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 | , , | show 9 comments