Technology has done many interesting things to the tabletop RPG market. There are many applications, programs, platforms, and tricks to enhance your games with technology. Unfortunately, I think the internet and technology have taken more away from the game than they have given if not used properly. At its core, a tabletop RPG functions best on the tabletop, in person, with your best friends role-playing their hearts out. Yes, I know many people enjoy online games (and I do too), but the fastest, most efficient, most entertaining, and overall best games I have ever partaken in were always live and in person.
I plan to use this article to illustrate some of the many interesting things you can do to game online, but my favorite way to game has always been in person with friends.
1. Play-by-Post: Probably the most prolific platform out there are the play-by-post games. At first glance they appear to be an excellent means of gaming with like-minded people from around the world. Unfortunately, most gamers quickly find that play-by-post games take both a lot of time and a lot of work. Play-by-post games simply don’t have the turn-around time that an in-person game has. A single battle can take a week. I’ve run games that took several years to get to the second level of experience and make it through a couple of adventures. Many sites also have stringent rules on who can join, game set up, dice rolling, and other nit-picky things which can lose you even more time. I always try to run my play-by-post games fast and loose to compensate for their already slow nature. I find eliminating (or doing yourself) of the dice rolling can also speed up the game marginally. It has been my experience that most play-by-post games die off and/or lose players on a regular basis. The advantages are interesting as well: you can potentially get many players all of whom are incredibly creative and different than your normal group, all action in the game is essentially ‘logged’ in text for later reference and reading which is really nice, and it’s a nice bit of writing to look forward to at the end of the day. While Wizards of the Coast has a nice board, I also really like DND Online Games which has a fantastic community.
2. Play-by-Email: This isn’t my favorite way to game online, but some people enjoy it. In principal it sounds like a neat way to run a game (you check your e-mail anyway). However, I find it’s even harder to communicate and reference existing material by e-mail. On a forum board it’s all there in one thread whereas in e-mail it’s a bit harder to find. Also, it doesn’t get the exposure to potential new players and readers that a forum game would get. Other than that, play-by-e-mail games are very similar to play by post games.
3. Instant Message: The obvious remedy to a slower play-by-post game is an instant message game. However, the instant chat comes with several drawbacks which may not be at first obvious: 1. it’s hard to coordinate people over time zones, 2. Text still takes longer than speech, 3. Records of past events are sometimes not recordable, 4. if anyone else is in the chat there could be interruptions.
4. Dedicated Servers: There are several servers dedicated to just role-playing games. Some of them come with hosts of very cool features like: virtual tabletop, miniatures, dice rollers built in the system, private messaging, and logs of past instant chat events. It is possible to run a whole adventure in an evening with one of these sites provided everyone is well-prepared and the adventure is relatively short such as 4 scenes. It’s still slow compared to an in-person game but lightning speed compared to some play-by-post games. Oddly, play-by-post games still feel more ‘real’ to me. One of the best I’ve seen is FableTop. However, the lack of consistent players to join in a game combined with the non-customizable dice rolling give it a few things to be desired.
5. Social Media: It’s technically possible to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, web pages, or other means to run an RPG. I know a fellow who runs a mass-scale RPG on Twitter and I used to run a game on Yahoo Groups. Overall, I didn’t find the experience to be on par with play-by-post or a virtual tabletop, but it’s something to consider. The advantage is everyone is on those sites anyway, the disadvantage is the massive potential for distraction with other things.
6. Google Hangouts/Video Chat: This is probably the closest I’ve ever come to the thrill of an actual in-person game. The combination of seeing the facial expressions and gestures of the other games, speech, text and visual aids, and real-time play make for an experience almost like that of actually being there. It still feels funny to be gaming with a computer screen and not real people. There are still technical hiccups as someone tries to hook up a document for everyone to see. It’s still a pretty cool means to game.
7. Video Games: These don’t usually seem like the ideal environment to get a game running. While the server and instant chat are cool, the game itself tends to be a distraction to the players in the game.
8. Website: At first, it seems like an ideal place to run your game. Why not just use your personal website to run a game? You have text, administration control, ability to put in pictures and media, etc. This is how I started out with online gaming and it didn’t seem to work well at all. In retrospect it was kind of obvious: exposure. Unless you’re running Amazon or Wizards of the Coast it’ll probably be really hard for people to find your website to play the game. Even if they ‘do’ find the website, they’ll probably hesitant to join in because of feeling more secure on a dedicated server like DnD Online Games. This method seems to work best with personal friends and people you invite to join into your games. Generally though, people go online to find new gamers not to game with people they could play with in real life.
Tips and Tricks
1. Show Up: Try to post, PM, text, or run sessions consistently and on time. Nothing kills a game faster than missing scheduled times of play. Even a very slow turn-around like 1 post a week is better than sporadic posting over a few days and then nothing for three weeks. I’ve run games where I simply posted by myself as the GM on a regular basis and within a short time had a very large number of players. Simply showing up consistently is often something a lot of players are looking for because of the high mortality rate of play-by-post games people can join in on.
This principal applies equally to instant message games. Sometimes people just pop onto the server to see if anyone’s around. If you give up after 5 minutes you’ll automatically miss the next potential three players who visit the site over the course of 3 hours. However, I’m not saying to waste time, just that giving up too soon can potentially affect your game.
2. Get an Easy Dice Roller: There are probably fifty billion dice rolling applications both online and off. Choose one which is easy to use and does what you want. One of the most frustrating things about an online game is messing around with dice rolls. Spending a week to roll one attack roll and then rolling a 2 can be incredibly frustrating for players. I tend to either let players roll the dice themselves, or roll all dice myself to save on time. This may not suit all players.
3. Be Clear about Everything: Because you’re not face to face with your players it is far, far easier to be confused by things and unclear to each other. Try to be even more thorough than usual when explaining things and outlining what you will and won’t accept in your games. In a normal game a player can just ask for an explanation. In a play-by-post game a single explanation post can lose everyone involved a few days of playing time. This rule applies equally well to describing the setting and other things along those lines.
4. Be Swift: This applies on so many levels I probably can’t explain them all. The primary drawback of nearly any online game is the turn-around. You must accept that the game will run far, far slower than you’d like. I know it’s frustrating, but if you can accept it you can enjoy the unique virtues of online gaming.
5. Become a Good Writer: Most online games rely upon your writing skills to implement properly. Improving your writing, typing, grammar, and other such skills will make your games more enjoyable for your players and for yourself. I personally enjoy writing itself, RPGs, storytelling, and gaming. That should technically make me a prime candidate for online games, but I still enjoy the ones in real life better.
I've also been told that a few advanced resources are out there such as TabletopForge for Google Hangouts, and a few other professional grade virtual tabletop programs. Currently those programs are beyond the scope of this article. If you're interested, feel free to go ahead and try them out.