The Slow, Weird Return To In-Person Play

Now that most of my local players are fully vaccinated, we’re slowly dipping our toes back into in-person play. And it is so weird and fraught.

I can’t stop thinking about all the stuff I learned to make roleplaying happen during the pandemic: video play, character keepers, Miro, screen sharing, dice rollers. I’ve developed a ton of skills in the one type of play I swore I was gonna fight tooth and nail. And here I am, a more-than-competent (I think!) online roleplayer. Now I’m thinking about the stuff that’s better online than in-person, and how I might adapt those techniques to in-person play.

Side Chats and Shared Screens

Parallel communication channels are an affordance I didn’t know I’d enjoy. Chat windows, shared Pinterest board, fun tricks with screen-sharing and voice modulation software — all stuff that’ll be effectively impossible to recreate at a table. Online play requires a lot of different kinds of work, and sometimes GMing online feel more like producing a TV show than facilitating an intimate social experience. I like it so much, though, that I’m thinking about whether a cheap flatscreen in my gaming space and a tablet to sync with it would be good, or distracting. No idea, and too expensive to try as an experiment. I could always try with a tablet, I suppose.

I’ve always hated screens at the table, so it’ll be interesting to see how habitual/fidgety players are gonna be with their phones when we can see each other. I won’t be able to sneak a peek at Twitter any more but that’s for the best.

Character Keepers and other Shared Information

If there’s one killer app in online play for me, it’s character keepers: shared character sheets, typically organized and at least partially automated in Google Sheets. I love being able to see most or all of everyone’s mechanical stuff in one place. Besides character sheets, you can also list all of a game’s moves, or equipment lists, a tab of NPCs with pictures, playbooks…the sky’s the limit and folks are constantly expanding on the concept. I’ve talked about character keepers here before. Tough to replicate at a table without introducing a tablet or laptop to the table, and that’s not a vibe I’m eager to bring.

In a shallow way, character keepers serve a similar function to name tents at a table. For at least some of my online players, keepers have been a bit overwhelming for them and they’d rather just focus on their own stuff. I’ll experiment with larger name tents, I think, where we can all see more stuff I want everyone to be aware of at the table. You can only fit so much on an index card! And everyone’s eyes are getting older. Maybe a GM screen type thing but in reverse, with everyone’s stuff aimed outward at me (and their totally not cheaty rolls hidden from my view).

I used to always do up a short cheat sheet of any new game I was about to run, as a way to learn and solidify the system. Creating a character keeper serves a similar function in my brain, with the added challenge of information design: should I put the “important” stuff higher, and what’s “important” anyway? How do I group related details? What elements can I leave off the keeper? What can I automate and how does the math actually work? Can I pretty it up without making it distracting?

Another tool I’ve enjoyed is using Miro to manage my relationship maps in real time. I don’t use a template, just a blank screen, but the fact the software reroutes connecting lines and allows you to label those lines? Pretty great. If I were more facile with my iPad + Pencil setup, I could do some very neat theatrics with in-person relationship mapping on the tablet. Since theatrics are, in my opinion, more than half the point of the r-map this is probably an area worth practicing.

What I think I’ll miss is building new Pinterest boards for quick screen-sharing purposes. No reason I couldn’t put that on a tablet, and I’ve met several players at conventions who keep big pin boards full of character art. But every time I put more stuff on a screen, that’s more screen time at the table. My intuition says that’s Bad, Actually but that might not be true. Another experiment I suppose.

Convenience and Shorter Sessions

Zoom can be hard on your brain, eyes, and body. My normal in-person tempo has always been 4-hour sessions, which is easy to break up as folks get antsy or uncomfortable, need to pee, refresh drinks, all that. But there’s that focused thing that happens when you’re on screen, and four hours feels interminable. I settled on 3-ish hour sessions, and honestly they felt great. It also was a little easier to meta-prep enough stuff for three hours of focused play.

Shorter sessions, combined with no commute time, is gonna be hard to give up. I really liked being able to just turn everything off, brush my teeth, and go to bed. Very nice. Gonna have to see if my new 3-hour tempo sticks.

The other thing about the convenience of online play is that it was so easy to pull together games from the whole wide world of players. Heck, I even ran an online con for my Slack folks, and got to meet a ton of folks I would not have been able to, probably even if cons were still live.

Unlearning Hypervigilance

Live long enough and hopefully you learn that every positive character trait can also be negative. One of the things I’m “best” at is table management: I’m very sensitive to engagement, energy level, reactions to input. I’m a pleaser. I give until it hurts. And sometimes it does! Lord knows, I have frequently brought games to a close (probably) too soon because I took the temperature of the table and found it tepid.

Turns out that’s been a mistake.

My home group played several games during our lockdown: The Nightmares Underneath (our learning game, wrong choice for our group before we knew how to play online), Imp of the Perverse, Shattered City, and Vaesen. Shattered City lasted a ton of sessions, much longer than I expected — I wrote a big wrapup deep-dive of it, made possible only because we stuck it out for so long. I’m certain that playing Shattered City online, and maintaining the vast trove of documentation that comes with it, is why it lasted as long as it did.

The flipside is that I’m hypervigilant in person. The screen makes it so I can’t quite pick up the cues I normally would. As a result, I mother-hen everyone less than I would in person. Real talk though? Reducing my hypervigilance is a change I need to bring to the table. I need to learn to ignore non-urgent cues that might normally derail the game. Tough balance to reach. Safety awareness needs to stay, panicking when someone rolls their eyes at my cheesy description needs to go.

Another factor I’ve seen is that the players are less engaged, which is good when play gets contentious. I’ve seen many moments in play where something that might have triggered an in-person argument just fizzles out because negative vibes don’t transmit through a camera. The downside of course is that it’s been really hard for my players to engage with each other the way they will at a table. It often feels like most interactions are GM-to-player, because player-to-player is hard to signal. Players actually talking and signaling to each other is going to be nice to return to.

Still A Long Way To Go

As of May 2021, our local, specific pandemic situation is pretty good, not great: 30-some percent full immunizations, 5.5% positivity in our county this week and creeping back to “high.” At one point not too long ago, my county had the highest rate of infection in the world.

Not everyone in my group is immunized yet. Combined with differing personal values and health situations, there’s some weirdness around who gets included and excluded, who attends and whose attendance forces awkward choices. I’m not browbeating anyone, but even that lack of browbeating is weird! It’s weird all the way down.

On the technical side, having to learn my way around online play has made me acutely aware of focusing my techniques for in-person play. Building and testing a character keeper is a lot more work than typing up a cheat sheet, so that taught me to be more mindful about what players actually need in terms of documentation and information sharing. Managing real-time changes to relationship maps is super fun and flashy, but it’s also resulted in losing track of old relationships and situations, something paper is naturally better for. Online shared dice rollers are fun but I also learned you should just trust folks to report their own rolls. Mostly, here a year-and-some into my online play, I’ve learned to pare back as much as possible, and that paring differs by game and by players.

On the emotional side, I’ve learned I miss in-person conventions much more than I thought I would. Those are still a long ways off. Maybe 2022? Hopefully? I read recently that we’re probably not going to get to herd immunity in the US, and we’ll just end up with a manageable cold/flu/COVID season and boosters. It doesn’t have to be that way though. I hope more folks will take their responsibilities as seriously as their rights.

5 thoughts on “The Slow, Weird Return To In-Person Play”

    1. I’ve written about them extensively! Click through the link in the article, it takes you to really detailed piece I did.

  1. What I’ll miss the most is my own notes in evernote, neatly organized, tagged and really great for keeping track of it all.

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