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.
dragon-slayer-145565_1280.png

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

dbm

Savage!
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

He / Him
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

Legend
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.
 


dbm

Savage!
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.
 

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.
 

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