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Friday, 10 April 2020

Keep your distance

My gaming group have been looking at ways to play online using options like Skype or Discord. I'm even tempted to do some play-by-mail. Why? Well, if you've been in the Negative Zone for the last few months, this will help explain it.

What do you do about dice-rolling in a virtual setting? Becky Annison had a good thread on Twitter about online gaming and her view on that was: "Trust your players not to cheat on dice rolls - it doesn't matter if you can't see their roll. What on earth are you doing playing with people you don't trust?"
Fair enough, although I'm sorry to say that in the past we had such trouble with one player cheating that I had to institute "the shield of truth", a ghastly blue plastic tray in which all dice had to be rolled. Thankfully that's a thing of the past, but if you're unsure then take a look at Rolz.

Playing online will probably reduce the amount of dice-rolling in your game anyway, which in my book is no bad thing, but if you really want the full rules-heavy dungeon-bash experience there's always Roll20, of which one of our group says:
"Roll20 does seem quite good for creating a virtual space in which we can visualize our characters. It would be enough, I think, for us to hear one another, see the rolls, and pass secret notes to the GM. We could add tactical map battles fairly easily when a particular situation calls for it. Roll20 doesn't have full integration to other systems like GURPS or Dragon Warriors so it would be simplest if we keep the rules in our heads and use the platform mainly as a communication device. We might even use Roll20 for the map and dice, while using Discord for the voice communication. The advice on GURPS forums suggests that most people use Roll20 that way, as a lite service for rolls and maps, keeping the rules, characters, and so forth offline."
Other options worth considering include: Astral TabletopFantasy Grounds, Dungeonfog, and Streamyard. (And for board games try Vassal.) Some of those are full-on VTTs that include maps and dice rolling, others are just for chat. Have a look around to find the best fit for you. After all, you've got plenty of time for research.

But you could be missing a trick if you're simply looking for a way to replicate your usual tabletop experience online. Maybe there are benefits here that are unique to virtual play. For example, our group meets every other Thursday and that means at least half a dozen people travelling across London in order to grab about three and a half hours of gaming. (It'd be longer, but I can't get them to follow the Earl of Sandwich's advice and forgo a cooked meal beforehand.) Because we have such limited time for gaming, we've drifted towards a planned adventure-of-the-week style of play that's really not a patch on proper seat-of-the-pants roleplaying. The improv style of gaming is a luxury it's hard to make time for when everybody has jobs and family. It's a far cry from playing at school or college or in your early 20s, when it's possible to set up side sessions with one or two players on the spur of the moment, and the events in those sessions feed into the main weekly game.

If you're gaming online, though, it's pretty easy to recapture the sandbox, open-world approach. Each player is only a phone call away, and it's no problem finding a half hour for a Skype session involving just one or two players. That opens up a much more freewheeling kind of campaign, where one player might, for example, be sent as ambassador to a foreign court, and he or she plays that out separately, creating world events that will impact on the events of the main weekly game -- if "the main game" even means anything any more.

There is no substitute for hanging out with friends in person, but while the Sword of Damocles hangs over us, let's look for the ways that playing online could provide something different and just as entertaining.


  1. We (the kids and I, four of their friends and one other parent) are already 11 sessions into an online campaign based around The Keep on the Borderlands. We're playing just about every day for an hour and much longer at the weekends. And it's been great. Everyone's honest about their rolls (as the litany of PC incapacitations and death shows ...). Running the game is also slightly easier than having everyone round - much less quietening down, and of course no need to get the house presentable!

    Our experience bears out many of your points too. We're getting a much more 'Platonic' D&D experience than usual, I think, with a large party and the slow but steady harvesting of experience points. And the regular but episodic nature of the campaign gives me plenty of time (work lunch after exercise and the house before the game starts!) to refresh rumour tables and expand and map out locations. The sandbox is in full effect, and the large party is working out fine; the numbers help to preserve online discipline, I think.

    We're using miniatures and a gridded mat with a chalk marker, and it shows up well enough on the screen - by dint of angling the laptop to an elevated board - so that the players can follow the action. That said, the miniatures probably work chiefly for my benefit. My son sometimes links my mobile to the call to provide overhead shots and close-ups too.

    I think the procedural, mechanical nature of Basic D&D helps (we're using the Rules Cyclopedia with these tweaks: The mechanical goals (gold, XP, items) give the game a certain practical grounding that balances the colour I'm trying to add to the campaign through write-ups, expansion of locations and characterisation.

    It's occurred to me that, if/when normality returns, this could be the best way to keep the campaign going - and, in time, use it as a gateway to Glorantha or Tekumel (or indeed Legend!). And in the meantime, I'm recycling the effort I'm putting into the kids' game by running the same stuff for a group of friends on Saturday nights.

    1. When you mentioned Borderlands, JC, my first thought was the Glorantha campaign, whose narrative arc structure probably influenced the way I planned the scenarios in Dragon Warriors.

      I just realized this would be the perfect time to go back to basics with sandbox Tekumel gaming. Arrive on a boat, find digs in the Foreigners' Quarter, and wait for a patron to put a job up on the notice board...

    2. As someone who started with Runequest back in primary school, I had never quite untangled the two until recently! But we're currently knee-deep in with blue-nosed hobgoblins and "little dog-men" rather than facing Muriah & co.

      I've already started dropping hints to the Saturday adult group that a more esoteric RPG might be in order once they're cleansed the (TSR) Borderlands of chaos ...