Just over a year ago, I played my last face-to-face game. Like most of us, I had no idea that was the case. It was just a normal session, with friends, at one of their houses, gathered around a table, doing a thing that I had been doing since I was ten. Then in a span of a few days, everything changed. Since then, all my gaming has been done online. Today, I am going to look back on a year of online gaming – things I have learned, things I like, and things I have not enjoyed. 

Things I Have Learned

In the year I have spent gaming online, I have picked up a few things adapting to playing exclusively online. Here are some of the lessons that come to mind…

I Have Two Phases Of Prep Now

Using a VTT, like Roll20, has resulted in having two forms of prep. The first is prepping the adventure, which I am quite comfortable with. I have an established system for that. The second form of prep is to prepare the VTT for the session with graphics, handouts, maps, etc.

While none of this is required, after all, I could just play on Zoom, it seems a waste to ignore some of the features of the platform. So I now take rumors and other info and create handouts for the players. I find pictures for NPCs and also make tokens from them. I find maps for the main encounters or draw and upload a map if all else fails.

The end result is that I have a second form of prep, which is to stage the VTT so that it is more engaging for my players. That additional prep requires additional time, but it also requires some additional skills. At the very least, I just need some good Google skills to image search my way into some assets I can use, but having some experience in graphic design, I often create some more elaborate assets. 

Again, I don’t need to do this, but staring at a static VTT is boring, so it helps to put a bit of effort into making it look good. 

I Need to Figure Out How My Game Will Play Virtually

If you play the big games, you are in luck – the VTT was made for these. But if you play anything more obscure, it is hit and miss on what VTT resources you will find for your game. So each new game comes with a search to see if anyone has built anything for the game, does the publisher have assets you can purchase or download?

Early in the pandemic, I had some trouble getting my Forbidden Lands game into Roll20. I had to get an image of the campaign map and load it into the VTT, and there were no initiative cards. A shout out to Free League who were able to give me card images that I could use to make my own custom Roll20 deck. 

Over the course of the year, I have changed games in a few of my groups, and each one has required me to look at how this game will run on the VTT and what assets I need. This then requires some investment of time to find or create the assets to play the game.

Recently I started an iHunt game and had to work out how to run it (a Fate game) online. I have run a lot of Fate, and I have quite a kit for face-to-face gaming. I now had to figure out how I was going to do that through Roll20. Did the dice roller have a function for 4df (they did)? How will I create aspects (Text boxes and some graphics)? And how would I represent Fate Points (made some custom ones using the iHunt logo and TokenTool)? 

A shout out to Evil Hat, who has really stepped up their VTT game, and have put out a number of Fate assets for Roll20. I could have used these and would have been just fine. In my case, I went couture and made my own assets, using Affinity Designer and a number of free assets to create a play space that was more thematic to iHunt.

Lucky for us, many other publishers are also ramping up their Roll20 assets so it is becoming easier to find games ready to run on VTTs.

Virtual Play Is Slower and Uses More Energy

I have said this before, but it has been the biggest issue I have come to realize. Virtual play is just slower than face-to-face. There is lag through video software, there are connection issues, there is lag in the VTT software. In the course of a few hours, it all adds up. I don’t get nearly as much session material covered online as I do face to face. 

Also, I don’t get back quite as much energy from online play as I do from face-to-face. I am reticent in playing with strangers online, as I know that always takes more energy, and I have been playing with my established groups and other friends. 

That said, playing online is vastly better than not being able to play. I am just aware that I don’t move as much story in a session that I use to, and I don’t play super long sessions. If there is a silver lining, my prep lasts for more online sessions, so my week-to-week prep time is less.

Things I Like

There are a number of things I have liked and enjoyed from a year of online play. Here are a few of them.

The VTT as a Way to Store Information

The VTT is a nice way to store game and campaign information. My Forbidden Lands game, which is coming up on two years old, has a lot of information, and a good amount of it is now stored in the VTT. I have created Roll20 handouts for the various legends, the world map, complete with all the info learned, is kept on a page, and everyone’s character sheets are stored online. Then that info is easily accessible to the players during a session, or I can take something and display it to the players. In the past, this would all be done with various paper handouts that would be scattered across the table, or stuffed in folders. In addition, there are a few other things we don’t keep in the VTT, but in Google Spreadsheets, which is also easily accessible, since everyone is on a computer. 

All in all, the amount of paper that we use in a game is vastly less, and things are more organized. 

The VTT as a Playmat

 But mark my words…playmats are the wave of the future. 

For a few years, I have been less about GM screens and more fascinated with playmats as a way to set up a tabletop experience. The VTT has given me a chance to explore this idea, with just a bit of graphic design. Most of the games I run do not use battle maps, which means that I need to be able to do something with the tabletop. So I have started to mess around with making playmats that have the function in the game as well as looks thematic. 

In my recent setup for iHunt I made the playmat with graphics of post-it notes built into the mat so that I would only have to use the Text tool to write the name of the aspect, and then I could put it on one of the post-it notes.

This is possible because it is easy, and cheap, to create a graphic that works on a VTT, rather than printing out a full table playmat. 

But mark my words…playmats are the wave of the future.

Things I Do Not Enjoy

Not everything is roses when it comes to online games. Here are a few things that I am not enjoying.

I Miss Dice

VTT dice functions are nice, but they are not a substitute for rolling dice and watching people roll dice. I love my dice. Over the pandemic, I have gotten several raw sets, sanded them, and numbered them myself. Do you know who has seen them? Me. 

I miss the rolling of dice. Yes, I can roll dice, and many times do, when I am playing online, and my players are allowed to as well, but I miss watching others roll dice. I miss looking to see that natural 20 come up, etc. I miss dice rolling, quite a bit. 

The Lack of Proximity

As good as a VTT is, I miss sitting with people around a table. I am old and have been fortunate to play face-to-face, for nearly 40 years. I am pretty introverted, but RPGs have always been my most comfortable social event. For me, RPGs will always be about being around a table. While playing online has been a necessity, and it’s the only way to play with my friends who are far away, there is, for me, no substitute for the energy I get from sitting with people. I miss seeing my friends in full size, rather than shrunk down in a window, among a sea of windows I have on my monitors as I am running my game. I miss hearing uncompressed laughter or giving fist bumps for good rolls and moments. Let’s just say, for the sake of not being depressing, that I miss playing games with my friends.

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Vaccines are rolling out. I am half-way through mine, and my friends will start getting theirs. The need to only play virtually will come to an end. Will I stop playing all virtual games? No. The pandemic has made me comfortable enough to run some of my games online, and I will for my friends who are not living here. 

For my local friends, I welcome the time to return to the table and play again, but I also am wondering if our face-to-face game might also have a VTT we can use. Are there ways that the VTT can assist our face-to-face game, by doing things like housing our characters, being a playmat, or organizing our info? It is something that I will be exploring as the time for playing face to face gets nearer. 

What about you? What have you learned about online play? What things have you enjoyed? What things do you not like?