Just roll with it: How to move your in-person tabletop game online

Tips from pro-gamers on playing while social distancing.

Tips from pro-gamers on playing while social distancing

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

I slayed monsters, went treasure-hunting, and escaped from a 10-foot deep hole last week, and I did it all while social distancing. 

Or at least, the character I was playing did. 

Tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Although games are usually played in person, Canadians who can't meet up with their regular groups are using online platforms to continue their adventures. 

With so many platforms to choose from and each with a seemingly endless suite of features, starting a new game or moving an existing game online can be daunting. To help players and Game Masters (GMs) navigate their options, we reached out to six gamers across the country for advice on how to choose the right application, issues to watch out for, and how you can get the most out of playing online.

Create a setup for your group, and learn how to use it

Before you set up your game online, take a moment to chat to your group about the kind of experience they're hoping to have. 

"Deciding [how] you want your game to be before you start putting stuff down is a really great way to keep that co-ordinated," says Brock Hevenor, a GM and player from northern Saskatchewan with seven years of TTRPG experience.

Your players might want visuals to replace physical maps and miniatures, or they might prefer a voice-only setup that favours theatre of the mind. Some of your more expressive players might even want to be on camera. Ultimately, what matters most is choosing the application that suits your group best, says Hevenor.

There are several applications designed for playing TTRPGs online, such as Astral Tabletop and Roll20, with built-in dice rolling functions, character sheets from the most popular TTRPGs, and libraries where you can upload your own maps and character tokens. 

Roll20 has a number of features that allow you to roll dice online, measure distance on the map, share information from your game system, and more. (Credit: Sebastian Yūe)

If your game doesn't need visual aids but you'd still like to see and/or hear your players, Discord, a social app (you can access it from your desktop or from your phone), is designed with gamers in mind and has voice, text, and video chat capabilities. And yes, common communication apps such as Google Hangouts, Skype, or Zoom can also be used. To satisfy players in a low-visual game who still want to roll dice online, there are command-based dice bots, like Sidekick, that you can add to the server for your game.

Consider combining platforms to customize your game even more specifically. Hevenor uses Roll20 for the tabletop-specific functions, and Discord for voice chats. (Although you can use voice and video on Roll20, its most useful functions are its graphical interface and dice roller.) 

For Hevenor, keeping things simple was important. "About half of our party have no online experience at all, so something like Discord where really all you have to do is make an account, join the server and click on the voice channel, has really helped."

If someone in your group is already familiar with a particular app, that could also be a good place to start. 

Amanda Short from Saskatoon has been playing TTRPGs for just a few of months and her in-person D&D 5e campaign moved online in mid-March. Since her DM had used Roll20 before, it was a natural choice of platform.

"We [initially] used Zoom for the video and audio, and only used Roll20 [for] the game board ... and for people to roll their dice. In the last couple of sessions we've been able to just use Roll20," Short says.

Even if you're already leaning toward using a particular platform, it's worth looking into all your options — especially if you're playing a lesser-known game system, says Emma Hyslop, co-founder of Soses Media, a queer-inclusive multimedia co-op based in Toronto. 

Soses Media livestreams the TTRPG show Chicks With Dice every other week. (Source: Soses Media)

"There are more options than Roll20," says Hyslop. "The reddit RPG forum has a wiki of various tools for people to use. They have a list of resources for GMs, for players. Most things are free... just try them out. Find one that works for you." 

Once you've chosen your setup, take the time to get familiar with your application, recommends Hevenor. Astral Tabletop has user guides, and Roll20 has an interactive tutorial for new users. Hevenor also recommends searching for tutorials by online TTRPG players. 

Adapt your playing style for online

Adam-Ali Kanji-Lalani, a Breakout Con organizer from Pickering, says that to get the most out of your game while social distancing, you should think of online applications as a great way to play TTRPGs in their own right, rather than as replacements for in-person sessions. By adapting your playing style, you can express yourself equally well on either one. 

"I recommend you take advantage of the platform you're on. If you're [playing] in person, take advantage of eye-to-eye contact... the intimate atmosphere. If you're online, take advantage of the whisper functions or the private message functions,'" says Kanji-Lalani. 

Vancouver author of the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (D&D 5e) adventure A Curse of Ages, Emily Lines, is currently in two campaigns, one as a player and the other as a GM. Lines has made adjustments to how she communicates with other players when coming up with a plan to execute in-game.

"Normally when meeting in person we could easily have a side conversation if we wanted to work together on something, but with playing virtually those conversations are impossible to have on Zoom without talking over our GM or other players who are having their turn," Lines says. Her group uses Zoom's chat function to work around that.

Safety tools are another important aspect of the game that need to be tweaked for online play, says Kanji-Lalani. These are designed to help players establish and express their boundaries in terms of game content. One of the most commonly-used tools is the X-Card, which is a card with an 'X' marked on it that a player can tap or hold up when they would like to edit out anything that makes them uncomfortable with no explanations needed. 

The X-Card is a widely-used safety tool that players can invoke if they would like to change something that happened in-game. (Credit: Sebastian Yūe)

"Safety tools are sometimes more difficult to migrate online, like an X-Card for example. Sometimes you can type an 'X' in the chat and nobody will see," Kenji-Lalani says. "[Being online] makes it easier to put an 'X' in the chat because you've got physical distance from everybody, but it makes it harder for people to notice it."

Kenji-Lalani says that you can keep using the safety tools you already have, and when you move your game online, you can take the opportunity to review your options and figure out whether you need to change or adapt the tools for online.

"I would recommend, especially if you are a GM, make sure you know the safety tools [available] now. Lines and Veils is a useful one, but Google what safety tools are good for online play, because you'll find tons of them. I recommend trying a bunch, seeing what you're comfortable with in play, and seeing what your players are comfortable with," he suggests. 

Keep an eye on the time

Time flies when you're having fun and the immersive nature of TTRPGs makes it easy to lose track of it. This applies to the amount of speaking time each player takes up, as well as the time you can lose if you become distracted. 

If you know you're a chattier player and are using audio, consider muting your microphone when it's not your turn to talk, suggests Vancouver-based Terry Lynn Massey, an on and off player of TTRPGs since 2005, and author of the D&D 5e adventure Luck be Malady.

"I think we have to be careful about [our] time spent [as] the one talking, trying to be aware of who's speaking and when, so nobody speaks over other people," Massey says. "Or that the game doesn't drag on because we're talking for so long. It's very easy to go off-topic." 

Whether you're speaking or not, staying focused on the game can be harder online because of notifications and messages, as well as distractions caused by being at home. 

"When I play in person I get engaged, and more focused on what's going on with the other characters even when I'm not specifically involved in the scene, versus online," says Hyslop. "Because you don't have [other players] right there, it's not as intimate or personal. It's very easy to tune out." 

"It's a lot easier to get distracted," echoes Hevenor. "Because I'm sitting on my laptop, I can have [one] tab for Roll20 open, and flip over to Discord and see that a friend sent me a message on a server that I'm on and stop to answer that, and then realize I've completely lost the thread of what was happening in the game. That's been the biggest challenge."

To combat distraction, Massey recommends scheduling breaks throughout the game. TTRPG sessions can be lengthy, and built-in breaks to check your phone or grab a snack can help both with pacing and to reduce distractions during play. 

Always double-check your audio and video settings. (Credit: Sebastian Yūe)

Be patient while troubleshooting tech issues

Inevitably, you will run into technological problems. These could be for any number of reasons: it may be that your bandwidth isn't high enough to support audio and video at the same time, your internet connection may be weak, or it could be a problem with the hardware.

Massey, for instance, had issues with early online games because her laptop wasn't sufficiently updated. She encourages gamers to double-check the settings in the application that they're using when trouble-shooting issues. "Roll20 has this little tab where you can turn on and off audio and video settings and you have to refresh it. Sometimes [we] couldn't hear two out of the five people, and sometimes only one of them… typical IT problems." 

"I would say for the first couple of sessions, you're gonna be doing a lot of troubleshooting and just figuring things out," says Short. "And that's okay." She says working through the issues definitely pays off. 

"It's gonna lead to some really great socializing and bonding with people. We've had some of our biggest plot moments [online] now as opposed to in person, and I don't feel the experience has been cheapened by any means."

Sebastian Yūe is a Toronto-based writer, model, voice actor and TTRPG player. They are an author and developer for the D&D 5e book Islands & Aswangs, and provide the voice for Whisperer in the 2019 video game Don't Wake The Night. Follow them on Twitter here.

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