Should you game online or in person?

All good things come to an end.  Campaigns end.  Gaming groups disband.  Even online gaming groups come to a close.  After two and a half years of GMing my online 4e group, our campaign ended.  We disbanded for several reasons.

First, the story had come to a close.  It had many twists and turns.  It had a deeper and more complicated mythology than any campaign should have.  But most importantly, the characters reached a point of resolution and redemption.  And that really was the goal of our story.

Second but more primarily, we disbanded the group because online GMing was beginning to wear on me.  While online GMing has its pros, it also has its cons.  I’m not referring to limitations that can be overcome or the simple temptations that come with the territory.  I’m talking about unavoidable characteristics of online GMing from which I needed a break.  I could handle it for two and a half years, but then I needed a hiatus for these reasons.  I needed to bring my game back home.

Con #1: A Necessarily Impersonal Setting

Using a machine to communicate always lessens the communicative experience.  That’s why you’d rather visit your close friends than only talk to them on the phone.  This doesn’t mean that communication technologies are wrong or unhelpful.  They’re simply less than ideal.  But what is the ideal gaming group?

My ideal gaming group is a group of my friends.  These are people that I want to eat with — hang out with — and generally get to know better.  That’s not to say you can’t get to know people online!  It’s just a different kind of relationship — one in which there is a necessary distance.  In the end, I wanted to get back to a home game, where I could get to know the folks in my own backyard.

Con #2: Lessened Tactility

There’s something to be said for tactility in gaming, that is the ability to perceive and communicate through touch.  Whether patting another player on the back, a high five, or a handshake, each tactile interaction enhances gaming.  When my home group of adventurers met a Commander from the Rebel Alliance, he shook their hands.  And as he did so, I shook their hands.  It wasn’t a strange forced moment, it was immersion at its best, as each player embodied their characters.  The looks on their faces as we shook hands communicated their motivations and interest in the Commander.  It was a neat moment.

Another tactile part of gaming is dice rolling.  I’ve never been a big fan of digital dice rollers.  Maybe it’s superstition… I don’t know.  But when I roll physical dice, there’s no randomizing program that I can blame.  It’s either the way I rolled it, fate, or complete randomness.  And I enjoy that tactile part of gaming.  When I GM online, not only do many people use dice rollers, but you also can’t participate in their dice rolling.  Last week, as we played AD&D, I chuckled when I realized that often when the dice were rolled, players jump to their feet to see the results.  The whole room responds with cheers, laughter, or groans.  I simply haven’t experienced this benefit of tactility while GMing online.

Con #3: It’s Hard to Fight Well Online

As any marriage counselor will tell you, it’s important to be able to fight well.  When players have disagreements with one another or with the GM, you need to be able to mediate that conflict productively.  For example, one should never, ever, ever fight by text or email.  That’s a guaranteed method for poor communication and hurt feelings.

In the same way, I’ve found it hard for players and GMs to fight fairly online.  I’m not sure what it is about the medium, but it tends to go poorly.  People close windows or slam computers shut.  Or they make critical comments that they wouldn’t face-to-face. I guess what I mean is that it’s easier to take your ball and go home, when all that entails is turning off the machine.  When you’re actually present with someone, it’s not so easy to get away from the fight.  You have to do things like talk, argue, and compromise.  Reconciliation — fighting well — makes a game group better, but it’s hard work.  And if we want our groups to last, we need to be able to fight well.  And I’ve simply found that hard to do online.

Con #4: The Pressure of Nostalgia

As many of you know, I’m a relative newcomer to tabletop gaming (summer 2011).  But I still have a sense of nostalgia, thinking back to my first game sitting around the dining room table with a couple of friends, eating snacks, and slaying goblins.  I’ll treasure those memories for a very long time.  There’s something to be said for nostalgia.  Enjoying a flashback to an earlier time by repeating it around a non-virtual tabletop.  Maybe this was the real reason our online group disbanded.  Maybe I just wanted to get back to the simple, pure beginnings of my roleplaying hobby.  Of course, I’m playing AD&D 1e now…so there’s your sign!

Now will I GM online again?  Most assuredly.  In fact, I’m GMing a game online tonight!  It’s a really fun way to game, given all the pros that it does have going for it.  It’s fun to play with friends no matter the type of tabletop.  But sometimes, you’ve got to take a break and bring it all back home.  Don’t forget that GMs are supposed to have fun, too.  Get online — or just head back home — and have some fun!

9 thoughts on “Should you game online or in person?

  1. Tadd Mencer says:

    I love the experience of playing in person. I play like that with my boys (obviously). And it’s hilarious how excitable they are. When a battle starts, they’re literally on their feet, jumping around. Excited and enthusiastic. I have to adjust my playing style to suite how they’re physically reacting to the situation. Feed that energy. Enhance the story telling. Otherwise, they’ll lose interest. I don’t think they’d get as excited if we played online.

    On the other hand, I’ve played online with my sister and her oldest son. They’re about 7 hours away. We were able to play after all the kids where in bed (my sister has three noisy toddlers). I encourage them to be as vocal and stuff as they would if I was in the room. They do ok. When I played as a character in an online game, I approached my personality like I would if in person. Over the top. Because why not? If I’m going to play it will be play time. I’m no longer Tadd, I’m “Rikkard Griffinheart of the famous Griffinheart family. Perhaps you’ve heard of our exploits?” or “Wil Pebblegut. Mention me lack o’ beard and I’ll gladly be removin’ yer kneecaps!”

    I’ve really yet to play an in person game. Sadly, there really isn’t a huge group here in Grand Rapids. As much as I’d love to have some solid gamers. I have a few people who are interested in a one-shot or something. Though .. perhaps I should just get people together, play a few one-shots .. get them addicted .. and then we’d have a few groups. Yeah?

    I enjoy both settings. And I think, for online play, if expectations are set ahead of time, it really works well. Just the same as you would in person. You need to set those clear and hardline expectation. Respect. Communication. And go all out.

    • MadCleric says:

      Yeah, when I played online it was with old friends and siblings too. That’s hard to beat! And it helped when I was having schedule difficulties.

      That said, I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to play these sorts of games with me.

  2. This year was my first time playing extended games online using Roll20. I enjoyed both of the one shots hosted by Jeff Romo of InnRoads. Online gaming is great for unique one shots and as a way to meet new gamers. I can also see online gaming being a great option for playing occasionally with far-flung friends and family. I tried long ago running a game with Skype which did ok. Now I am interested to try running a game with Roll20 just to experience it as a GM, but I wouldn’t want it to be an ongoing campaign for the very reasons you listed.

    I game to be social. The time with friends and family around the table, talking, interacting, snacking, smack talking, sharing, and so on is such an amazing experience. To be honest, as much as I love the gaming, it is the time with people I care about that matters to me more. I want to see their facial expressions up close and personal, hear the emotions in their voices, get caught up in the moment with high fives and hugs, throw the dice and eagerly await their final bounce and spin, and feel the passion as the energy builds and people are standing around the table engaged in the height of the story.

    Gaming face-to-face energizes me whether I am the player or the storyteller. That time around the table with family and friends refreshes my mind and spirit.

    • MadCleric says:

      In my opinion, the interactive nature of gaming is what makes it so healthy, good, and even human. Every time we put a machine between us (he types on a computer), it’s one degree more separated than we should be.

      You and I, sir, should play at a table someday.

  3. Kaihaku says:

    I’ve done most of my roleplaying online. Mostly play by post on online forums, which is more like an exercise in collaborative writing, but also in two lengthy campaigns using maptools and video chat. It’s great for getting around logistics and for getting introduced to new people but I find that I vastly prefer playing in person. There are a few people that I met online that I now play tabletop with in person.

    I love the point about the tactile nature of in person play. There’s something about the sound and motion of rolling physical dice in person… Everyone around the table reacting when a player rolls that 1 or when the DM suddenly rolls 16d6. I also love miniatures for similar reasons. Online tools have gotten great and are usually far cheaper than investing in miniatures but they definitely lose something over physically moving miniatures around the table. The level of separation makes it more like a video game and less like a fluid creative experience.

    There’s also a real distraction factor for online play. My players fiddle with their phones when things get bogged down during combat but it’s a whole other level with real time online campaigns when we had people playing League of Legends during our sittings. It’s also much easier to include quieter players during online play.

    All in all, I love many of the tools of online play and that it bypasses geography but I’ve pretty much given up on it in favor of tabletop. Sadly, that means that I miss out on playing with some good friends aside from when they visit but, hey, getting to play a visiting character gives them a reason to come for a visit.

      • Kaihaku says:

        My pleasure, it’s a fun topic for me to think about and reassuring to read that I’m not the only one drifting back towards tabletop.

        In Pathfinder a fun trick is to use the Vital Strike feat tree. It’s actually a weak feat but when you put it on a colossal creature you can roll a ton of dice on a single attack. Sometimes intimidating players with a ton of dice is worth a lot more than that full attack would have been…especially when a full attack could have killed the party and you just want to scare them off.

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