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How to Game When Everyone Else is Online

As the measures to control the pandemic ramp up globally, it's becoming increasingly necessary for families to not just practice social distancing but shelter in place--which means no contact with anyone else outside the household. Unless you game with members of your household, this can severely curtail your ability to find other players. Fortunately, there are several online solutions to choose from, but which option you choose may depend on your Internet access.

Social Distancing vs. Shelter-in-Place

Depending on where you live and the severity of the pandemic in your region, your local government may be encouraging social distancing or may have enacted a shelter-in-place (also known as "stay-at-home") order. Social distancing is generally defined as avoiding contact within 6 feet of non-household members. It's still possible to go outside and interact with others (at a distance); gathering in groups is discouraged. Shelter-in-place is stricter, which means no travel outside of your home except for essential services.

The difference between these two are significant for gamers. In theory, you can (but shouldn't) play with others outside your household when social distancing is in effect. Shelter-in-place is much clearer; once a government implements that order for your region, you won't be playing with anyone else outside your household. What to do?

Fortunately, there are many alternatives online. Given that everyone else in your region is likely using the Internet to keep themselves entertained, your options may be constrained by your local bandwidth limits. Gaming is still possible of course, but it may be slower than you're used to.

Asynchronous Play

Asynchronous play is not conducted in real time. It's turn based, which means there can be a delay between responses. Before the Internet was widespread, play-by-mail gaming was one of the few available to gamers who couldn't find other players locally. Players would mail their turns into a central location, which in turn responded with results of the players' actions--and then players would have a limited time to mail in their next turn. Rick Loomis' Flying Buffalo lays claim to popularizing the industry.

Play-by-mail sped up along with the Internet, becoming fully digitized, giving rise to play-by-email and play-by-web games. There are several platforms available for this style of play, including Gamers' Plane, Ongoing Worlds, RolePlay Online, and Myth Weavers. And of course, right here on EN World.

For global players and busy adults, asynchronous play offers the luxury of players engaging with the game whenever it's convenient for them. It's also uses very low bandwidth usage because turns are sent in packets. If you have very limited Internet access, asynchronous play may be your best bet. It can also be played from anywhere, including smaller devices--a possible necessity when the main computer is used by other household members.

When launching asynchronous play with a new group it's best to have a large pool of players. Speaking from experience, the same advantages asynchronous play offers also makes it very easy for players to lose interest in the game. Without an immediate pressing need to play, players and game masters can "ghost" a game very easily.

Synchronous Text Play

Synchronous text-based play happens in real time, but saves bandwidth by using just text alone to describe what happens. This puts more of a strain on Internet connections because of the frequency of interaction, but not nearly as much as graphics and video. This kind of gaming was the successor to play-by-post and it led to the creation of Multi-User Dungeons like RetroMUD (Full Disclosure: I'm an administrator there). These days you can use any online chat platform, like Discord Dungeons with Discord or Chat & Slash for Slack. You could even use Twitter.

Synchronous play requires players be present in real time. This can be a challenge in scheduling time (just as it is when meeting face-to-face) although travel time isn't a factor which certainly helps. Conversely, if you play for long blocks of time you'll want to schedule breaks as well.

Synchronous Graphic Play

Attempts to bring the entire gaming experience online have launched the industry of virtual tabletops (VTTs). These platforms offer a wide variety of resources, from mapping to character tracking to dice rollers. There are many virtual tabletops, with new ones springing up all the time. However, judging from the number of VTTs that are no longer supported, launching a platform seems easier than maintaining one.

The most popular VTTs are Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. There are many more, which we'll discuss in a future article. The VTT Wiki is an excellent source of info on all of the options and weighs the pros and cons between them.

That said, any VTT will use more bandwidth than the previous options, so you may want to schedule your play when others in your household aren't streaming Netflix.

Synchronous Multimedia Play

The final option is a fully-fledged visual experience using video. This requires every player have a camera and microphone, but it's the most media rich option that approximates being there "in-person." Options include Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, or even Facetime.

Video takes up a lot of bandwidth, so some players choose audio only using Discord; others use it in combination with VTT platforms as a separate stream. Remember that the more players you have, the more strain the game can cause on each player's Internet access.

Of course, it's possible to play with a combination of all of the above options: using asynchronous play during "down time" and synchronous multimedia when all players are available. And if you need players, EN World has its own forum to help you find them.

Whatever you choose, be sure to follow your local regional and medical advice. Stay safe!
Michael Tresca



Limit Break Dancing
I remember playing a D&D game by e-mail, years and years ago. It was a very different way to play the game, for sure, but it was a lot of fun. It doesn't really feel like a "game," per se; it feels more like you and your friends are collaborating on writing a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. Four stars, would recommend.


Kobold Enthusiast
I've been playing via Roll20 for years, and used Java based solutions before then. Online tabletops work well once a group settles into a speaking rhythm, making sure to give everyone space to talk. We've had to use Skype for voice because one player consistently can't speak via Roll20.

A lot of people go sideways on Roll20 (or Fantasy Grounds, or....) by spending too much time trying to use all the flashy features and getting burned out. Slap up a free map from Dyson Logos, grab some free tokens from an internet search, turn on Fog of War and reveal as you go. Pretty easy.

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
I honestly have never enjoyed the digital platforms like Roll20 etc. I prefer in person gaming though I have done some via Skype etc, I just find it less engaging. What I end up doing during a period like this is playing more mmorpgs. :/ It's what I've done during bad weather or being sick, it works though I miss tabletop rpgs during that time.

aramis erak

He popularized computer moderated PBM wargames more than anything else. Even the "RPGs" are really character scale wargames.

For the real PBM RPG, look to the brilliant 1975 output from Darryl Hany, Frank Chadwick, John Harshman, and Loren Wiseman... En Garde! This, like a few others, is a human moderated game where the publisher isn't the one running the games... just selling the rulebooks for 45 years...
... due to human moderation, this one really does have a more RPG feel... despite having been written for the players gathering round the table.

And En Garde! still gets played, and there are usually a dozen or so games going on at a time, ranging from 5 to 100 players.... with varying degrees of automation and/or house rules, turn schedules, and costs per turn (from free to a few dollars a turn). The base rules are available from Margam Evans these days, but 1E was Game Designer's Workshop (as implied by Darryl, Frank, John, and Loren in the credits).

It runs just enough like a boardgame to be easily run, but with enough social interaction possible to go full RPG. And that's why it's in the 5th decade of publication. It was intended for FTF play, but shines in PBP/PBEM.

The late 70's and early 80's saw a number of other games intended for such use - Lords of Space being my only one purchased...

As for Flying Buffalo, they're still running computer moderated PBEM games. Even post-Rick. Rick made PBEM profitable as a company. But he's not the sole person to make it happen. Just the one to move to fully computer moderated and up the profit a big step.

I honestly have never enjoyed the digital platforms like Roll20 etc. I prefer in person gaming though I have done some via Skype etc, I just find it less engaging. What I end up doing during a period like this is playing more mmorpgs. :/ It's what I've done during bad weather or being sick, it works though I miss tabletop rpgs during that time.
I thought the same, and then our current GM suggested playing via Discord. It was a great session (not without it's teething pains), and everyone is looking forward to the next one.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I used Discord on my recent GaryCon game. I didn't have the quality issues I've had in the past, but I still can to run a VPN for voice to work. In my experience Google Hangouts/Meet, Microsoft Teams/Skype, Zoom, JoinMe, WebEx, and GoToMeeting are far more stable, especially if you have participants from multiple countries. I also find almost anything easier and more intuitive than Discord. But Discord is pretty much a must have app if you do a lot of on-line gaming.

When playing in a game with GM that has the ultimate license, Fantasy Grounds is a joy to use. But the hoops you have to jump through to get connected, especially if you are overseas or using a wifi connect where you don't control the router (e.g. in a hotel), are annoying. Roll20 is much easier for just joining a game.


To all of those luddites like me that don't want to fiddle with VTT's and hear a bunch of mouse clicks, here's my solution for my usually in person gaming group. I use a Facebook Portal as the view for me and my phone on a cheapo tripod for the game board view. My girlfriend and I are in person, everyone else is remote. They tell me where to move and I move them, and they do all their dice rolls and character sheet management on their end. We've done about 2-3 sessions this way. We use Facebook Messenger, but this could work with Zoom, Skype, any of them with a laptop and a phone. Other than the usual technical difficulties associated with video conferencing, and a slight (usually half a second) delay, it's worked out pretty well

COMING SOON: 5 Plug-In Settlements for your 5E Game


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