By now there is no doubt that all of our lives have been changed by the pandemic. In a matter of days everything that we took for granted — hanging out together, gaming in person, etc — were all changed. In that time, we have had to adapt to how we live in an uncertain world around us. I am at the end of my 9th week in lockdown, and I still have a few more weeks to go, based on the guidelines for my region of New York State.  

Today’s article is a bit of a Lessons Learned about how my gaming has changed during the lockdown and how it will proceed going forward. But seeing this is a GMing blog, I promise to keep it gaming-focused and share a few tips along the way. 

Initiate Lockdown

By the second week of March, I was starting to get twitchy about the appearance of COVID-19 in the US and had been watching reports from Italy and China for the weeks before. That week, I had texted my gaming groups and told them that we were going to the “No Sniffle” rule, that people only come to game nights if they are healthy.  We had had our shares of people coming over to the game, coming off of colds or slightly under the weather, in the past, and we had all survived, but it seemed like a better idea to just stop that practice and only game when people were fully healthy. That weekend, we canceled my game because one of my players got a fever (non-COVID related), but we were being safe. 

The next Monday, everything was locked down. I was working from home and my kids were home from school. Very quickly we worked to adapt our house into being an office and a school, and as soon as that was done, and we made a hasty run for groceries, we hunkered down to make the best of it. 

Transition to Online Games 

I have been fortunate for most of my gaming tenure to play in-person. I have always had a face-to-face game group and before lockdown I had three different games, and some significant overlap between the groups. All three groups transitioned to online play. Here are some of the things I learned:

Zoom FTW

One of my MVP’s in this pandemic will be zoom.us. That weekend of lockdown, I purchased a monthly account in order to get unlimited meeting times. I knew that for the games I ran, I would need 3-4 hours per meeting.  The free version gives you 40 min, which was not going to be enough. I really like the features of Zoom and the video and audio quality have been exceptional. Here are a few tips for how I like to use it:

  • Virtual Background- I use a virtual background to hide the rest of my house behind me. 
  • Gallery View vs. Speaker View – When I am GMing I like to use Gallery view so that I can see larger images of all my players. This helps a lot in reading facial expressions, seeing if someone needs something, etc.

VTT/Roll 20

I had forgotten that I had a Roll20 account from back when I supported Tabletop Forge, but I was sure glad I found the credentials in my password manager 9 weeks ago. I had not really used Roll20, but I quickly got through the basics, and with help from friends who had been running online games, I got up and running quickly. 

My one tip for any VTT is that they are feature-rich, and trying to learn all the features and implement them at once can be daunting, and stressful. So I used a phased approach. I started by just using it to display some maps and roll dice, for those who wanted to roll online. Between sessions, I worked on using one new feature, based on need. Doing it this way took the pressure off of me to try to have everything working smoothly, and let me focus on what was more important — running an entertaining game. Over time, we have been able to leverage more and more of the features that make running games online smoother.

Changes in Prep

I noticed that quickly my prep for my games began to change. I had new needs that I had to account for while I was prepping. I still needed to do my normal prep for the session I was going to play, but I now had to add in time for prepping VTT assets (mostly maps, but also some info and notes). I had to work in VTT enhancements (from above). I also had to schedule the Zoom meeting and make sure that the links for the meeting got sent out.

Also — and this could be inexperience, but others more experienced have told me the same thing — you do not cover as much material in an online game as you do face-to-face, in the same amount of time. I began to adjust my prep for two solid hours of play, with about an hour of slower play, as people wrestled with technology (VTT, Zoom, computer issues, etc) and having 30 min of social time at the start of the game.

Also, I find online gaming more energy-draining than face-to-face. After running a session, I feel good, emotionally, but I feel like I have expended more effort in how deliberate I have to be communicating over Zoom, as well as juggling more things on the table (VTT being one of them). 

Escapism Games FTW

My normal preferences for RPGs are dark and gritty games, with modern preferred over fantasy. During this lockdown I have been drawn towards fantasy and superheroes, favoring escapism over realism. That makes perfect sense. Now is not the time, for me, to be playing anything that is going to be sad or depressing. Right now my mental health is a “solid OK” but the distance from ok to depressed is pretty short, and there is no need to push that. Right now, fighting the forces of evil and exploring dungeons is just what I need to forget it all. Games that are funny or lighter are also appealing to me right now.

I think it’s important to realize that we are not in the same place mentally as we were before this started, and we will likely not be “going back to normal” after the lockdown is lifted. So based on where you are mentally, consider if the games you are playing help your mood or strain it. Find games that fit well with what you need and what is going to re-charge you. I have a number of more intense games I am excited about playing, but I am not in a place to play them right now. They can sit on the shelf until a time when my emotional stability is more solid.

Post-Pandemic 

Eventually, this all ends and in the short-term, there will be a new normal — and we may even get back to something that seems like pre-lockdown. What will gaming look like as the lockdown ends? I am starting to think about it and talk about it with my groups.

Return to Face-to-Face Gaming

 …hanging out with someone means hanging out with all the people they hang out with. 

At some point, we are going to be allowed to get together and game face-to-face. At first, it won’t be totally comfortable and likely come with some anxiety. Having grown up during the HIV epidemic, I learned that when you sleep with someone, it’s like sleeping with all the people they slept with. With COVID-19, hanging out with someone means hanging out with all the people they hang out with. We are going to evaluate hanging out with someone based on how safe we think they are, the precautions they are taking, and their exposure to the virus. We are going to have to come up with our own rubrics of what is comfortable for us. 

Does that person always wear a mask when they go out? Do they work somewhere with a lot of possible exposure? We are going to have to ask these questions. It will be uncomfortable, much like how asking sexual partners about their sexual history was. We will learn to ask the questions and figure out how comfortable we are. The upside will be that we are being safe, and the downside will be that bringing in outsiders to a group is going to be much harder, face-to-face. 

We are going to have to decide on what safety we want to take when we game. Are we going to wear masks? Will we want people to if they were recently sick with a cold? What about sharing snacks and beverages? Or will we just bring our own food? Our tables will look different for a time.

What About Conventions? 

I love conventions, big and small, and in the past five years I have attended 4-6 a year. But now, I have a whole new set of concerns. All the same issues I have above with my closest friends, I have to now think about with a group of strangers. 

We all know that people get each other sick at consso much so that we have a name for it — Con Crud. We all accepted that risk. Getting a head cold at the end of the con was a small price for getting to game all weekend, and spend time with friends. Getting the Con Crud was a bit of a badge of honor, and a way to get some rest after the con, before having to go back to work. But now the stakes are higher — it may not be a cold that you get for going somewhere with a large number of people, in close proximity, for an extended period of time.

The larger the con, the greater the risk. 

I know for me, going back to conventions will be tough. It is a lot of potential exposure over a prolonged time. Where I think I will be more comfortable is with smaller, personal cons, where a group of close friends attend a weekend of gaming with each other. Where everyone knows everyone else and has a comfort level for how safe and healthy they are.

Keep On Gaming

No matter what happens, I know that I will keep gaming. RPG’s have been the one constant in my life for the past 38 years. I will adapt as needed in order to keep gaming, be that playing online, or wearing masks to our first face-to-face games, etc. I will do what I need to in order to keep engaged in this hobby which has done so much for me, in terms of my mental health, friendships, etc.

Will we ever go back to conventions? Likely yes. Will it be soon? I have no idea. I look forward to a time when we can gather in person and share in our hobby, meet new people, play new games, exchange new ideas. 

How has your gaming adapted during the pandemic and lockdown? Did you have to transition to online gaming? Or were you already there? What do you think you will need to be comfortable gaming face-to-face or going to a convention?