Lessons Learned from Virtual Gaming

I wasn't completely new to online gaming before Covid-19, but recent events have given me a crash course, as it has for most of us. It's made me change my gaming habits, but also taught me a few lessons. So it seemed worthwhile to offer are few rules I've learned, in the hopes I'm not the only one who's still adjusting.

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

1 - Set Times

It's important to set both a start and an end time with online gaming. A start time is a no-brainer, you need to know when you are meeting up. But it's easy to forget about an end time. In a face to face session you may already have general time you tend to end things, or someone needs to set off to get home through traffic. But with everyone at home, and some not having work in the morning it is easy to game all night. Now, that's fine if you all want to. But it can be stressful to stare at a screen this long and quite hard to be the one to say 'let's stop gaming' if you're tired. If you reach the end time and everyone wants to keep going, set a new time. Game as long as you all want. But setting the times lets everyone know what you are aiming for and when you can or should start anything too involved.

2 - Choose the right platform for your game, and group

There are a lot of options out there for gaming online, and many people will swear by some of them. But the truth is that not every platform will suit your game. Different platforms offer different options and you need one that suits your play style. Some behave differently on a laptop or a tablet so you need to know what all your players are using.

Roll 20 is great if you want to use tactical combat and figures. It's pretty much the only one that does. But it's not so good for video chat and it doesn't 'share screen' to allow the GM to show handouts and pictures (as far as I know). [EDITOR'S NOTE: There's definitely other options, which we covered here] Discord has a lot of great features, but that might be too much for a newbie, and logging in (and out) can be a little odd. Zoom and google meet are great if you just want to see everyone and chat, but aren't designed for gaming as much as conferences. We'll have to see how Role does when that appears.

So the best thing to do is try a few. You don't need to stick to just one unless it does everything you want already. Pretty much all of them are free for the most part, so give them all a run and see which works best on the systems you are using. Use whichever is the most comfortable for your group and has the fewest tech problems.

3 - Expect things to take time

Gaming over the net is not as immediate as it is in real life. People might not be as responsive, and the tech may work against you. So you need to be prepared for things to take longer, and for tech to get in the way. Some people might lose a connection, get muted by accident, or drop their iPad. So the group as a whole needs to try to remain focused and give each other time to resolve tech issues when they occur.

4 - You may not be alone

It is very easy to believe that once you are gaming in a virtual world you aren't in this one. But your spouse or flatmate might not appreciate the shouts of 'kill them all now!' in the living room. In better days they had the place to themselves on your gaming night, or went out. These are options they might not have anymore. But if you are doing more gaming online, you need to remember those you are sharing your space with and how they are doing. If you're on your own, you also need to cut those who aren't some slack when they can't game every night.

Having said that, many people are very bored at home by now, and might just be desperate enough to finally give this gaming thing a go...

5 - Not everyone likes to be on camera

Gaming on a computer is very different to gaming at home, and for some people it is much harder than most. Those who are not tech savvy, or hate the telephone, will find the experience very stressful. Plenty of people are also very uncomfortable with the usual set up, such as being on camera all the time. It's not the same as just being looked at by the rest of the group. So remember that even if you aren't finding it much of a gear change, some members of the group may be having problems and try to accommodate them.

6 - Everyone need to give each other time to speak

Finally, the big one, give everyone time to speak. Its rude to cut each other off and talk over each other at the best of times, but it's a lot worse online. Many systems will only transmit the loudest sound, and quite often not transmit more than growls and stuttering when two people are talking anyway. So, let each other finish, and don't talk over the GM. Also, be aware how much you have been talking and step back to let the quieter players have a chance. It's a good habit to keep once we all get back to seeing each other in person again.
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


Might be a good idea to invest in a good microphone/headset. Also be advised that some are very sensitive, and will pick up even small sounds like your breathing if the microphone is too close to your mouth. That or the sounds when you eat chips/crisps can be annoying for the others, as that sound will be MUCH louder than irl. Mute is you friend if you are doing something else.

If you are a GM, be ware that you will have to spend a lot more on prepping things online than IRL. Especially if it is for sharing maps etc.

Learn to use the dicebots. Not sure they will work for the system you play, as each platform has their own version. But the most common ones should be supported, like D20+modifier, Percentile dice, FATE-dice, and some types of dicepools. Some system will give very strange responses if you do something wrong.


Some of the things I've learned:

0) Schedule a session zero. It's going to take between 30 minutes to an hour the first time you start up to get everybody to the "table" and iron out problems - downloading files, finding/getting on the VT, fixing headset & camera problems, figuring out the interface and just plain wrangling odd and unusual issues. If things aren't going right, don't be eager to delve into the game right away. Fix the problems up front and set expectations on that first session and things will go a lot smoother later on. Also, as the GM, take a couple hours to putter and set up the VT before the first game. Trying to figure out how to do X or load map Y on the fly does not work with a virtual audience.

7) As the GM, get on early. Like the above, if you're running the game take the extra time before the session starts to make sure everything is working and your VT as is prepared as you can make it. Expect someone is going to have an issue - new headphones, slow internet or something, and give yourself the few extra minutes to deal with their issues before the expected start of the game.

8) Silence your Mic. This is a big one. If you aren't the active speaker, mute yourself. Mics can pick up a lot of stray chatter or noise and it gets annoying to hear slurping, chewing or even the TV in the background when others are trying to focus on what's going on. The best option is to turn on "Press to Talk", so you only can be heard when you are actively speaking.


Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Just an FYI, Roll20 may not allow a screenshare as the author is thinking of it, but can definitely handle GMs showing off art or handouts with handout records in the game's journal. It's actually pretty useful for that.


Be aware that some platforms cost money to use (or cost money to use certain functions, and material). Free versions often exist, but will often have limited functionality. Whether everyone needs the paid version or just the GM depends on the platform.


New Publisher
What? Roll20 isn't close to the only platform like that. Terrible writing. Fantasy Grounds, Astral, Foundry, and more are great for maps. Seriously. I'm baffled at this content.

Jeff Carpenter

Add a fee hours of extra prep a week juat to prepare maps. In person you can sketch somerhung on vinyle mat in 3 mintutes that would take an hour on VT.

Well at least roll 20. Mapping on thier sucks i have to map on a seperate program then inport them.

Yeah, I always schedule a half-way point break for my four-sessions. Taking that break helps people recharge and it's especially important since so much of our time is spent in front of computer, now more than ever.

I would also throw it, schedule more breaks. At a game table you can move around quite a lot and even get up while gaming. Online, you're sitting in front of a screen and it is much harder to move.

Cross-talk is something you really have to watch out for. I've had to tell people "one-at-a-time" so many times. In person, I can at least get something, but online, if more than one person talks, I catch absolutely none of it.

Knowing the right platform for the group is very important. In the the one game I play in, I swear we spend about 30% of the time just fighting with Fantasy Grounds.


We moved online to Fantasy Grounds when C-19 hit in the UK. We have two campaigns running in parallel, I GM Savage Worlds and one of my other group buddies is running 5E.

in terms of prep, a VTT does take more time if you want to use its strengths (i.e. really nice maps) but the counter side to that is it is much quicker to lay out a pre-planned encounter on a VTT. A couple of clicks and it is up-and-running, as opposed to the rooting around in boxes of minis that typically happens at the table :)

Improvised encounters are harder to do unless you have a pallet of various stock-maps to fall back on for a quick set up.

I definitely recommend that people use headset and mic. It is vastly better than using your computer speakers with a mic. Based on how ‘speaker phone’ type setups work you can’t both speak and hear at the same times, where as with a headset and mic setup you can. So communication is much smoother when everyone uses this approach.

We use Hangouts or Discord for chat, and don’t bother with video. We find it advisable to use a secondary device like your smart phone to do the comms, leaving your computer to focus on running the VTT software. This also means you can go the fridge when you need a new drink...
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Or a blu-tooth headset, like I have.

Discord app on the phone isn't a bad idea at all. One of my players lost power while we were gaming and was able to continue like nothing even happened.

We find it advisable to use a secondary device like your smart phone to do the comms, leaving your computer to focus on running the VTT software. This also means you can go the fridge when you need a new drink...

Another recommendation - whenever possible, use a wired connection rather than wireless. It really does make a difference for the A/V.


The biggest challenge I've found, and this is almost exclusively limited to the younger than 18 crowd in my experience, is keeping them paying attention and not watching a video or playing a video game off to the side. Calling someone's name several times before they respond, and you can hear the background noise, is not conducive to a good gaming session. This is wasn't so much an issue in person where you actually looked at each other.


That's my dog, Walter
Biggest hurtle has been player retention. People are more likely to flake. The other big thing is audio quality, get a better headset, mute yourself when not talking, don't have the tv on or other background noise. For some people this is not possible but I think every attempt should be made.


Ive learned shorter time, fewer players is better. We always play as long as we could get three players, now I dont even mind with two on a 2 hour session considering how awful vtt is compared to ftf.

We have found using discord for instant image posting (instead of wasting upload time) is important.

I really do not like VTT and am barely desperate enough to keep it up.

It's been the opposite for me. Attendance is stronger than ever now that people have nowhere to go and don't even have to leave their houses to game.

Edited to add: there is the one group I'm just a player in that's been struggling of late. But those people all flaked even more when we used to game in person.

Totally agree on good audio being important. One player has his audio drop frequently and blames Discord, but it happens to just him, so I don't think that's it (not that Discord doesn't have its hiccups now and then).

Biggest hurtle has been player retention. People are more likely to flake. The other big thing is audio quality, get a better headset, mute yourself when not talking, don't have the tv on or other background noise. For some people this is not possible but I think every attempt should be made.
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Eric V

Using MapTool and a customized framework for our 13th Age game has been terrific. I created monster tokens with macros for all their attacks from all the major books, so random encounters are as easy as dragging a map image on. We used to use Skype for audio, but switched to Discord for the music.


My typical session these days is 2.5-3 hours. I just can't take staring at a screen much more than that. I rather like the shorter (but more frequent) times. The story is usually fresher in the minds of the players, and it's easier to stay focused on the game at hand.

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