get it out of the way.

Take Kingdom for example. All the notes about the Kingdom we’re creating, all the characters, and all the Crossroads are in one document. No fancy formatting, just barebones text so everyone can see it. Some simple indenting to group information, some bold or all caps to highlight sections or character names — that’s it. It’s basically a lot like what we’d be scribbling on paper if we were all sitting at the table. Keep the important stuff together. Move secondary information to the bottom of the doc as you play so everyone has to scroll back and forth less.

Put player names in a clear turn order, top to bottom. Since you aren’t seated around a table and everyone is seeing video tiles in potentially a different arrangement, there is no “player to your left or right”. The person below you in the list is the next player and to your left at the table.

Everyone should wear headphones, even if you don’t have a headset with a microphone. Otherwise what you say is more likely to cut out and get clipped, because your microphone turns off when someone else talks to prevent feedback. Yes that’s right, you wearing headphones makes it easier for other people to hear you.

One nice video chat feature is being able to put banners with character names along the bottom of each person’s window (and player name, if you’re gaming with strangers) to take the place of tent cards at the table, but we don’t always have that.

Technology aside, the big issue is that gaming online has a very, very different social dynamic than gaming face-to-face. A ton of the normal cues that we gather from seeing and hearing someone are imperceptible. It takes some getting used to.

However many people you think would be good to have in a scene, reduce that number when you’re playing online. Even two people having a reasonable dialog can be challenging. Keep an eye on your own speech patterns and try to introduce reasonable pauses so other people can interject or get a word in edgewise. Casual banter where characters interrupt each other naturally is much harder online. Pause and invite others to participate, particularly people who have been quiet for a while. Maybe they’re having a fine time, or maybe they’re feeling totally shut out. The games we play give all players designated turns to lead the story or set scenes, so that ensures some participation.

It can be rocky getting online gaming started, but the good news is that once you get your system figured out the second time with the same group is generally much easier. I’ve had some pretty great online games so I know it is possible, you just need to be aware of the pitfalls and watch out for each other.

Got tricks or tips? Share them in the comments.

Ben Robbins | March 28th, 2020 | , , | 7 comments

Kingdom Playtest Wants You

I played another sweet, sweet game of Kingdom last night, convincing me beyond a shadow of a doubt that the new edition is ready for external playtesting. That means you!

Want in? Email me at kingdom-playtest at lamemage.com or leave a comment here. There’s a hidden comment field for your email address that I can see but which won’t be displayed to the public. Clever!

Time to play!

Ben Robbins | March 1st, 2020 | , | 46 comments

Kingdom, Second Edition

I’ve had a second edition of Kingdom simmering for a while now and it’s finally in a place I’m really happy with. It’s looking very good.

I love playing Kingdom. Love it. My hit rate for engaging and dramatic sessions with Kingdom has always been very, very high. The game itself is great. But the rules text? Not so much. I don’t think the rules as written present the game in a simple and clear way, and there are just too many wooooords.

Over the years I’ve made small updates and patches, but there is no substitute for going in with a machete and revising the whole text. So that’s what I did. My goals were laser-focused:

In other words, a leaner, meaner, easier Kingdom. A text that reflects the game it has always been. Are there rule changes as part of this cleanup? Yes, definitely. The heart and soul of the game is fundamentally the same but the devil is in the details. I’ll dig more into specific rule changes later.

The net result is that the rules are half as long as they used to be. HALF. It takes a lot more work to write shorter and smarter, but the players reap the rewards at the table because you have less to read to learn the game and less to flip through to find what you’re looking for. Exactly enough to tell players what they need to know: no more and no less. And it looks damn good too.

I’ve already been playtesting iterations of the new Kingdom for the last year, so now that the text is cleaned up the next step is external playtesting, sending the new version to outside groups to try out. Stay tuned…

Ben Robbins | February 18th, 2020 | , | 6 comments

K2

“That feeling when you revise your rules and cut your page count IN HALF.”

Spoiler alert: Kingdom, 2nd Edition, is in the works.

Kingdom Second Edition

Ben Robbins | February 14th, 2020 | , | 5 comments

Angels & Offspring

Me: Welcome to Microscope! What kind of history should we make?

“Emergence of magic!” “Angels!” “The extinction of mankind!”

Me: Cool. What if we combine all three?

Birthrates in our modern world dwindle, which (we discover in play) is because angels have walked unseen among us and judged that humanity’s time should come to an end.

As our science and technology fail to save us, there is a desperate turn towards the supernatural. Sorcery (we find out) isn’t like wizards shooting fireballs. It’s about bending the fabric of reality to your will. Masses of disciples work together, organized and controlled by the powers-that-be, integrated into the hierarchy of government and society. It’s a little like being a nuclear power — it’s there behind the scenes and you know it, but it’s not something you see as you walk down the street.

But it’s the same old story: the elite keep tight control and use sorcery to maintain their own status, while the masses have little say. There’s a popular uprising that fails. The powerful pull the strings and maintain their own selfish power, all while humanity dwindles. Eventually the elite discover the existence of angels and use sorcery to try to wrest dominion from them — and fail — but that’s later on. In the meantime we’re focused on the plight of ordinary people as fewer and fewer children are born.

Which brings us to a very dark chapter of our history.

What better way for the elite to secure their position as the world’s saviors and placate the masses than to cure the barrenness afflicting humanity? They undertake a great sorcerous endeavor, bending the fabric of reality to save mankind.

And it works. People around the world start having children again. Millions of new parents are overcome with joy. The relief is incalculable, as humanity steps back from extinction.

But… this Period is Dark. Because these children are not real. They are creations of magic: dreams, imitations, fictions of children. They are not people. They laugh and cry and play but really only imitate laughing and crying and playing. They grow and act like children, but something is missing, and as years go by and they should become more and more their own people, that lack is harder and harder to ignore.

And when the parents begin to doubt, when the parents stop believing, the children begin to fade, until they are mere ghosts haunting their parents’ house… and then gone forever.

A whole generation of children, given and then taken away.

And of course we learn that the elite had an inkling that the children wouldn’t be “real”, but went forward with the project anyway. They thought people wouldn’t know the difference.

We have a particularly brutal scene with the question “is it worse to lose a real child or a false child?” A lawyer is helping a family settle the estate of a false child who faded, but at the same time he’s ignoring his own real son who is terminally ill, playing in the next room. When a faint noise interrupts the meeting, the lawyer storms into the other room and berates his child. It’s terrible. And we think “okay, no, parents are not cherishing their (rare) real kids”.

But nope, it’s the other way around. The lawyer is so torn up about his kid dying he can’t even deal with it. It’s making him a monster, lashing out at his son in misplaced grief. He’d rather his son was a fiction, a phantom, so he didn’t have to care about him.

Happy story games, everybody!

Ben Robbins | January 22nd, 2020 | , | 2 comments

Last Stand of the Murderfists

In the atomic wastelands of the future, the Murderfists are the undisputed champions of the brutal sport, Killball. But now they stand before the mutant overlord, awaiting judgment. Their crime? Stopping the execution of their comrade, condemned to slow-death in the sands for daring to love a houri of the tyrant’s harem.

From his gilded viewing box high above the arena, the bloated tyrant passes judgement on the heroes that would defy him:

Their sentence: Death… BY KILLBALL!

*cue heavy metal music, action montage*

(props to Haskell and Gavin for this flashback to the ancient playtest days of Microscope)

Ben Robbins | January 14th, 2020 | ,