Richard Williams of Dragonmeet, a UK-based big gaming con, reached out to me for a submission to his “What’s Hot In Indie RPGs” seminar. That con wrapped up last week, so here’s what I submitted! Annotated with links where appropriate.
The past year has been my necessary, inevitable, unwanted introduction to playing tabletop games online. After a lot of stumbling and experimenting, I came up with a good setup that uses free, easily accessible tools. Mostly what I learned was a whole new set of skills to manage this thing I’ve been doing for four decades.
After some false starts and terrible experiences, my best online roleplaying experience was running Doug Mota and Mina McJanda’s Shattered City. It’s a PbtA game in McJanda’s Legacy vein, totally over-designed and overwrought. Absurd in its complexity. We would have quit two sessions in had we played in person, but we played online and we stuck it out for months. It’s based on an obscure Italian property and I think mostly ignored, but as an artifact of pure design I recommend anyone with deep interest in PbtA games check it out. Nobody will ever attempt such an ambitious, sprawling monster in this design space again! But it is singular, brilliant, flawed, frustrating. Can’t wait to play again with new people.
In the course of wrestling Shattered City into online-playable shape, I thought about how tabletop games played online always involve compromises. Maybe mechanical, maybe social, but always square pegs in round holes. It seems inevitable that we will see RPGs built for online play.
I don’t mean tabletop games that come with nice online assets (like the FoundryVTT package for Free League’s Twilight: 2000), and I don’t mean games designed with streaming play in mind (like Quest). I mean RPGs built online-native, playing toward the strengths of the medium. You’ll know a game is online-native because someone will have to create tools to play it offline.
Current examples are thin on the ground: This Discord Has Ghosts In It, Viewscream, what else? I can’t think of any that feature long-form play. Lots of larp-adjacent play, laog as coined by Gerritt Reininghaus at Nordiclarp.org.
There are many affordances in online play you can’t easily replicate at a tabletop: shared character information, searchable/linkable media, visual/auditory resources. Computers can do randomization that humans can’t! Not just complex math, but elaborate, constantly updated interlinked tables, or metaphors for randomizers that would be either physically impossible or expensive to fabricate. Maybe online games will mean the death of dice. Finally, finally.
The big gap for me, imagining what this might look like, is forging the magic circle around online players. Right now, GM-led games played on video conferencing software centers the GM in the experience. It’s a hub and spokes, with the GM at the hub, but no rim connecting the players. The ritual of building trust and granting permission is harder. It’s frequently hard to tell who’s talking, or when to start conversation between characters. This is all solvable with will and money. It will mean building something that isn’t a virtual tabletop, and something that isn’t for webinars.
There are other social gestures that require either compromise or new methods: safety and consent violations, certainly, but even more basically all the things one does to read a table. Spotlight was an easy tool to deploy to pull bored players back into the game, but it can feel jarring and aggressive to be called out on a screen.
Games designed online-native will drive design how convention play drove indie design toward slot-length sessions, one-shots, quick-start setup, and easy to produce handouts.
It’s just barely indie but the most impressive bit of online-native-ish design I’m looking forward to is hearing how folks use the online version of Cam Banks’ Cortex Prime rules put out by Fandom. Can players read, learn and reference a complex ruleset presented in hyperlinks? Can our brains make sense of the shape of play? There are already documented concerns about children learning online. I would speculate we’re going to need to radically rethink the mechanical density and pedagogy of online-native games.
Finally, I’d speculate that branches of online play will look and feel so different as to be functionally different hobbies. The laog folks will have no patience for grinding through hundreds of wiki pages set up for Shattered City, whose players will bump up against the video-game-with-GM tactical focus of D&D on Roll20, whose players won’t make sense at all of whatever comes next.