It’s Only Kinky the First Time

Prior to the stay-at-home orders of the past couple months, I had never played a tabletop RPG online. I blame a combination of fear and snobbery: I already hated seeing myself on screen and hearing myself on podcast recordings, and I didn’t want to have to adapt my beautiful and perfect skillset (ha). It always seemed like a compromise, something almost as good but not the real thing. Non-alcoholic beer, sexting, the Lord of the Rings movies.

Well, given a lockdown of uncertain duration, I had to either get off my ass and learn things or set gaming aside for a few months. So I got off my ass.

I’ve been running Adrian Thoen’s Impulse Drive online for my regular in-person Tuesday game group for a couple months now, and I’ve learned a lot. We have a long way to go and so much more to learn – I’m constantly bugging Gauntlet superstar Rich Rogers for advice – but I’ve picked some stuff up. If you’re facing a similar plight (or want to know more about Impulse Drive!), read on.

The First Time Is (Never) Magical

I’m grateful I started playing online with a game I had less investment in. Our first go was The Nightmares Underneath, an interesting OSR/PbtA hybrid fantasy game from Space Wurm vs Moonicorn designer Johnstone Metzger. I like his aesthetic! And I’ve had good luck with a couple OSR and OSR-adjacent games in the past, specifically Kevin Crawford’s Godbound and Stars Without Number. Heck, I even occasionally run a B/X game for my daughter.

Well, The Nightmares Underneath didn’t work out for us. It’s got a lot of weird bespoke systems, but more importantly I was also learning my way around Zoom and staring at myself on camera and juggling shared screens. But it was a chance for me and my players, only one of whom had ever played online before, to figure stuff out. It lasted a session but the experience was invaluable.

Here’s what I’ve put together so far.

Character Keepers

I had no idea what a Character Keeper was until Rogers introduced me to the Gauntlet’s vast library. The very short version: they’re shared Google Sheet documents to track character data. That’s it. But spreadsheets are a whole realm of document I know next to nothing about. I had no idea they could be so pretty! And functional, holy cow. There are some character keepers – like the one we’re using for Impulse Drive – that do so much behind-the-scenes math and interactivity they’re practically apps.

One of about a dozen tabs with everything we could ever need to run our game.

The longer version is that character keepers have evolved into campaign managers, with tabs for every kind of data you could imagine: NPCs, locations, timelines, whatever. My players have enjoyed having everything at their fingertips – and each other’s character data specifically – that we’re thinking about how to replicate this at the table. I don’t love screens at the table but it’s something I might go for.

One fact my total reliance on the character keeper has highlighted is that I need to be mindful of the range of players’ setups at home. I have three screens (ridiculous, I know) and a rocket-fast gigabit connection, but I’ve also got players on laptops with sketchy wifi. So I’m trying hard to keep things simple on their end, no matter how elaborate my setup is here.

…But Also Paper

I tried following the advice of my gaming bestie Mad Jay Brown, who uses Trello to manage his various online campaigns, specifically Into The Mad Lands. He’s a (literal) pro at this! But he’s also accustomed to using Trello for project management in his non-gaming life. His brain works in a Trello-compatible way. Mine does not.

I still use a notepad and paper to track stuff in the game. On occasion I move my notes to a shared Google Docs file. Different games might need different management tools, so I’m still on the lookout for one that might work for me. Paper and pencil is a tough form factor to beat, though.

Zoom (Or Something Like It)

I know the pandemic has shoved several videoconferencing platforms into the mainstream, but Zoom is the platform I settled on. Why Zoom? Mostly because people I know and respect with tons of online play experience are happy with it.

I’ve been using Zoom for a couple months now and it’s good. The company had some squicky privacy policies they were forced to address early because of the explosion of civilian videoconferencing, but the audio and video have been bulletproof.

I also love the shared whiteboard functionality of Zoom. There are lots of similar free-standing solutions out there – Jamboard, Kumo, Padlet, Miro – but I like that it’s already right there, ready to be used. I purchased an inexpensive drawing tablet so I can doodle more naturally. Excellent tool when I need it. It’s a fairly robust drawing program (freehand, shapes, text, colors, pen widths and colors, all that) that exports a .png when you close. You can even run multiple whiteboard pages at once. If I could share and import whiteboards from previous sessions it would be ideal. Maybe it can, and I haven’t figured out how yet.

Sharing Screens

The Abyss! Aieee!

Besides the whiteboard/drawing tablet thing, I’ve fallen in love with sharing visual aids. I’ve got a Pinterest board where I dump inspirational images, for one. There’s a move in Impulse Drive called “Into the Abyss” that’s very similar to “Open Your Brain” from Apocalypse World, for example, and every time a player invokes it I share this marvelously spooky animation while the move plays out. I also have carefully “cast” dozens of NPCs, which helps me characterize. I share images to set the mood for locations, to show off alien artifacts, kind of everything I think might come up in a session. I haven’t tried sharing audio files yet, and it seems like more trouble than it’s worth, but I might!

I lost the theatrics of drawing a big sprawling relationship map but image-sharing has mostly made up for it.

Shared Dice

This one’s a matter of taste: As a practical matter, I know many experienced online gamers prefer to just let players roll dice at home. I really like the theatrics and tension of everyone watching dice roll, though! So we’ve been using Shane Liebling‘s rollforyour.party, a free and very handy site that generates a unique URL each time you open it. Share that URL with your players and boom, you’ve got shared dice. No clatter or animation, but I still like to see the results.

Shorter, More Structured Sessions

The big surprise for me was how exhausting videoconferencing is. I’ve never had to do it professionally. My wife does, and she has to take big breaks after her hour-long slogs. Well, our first and only session of The Nightmares Underneath was a full four hours! A combination of excitement that we were actually doing the thing, and getting to see all my friends again for the first time in a couple weeks, made me drag it out too long. Bad idea. I also forgot to account for potty breaks.

Combined with struggles with an unfamiliar system, I just felt wrecked and frustrated afterward. One of my players, who spends many hours a day on Zoom professionally, asked that we back it down to three hours with a bio-break around the halfway point.

The shorter session has been really good for play quality, I think. I start the meeting 30 minutes early so folks can log in when they want and shoot the shit. Then it’s time to focus on play. I have the clock in my face at all times, so I can adjust the tempo and scene-setting more carefully. I don’t let scenes run too long, while also making the scene (hopefully) more specific and framed: here’s where you are, here’s what’s going on, who’s there, who’s joining you? When we’re at a live table, I often let scenes meander and breathe a bit. Mostly that’s good, and we don’t notice because it’s not exhausting. They might get bored, but that’s a different issue.

Clearer Social Signals

The other skill I had to learn fast was clarifying who I’m talking to at all times. Literally everyone on the screen is seeing the same thing when I talk, right? They can’t tell who I’m looking at. I’m embarrassed to say how many times this came up: I’m looking right at Jason but somehow everyone thinks I’m talking to them. Dumb!

There’s so much missing bandwidth when you’re online, right? No meaningful body language. No directing my voice and face toward specific players. The very slight delay between video and audio throws me off all the time. It’s hard to feel the table, you know? So we’ve all learned to be much more explicit. This also has highlighted an ongoing issue at my table, where one player character will zip off to do something on their own, and neither I nor the other players will think to contrive a reason for other PCs to be there. Because I’m already having to direct my cues toward specific players, it seems a lot easier to remember to ask who else is there, if anyone wants to tag along, and so on.

Next week, I’ll go into depth about Impulse Drive and how it’s working out as our first successful online campaign.

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