Roll with the punches

Role playing online during the pandemic

Go, go, plucky space hamster

It’s fair to say that living with Covid-19 has been at least a DC 30 challenge.

Our gaming groups went from a familiar and enjoyable routine of meeting weekly in our local games cafe, to being in lockdown with no predicted exit. The shock was immediate, felt most sharply amongst the players of our three-year D&D 5e campaign that had thrived on my ability as DM to ‘read the room’ and respond to the players’ body language, expressions and other social cues.

It was also felt by our fortnightly Call of Cthulhu Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign, where the machinations of the Great Old Ones were tracked via a combination of copious note-taking, physical handouts and, once again, me as Keeper being able to spot and react to a player looking confused or lost.

But lockdown happened, and despite assurances from some ill-advised official quarters that it would “all be over by Easter”, we began to discuss how we could keep our games going without the ability to meet face-to-face (and share bowls of skinny fries & mayo…)

Enter Roll20

Down at the graveyard

I’d used Roll20 before the pandemic, mainly as a platform to run a couple of ‘extra’ games that I managed to fit in between my regular sessions. It was good, but no substitute for face-to-face, so by the time lockdown hit in March 2020, I hadn’t used it for at least a year.

Now, it (and other VTTs like Foundry and Astral) was the only substitute. After some Discord chat and coordination of diaries, logins and laptops, my three main groups agreed that we would make the virtual switch. Though we all understood the reasons for lockdown and were all supportive of it, we were giving up enough as it was – we would not give up our gaming …

And … it worked.


Making the shift

We lost a Cthulhu player whose social anxiety around speaking through a microphone was too much for them to conquer. We understood, we sadly parted ways. We recruited another player and carried on, but it wasn’t quite the same.

Miraculously, our 3 year D&D campaign managed to finish on Roll20 several weeks later. The climax was memorable and fitting for such an epic storyline, but I still wish I’d been there to deliver it in person, to gauge the room and to interpret the cues that meant we weren’t all talking over each other during the delivery of a pathos-laden line of dialogue or two.

I also started two new games that have never been played face-to-face: a Starfinder campaign to scratch that ‘space opera‘ itch, and a Pathfinder 2 one to scratch that ‘new game, want to play it now‘ itch. Both are well underway now, and we’re having a blast with both of them.

But they’re not perfect.

Plus points

Keeping track of all the stats so you don’t have to … a major plus point

Being able to use attractive colour battlemaps, either bought as part of a Roll20 module or created with the marvellous Dungeon Fog is great. It takes a lot of the work out of prepping for combats that face-to-face sessions used to entail, and helps make online games run smoother. Use of tokens also removes the need to carry round a bag of assorted miniatures too, and helps speed set up and play a great deal.

As do the Roll20 character sheets, many of which do a lot of the complicated (well, complicated to me) maths required to work out damage and hit bonuses and the like.

It’s a great platform for speeding up play, even though the thrill of watching a calculated number appear on screen is nothing compared to watching a fistful of dice clunk around a tabletop before coming to a highly-anticipated stop …

One certain advantage of Roll20 is that now the location of my players doesn’t matter. One is in London. Another is in South Africa. Playing with them would obviously not be possible face-to-face, so using Roll20 (and Discord) has ensured that my far-flung playmates are still at the (virtual) table.

The negatives

As a DM, I have my work cut out keeping my players interested at the best of times. Face-to-face, it was easy to spot any disinterest creeping in, and players knew to keep their phone use to a minimum for fear of being seen as rude.

Online, I have the entirety of the internet competing for my attention. It’s obvious when players aren’t giving the game full attention and it’s all too tempting (even for me) to tab off to another browser window to check Twitter or that latest exciting tidbit of news.

Awkward silences as players realise they’re being asked about something they weren’t listening to; tell-tale background noises; memes being shared on Discord at inopportune moments … I can’t blame the players for not giving the game their undivided attention, but it sure happens a lot more online than it does face-to-face. Virtual games are less of an ‘event’ and more of an ‘appointment’ – and whose attention hasn’t wandered during a work Zoom meeting …?

Aside from the aforementioned lack of tactile elements to the game, there is also the sense of not being in the same physical space as other people. Face-to-face gaming was great fun, even the peripheral activities like nipping upstairs for food together, or popping outside with another player at break time for a casual vaping session. All those things added up to shared sense of occasion, and made it easier to forge and cement friendships. Something that’s certainly a lot harder to do online – there are even two players in my Pathfinder game that I’ve never actually even seen (we play with video off), let alone met…

What does the future hold?

Back to real handouts, rulebooks and dice …

It finally looks like we might be coming out of lockdown, albeit in what everyone is now referring to as ‘the new normal’.

The games cafe has fortunately survived lockdown, as have a couple of other gaming-friendly venues about town. There is a sense amongst the local gamer community that we are poised for a return to face-to-face gaming.

Most of me can’t wait, for all the reasons mentioned above (especially the skinny fries & mayo).

But I can’t deny a part of me will miss Roll20 and the games I’ve been running there. I’ll miss the ease of setup and speed of play, and the ability to have most things at my fingertips in the platform’s rules compendium.

But I’m looking forward to the shared collaborative storytelling that really only shines face-to-face, as well as the sense of occasion and social aspect of all being in the same place together. Laughing at each other’s t-shirts (or haircuts), marvelling over a player’s latest dice acquisitions, looking another player in the eye as I tell them their favourite NPC has betrayed them. All priceless stuff which I’m looking forward to getting back to immensely.

But I will keep at least one game going on Roll20. The South African player is in my Starfinder game, and she’s a friend as well as a player. Plus she’s playing a ysoki with grenades in her cheek pouches. I’m not losing her, or her character. So even when lockdown is truly over, my Roll20 subscription will continue.

Thinking about it, and the positives and negatives I’ve already mentioned, I’ll actually have the best of both worlds.

And still be running a game with a space hamster in it.

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