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 | , , | hide comments
  1. #9 Zannerman says:

    One thing you really need to be aware of when playing online is not talking over each other which can easily happen. It takes a while to get used to. If you want side conversations, then have a text chat on the side to replicate such things. Depending on if you use video chat or not, you may also need to be aware of the more silent or hesitant type of player, or one or two of your players may begin to dominate the conversation or jump first on every scene.

  2. #8 Fada Joe says:

    We allways use conceptboard to play your games. It’s free and easy to use.
    We’ve create this follow template for example

  3. #7 Ben Robbins says:

    There have been a few custom-built Microscope web tools. Some of those creators might chime in here.

    But in the “simpler is better” vein, all you need for a Microscope history is a three level text outline. Indent once for events, twice for scenes. It’s not as flashy as card images, but it could not be easier for shared online play.

  4. #6 Justin says:

    Any tips on playing Microscope online? I looked at a few whiteboard apps, but they just seemed to make it harder. Having a shared space with the cards laid out would be nice.

  5. #5 Eldrad Wolfsbane says:

    I think my Freeform DUNGEONPUNK RPG would work perfectly for this type of online gaming, in fact you have inspired me to try it.

  6. #4 Ben Robbins says:

    @ Rafu: I will check it out! Always looking for good alternatives.

  7. #3 Ben Robbins says:

    @ Sol: If you think about it, that kind of heads up display would actually be more info than you normally have sitting at the table. When you play face-to-face the characters are on the table but they’re not right in front of your eyes.

    Follow draws are actually super-easy online. We just have one person physically put stones in a cup and draw them out in front of the camera, where everyone can see. To show what each player wants to add to the pool, hold up fingers to show how many red you’re putting in, or thumbs up/thumbs down to pick white or red. Couldn’t be simpler.

  8. #2 Rafu says:

    As a complete novice to playing RPGs online via video-chat, I’ve come to much the same conclusions so far.
    On the topic of simple, shared text documents, I’m getting a lot of mileage out of Etherpad Lite (lots of different providers are available): it’s very lightweight, when compared to something like Google Docs, so I can run it on my outdated laptop (hooray for typing on a real keyboard!) on the side of the tablet computer I’m sharing with my GF for video calling. It’s also super-easy to share (the document is accessed by a plain URL with no logging in or accounts) and truly anonymous.

  9. #1 Sol says:

    Not a trick or tip alas. Just wanted to say I’ve been fantasizing about having a Follow web app that had audio/video of each player across the top, with their character information arrayed under that and a simple way of handling end-of-challenge draws…

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