Laidback DM: Virtual Tabletops and The FTF gamer.

So, you’ve never played D&D or your preferred role playing game online before? Now’s the perfect time to do it.

I was a virtual tabletop virgin. All my games were face-to-face (FTF) and the idea of playing a game specifically designed for FTF social contact on a computer didn’t appeal to me at all. I enjoy being with my players in the same room—the sights, smells, the interaction—and the joint feeling of community that brings. Then the pandemic hit, and many of us were socially isolated to prevent the spread of the virus (and despite the opening up of many countries and industries, many of us will continue to stay in isolation). So, I decided to wet my feet in the online gaming ocean via Roll20 and Discord (there are many virtual tabletop applications, such as Fantasy Grounds and Astral Tabletop, but I’m going to limit my comments to the platforms I’ve used).

When I first started DMing online with one of my regular FTF groups, not everyone had PCs (astounding, I know). We used Discord and I displayed maps and tokens in Photoshop, screen sharing with my players. Eventually everyone migrated to Roll20 and we continue to use Discord for audio (as Roll20’s servers don’t always handle audio/video that well).

Role playing online isn’t so different from role playing in the same room. If you use video you can still see everyone’s reactions (but never take your Discord/video link on a phone into the toilet with you. Especially if you forget the video is still on). If you just use audio you can generally still pick up enough vocal nuance to know how players are responding/reacting.

The benefits of online tabletops include access to a larger and more diverse player base and a broad range and style of games from all over the world. There is less chance of having too few players for a game as you can set your game to allow players to drop in at a moment’s notice (not everyone will like this function as it may impact on player continuity, however it can be useful to maintain regular game impetus). You get to interact with players with a broader range of skillsets and experiences. You have the opportunity to build a new circle of contacts and possibly access your ideal player group, one that’s suited to your ideal style of gaming. You can also easily drop games or players who don’t suit your play style.

The biggest downside of the virtual tabletop is also the bane of online computer games—bandwidth and dropout. Some countries have great internet infrastructure, others don’t. Some players have better connections, some have better computer hardware and headsets. No matter how good all the tech is, drop out can happen at any time. Dropout is where a player’s game is affected by significant lag or loss of audio/video. Communication is vital in any game, and having players dropout or their audio dropping so low no one can hear them reduces the quality of the play experience. As a result you as a DM need to be constantly aware of volume levels and interactivity, even more so than in an FTF game. And at their worst a game can be called off due to poor internet connection/PC issues.

I currently play 20-22 hours per week online (some of this is work related, as I’m a full time RPG product designer and run product play tests). All of this is as a result of the current pandemic, and I’m sure when it’s all over I’ll probably go back to a smaller amount of FTF games. But online will remain an attractive option. Now, I find myself wanting to play a more diverse range of RPGs because I have the option to use international players rather than being limited to my home town (where non-D&D players are few and far between).

Covid-19 has had a tragic and horrible impact on so many. Those of us who are only marginally affected can learn to grow from our experiences, in ways we might never have previously imagined. If you haven’t done so, why not try out virtual tabletop gaming? You may never look back.

Game on!

Steve 🙂

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