Date Posted: 11-06-2020

Running Games Online – Getting Started

While many of you have been playing online for years, we know some are just starting out. Below, we share our tips for those who are new to running games online and we’d love if you would submit your own tips, advice and experiences over on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

We shared audio from one of Cubicle 7’s online games recently, check out WFRP Deadly Dispatch here!

Get Your Session Online

There’s nothing like sitting around a table with some friends and diving into the Old World to kick ass and take critical wounds. However, sometimes that’s just not possible. Nevertheless, it remains important to socialise and stave off cabin fever during the current global health crisis. Even in the best of times, it can be far more practical to meet online than in person. After all, who else is going to guide a cohort of hapless outcasts through a sewer full of fecund oozes and unusually tall rats, if not you?

As a GM, the majority of your role remains unchanged — you need to create an entertaining adventure that engages your players, and help everyone have a good time, yourself included! However, shifting from a physical tabletop to a digital one can present new challenges. While there are many benefits of not concerning yourself with distance, entirely novel issues can arise.

Barriers to Entry

Not all internet connections, or indeed all computers, are created equal. At a minimum a broadband connection capable of hosting voice calls with multiple participants is a necessity, and a connection capable of hosting a video call with all participants is highly recommended. Google suggests a connection speed of between 3 and 4 Mbps up and down for a group call of around 5 people, so most broadband connections are sufficient. It’s a good idea to use a physical connection to your router or modem if possible, but a strong Wi-Fi connection is usually sufficient. It’s possible to take measurements to test this in advance, but it’s often best just to make a few calls and see how the quality holds up.

Along with a good internet connection, a decent quality microphone is essential. Often the sort of mic that comes built into a laptop or tablet can sound tinny or distorted to listeners on the other end. A decent headset with a built in mic will be much better, and a dedicated external microphone better again. Try recording yourself and listening back to the audio to see how you are likely to sound to your gaming group. At the end of the day, however, the equipment you have is better than no equipment at all.

Speaking of tablets, a desktop or laptop computer is generally preferable, but a tablet can suffice as long as the screen is large enough to watch comfortably for prolonged periods. Smartphones should be used only as a last resort — it’s hard to sit and watch a phone ergonomically for 3+ hours without straining your eyes or back!

When and Where

While it may seem that online games require less work to organise than in-person games, this is not always the case. With the lack of a physical meeting location, people can sometimes take attendance a little less seriously, showing up late, or even not at all. You may also find yourself playing with people in different timezones, even more problematic at this time of year when the hours change on different days across the world. Use a calendar system, such as Google Calendars, to organise the game. That way the time will be displayed with the correct local adjustments to all players. You can also add all relevant links to the calendar entry, such a link to the voice call, the virtual tabletop you are using, etc. Set reminders for everyone the day before the game is due to take place. Much of this advice is also applicable to in-person games, but are doubly so to online games.

Finally, if you only meet semi-regularly, a polling tool such as Doodle.com can be a great way to gauge availability. That way you can see who is available when, and plan accordingly. Our advice for online games is to proceed any time the minimum number you require are free — though this is not always to every group’s liking. Even more than with in-person games, it can be difficult to get a full roster for every session of an online campaign. Don’t let the smaller player number frustrate you — treat these sessions as an opportunity to really focus in on one or two characters. Take a look at the players’ backstories and see if now is a good time to explore some of the themes you find there. Is the Character a jilted lover? Perhaps this is the session where they happen upon their rival, sobbing and alone in a local bar. Outcast Noble? Perhaps now is the time to explore why exactly they were cast out, and consider if the consequences of their once-highborn status are about to become relevant. This can be a lot of fun, and rewards players who took the time to craft an interesting backstory. Some of these sessions can be the most rewarding experiences as a GM, and it is always fun to see the Characters who were there share a knowing look, especially if it is at the expense of one of their absent companions.

Distractions

Every group is different, but some groups discourage screens at the gaming table — at least for the players! Screens are a difficult-to-ignore distraction, a fact compounded by those moments when someone just has to share an interesting tweet or meme, distracting the rest of the table as well. 

This problem is compounded in online games when every player, almost by definition, has a screen in front of them at all times. Being just one new tab away from an entire internet of cat videos, or excellent fan Discord servers, is an attractive temptation for anyone! You can request, demand, beg or threaten all you want — it is impossible to avoid this entirely. The best recourse, in our opinion, is to GM just that little bit harder than you normally would. Make it very clear that NPCs are directly asking questions of each and every Character when they speak with the group. If someone seems distracted, have an NPC ask them something pertinent. Keep NPC conversations memorable, snappy, and to the point. When planning the adventure, bear in mind what the key moments are likely to be, and try to gauge how long it will between each one. If you feel it is too long for your group to stay focused, remove something. Keep plotlines tight and to the point — this is not to say simplified, simply streamlined. Don’t be afraid to telegraph a little more to your players about which NPCs might be available for a quick chat about the break in at the local cheesemongers, or which local riff-raff have been looking especially suspicious recently. This is not cheating — it is designing for the medium. Not every novel makes a good movie, and not every eight-hour epic RPG session with snacks, drinks, and good company will survive the transition online entirely unscathed.

Give Your Players Room to Think Out Loud

At the traditional table, side conversations can happen quite spontaneously. These are often in-character and allow interested players to talk out a particular problem or dilemma without necessarily involving the entire group. Some GMs encourage this at their tables, as long as it is kept quiet enough not to distract from whatever scene they’re running at the time. On a call, this is less likely to happen, simply because there is no ‘aside’ to be had. All conversations happen at the same volume to everyone in the call, and therefore are just as distracting. You can allow side calls to occur, but this completely removes the participants from the main call, and they have to back in when needed, adding a needless extra layer of tech wrangling that often breaks the flow of a game.

The solution is to allow a little more conversation to occur between players than you normally would. Don’t do this to the point that players get bored, but if they seem to be scratching their heads, or are in need for a moment to get their bearings, don’t be afraid to stay quiet for a few minutes and let that play out naturally. While you may well need to step in to keep things moving if this gets off topic or seems to be getting nowhere, in general you should recall that your players are there to game with each other as well as with you.

Show and Tell

Continuing the theme of increasing engagement, virtual tabletops, discussed below, present a great opportunity to use interesting graphics, handouts, maps, and more. Some platforms support shared audio as well, so you can play some background bustle for a busy market, or music and soft conversations for a scene that takes place at an inn, or intense techno music during combat. This can be a great way to give players who are not active in the current scene something to look over. All the usual techniques used to create player handouts apply here, with the added bonus that you don’t have to print them. getPaint.net springs to mind as being both free and useful, but there exists a bevy of tools online to create newspaper headlines, scrolls, parchment, maps, and more. Most allow you to export a .jpg or .pdf that can be used with most virtual tabletops, or simply emailed to players who find them. 

We would advise, however, that you don’t sink too much time into this. It’s possible to get somewhat carried away by the available options, and before long you have a hand crafted map of a three-story inn, a custom set of counters for the PCs and NPCs, a playlist of music to run through as the mood of the inn changes, and a sound effect to go with every spell the necromancer posing as a barmaid might cast. This is not only a lot of extra work for you to set up, it can actually prove to be a distraction on the night, especially if things don’t work right the first time you try them. Leave this kind of thing until you are more confident with your platform of choice. 

When playing WFRP, a map is often essential only for long-distance travel and for certain detailed buildings or tunnel systems. In general combat works really well without the need for models or precise locations. Background music can be nice, but if you deliver your descriptions in a direct and engaging way, it will not be missed. A lovingly crafted three-page handout is great, but spending that same time thinking of plot twists that tie into each of the Character’s backgrounds will cause much more delight and bring the world to live far more convincingly.

What are Virtual Tabletops?

Up to now we’ve been mainly talking in generalities, and we’ve only briefly mentioned what software you might like to use to run your game. While all you really need is a decent voice or video call, there are solutions tailor made for roleplaying games, and which add quite a bit more flexibility. Virtual tabletops (VTTs) are just what they sound like — a simulation that aims to capture, and in most cases expand upon, the functionality of your typical gaming table. They require the players to log in to a server or website, usually having them to sign up using an email address or to enter some server settings, and provide a shared space to look at maps, models and more.

Most VTTs have some kind of mapping solution built in, and many feature additions such as sound effects, token packs to represent NPCs and players, and more. Some provide their own voice system for communications, while others assume you will make use of Skype, Google Hangouts, or similar to fill that role. While quite a few require or recommend paid subscriptions, many offer a free tier of membership that provides all the functionality that a typical gaming group might need. Other features, such as the ability to script NPCs or events, customise character sheets or statistics, and the availability of game rules and expansions for purchase are beyond the scope of this article.

Roll20.net

Roll20 supports a wide range of games and offers built in Google Hangouts support, displays a map of the current location, supports music and sound effects, and allows for a good deal of GM customisation. The VTT presents the options for both a subscription for advanced features, and the possibility of buying a lot of content directly from Roll20.net.

Fantasy Grounds

Fantasy Grounds is another popular virtual tabletop supporting a wide range of systems. This one requires an installer to use and, depending on what you want from a VTT, may require a subscription.

Maptool

A slightly different solution, Maptool is a client-side program rather than it’s own website. This has some benefits — it’s arguably more reliable as it doesn’t depend on third party hosting — but requires more configuration on your end. Maptool sports a number of interesting features for a completely free platform.

Share your tips and advice!

Why not head over to our Facebook or Twitter page and let us know how your online games are going? Did you recently switch to playing online during COVID?

Whether you’re just starting out or you have always run your games online, we’d love to hear how you are getting on!

If you’re looking for some inspiration for your games, why not browse our webstore – *all RPG orders include a PDF so you can get started straight away! We now offer many titles for sale in PDF only format too! There’s also some great free resources on our website here.

*Excludes The One Ring™ and Adventures in Middle-earth™ titles – these no longer include a PDF.

Best of luck!

Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd. © Copyright Games Workshop Limited 2020