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THE ONLINE EDITION: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

mistakes [1]If you’ve been running online games for any length of time, well, you may have made a few missteps along the way. At least I have. Some were the kind of mistakes that any GM could make, and some were more particular to online games. So this column will be kind of a GM’s examination of conscience. Don’t worry, it won’t be a cringe-inducing tell-all. Just a chance to look at some major lessons I’ve learned over the years, and hopefully to provide you with some food for thought. Here’s some things I’ve learned:

As a group of adults, we danced around our busy schedules for a few years. We’d shift the day of the week or the starting time to try to get EVERYONE there. In trying to accomodate everyone, we just created chaos. One player eventually left the group partially because of the varying days and times.

We don’t do that anymore. We run on Thursdays and if people have to miss a week or so because of other commitments, that just happens. If too many people are out, we skip that week. Unfortunately accomodating everyone is just not realistic. (As an aside, I’d also recommend you keep sessions to a reasonable length for working adults. 2-3 hours weekly or bi-weekly is probably a reasonable commitment.)

When I first started running, I would run EVERY week, afraid that if we had a gap I would lose my players. That’s a recipe for burnout, and you also need to make sure you are maintaining the non-gaming part of your life as well. On the other side of the screen, I suspect some players would come on weeks when they really shouldn’t have, perhaps afraid that they would lose their spots.

These days I will sometimes run 2 or 3 weeks in a row, but I always schedule at least one or two weeks off a month. While gaming can be an escape from everyday drudgery, you don’t want it to turn into drudgery itself.

Sometimes when you have a tight group of three or four people, it can get comfortable. The trouble is that folks can’t make it every session, and sometimes people have to step back temporarily or permanently. It’s not you (more below), it’s just life.

Now I try to have between 5-6 players at all times. If someone has to leave the group indefinitely, I ask around and try to fill their slot. Early on, finding online players was a little more difficult. The technology and experience was new. However, now it is a much more mainstream way to game, and getting people to try it is much easier. (Even one of my sports-nuts friends has mentioned trying to sit in on a session.) Five to six players means that even with cancellations, you will generally have at least three people at most sessions. For me, that’s a nice number to run through a scenario. I wouldn’t go any higher than six, because sometimes the audio quality gets dodgy with too many people in the conversation.

The rise of social media has certainly spilled over into the gaming community. Some of your players will like a lot of between session chatting, others won’t. Don’t take it personally. Some of my players rarely communicate with me between sessions, but still show up regularly. They are there for the game and not the peripherals. Again, having a critical mass of players helps in this regard. If you like a lot of between session banter, at least one or two folks will be up for it.

This isn’t original with me or unique to online gaming. But it is still good advice. For the most part, you should avoid too many campaign reboots, rules changes, or genre switches in your regular game. It’s much better to work around any quirks in your particular rules system (or post some house rules) than to ask folks to change editions or systems frequently.

Now, some groups may be fine with an occasional one-off in another system or genre. In general though, if you’re dying to run something different, you may want to just run it at a different time and send out a general invite to your social group. While your regular players may want to play, they won’t feel obligated to play something they are not interested in.

Obviously these aren’t the only mistakes I’ve ever made as an online GM. (Ask my players, I bet they have a list!). But I suspect that having a reliable game, with a consistent ruleset, and being understanding with your players will go a long way. You too can be an online GM for fun and profit. Well, for fun anyway.

What did I miss? What needs a little more detail? Fill us in below.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "THE ONLINE EDITION: Lessons Learned the Hard Way"

#1 Comment By Sabrina On August 3, 2015 @ 1:35 am

I really liked your last point about wanting to try something different. I’ve been running almost exclusively superheroes games my entire gaming experience. Lately I’ve been itching to run something else, especially Paranoia. I’ve casually brought up the game to one of my groups, but they’re not biting. One of my players said he would play if everyone else wanted to, and another repeated the sentiment. The third player didn’t seem too excited about it, but I could tell that if I “forced” them they would give it a try. It was really hard to resit dumping the game on them despite their reservations, but Paranoia isn’t the sort of game that would go over well half-heartedly. So I gave up and let them be.

I had been wondering about trying my Roll20 group, but I’m starting to wonder if maybe trying to force my current players into a new genre is the wrong approach. I’m sure I can find a group of people who just want to do something short, and after I’ve found a couple players I can invite my other friends to join us without as much pressure.

Loved the article, and thanks for the advice!

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On August 3, 2015 @ 4:19 am

You might try bringing it up to the group, but asking them to RSVP privately. That way they won’t feel like they are the ones causing any strife. I once tried a Star Trek one-shot trying to recruit outside the regular group, though I only had two players take the bait. Maybe try both:

“I’m runnning “BLANK” at a different day and time. Anyone is welcome to attend, but I’ll be advertizing outside to fill out the slots.”

Just a thought.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On August 4, 2015 @ 10:08 am

On don’t take it personally… yes, between session involvement will vary dramatically between people, often without any correlation to how much they enjoy the game. It’s easy to feel that people’s involvement matches their excitement, but sometimes it just reflects work schedules.

Keeping the same day and time is one I’ve learned over the years. A one-week deviation can work (since it’s a long weekend, do we want to meet on Tuesday instead of Monday?), but it’s better to keep it predictable and reliable.

#4 Comment By Nerdarchy On August 6, 2015 @ 10:33 pm

I feel like were in a Digital Gaming Renaissance with recorded game sessions actually being entertainment to a fair number of gaming folks. One other “not being distracted by the shiny” point I’d add is unless you’re super well-versed with all the tools a site like Roll20 gives you, don’t try to put a ton of bells and whistles in your game. If you get too bogged down in the images of this and sound effects for that and aren’t smoothly transitioning into it, it’s detracting from your game rather than adding to it.
Thanks for the read,
Nerdarchist Ryan

#5 Comment By wildcode On August 7, 2015 @ 2:59 am

Thanks for a great read!

Some pieces of my experience with online gaming in our latest campaign.

We concluded Hoard of the Dragon Queen in June this year and we started in November 2014. I was (is) running a group of six players, all of whom I know in person more or less.

As we don’t live close by we choose to use Roll20 as a tool for gaming and google+ groups and google hangouts as a communication tool.

Roll20 have great sheets for DnD and when you master the macros everything runs smoothly!

As mentioned earlier we have also seen the benefits of having a recurring weekday (Tuesday in our case) and on top of that a strict time slot schedule:

20:30-20:45 Get online and into the chat
20:45-21:00 Recap of last session (by whom is decided from dice roll)
21:00-22:30 Prime Time gaming
22:30-23:00 Wrapping up and introducing the cliffhanger

As you can se we have a fairly short gaming time; but it has worked very well and as all players has children, spouses and work that intervene with the hobby, this limitations have helped the group to be able to show up almost every session.

The upside is that if some player misses one session, they don’t miss a lot.

The downside is that a short game time obviously have made the campaign quite lengthy.

Of course there have been slight deviations in timing, but a clear and consistent schedule have helped us immensely.

I am now preparing The Rise of Tiamat, and lessons learned is that I will read through the WHOLE adventure at least once before game start and prepare all episodes in Roll20 (I often make one page per session). Also by investing in the existing digital downloadable maps have saved a lot of time in preparation.

But I agree that you shouldn’t overdo it; it is supposed to be fun and not work.

Thanks for a great site!

#6 Comment By John Fredericks On August 7, 2015 @ 3:57 am

Thanks for the kind words and great observations. And I agree that you don’t need all the roll20 bells and whistles. Managing an online game is a LOT harder than I think people know, especially until you really get used to it.

Enjoy the online gaming folks!