My first session of Hoard of the Dragon Queen was a good experience of what I hope is a long-living campaign. Since getting local friends together for consistent gaming sessions proved difficult, I decided to attempt running an online game. By doing this I was able to expand the potential pool of players, and after a week or so of organization and scheduling I found six players who could commit to weekly sessions. There is always something new to learn about running an effective gaming session in a face-to-face setting, and there are plenty of things for me to learn about running online sessions effectively. Below I discuss a few suggestions about setup, communication, combat, and space based on a few early sessions of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons as a player and DM.
When setting up a face-to-face campaign, I have found that the first session is often a combination of character creation and a brief start to an adventure. Online gaming presents a bit of a challenge because players are often creating their PC in isolation from the other players and the first session thrusts players right into the adventure. To address this, I set out to increase the amount of collaboration among the players before the sessions even started.
I initially tried to start up a conversation through a group email, but this proved to be a unsuccessful. Players responded to emails at different rates, some players replied to all and other just replied to me – so it resulted in some disjointed conversation. I switched gears and relied on Roll20, which allows the creation of various forum topics. I created three threads through Roll20 for the players to respond to. The first was a request for players to introduce themselves to the group; I started by introducing myself as the DM. The second was a request for the players to provide some information about their expectations for the campaign. For example, I asked if they prefer more combat, roleplaying, or a combination of the two. Last, I started a thread for the players to confer about character creation. It provided a hub for all discussion for the players to discuss PC builds.
When running a campaign that will be strictly online, be sure to create a foundation for the players to communicate before the first session. Whether that is through the above method, or devoting the entire first meetup online to player introduction and character creation, be sure to give the players an opportunity to bond.
The group has to decide earlier how they plan to communicate during the sessions. My initial plan was to use a group call through Skype, which is how we played the first session. The connection was fine for the majority of the session; however my end of the call dropped once or twice and that resulted in everyone getting kicked off the call. It took a few minutes to get everyone back online. We tried Roll20 during the latest session, and that seemed to work well because even if my Internet connection experienced a hiccup – the other players were not be booted from Roll20. Two sessions in, I plan to stick with Roll20 for the audio/video component.
Regardless of the connection method, online gaming presents all players with a limited amount of information compared to face-to-face gaming. In a face-to-face group, players can track and respond to both verbal and non-verbal behavior. Online gaming does not afford the group this luxury. It seems – at best – that players will have a small window of each player to see non-verbal communication cues and gestures. Earlier in my professional career, I wrote research about the differences between face-to-face and online counseling. So handling the limitation of online communication is nothing new to me.
To deal with the decreased amount of non-verbal cues during the gaming session, Dungeon Masters (and all players) can use clarifying questions and verbal check-ins more frequently. Avoid relying on assumptions regarding player actions or intentions, and be quick to address any ambiguity that arises throughout the session. All gaming sessions feature a fair amount of players talking over each other at times; DMs should be more inclined to take on the role of traffic cop during online games. For example, when several players are talking at the same time, the DM should not hesitate to step in to verbally “give the floor” to one of the players and minimize multiple players talking over each other. This is a good skill in face-to-face games, and it becomes more vital in online gaming sessions.
The grid-based combat in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons was wonderful fun in a face-to-face setting; however my efforts to play the edition online proved less than ideal. The combat system, which can be quite deliberate, bogged down when applied to a virtual tabletop. The great news is that the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons does not require a grid or miniatures to execute combat. Through two online sessions, the party has faced five combat encounters and a grid was not needed for any of them. Since all combat in 5th Edition can be presented narratively, gaming groups do not need to feel tied to grid-maps, miniatures, and tokens.
There are ways for a DM to illustrate combat online with services such as Roll20. While I have experimented with using maps and tokens outside of gaming sessions on Roll20, I have not yet used them during a gaming session. I imagine I will use these features at some point, but I am content to run combat without these bells and whistles thus far. However, when playing online, the DM should take great pains to be specific in regard to the narrative aspect of combat by providing an even greater level of detail so the players can appropriately fill in the blanks.
Admittedly, I likely did not provide enough detail during some of the early combat encounters while online. One of my players asked if I was using miniatures on my end to keep track of the flow of combat – and I realized that was a great idea. During the second session, I used tokens on a grid map to help me keep track of combat encounters on my end. By doing this, I had a visual representation of the combat situation, which allowed me to easily answer questions from the players. As combat encounters increase in complexity, this method will allow me to keep track of players, monsters, hazards, and other terrain features while not slowing the game down for the players online by fumbling with a virtual tabletop. As I gain mastery with the virtual tabletop through Roll20, I will likely rely on this method less.
Exploring the Space
One of the potential drawbacks of playing in a face-to-face environment is that the physical space can be more than a bit cramped. Though I enjoy my custom-made D&D table, it is not the largest table and it becomes rather cluttered when more than four players – including me – are playing. During face-to-face games when running sessions, I typically have to stack a variety of information behind the DM screen. My dice, rulebooks, handouts, and other materials are constrained to a small section of the table so the other players have room to breath; I often have to store books and other resources by my feet or on another stool or table.
So playing online and not having to share table space with other players is so luxurious! I do not need to hide behind a DM screen. I can spread out my materials, have everything I need right in front of my face – and really explore the space. While I prefer the face-to-face gaming experience, there are some benefits to the online experience, and this is one of them. When running a gaming session online, be sure to maximize the space in front of you in ways that would not be possible when other players are at the table.
Consider the following suggestions when running a game online:
- Give the players an opportunity to bond before the first session through email or a form like the Roll20 campaign message board.
- Be more directive with communication to make up for the lack of non-verbal cues.
- Use a map and tokens/miniatures in your physical space to keep track of narrative combat.
- Be sure to maximize the space around the table when other players are not in your location.