Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted look at how current events could change the Dungeons & Dragons hobby forever. Social distancing and stay and home guidelines affect tabletop roleplaying game enthusiasts around the world whose in person player groups are on hold or or exploring ways to play games like fifth edition D&D online. Physical accessories like miniatures and terrain represent some of the changes this different way to play can manifest, since these types of accessories often remain shelved, replaced by web cameras and virtual tabletops. My own gaming takes place almost exclusively online ever since my longtime home group dispersed due to moves and relocations but we’ve kept up getting together and playing for a few years now. Like Dave and Ted mention in the video there’s valuable takeaways from online gaming we can bring back to our in person sessions in the future and as someone used more to the former than the latter I hope these observations enrich your RPG experiences too, so let’s get into it.
Benefits and lessons of online gaming
Flexible session length
Online games tend to be shorter than in person games, and as far as I can tell this remains true across the board. It’s not uncommon for in person game sessions to run several hours. As a kid we’d play sometimes for eight hours or more, and even the in person group since segued to online met for five hours every week. In contrast almost every online RPG session I’ve been involved with ran for two to four hours and leaned much more toward the lower end of that scale.
Shorter sessions are wonderful! In two or three hours a group can cover a tremendous amount of gameplay. The reason is focus — there’s very little distractions even when you consider players sit before one of the most distracting things imaginable (their computers and mobile devices). In this amount of time a group can hit all three pillars of 5E D&D play, including time for personal and group development and socializing bookends to the session.
An added benefit to shorter sessions is ending on a cliffhanger seems really easy. Playing an RPG for five, six, seven or more hours might feel deflating to wrap up without a hugely impactful encounter or moment dripping with suspense. But a shorter game session lowers the bar for such heightened drama. In the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign I recently ran the players were on the edges of their seats when they took a step on the staircase leading to the second floor of the abandoned and supposedly haunted house…and we’d pick up there next time.
RPG players often joke the greatest antagonist to any game is the dreaded scheduling nightmare. Settling on any single day for a group of people to with clear schedules lining up at the same time is an epic quest and many adventures go unadventured or unfinished courtesy of this dastardly monster. Playing online increases flexibility for a group if for no other reason than saving people transportation time.
This works in reverse too. Just the other day we played our weekly Nerdarchy team game, currently under the stewardship of Megan R. Miller as Dungeon Master. We played for about an hour and a half, which included two combat encounters, jungle exploration, a social interaction with a treasure hunter, a couple of puzzles and plenty of interparty interaction. Our session wound down a tad earlier than we normally do and Megan let us know that was as much as they’d prepared for, so we all agreed to pick back up from where we were next time. No one felt obligated to continue because they’d blocked out time to gather somewhere outside home or felt unsatisfied with the progress. We enjoyed a great session catching up personally and creating a compelling story together.
One of the greatest benefits to online play is vastly expanding the group of people to play with whether regularly or with fresh faces every time. In this way it reminds me a lot of my Adventurers League experiences. Heading to the game shop every week and mustering a party with people I knew from previous weeks as well as making new friends providing tons of great experiences and memories. Expanding this perspective to online gaming is exponential growth.
Keep your eyes open in places like Discord and other social media and you’ll undoubtedly see Game Masters and players putting the call out for one shots, short campaigns or even long term campaigns. Some of the best RPG experiences I’ve ever had come through these opportunities. I’ve learned so much from playing with other GMs and players plus made a bunch of new friends this way over the years.
This is also a great way to try out the GM role if you’ve never run a game. Whether it’s 5E D&D or any other RPG if you put yourself out there and let people know you’d like to try running a game for the first time you’re bound to find players interested in rolling funny shaped dice with you. Most games have social media presence somewhere and these are great places to start. For example games like Tales from the Loop, Overlight and even defunct games like our beloved Marvel Super Heroes RPG have fan Facebook pages where people meet and put games together all the time.
During a recently live chat Ted offered a fantastic suggestion for first time GMs. Preparing and running a game session, even a one shot, can be intimidating for a first time GM and a group of strangers met online can make it even more so. A great way to mitigate this is offering to run a single encounter. Let people know you’re a new GM seeking to try it out and offer to run a game for as little as 20-30 minutes. This could be nothing more than a single combat scenario and it’s a manageable way to get some experience without investing a huge amount of time. Not for nothing but any of the 55 Out of the Box encounters would be perfect for this. Check it out here.
More people to play with and more games to play are great advantages for online gaming and players receive a double sided boon on top of everything else. One on side this is a chance to play lots of different characters because let’s face it — gamers love creating new characters and imagining concepts to try out at the gaming table. Lots of games offer opportunities to play at different levels, using different parameters and house rules. I played a one shot Death House session and the DM allowed our 2nd level characters one rare and one uncommon magic item. This created a really exciting scenario and in a broader sense showed me how much variety you can get from games with even a single unusual quality.
On the other side, you can revisit characters you love in multiple situations. I’ve done this most often with Mesmogdu, a character who began existence as a charlatan drow School of Enchantment wizard. Since then he’s also been a College of Eloquence bard in another iteration and his level changes each time. He’s even died! A critical hit from a gray ooze dealt massive damage and killed him outright during a surprise round. But this hasn’t stopped Big Mes from showing up time and again in different games. Exploring characters this way is rewarding because it becomes more about who they are as an individual than as a collection of character features. Playing Mesmogdu is great because I enjoy developing the character — not the mechanics.
For many, many, many years (like before the ubiquitous internet *gasp*) I played with the same handful of people. We played RPGs the only way we knew how and had a blast doing it. Online gaming not only expands your playerbase and specific games you play but also the kinds of games you play. If you’re used to playing dungeon crawls you might find yourself in a group playing through a political drama adventure heavy on social skills. We’ve even got an adventure inside Taking Chances where character tool proficiencies take the spotlight in overcoming challenges.
Fair warning — playing different kinds of games means you’re more than likely going to come across situations you don’t enjoy. If you’re used to lots of roleplaying and set piece encounters a tactical dungeon crawl could be a shocking scenario. But if you keep an open mind and try to contribute to the overall experience of the group, you’ll at least walk away with fresh perspective and new understanding. Hopefully you’ll find something positive to bring to other groups whether you’re running the game or participating as a player character. The best case is you discover something new, you love it and find renewed interest in your own hobby.
Lastly playing online games with a variety of different people and time lengths teaches you flexibility and opens you to the possibilities of different ways to structure games. Earlier I mentioned running a single encounter for a game session and something as simple as this can easily captivate everyone gathered together to play. I’ll use one of our Out of the Box encounters to illustrate. In Gone But Not Forgotten adventurers come across a curious landmark in the wilderness.
There’s plenty to discover. No spoilers but it’s more than enough to keep a party busy for half an hour. The intent of the encounters in the book is for GMs to sprinkle them into a campaign when there’s a lull, to spice up travel, add to existing dungeons and so forth. They’ve designed for versatility basically and there’s nothing stopping you from using one of them for an entire session. At the same time what a tremendous opportunity for player agency! Essentially starting at the dungeon entrance, the very fist lines of from the description can begin your session before you pass the ball to the players.
“In a lonely area, away from the wanderings of most civilized folk, a large and odd hill rises in the middle of nowhere. Its nearly perfect domed shape stands out as unusual given the surrounding terrain.”
- Where are they heading?
- What are they doing in this lonely area?
- What time of day is it?
- What’s the weather like?
Giving chances for collaboration like this makes game sessions memorable. If you’ll notice the details in these sample questions are irrelevant to the encounter itself and unless you’re playing a reality show style RPG campaign where every moment of the party’s lives gets recorded for posterity, letting players paint the scene and create the context is so much fun.
In fact short, hyper focused game sessions like this are something we’re considering exploring at Nerdarchy Live, a second channel we launched this week as a home for our live and long form video content. Would you like to see more game plays over there? We’re excited about the possibilities for this new venture and we’re already cooking up some new programming to create there. Head over to Nerdarchy Live and check out what we’ve done so far plus subscribe so you don’t miss anything here.