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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.

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

Comments

dbm

Explorer
Similar here, we used to play for 10 hours every third Sunday, now we play three hours weekly which is basically the same amount of game-time just chopped up.
 

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BookTenTiger

Adventurer
A big shift for me as a DM is group decision making.

At the table if I say, "So are you guys going to the tavern?" I'll have a few players nod or say "yeah" or grunt in consent.

On Zoom, nobody wants to speak over each other, so their consent is silent. But that's pretty weird for me as a DM!

So instead of referring to the whole group for decisions, I try my best to always name a character. "It's getting late in town. Vimak, are you leading the group to the tavern?"

It's a small change but it's really helped!
 

Schmoe

Adventurer
A big shift for me as a DM is group decision making.

At the table if I say, "So are you guys going to the tavern?" I'll have a few players nod or say "yeah" or grunt in consent.

On Zoom, nobody wants to speak over each other, so their consent is silent. But that's pretty weird for me as a DM!

So instead of referring to the whole group for decisions, I try my best to always name a character. "It's getting late in town. Vimak, are you leading the group to the tavern?"

It's a small change but it's really helped!
Yeah, I've noticed that too. There are a lot more group silences, where nobody wants to speak up. That's something I miss about F2F, is how easy the conversation is.

There are some good points here, such as prep taking a bit longer if you want to do tactical combat. I use DungeonDraft/WonderDraft to make maps that I import into Roll20. It works pretty well, but it's definitely more of a time investment than just having a pad of graph paper I can doodle on.

One of the things that is nice about a VTT is how easy it is to produce slick graphical handouts using images from the net. That's something that's not as easy to do on paper, and I think the visual element of the game is enhanced online. Unless you're one of those Dwarven Forge maestros who creates amazing set pieces. That's not me, so I don't worry about it :)

Another nice thing about a VTT is that you can do things like create separate chat rooms or video calls to have secret conversations with people. It's more convenient than leaving the room, and it makes it easier to separate the party. Muahahaha!
 

Hussar

Legend
Some fantastic advice here. I've been using VTT's since about 2002, so, this is right in my wheelhouse.

Just to add a few thoughts.

On the DM's side: Take a bit of time to create some "geomorph" style battlemaps that you can just plonk down whenever you need some sort of background. Make a few for each type of scene that's likely to come up and you'll find that on the fly encounters are actually pretty easy. But, it does take that bit of prep work. Unless, of course, you're doing it all theater of the mind, then , well, knock yourself out. :D

Image searching can take a LOT of time. I've dived down the image search rabbit hole so many times. And then suddenly realized that I've spent over an hour looking for an image for an NPC that will likely spend all of ten minutes at the table. :( Yes, you want your game to look good, but, don't let perfect be the enemy of good. And don't skimp on the other parts of prep - creating personalities for NPC's, and whatnot. That's likely what your players will remember anyway, not that perfect image you managed to dig up on Deviantart.

Make a small (or large) library of online resources. Take advantage of them. Art, maps, sounds, setting material, whatever. Reddit Dndmaps is your friend.

On the Player side:

Yeah, it's a temptation to open up your email, skim Facebook or look at En World during a session. Resist that temptation, or, at least be very good at multi-tasking. Even short pauses every time your name comes up in the game add up. I once had a player whose turns during the session took more time than the total time of the rest of the group, including the DM. Dead air is incredibly frustrating.

Don't rely on your DM to walk you through every detail of how the VTT (whatever one you are using) works. Take a bit of time to learn it. At the very least, learn how your own character sheet works and how to add modifiers to die rolls. Again, you are the one holding up the game because you can't be bothered to RTFM. It's impolite to say the least. And, as an added bonus, if the entire group gets familiar with how the VTT works, then the group take take a LOT of load off the shoulders of the DM.
 


Goonalan

Adventurer
Supporter
As with Hussar above I have been at the VTT since the early 00s, starting with Maptools, then Fantasy Grounds, a little bit of Roll20 and then back to FG- although I was a Unity backer I've not got around to porting yet, so Classic is my edition.

I've DMed over 400 sessions, this isn't an idle brag- I've just done a count back, a chunk of these are available here in the various write ups in my story hours. At present I DM just one session a week, maybe 4 hours of play.

So here are my tips and advice-

Written (obv.) from a DM POV.

1) Prep too much, by which I mean know what you have planned (inside out) but be prepared for off-road. Get a bunch of generic but handy maps and handouts at the ready- roadside encounter, chatter in an Inn, make sure you have the tokens/images for everything you need.

Better still when you find the good stuff- maps, images etc. just keep it all together- with some form of order, so you can find something (if you really have to in a rush). Remember there's nothing worse than dragging a massive image/map you just yoinked off the interweb into your VTT and then having to wait five minutes for it pass on to your players. If you're going to do that then send the picture via discord, or e-mail- much easier to share. Better still, have the stuff ready- sized and scaled.

And when I say prep then check the battlemaps or whatever before you use them, size (on the screen and memory) and make sure they stand the test- scroll in- if it all becomes a blur then find something else. Plain and simple beats a hard to see mess every time.

2) There's always a session 0, for character prep & intro, but also to get your players used to the VTT. I'm a lecturer so I set out little demos with exercises to complete in FG. Think of what you are doing as some bastard halfway house between ftf D&D and a PC Game, there's a tutorial. Cover the basics in the first session- how to open windows, write notes, use your character sheet/interface etc. Then every other session do a 5-10 minute review of whatever players were struggling with last session, and also to introduce something new- a short cut, how to write a power/macro, whatever. If you do this every week/session then it just becomes part of the landscape- I've played with guys that have been on FG for a decade and they're amazed by some of the stuff they've not been using/doing- that they just didn't know it could do.

CHECK CONNECTIONS- SEND MAPS- MAKE SURE EVERYTHING WORKS FOR EVERYBODY IN THIS SESSION.

3) Players- this is a bugger, get some good 'uns and then- if you can, stick with 'em. Worst thing in the world (not really, but you get me) is when you have to blood a noob in a game that's already up and running- if that's the situation then you are better of getting in a few 1:1s with the new player ahead of time and getting them up to speed.

4) Players again- fewer the better, 3 to 5 for me is golden, 6+ is doable but y'know- can get messy- just too many voices (but see below) and then someone wanders off, and then... more is messy.

5) Manage the situation- you're the caller, the DM- the OVERLORD (sorry, carried away) again I do this for a living- I'm a lecturer, there's an order to do things and you are the loudest voice in the room, so figure out how to take control. If they (the players) are just filling the speakers with their inane chatter then tell them off. Make it clear there's a way to do this well.

A session for me is a) recap and any questions arising, then b) game = DM says/describes (sets up) this is the situation what do you want to do (players chat ask questions of DM, make rolls) make decisions and move story/adventure on c) DM reiterates new situation = what do you want to do. Obviously there's layers of complexity to it but the basic is- this is where you are at (says the DM), players chat etc. make decision move on to the next bit. You need space for you (the DM) to have your say, and then space for them to figure it out. d) end of session- always thanks, maybe homework, and maybe what's coming next time- things to think about.

6) Everyone gets a go- remember to ask all of the players, if they're quiet then that may be their thing, or else they have just have nothing to say (or worse they think they have nothing to do- fix this)- but ask, and check, and mention everyone by name as much as you can- make them feel part of it. You're the entertainer and the compare here.

7) The more you teach the players to do for themselves then the less you have to do for them. I don't just mean keeping their character sheets up to date, or figuring out how to work the VTT, although that's a great start. Give them other stuff to do- they have access to the internet, get them to find a picture of their new sword, or figure out the name of the barkeep, smith, rogue-hire, whatever. If you have five players doing five different things (between adventures or else investigating prior, for example) then task them- listen to what they want to do, break it down- set tasks (1-2-3 say) and then tell them to get back to you when part 1 is done. Deal with the next PC- same format.

Gestalt- a big thing is the sum of a bunch of little things- break it down and get them players working.

8) Entertain- I do voices, quizzes and exams, races/bar games/drinking games, review sessions, if there's an ancient dwarven scroll that needs translating then get the players (not the PCs) to do it- they don't just cast comprehend languages (or whatever) they have to go and look up the Davek script and then translate it word for word. Obviously don't make it ten pages long, ten lines will do (at most) and if they're good there's a reward. But the thing is your a media star for 3-4 hours here, you are the loudest voice- and in command, so you are obliged to offer something (I think) to entertain not just the PCs but the players.

9) Rail road, as much as you have to keep the players doing the stuff you have prepped, feel free to explain this to the players OOC- "we can go that way, sure... but I'm going to have to take 5-10 minute break right now to do a little figuring stuff out" (and grab resources). You may be the great Oz but let them see beyond the curtain- "I'm like you- I have X time to get this done, I don't have a fully mapped world at my fingertips (yet). I am human- although clearly of superior design to your own iteration- for I am the DM!" Sorry, off road again there.

But players, they turn up five to whatever- chew loudly, burp, make chatter to their friends, take phone calls, watch the TV, look after the kids, and still think they're playing D&D. Which brings us to-

10) There's a time and a place to game, everybody is ready for it- no (or much fewer) interruptions, we're all on it in the same space and time, we don't want to be having to repeat things endlessly, there will be breaks- I usually do 2 x 10 minutes in a four hour session. Although I sometimes add an extra one in when I need to find some extra info for the next bit. The point is people need to commit to being present and correct for the duration.

11) Rewards- it can be glorious, I have had players in-game while huddled in internet cafes in SF, or else standing in the freezing cold laptop in hands outside a closed internet cafe at gone midnight- in the street, on christmas eve, and its snowing. Players can commit in the same way as ftf. It can be as enjoyable, it can be hard at first- but like all things, rinse and repeat- the muscle/mind memory will learn what to do and when to do it.

ORDER is the key.
GOOD PLAYERS are a must, more so than ftf.
ENTERTAINING is a good option.

Last bit, for extra credits-

12) Write stuff up, or down- send e-mails and notes between sessions. This isn't a necessity, but it's a great short cut- if you can get some/all of the backstory, prep, explanations, hand outs (whatever) done before/between sessions then everyone (or at least most everyone) is on the same page at the start of the session.

Also, everyone has an ego- I do story hours here (because I just write, it's what I do) and the players LOVE to read about their guys (and themselves) in action. Whisper this- I think I could probably make money doing this- a bit of D&D on a VTT, and a written up story hour for afterwards- I could make my beer money doing that (I don't drink, so- safe bet).

But you get me, I appreciate not every one has the time to do this- but any amount of writing, what happened previously- even if its just a list, even if its done by a player.

Also- here's the plot- this is where we are at, a bit of who said what- where we are going next, any clues.

I guess this one is more about D&D/RPGs in general- its serial nature, as I say its the extra credit and worth doing because the VTT is TV/media and like all other media can become a bit forgettable... keep it fresh when you can (D&D is entertaining) but also keep it on track- it'll make sense in the long run.

In summary-

You are in it together, it's the DMs world (subject to Trademark disputes) but the players need to have a role/part to play- and understand that good VTT play takes a little extra.

Stay safe.

Cheers goonalan

PS Check out my Dark Squad story hour- with lots of VTT screen shots and what we did and how we did it etc.
 

Hussar

Legend
This is interesting. I hope I never have to resort to this sort of gaming.
It's funny you use the term "resort". It's different, true, but, it's not second best. I don't look at it as "resorting" to anything anymore. This is how I game. There are some serious benefits to using a VTT and all the bells and whistles. But, there are some drawbacks too.

Then again, I haven't played with friends since high school really. I've almost always gamed with "gaming friends". So, a VTT isn't quite the jump maybe for me.
 

BookTenTiger

Adventurer
This is interesting. I hope I never have to resort to this sort of gaming.
Before the pandemic I tried pulling together an in-person game. It died after 6 weeks.

We are on Week 17 of my online game! I think when people don't have to drive to play, it's easier to commit to a regular time.

So there are definitely some benefits!
 

dbm

Explorer
It's different, true, but, it's not second best.
I think it’s a bit like ‘PDF vs dead-tree’. Both can produce a similar outcome, but you need to approach them with different strategies to get the best results.

VTTs obvious benefit is gaming apart, but lack of travel time also makes shorter sessions an option (certainly for our group) and they also make it easier to have cool maps.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
Before the pandemic I tried pulling together an in-person game. It died after 6 weeks.

We are on Week 17 of my online game! I think when people don't have to drive to play, it's easier to commit to a regular time.

So there are definitely some benefits!
My gamers are all older, and not all that tech-savvy (I'm even less savvy), so I don't see a happy outcome in our specific case if I ever had to try it. But I am trying to learn, just in case.

The 'talking in turn' is what I think would kill the game for my guys.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
1 - Set Times
For me this was no different than my in-person games. I have a monthly 8-hour Saturday session. The only difference is that I had to put the Google Meet and VTT links into my Google Calendar invite.

2 - Choose the right platform for your game, and group
Yes. This can be one of the bigger challenges. If you change the platform too often, you risk confusing and turning off your players, unless they are technically inclined and enjoy testing new tools.

This is one reason I prefer platforms that do not require players downloading and installing software. It is bad enough if players have to adjust to a new interface, but if they have to download and install new software as well, that compounds the inconvenience and increases the likelihood of tech issues and the need to help troubleshoot them. As a DM I don't want "IT tech support" to be one of my roles.

With Roll20, Astral, or Foundry, for three examples, the DM generally just has to give out a URL. As long as the players are comfortable with their PCs and navigating Web sites, then the DM only needs to tell them where to click and a few hot keys or mouse controls and they'll be up and running quickly.

When I was using MapTool and when I was testing Fantasy Ground Unity, I didn't bother using them as try collaborative VTTs, I just ran two instances (a DMs view and a players view) and shared the players view via Google Meet. Yes, it meant that I had to move all the tokens, including the player tokens, but it allowed me to test various VTTs without the players having to install multiple programs and I didn't have to deal with port forwarding and other network-setup hassles that come with installed (vs Web native) programs.

3 - Expect things to take time
My experiences are the opposite of yours on this point. First, we have fewer conversation tangents (which is NOT a benefit in my opinion, but does keep the game moving). Second, there are tools like initiative trackers and automations that keep players on track and speed up the resolution of some game mechanics. Also, if players are moving their own tokens, there is less need to take time to describe positioning.

4 - You may not be alone
One of the benefits of having a dedicated gaming area for in-person gaming, that is on a separate level with a door and good sound proofing, is that it works quite well for on-line gaming. Also, one benefit of online gaming regarding this point, it you can put on a headset and your gaming need be no more noisy than a telephone call.

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.
Note that this is especially a problem for the DM. I find it much more difficult to eat while running online games than in person. Especially since I DM with a wireless headset.

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.
Depends. I always recommend starting with just basic map sharing. No need to use every bell and whistle.

I can trow up a map with fog of war in Foundry or MapTool and put tokens on it far more quickly than I could draw something out on a Chessex mat and I used to spend a lot of time sorting a prepping miniatures and dungeon dressing for in-person play than I do prepping VTT maps.

Prepping maps for vision and line of sight can take more time, but with foundry, I can prep even a complex entire dungeon level in under an hour. When I don't have time for that or when the party goes to an unprepped area, I just throw up the map with fog of war and manually reveal areas as they explore.


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.
Well, if you are building the maps from scratch, maybe. But there are so many battlemaps available that I rarely create one from scratch any more. If I need to do something on the fly, throwing up a grid and drawing on it is no more time consuming than using wet-erase markers on a Chessex, and I don't have to move dice and snacks out of the way to do it.
 

Zander

Explorer
Hello, Andy P., Nice to see you here at EN World. Hope you‘ve been keeping well.

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.
Completely agree. I’m in an Avernus campaign of one DM and seven players. We’ve been using Roll20 for graphics and Discord for audio (and sometimes images). During the first few sessions, we had problems with Roll20 crashing for one or more players. Those have mostly cleared up. We sometimes have a problem of people inadvertently speaking over each other. Without visual cues, it’s tricky to indicate that you want to interject and, conversely, not as easy to signal when you’re being deliberately silent vs having audio problems.
 

dbm

Explorer
The 'talking in turn' is what I think would kill the game for my guys.
This is less necessary when everyone is using a headset, but essential when people are using ‘speakerphone’ setup.

The real ‘loss‘ is table chat since you can’t have two separate conversations going at the same time unless someone moves to a different (virtual) channel.
I didn't have to deal with port forwarding and other network-setup hassles that come with installed (vs Web native) programs.
For info, I was concerned about this with FGU but it hasn’t been required by anyone in our group of seven (two of whom GM).
 
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theworstdm

Villager
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.
Muting yourself when you’re not talking is a big thing for me when I run games online. Especially if you have a lot of background noise. It’s just good etiquette
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Muting yourself when you’re not talking is a big thing for me when I run games online. Especially if you have a lot of background noise. It’s just good etiquette
I haven't had a lot of issues with this. I wonder if it is because most of my players work in jobs where they've been participating in on-line meetings for years before COVID-19. So we've lived through all the common issues for years. E.g.,
 

theworstdm

Villager
I haven't had a lot of issues with this. I wonder if it is because most of my players work in jobs where they've been participating in on-line meetings for years before COVID-19. So we've lived through all the common issues for years. E.g.,
That's funny. Some of the worst examples of people not muting have been when I used to participate in conference calls.
 

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