How to improve your online RPG sessions

As I have previously stated, there are many pros to online GMing.  But as some of you have pointed out, there are limitations as well.  I don’t call them “cons” for two reasons: (1) limitations can be overcome with some compensation, while (2) true cons are inherent and unavoidable.  In today’s article, I want to discuss the limitations placed upon communication when GMing online.

Limitation #1: Limited Non-Verbal Communication

I’m not sure that there’s an accurate means of measuring this statistic, but communications experts estimate that 80% or so of interpersonal communication is non-verbal.  If non-verbals are minimized, communication will be limited and the story being told will necessarily lose something.  As a result, you as the GM need to choose a means by which the most non-verbals can be retained during the gaming session.


So let’s talk audio and visuals.  I’m sure a few of us were in A/V club back in the day!  I personally think that being able to see your players is immensely important.  You’re able to read their frustration and their enjoyment without a word.  You can see the tension building, as the villain is unveiled.  And you can see that they’re playing Candy Crush on their cell phone.

Visuals, while not necessary, enhance immersion, encourage inter-PC dialogue, and retain the sense of sitting around a tabletop.  Given, video can be a RAM- and bandwidth-hog.  It also necessitates a camera of some sort.  So you may have to make some concessions with certain players.  Because of my preference for video, I generally require players to have them and I also help them acquire them.  A good Game Master should ultimately be an understanding and helpful Game Master.

But let us not begin to think that all non-verbals are visible.  What about vocal intonation, volume, and tempo?  What about accents, laughter, and groans?  These, too, are non-verbal cues.  Here’s what I’m getting at: your players need to be aware of what they and their surroundings sound like.  Headphones are absolutely necessary to prevent microphone feedback and echoing.  Players should be in an area that doesn’t get a lot of traffic.  And if that is not a possibility, they need to take the initiative to mute their microphone when other things are going on.

But what apps to use for this?  While I’ve played 168 hours…yes, you read that correctly…of RPGs on Roll20, my experience with it is rather old-fashioned.  My gaming group started online before Roll20 or its competitor, Fantasy Grounds, were released.  So we used Google Hangouts with multiple camera angles for combat maps.  Eventually a Roll20 add-on was integrated into Hangouts, so we used the free version of that.  Many will argue that Fantasy Grounds is superior, but Roll20 always worked well for us.  Unfortunately, Roll20 and Google Hangouts no longer play well together.  So if I was going to be starting a new group, I’d probably just use Roll20’s internal A/V integration.

Limitation #2: Lessened Sense of Immersion

If your audio and video are rocking and rolling, what’s to prevent immersion?  Plenty.  And this is where some good house rules come in.  How do you know they’re keeping all the rules?  Well, you don’t always.  

As with dice rolling, you trust your players to do what’s right—to respect the other players and to work together to create an environment where immersion and fun can be had.  Here were some house rules from our campaign:

– No two players in one location

When two players (or the player and the GM) are in one location, while the others are not, it causes serious problems.  It is very easy for the two who are physically together to have private conversations, whispering, giggling, or talking back and forth to one another.  This detracts from the game experience for everyone.  In addition, if both players have laptops present, the audio problems are remarkably tricky.

– Limit usage of chat boxes

After a while we had to establish an appropriate use of the chat boxes in Roll20 and Google+ Hangouts.  As the GM, I was often juggling several things at once, so I didn’t have time to look at the chat box.  Then I checked it one night after our session ended.  And what did I find?  Players arguing.  Players posting funny websites for others to look at.  Players generally doing things that detracted from the experience.  From that point onward, the Roll20 chat box was used for dice rolls only, while the Google+ chat was used for initiative order and meta table talk…OK…and the occasional joke.  You can’t be a total control freak about that sort of thing.

– No web browsing and limited cell phone usage

Unless it somehow pertains to the session at hand or you have a family emergency, don’t do it.

Limitation #3: Less Intensive Post-Game Talk

As a GM, the post-game talk can be really helpful in honing your skills and the direction of the campaign.  But when you have players in three different time zones like I did and when most of them have to be at work in the morning, it’s tough to have a deep post-game discussion.  So here’s what I did: post-game debriefs by phone.  These conversations were usually on my drive to or from work on the day or two after our session.  I’d call up the player and ask a few questions:

What’d you think of the game?
What did you enjoy?
What did you find difficult?
What would your character want to do next?

In the end, these conversations lasted 5-10 minutes, sometimes longer when players were really excited about the campaign.  And this gave me a great way to sharpen and hone my GMing skills, even though my players weren’t there to reminisce for 30 minutes afterward.

The amount of effort you have to put in to preserve a communicative experience for everyone really is minimal.  Eventually, you’ll find yourself hitting a good rhythm wherein it feels not much different from gaming around a real tabletop.  And quite honestly, it is a real tabletop.  If players are having fun, engaging in communal storytelling, laughing and enjoying one another’s company, who cares if the tabletop stretches across regional lines?  Now get out there GMs!  There’s nothing to stop you!  Get online and have some fun.

3 thoughts on “How to improve your online RPG sessions

  1. Tadd Mencer says:

    I was honored to use Roll20 in few different campaigns. The first one as a player we didn’t use any cameras and used Skype instead of Roll20’s audio. It worked, but I did feel a disconnect. Not being able to see reactions to antics really left me wanting for that table top experience again. I like to play off of people. So if I do something, I can’t see their faces.
    Or course, I can’t see their faces when I do a horrible dwarven accent but hey .. let’s be honest, who’s actually heard a real-live dwarf speak? Maybe all dwarves sound like Mr. Bean.
    Sadly that campaign lasted one day and our GM had a nervous breakdown. Apparently my accent WAS that bad.

    The second campaign the GM has a paid version of Zoom for video, and we used Discord for our voice. He mixed things together and streamed it via Twitch. Which was fun. He put a lot of work into the maps in Roll20 and laying out the stream so it looks legit. I got to gauge the reactions of the other players as I RP’ed my character who had extremely low wisdom and intelligence. It was hilarious.

    But when I GM I use Roll20 and their camera and audio. It’s there, it works, why not.

    Something I did for post-campaign is send out a little survey once the session was done. It would have a “One a scale of 1-5” type of thing with a box for comments. This way I can get feedback anonymously which got me a bit more critical feedback. And then over a few days I would try and chat with everyone as a group.

    I’m thinking about using MapTool when I play at home. Put that on the TV in the living room, and my boys can visually see a map. I don’t have money for minis, so that would be a nice thing.

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