Tuesday, 12 May 2015

It's Hard Out Here for a VTT Game Master

It’s absolutely a truth of running games online that players don’t feel the same feeling of obligation as players who are meant to show up for a face-to-face game. If you don’t have to go anywhere further away than a comfy chair, with your laptop, a headset, and possibly a beverage close at hand, that’s the kind of thing people often either forget about or decide they can comfortably skip in favour of more pressing things. If you combine this with the twin dragons of adult gaming – important commitments to family (especially when there are children in the mix) and jobs – this can be a game-killer. Suddenly your crowd of five hardy adventurers raring to tear up the dungeon has turned into two, or worse, one and a GM, who twiddle their thumbs and chat for half an hour or so before finding other diversions.

This is frustrating on the GM side of things, because most gaming that goes deeper than surface interactions depends on the investment of time and shared experience on the part of the players. If someone only comes to the virtual table-top only once a month, or possibly less, they’re always playing catch-up on what’s actually happening in the game, and it’s hard to get any kind of commitment to character or story. Without even that, forget about any deeper commitments to things like dramatic scenes or emotion.

I haven’t had the best luck in dealing with this particular bugbear. I think a well-informed GM could maybe recruit players with this in mind, and make it absolutely clear that regular attendance is required (even if life sometimes gets in the way). There are structural things you can do to address the issue, which I’m doing for my upcoming spy game CLOAK & DAGGER – instead of playing a long-arc story game, you concentrate on sandbox play or mission-based sessions that are one-and-done. This means that there is less of a requirement for players to always be present, or for the ongoing march of story. As in episodic television, you get in and you get out quickly, and fill in any gaps with some quick exposition.

I also think that the lighter the mechanics, the more time you’re going to invest in actual game play. Even in an environment where dice rolls and character stats are all defined and executed by the computer, it takes the casual player precious time to find the right buttons and remember what various abilities do. Having clear central mechanics and expectations of rolls is key. A game like FIASCO, which has no real dice-rolling or mechanical footprint during play, is almost ideal for the online environment; you would think the opposite would be true, since so many of the electronic resources in a virtual tabletop setup are aimed at crunchy, maps-and-minis-centric play, but I haven’t found that to be true in practice. (It works, all right, and works well – but the more mechanically complex the rules are, the slower it works.)

I had hoped to get a game of PRIMETIME ADVENTURES going for my online group, but PTA requires regular players and arc play. The mechanics are ideal, but the structure of spotlight episodes and season arcs doesn’t translate to occasional play and low-commitment players. You could probably hybridize the game, keeping the card-draw mechanics and eliminating Screen Presence as a factor, but that makes the game a little bland. There is a game on my shelf – I think it might be SMALLVILLE – that suggests rolling at the beginning of the episode to find out whose “spotlight” episode it is. That might also be an option, as it rewards those who show up with more “screen time”.

The most frustrating thing about all this is that online play is a very promising new roleplaying platform (although how “new” it actually is might be a matter of debate). The interface is becoming better and better, allowing face-to-face play through video chat, dice rolling that actually looks like dice, presentation tools on the GM side that allow you to show maps, pictures, handouts etc., and integral background music and sound effects to complete the experience. It could be great, if you could get players that really want it to be.

Footnote: Roll20 (the VTT where I run my online games) has recently hired Adam Koebel, one of the people who brought us DUNGEON WORLD, to be their full-time “professional GM”. He’s running an APOCALYPSE WORLD game online as one of his inaugural games, and it’s been educational watching him in action. Adam has not only been running live-streaming (and recorded to the Roll20 YouTube channel) sessions of AW, he’s also recording regular “behind the scenes” GM sessions where he talks about his process running the game. This has been inspirational not only for my upcoming AW tabletop game, but also for my Roll20 games. It’s fascinating to me to see how little Adam relies on the electronic tools of the VTT for his game, running whole sessions on a single map screen, although he seems sometimes to be making notes and tracking the action on a separate screen from the players. I prefer to use a little more than he does, using separate screens to show images for different scenes, and creating “character cards” for important NPCs so that the players can see who they’re talking to. I do use battle maps, although not all the time, and I was sometimes called on to quickly sketch out combat maps on the fly when I did DUNGEON WORLD. Sometimes it’s good to have concrete representations of things, I feel, but perhaps I should take a page out of Adam’s book and leave it more to the “theatre of the mind”, as one of the Roll20 techs said in a demo video.

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