Playing an MMO or an FPS online is always a hoot. People show up, they play, and you know everyone is really into it due to communicating, how their avatar is moving, and generally how well they play. If you are missing a person from your group, it’s easy to pick up a rando for the event and maybe even make a new friend out of it.
Playing or running an RPG online, on the other hand, is a nightmare. Even with video, you’re hoping everyone is actually paying attention, tracking notes, or even getting into character.
I recently cancelled my online game of 7th Sea after three sessions, due to a number of issues, many of which don’t have any easy solution outside of finding new players. I’m sharing my experiences here for the novice GMs who want to get started with running games, just in case they think online play is the best first step.
And, in honor of Halloween next week: Now with 100% more skeletons!
Getting people to show up for anything is a challenge. There’s always the chance for a mechanical error, an illness, work, or family emergency. Most of the time, gaming groups just roll with it, and bring that other player up to speed later on, usually during a round of drinks sometime before the next game.
With the online group, attendance gets a bit rougher. The group is a bit more scattered geographically, so few people really see each other in person. This seems to remove the feeling of accountability for some, which puts a big damper on the game.
I canned my game as my players were either skipping out without warning or not being polite about schedules (asking to change the time back by an hour or more the day of the game, for example). I wouldn’t even get an apology most of the time, which further nixed my desire to keep running a game.
I’ve canned other games for the same reason, but at least with an in-person group, there’s some accountability and a chance to pick up a new player if you’re playing in a public spot. Online. . .not so much.
One of the biggest perks of technology: you have everything you need, including the means of contacting people, at your fingertips.
One of the biggest downside of technology: people become obsessed with what they have on hand, and don’t pay attention to what is going on.
I have a belief this is still tied to that social accountability: you won’t see these people in person, so why put in the effort?
When you have an in-person game, everyone relies on each other. Sure, there are some distractions as people check rules, discuss tactics, or talk about side topics, but in the end, people still know what is going on. Sure, you’ll get that one guy staring at his phone, but they tend to drop it pretty fast when the entire group gets annoyed with them.
With an online game, are competing with EVERYTHING ELSE that is going on with the internet. Sports scores are easily brought up, news about pop-culture icons flash on the screen, and sure, you can load your video game and no one is going to notice as long as you say something every so often.
And I do mean it for that last one. With an in-person game, you can easily spot who’s playing World of Warcraft, but when you’re online, it’s a nightmare to spot. After a friend’s game collapsed, I later learned that one of our online players (online and offline group) was playing an MMO. We had our assumptions as his microphone kept picking up the spooling of his fans, and later confirmed that this was true.
==”Better Things To Do”==
Like the above, when running games online, you are competing against everything else online. People want the pure immersion and interaction of a video game, or they want something faster paced than waiting for people to determine actions each round or look up a spell.
When you’re running an online game, people will get frustrated. “This is my only time online” some might complain, “and I could be playing <GAME> instead!” Typical RPG nights for our groups also tend to coincide with raid or other group efforts on a video game, and since those other things are more interactive and can give more “bang for your buck” when it comes to time, people tend to go for that.
There are also a number of people who work in front of computers all day (myself included), and don’t want to look at a screen after the shift is over. This situation tends to alienate a few players, and can impact your gaming group.
==Cheaters Always Prosper==
One of the issues I’ve experienced in the early days of online gaming: you don’t know what people are really rolling. Sure, cameras add some accountability, but not everyone is able to run a camera, and not everyone has a camera that can show the results on dice (like a laptop camera). At this point, you’re relying on two options: online rollers that show everyone the results, or trusting your players.
The online rolling option is a mixed bag. The number generators can be finicky, and can cause some major issues for some groups. In a D&D game I was a part of, we tried a few different rollers, but it didn’t feel random. We would all often get the same results or pretty close to it, and some of them didn’t handle re-rolls too well, which put a damper on the game.
Some players also love the feeling of ROLLING the dice. They’ll have their favorites, or they’ll have a ritual of dice rolling that they believe increases their odds of success. For some, this is part of the enjoyment of the game, and using an online roller takes this away, killing the desire for some to play.
On the other hand, some players take advantage of no one able to see their dice. I’ve had far too many situations in which players would never fail a roll during a game session, and a plethora of “natural 20s” in a dungeon. Sure, the dice can fall that way, but when a player rolls four criticals in a row, or if they somehow consistently succeed on rolls they have no chance to succeed with, you start to wonder if they are fudging their dice in some way.
==Rules of Order Are Out==
More groups that meet have rules about when to speak. If not, there are at least social cues to rely on, like someone raising a hand or giving a signal that they are ready to interject.
With an online game, this completely falls apart. I’ve had the entire group all start trying to yell over each other, either due to the delay or everyone acting at once. There was no order here, just chaos, and there wasn’t an easy way to resolve that issue outside of muting people and telling everyone to be silent (and assign order) via text.
That social cue issue also crops up at some of the strangest times. The GM could be delivering a speech from an NPC, and everyone will try to ask a question (even the same question). A player could be trying to relay something but can’t be stopped to interject the assassin’s dramatic entrance, ruining the moment. Can you imagine if Westley wasn’t attacked by an ROUS when he said “I don’t think they exist”? That’s how it would be like.
==Hoping For The Best?==
In total, I’ve attempted to run about a dozen games online, with systems ranging from roll heavy (D&D, Star Wars d20) to narrative heavy games (FATE system, 7th Sea). Each one of them has collapsed for some reason or another, often due to one of the above. Other GMs I’ve spoken to have raised similar concerns, and I realized we’re really all in the same boat.
So what sort of things have you run into online that you think attributed to the game falling apart? Do you have a success story you want to share? If so, put it in the comments!
==In Other News==
After numerous conversations with friends, SCAdians, artists, and others, I caved and set up a GoFundMe page to fix the garage/shop. The necessary repairs (electrical, walls, roof patches) start around $1,000 and climb from there depending on how bad things are once we get into it.
As a librarian, I don’t make that kind of money to fix something, but I am really itching to get back to the forge so I can start making more things out of metal, especially since a friend of mine and I want to start making armor and throwing axes (because why not?).
I can honestly use all the help I can get, so take a look at the page if you would be so kind and share it with others you think would be interested or willing to help. I want to share my process of working on things, as well as the trials and tribulations of bladesmithing, but I need to get a secure place set up so I can really get to this. Thank you for reading, following along, and any help you can offer!