It’s hard being separated from friends and family. Your options for spending time together are limited: you become reliant on technology to maintain those bonds (or, like, old-fashioned letters, but let’s be honest with ourselves here). Using games to share fun experiences from afar is obviously not a new concept, but storytelling games lend themselves well to the physical disconnect. Role-playing is hanging out with friends without the perceived awkwardness of merely group video-chatting. You’re already transporting yourselves to a different world with nothing but your words. You have a goal; you have assembled a team from across the world; and you can conquer anything. Having been on a recent Catalyst Skyping kick, we wanted to share our thoughts on making the most of playing an RPG long-distance.
Let’s address the obvious: you’re no longer in the same room. Your voice and image carry into the video call, but not your gaming equipment. You can’t share books, dice, and other supplies. While digital versions of those work, get your own copy of the game and actual dice if you can afford it. Leave the screen displaying your friends, not text. The point of the game is the inter-personal interactions. Those are hindered enough by missing out on body-language and having everyone’s voice compressed through the same speakers. Have the game occupy space on your table instead of crowd out your friends.
Of course, many role-playing groups rely on maps, figures, or other visual cues to set scenes. Tools like Roll20 give you an online alternative. Your group may need this, but I personally forsake such systems. Drawing a map finalizes the world. In person, you could make this a joint effort on a whiteboard, bonding over the communal experience and equally contributing to the story. Online tools are very GM-centric, putting more pressure on an already over-taxed role. Instead of fighting a video call’s nature, embrace it. Focus on using your voices and imaginations to build maps.
Your storytelling ability should always trump a crude map with pre-generated textures. Describe the room players entered with enough detail for everyone have a similar mental picture. Talk about the lights, smells, sounds, and the feelings in the air. Match the tone of your voice to the scene’s atmosphere. Slow down and give sprawling detail to new and strange worlds. Speak in acute snippets when running through alleyways. Your players’ images are more interesting than a pre-defined tile set or character portrait, so encourage others to contribute their thoughts. Let them take cover behind a car they envisioned in the road or talk to the bar’s regulars you didn’t consider. Numerical details are harder to lock down in this format so let them be little vague. Being a stickler for exact character positioning over a conference call slows the game down. Enjoy the story instead of rote, mechanical details.
In line with focusing on vibrant setting descriptions, use the emphasis on voice to hone your characters. Group video calls only show a small gallery of your friends’ faces. Matching their voices with the story threads is harder online, especially as a GM who may be looking at a notebook while their speakers give no directional listening advantage. Give your character a distinct accent, speech style, or vocabulary. Action Steve should sound markedly different from Josh. These details naturally change your facial expressions too. Your video stream becomes that much more valuable with the added enthusiasm. The same goes for the game master’s stable of characters. Really make an effort for recurring or important people to sound distinct. Give them (dare I say?) character.
Speaking of character, let’s touch upon cheating. Dice and chance are a core component of most RPGs. Playing on your own table, out of sight of the camera, gives you ample opportunity to cheat. You could force everyone to point the camera at the dice (or cards, stones, etc.) That is fun once or twice for dramatic rolls, but is awkward and slow otherwise. You could use online dice rollers everyone can watch, but that takes up valuable screen space and removes the tactile pleasure of physical components. The obvious answer is to not cheat. As a player, realize every time you fudge a die roll you are stealing the scene for yourself and making the game worse for someone else. Exciting things should happen for you beyond a single success. As the GM, you should discourage cheating by making failing dice rolls equally exciting as winning them. Failing a persuasion check should be a hilarious faux pas and failing an engineering check should trigger a huge explosion. Like we discuss in our Catalyst GM-guide, don’t make failing a check punishment. Make the story good regardless. If someone persists in cheating despite the outcomes, use your GM-power to skew the focus to other players. Reward those being disenfranchised by the overpowered dice.
Playing a role-playing game over telecommunication highlights some of the best parts of story gaming. Sure, you lose a bit of the personal touch when grabbing beers for the table or ordering pizza together, but you still have your friends. You’re telling a tale with the vivid descriptions of a radio drama; sitting by your speakers, weaving in your contributions. Forget about the rooms you’re all in and imagine the fantasy world your characters are destined to save.