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The Fumble: Game Master Secretly Plotting Against Online Players Who Don't Use Their Mute Button

Cleveland, OH area BM (Barrow Master) Robert Sumner recently converted his weekly tabletop Barrows & Bearowls game to an online format due to the social complications of the current global pandemic. It's a change hundreds if not thousands of gaming groups are making to keep their games going until they can return to face-to-face gaming. The new opportunity isn't without its challenges, however.

crazy dungeon master eyes.jpg

"I can handle staying home," Robert shares. "I'm glad to deal with all the sacrifices and limitations since it helps stop the spread of the virus. If it helps even one person, that's amazing and I'm truly glad to do it."

"What I can't handle, however, is [censored] players who won't use their mute buttons in an online game."

"I like to think of myself as a patient BM and it's not like I haven't given everyone time and mental room to adjust. Before we started playing online we talked about the etiquette involved, such as muting your mic when you're not talking. I reminded everyone again before our first session, and then again before each session. With six players, it's really a must given background noise."

Robert throws his hands in the air. "Well, evidently it's too hard of a concept to grasp for a couple of my players."

Robert continues. "You ever tried to role-play a sinister, nuanced High Elven sub-lord whose every word might contain hope or malice when three kids are re-enacting their favorite wrestling match on one mic and a shrill little fluffy dog's yipping at the freakin' mailman on another?"

His eyes narrow. "It's not easy, my friend. It's not easy. Sub-Lord Melkor'th should have been an important, highlight moment in our current campaign but instead, I think the players barely understood the plot hook, much less all the important flavor of the scene."

"Then the other day, I just sort of snapped," he says, his eyes gleaming wildly.

"It was after my something like three millionth reminder after a mom nagging my player to take out the [censored] trash ruined yet another important game moment. I was trying to stay cool and patient, but Sarah acted surprised when I called her out personally and said please mute. Like the concept had just been introduced to her for the first time."

"That's when I knew," Robert says, full of conviction. "Those [censored] Sarah and Alonzo had to go down. But not quickly. Oh no, slowly and painfully. A death of a thousand cuts like they were inflicting on our game."

Robert continues, his eyes now somewhat feverish.

"Oh, why did that orc stay in the fight a round longer than you expected, Alonzo? MAYBE IT'S BECAUSE I'M SECRETLY GIVING IT MORE HIT POINTS. What, Sarah? Why didn't you find the secret door when you rolled so great? IT'S BECAUSE YOU'RE GOING DOWNTOWN WITH A FROWN, SISTER!!! Why the surprised, confused looks? Hm? Hmm? HMMM??"

"Look at this," He says eagerly, pulling a sheet of paper covered with convoluted math and symbols from his BM folder. It most resembles a spreadsheet found in a dark grimoire.

"I've made random tables just. For. Them."

"Every result is guaranteed to provide a mild negative consequence but in a way that stays under the radar. They know something isn't quite right, but they can't put their finger on it. It's like an annoying insect of dire math buzzing in their ears!"

Robert breaks into an actual head-back, hands-clutching-the-air mad scientist laugh as this reporter slowly backs away and thanks him for his time.

"The game?" Alonzo shrugs when asked. "It's OK, I guess. Honestly, it's not really my thing but Robert's my friend so I've been showing up to give him something to do during all this quarantine. I hope it's helping."

Sarah was too busy finally taking out the [censored] trash to respond to inquiries.


The Fumble is a satire/parody tabletop RPG news column. It's not real. Also, dragons might sometimes be fooled by Ring-winners and Luckwearers but very rarely by Barrel-riders.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Last edited:
Shane Stacks



Shane "Shane Plays" Stacks
My weekly group moved to Google Hangouts about three weeks ago after pausing for month. Works pretty well. I've started using Roll20 for the tactical map. Not with everyone on Roll20, just using Google Hangouts and me screen sharing the Roll20 window when needed.

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I like to think of myself as a patient BM
I lol'ed 🙃

Online has actually increased my quantity of games due to one of the players in one of the games traveled a ton for his work; but that's not happening now. Jury's still out on whether the quality has improved...


On a slightly more serious note, as as someone who has played in online games for a very long time, the basic message here really DOES ring true. While face to face has it's issues, being online brings a shopping bag full of different issues. When Dave is futzing about on his phone during a F2F session, you can usually just pelt him with dice until he stops. Online, particularly if you're not using video, the urge to multi-task is very strong.

Someday I'm going to become rich and famous when I invent a way to smack people upside the head over the Internet.

The Monster

The issue of non-muted mics is so real. After running for months with my MMO guild, which has very strict rules about keeping quiet during fights & fight explanations/planning, having my tabletop group hanging around with rustling paper bags, mouthfuls of food (up to and including corn chips), and random spouse/child conversations (some yelled from the next room!) during a game session...yikes. It's not just that it spoils the mood - it's that you often can't hear anything clearly and need every description and action repeated.


We’ve been able to go to three online weekly games after 18 years of a long weekend monthly or every two months. It is so much more refreshing to play... the story holds together better and with us all locked down in the UK it’s great escapism.

Also we have less distraction, less out of game chat, and less breaks for dinner. I’m pretty convinced we get more done in a 4 hour online sesh than an 8 hour tabletop session. Without breaks for food, and the monthly how are you getting on catch up conversations.

I only play with four, and they have quiet places to set up so we don’t have the noise problem... it would drive me to be vindictive though.


The majority of my gaming was already online, so I won't count it. The group my wife and son and daughter are in, and another group my son is in, and another group my daughter is in, have all moved online.


Shane "Shane Plays" Stacks
The issue of non-muted mics is so real. After running for months with my MMO guild, which has very strict rules about keeping quiet during fights & fight explanations/planning, having my tabletop group hanging around with rustling paper bags, mouthfuls of food (up to and including corn chips), and random spouse/child conversations (some yelled from the next room!) during a game session...yikes. It's not just that it spoils the mood - it's that you often can't hear anything clearly and need every description and action repeated.
My experience has been pretty good honestly, but the seed for this Fumble was planted by converting our weekly table game to an online meetup during social distancing. I could see a GM losing their crap if the group couldn't get the hang of mute buttons :)

Both my groups migrated to Roll20. Got 6 one night and 5 the other, and as GM my main issue has been me narrating something with my cat yelling at me loudly.....

You know if you use Discord you can require everyone to use Push To Talk. Really goes a long long ways to solving this problem.

But yes, online is different and the biggest challenge I find is keeping people from multitasking and keeping focused. The biggest thing I've found that helps this is to keep things going fast. FG helps with that because of all of the possible combat automation. But if you can get it so that players are taking turns every 2-3 minutes then folks stay engaged. But if their turn only comes around every 10 minutes...


Heh, I've almost always found that combat slow downs are a player side issue far more than the DM. The DM, with an exception in my experience of a DM on Maptools who refused to use voice chat and could only type about 20 words per minute :erm: , is almost always the fastest turn. Granted, the DM has to take a lot more turns, but, typically the DM is pretty focused on the action.

What grinds the game to a halt is THAT player who refuses to think about their action before their turn in initiative comes up. Make that player a caster who then needs to spend an eternity placing their spell just right, and I want to beat myself to death with my keyboard.

I once had an online player, and I timed it, who, in a 3.5 D&D game, playing a 4th level dwarf fighter, took more time per round than the entire group combined. :wow: And then proceeded to get pissy about it when I brought it up. It was mind blowing. He honestly couldn't understand why I was frustrated and annoyed. "We're just having fun man, it's just a game."

Yeah, I wound up instituting a shot clock in many of my online games just to stop this crap. If you couldn't begin your action, didn't have to finish it, but, you at least had to be well into it, after 40 seconds, I skipped the turn.

I can totally understand the frustration. :p


Interestingly enough while my company is currently getting hundreds of people together on regular conference calls and starting EACH one with multiple reminders about the “audience” staying on mute...when they can actually easily MUTE YOU but EVERY call multiple people manage to unmute themselves and cause unstoppable chaos - “yes whomever just said loudly into their cellphone ‘I can’t talk right now, I got this dumb work thing...’ we can hear you and you’re not on mute—please remember to mute your phones people” - at this same time, I’m doing sessions for a group of KIDS, ages 8 to 12, kids who’ve never played before and we don’t do grid combat, don’t do turns, I give them intro text to the current situation—field questions—and occasionally referee who can try their proposal first.


And it was easy / went smooth. In my favor perhaps is the fact that there were multiple people in each room so nobody could be 100% distracted. But in my game format, that person is ignored by default and at worst can’t enrich the game experience. Compare that to a structure where you’re waiting for them to take their turn!

‘You join an online game, everyone seems pleasant, yet you’ve been burned before by social habits you found rude—which eventually drove you up the wall. It’s sunny outside, you’ve got your snacks and a keyboard. It’s time for the session to begin! You log on, and a fellow player greets you by name. .... ....What do you do? .... .... .... ?’


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