As I sit down to type this, basically the entire world is in at least a limited state of lockdown. The COVID-19 virus is sweeping across the world, and countries are all taking steps to attempt to limit the spread and “flatten the curve” of the virus. It’s an unprecedented and surreal time. It’s also deeply isolating, and especially for extroverts, that can be a very difficult thing.
And while we can’t do anything about the virus, we have some fairly extensive experience gaming online using various tools. It’s not quite as cool as gaming in person – you don’t get to share food and so on – but it’s better than not gaming at all, and it also allows you to be very selective about who you game with in ways that a physical game does not. Not to put too fine a point on it, but between the two gaming groups I’m in, I game with people in the South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Florida, California, and Canada from my computer in Illinois. That’s pretty cool. In other words, while the timing of this post is absolutely related to COVID-19, that’s not the only thing making it relevant.
We will also be releasing a bonus episode on this and once we do, this blog post will be updated to link to it.
The Gaming Group
Obviously, you basically can’t play TTRPGs without at least one other person (though I did see a tool designed to let you GM for yourself on Kickstarter at some point) and even if you manage that, you’ll still be isolated. With that in mind, you have two basic options: move an existing in-person group online or start a new one.
Moving an existing group online is probably the easiest way to go if you’ve got one formed already. In that case, you already have scheduling, group dynamics, and probably even an existing game going and all you have to transfer is the location – from someone’s home or a public place to the internet. Read on for details.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t have an existing group. In that case, it’s time to start recruiting! I would personally recommend drawing on pools of people you already know to be largely trustworthy. My Sunday group currently consists of another geek ministry podcaster I knew from a Slack I’m in with a bunch of others, two folks recruited from the StG Discord community, and a friend from my Saturday game group. When the Saturday game group was being formed, we initially all knew each other from the Fear the Boot community. Think about internet friends you have that you either know are gamers or are into other gamer-adjacent things such as video games, anime, comic books, and so on. Wayne from Fear the Boot had never played a TTRPG until Chad convinced him to try it and he took to the hobby immediately. The friend of mine that overlaps the Saturday and Sunday groups is the same way, and she’s taken to it with equal speed and enthusiasm.
Scheduling is going to be difficult unless you’re all stuck at home in a quarantine. As a good general rule, I prefer to game with people no more than two time zones away in either direction, but I have that luxury because the time zone here in Illinois is literally called “Central.” The further away everyone is, the more difficult scheduling becomes, but it’s still not impossible. I recorded an episode of Min/Max with them while Allen and Ashley were still in Scotland.
Speaking of scheduling, if it’s really getting thorny, there are a lot of tools for that online. The maker of one such tool put out a blog post that includes their own offering as wall as 19(!) of their competitors. You can find that here.
Depending on what type of game you’re running, your software needs are going to vary, but hardware is relatively constant. You’ll need a device that can do VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) calls and possibly a virtual tabletop. A computer (desktop or laptop) is probably the best thing to have, but phones and tablets will do in a pinch, especially if they’re higher-end ones.
You’ll want some audio gear that isolates sound into your ears (a headset or ear buds that are comfortable to wear for several hours) and a microphone, which can be integrated into your headset or webcam or a standalone one like we use for podcasting. As long as it transmits sound clearly, you’re good there.
If you and your group all have stable and fast internet connections, a webcam can be a nice enhancement – being able to see one another and take those verbal cues is tremendously valuable for the flow of gaming if you can manage it. If you can’t, though, all is not lost! Jenny’s internet connection can’t sustain audio and video at the same time and we’ve been enjoying gaming with her for years. You just have to adjust a bit. One piece of etiquette that I’d recommend though: either everyone uses video or no one does. A mixed environment can get a little awkward.
Generally-speaking, the closer you are geographically, the better video is going to work. If you’re super-diffuse, geographically-speaking, turn off the webcams.
If at all possible, use a physical, wired internet connection for your VOIP call rather than wireless. Wired connections are much faster and more stable and are less susceptible to interference from things like microwave ovens.
Speaking of VOIP, there are a bunch of popular options out there. Probably the three most popular are Google Hangouts, Skype, and Discord.
Our gaming groups(and the podcast) have been using Google Hangouts for years now. This actually goes all the way back to a previous computer of Grant’s that just did not like Skype for some reason. Which brings me to an important note: you may have to experiment with more than one of these services before you find one that works for everyone. In 2020, they’re all as reliable as they’ve ever been, but every now and then the specific combination of hardware and software one someone’s device just does not like a particular service. Be flexible. It’s also worth mentioning that none of these solutions ever seem to work perfectly. The occasional person dropping out of the call or having difficulty hearing things is not a lack of attention or respect. Extend some grace to each other and work through it.
This is one of the big ones. Depending on what system you use, you may or may not need a virtual tabletop at all.
In particular, if you’re not feeling like messing with battle maps and so on, this is an excellent time to look into some more narrative games. Powered By The Apocalypse style games such as Dungeon World or Offworlders will be significantly easier to manage in terms of juggling resources than something like D&D. FATE doesn’t need a battle map, though it does need some less-common dice.
That said even if your system of choice is crunchier and needs a battle map, there are some great tools out there to help.
Virtual table Top
There are a number of these available. Popular options include Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and Astral, but there are more. There’s really no “wrong” choice here and they all have pros and cons to consider individually and relative to one another, but there are a few things to keep in mind when selecting one. Most of them will handle a variety of systems, but before you even get into the concerns below, it’s best to make sure it’ll do what you want it to! If you’re planning to play FATE and your Virtual Tabletop (VTT) or dice roller doesn’t do FATE dice, that’s going to be irritating.
The obvious starting point is cost. Roll20 and Astral have free tiers and I can say from experience that the Roll20 one has basically everything I personally want for a game. Some of the paid functions get really cool (dynamic lighting and animated maps, for example) but aren’t strictly necessary, and if you’re playing a system that doesn’t need battle maps (such as PbtA game or other story game) you may not need a virtual tabletop at all.
The second major consideration is the comfort level of your group with the solution. If you’re big on Astral but they’ve all shelled out for Fantasy Grounds, it’s probably best to go with Fantasy Grounds. Do consider the financial burden, though. A lot of folks have seen their income decrease or vanish in the last few weeks, and that’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
It’s also worth thinking about how easy-to-learn and/or well-documented the VTT is. There’s a certain level of fiddlyness to any VTT. The map layers in Roll20 are simultaneously really cool and handy and have given both me and Grant fits at various times, and I’m sure the others have their foibles as well.
Finally, if you are using battle maps, it’s good to have sources for them! I’ve had very good luck with the one-page dungeon generator from watabou and sifting through /r/battlemaps. If you’re into making your own, Dungeon Painter Studio is a pretty decent way to make them, though I’ll confess that I’ve gotten much lazier about that over time – especially if you’re just using a map once, it really isn’t worth putting a huge amount of work in. A couple of other notes: unless the map comes with dimensions in squares like many on /r/battlemaps do, it’s best to grab a grid-free version if possible. I’ve experienced more frustration trying to make grids line up (even with the tools to facilitate that in roll20!) than any other map-related problem. You’ll also want to bookmark Token Stamp 2. It’s incredibly handy for making tokens. It’s also easy enough to use that you can do it on the fly during a session if need be.
Another option is asynchronous gaming, done via some sort of text channel such as play-by-post on a forum or a Discord server. We have one such game going on the Saving the Game Discord now, in fact! These come with their own suite of challenges – it’s easy to lose momentum if someone stops posting, and if you thought combat took a long time playing “live” (either in person or online) you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, but that type of gaming also has some very specific advantages. In particular, it’s much easier for people with radically-different schedules (due to work shifts or due to geography) to game together and the more relaxed pace helps those who don’t like feeling pressured in the moment.
As with a “live” game, it’s often useful to avail yourself of some helper tools if the system is crunchy (the game in our Discord uses a number of Discord bots, for example).
It’s also worth noting that this is a decent way to get some interstitial action in during downtime for a more traditional campaign.
A Few Last Items
I’ve previously written some posts about other online tools and resources that you can find here and here. There’s some overlap between those posts and this one, but there is plenty of material that’s unique to each post to (hopefully) make having all three worthwhile on their own.
Gaming online is definitely a different experience than doing it in person, but it’s a rewarding and positive experience in its own right. And of course if any of you have additional tips or resources to share please comment them below! Let’s help each other through this pandemic mess.