Woman bites pencil while looking at computer

She must be playing Call of Catthulhu.

One of the most exciting things the internet has given us (in my opinion) is the ability to play role playing games with geographically distant folks. Playing online solves a number of problems—having trouble meeting like minded gamers in your area? Don’t have child care? Really want to play with your friends in New York, Illinois, and Canada? Ice storm? No problem! The internet is here—with streaming video, handy mapping systems, and dice rolling plugins—to save us! But GMing online comes with some extra challenges that are amplified from playing at an in person table. How can you mitigate these to make playing online the best experience you can?

Some quick definitions

Firstly, so that we’re clear, by playing online I mean you are playing via Google hangouts, Skype, Roll20, etc., and not at a physical table. Specifically, you’re all remote from each other—playing with one or two people remote and other people local presents its own set of challenges, which I have not personally found an effective solution for. (If you have one let me know in the comments!)

Secondly, table control is the ability of the GM to socially keep the table on track or bring it back to order after breaks etc. Table control in person looks like this:

  • Reading verbal and nonverbal cues to push the game faster or slow it down
  • Managing the amount of out-of-game talk to keep it appropriate for your game and play style
  • Managing social dynamics at the table
  • Making sure the spotlight is spread around
  • Making sure no one is bored
  • Making sure everyone is safe

So What’s Different?

 And of course, there are always audio and video glitches, blurs, freezing, and the most fun part where you all turn into Autobots or Decepticons. 

Online, you are responsible for the same things, but you are going to face some different challenges. Online, especially depending on the video quality, it can be much harder to read nonverbal cues. It’s a lot easier to talk over each other, both due to the slight delay in audio, and because it’s easy to say things that would fall to the background at a table but that get picked up by a mic at full volume. It’s also tricky with a max volume of whatever output your players are using because you don’t have a way to raise your voice over everyone else’s to be heard if you need to get things back on track. And of course, there are always audio and video glitches, blurs, freezing, and the most fun part where you all turn into Autobots or Decepticons.

There’s no way to completely eliminate these issues, but there are some practices you can use to mitigate them as much as possible.

  • Use video as much as possible—it helps. Even if it’s blurry or when the quality is less than you might wish, you’ll still pick up more from posture and movement than you’ll get from audio only.
  • Ask for full attention. You’re not at a table. People are more likely to do things like have the Google Hangouts window open and also Twitter and Facebook. There are many more distractions readily available when your players are already looking at their computer screens.
  • Don’t mute other folks when it’s not their turn to talk—joining in on the laughter and small talk is how you create the energy feedback loop like you would have at a real table. If you’re having trouble with interrupting or talking over each other, address it as an online specific table issue, gently. Usually it’s because your players are so excited they just can’t help it! Don’t tell them their enthusiasm is bad, but do let them know we have to be more careful because of the technical limitations than we would at an actual table.
  • Do mute folks talking to their cats, husbands, children, roommates, etc. until they are back at full attention. Just because we’re all sitting at home doesn’t mean we should let those things put the game on hold for everyone. Let the player who needs to deal with another issue mute and carry on until they can rejoin you.
  • Be even more aware of your spotlight time—it’s easier to forget someone and harder to notice them losing interest. If someone hasn’t said anything in a while, it means their image hasn’t jumped up to take over the screen in front of you for just as long, and that makes it easier to miss folks who are starting to lose interest because they haven’t gotten to act.
  • Have cool digital versions of props people can get excited about and engage with—maps, pages of a book, etc. Things that are still exciting to interact with in digital (codes, puzzles, etc.) are best, over just images. Be aware that while there are many more tools that give you access to things like background sounds, many players can find this really hard to concentrate through, so it’s worth asking what is distracting vs. immersive.
  • It takes more energy output because the wire translation eats some of your effort. Know that if you are tired or stressed etc., or your players are tired/stressed etc., it will have an exponentially higher effect on your game. Be willing to refer to the final point below:
  • When all else fails, relax and do your best. Be willing to say when it’s not working and try again next time.

Having the internet gives us so many new options for playing RPGs in situations where we’ve previously been limited, but it definitely has its own challenges. Do you play games online? What are your best recommendations for keeping things going smoothly despite the lack of physical proximity?