So it feels like the pandemic is winding down, and everyone’s returning to a way that things were before. When I say this, I don’t mean that the actual virus is in check, oh no, but that people are doing more things and the UK government is allowing you to do them. It seems fairly likely that, come this winter, we’ll be in a similar situation of some form of lockdown — but until then, restaurants are open, people are travelling (locally at least), and schedules are again filled with crap that make scheduling nigh on impossible. For this reason, it felt like a good opportunity to do a retrospective on what’s been going on RPG-wise for the last year and a bit, and to elucidate my thoughts on the age old debate of playing RPGs online vs in-person. Ultimately, this decision is made by circumstance (you’re not playing in-person regularly with someone from another country), but I am lucky enough to be able to choose from time to time, and had a long span of doing things in person which was followed by the pandemic.
Like any good school essay, I’ll give you the summary of my points at the start so that you know what to expect. For all of the tools I’ve got, all of the equipment, the microphone, the software: an innumerable number of things to make playing online as high quality as it can be, there is still something fundamentally missing from the experience, which I think online play will never satisfy. While there are several delightful advantages, which I will mention in this post, I would choose to play in-person for the majority of systems where it was possible. Cool. With that out of the way, I can talk about why I think this.
A Player at the Table
There is something that feels like an inconsistency in my opinions of GMing, but I think is consistent. This probably requires a blog post of its own, but I like to think of my style as the “computational GM” — a rules-bounded method that is fundamentally reactionary. For me, I like to think of the GM as the engine by which the game is played, with all of the limitations and requirements of an engine for a videogame, or a car. A driving force that exhibits only enough control to move things forward, but does not decide direction. It’s a car analogy. While the responsibilities of the GM differ from the players in this way, that does not mean that the GM cannot have fun. It also, critically, does not mean that the GM is somehow ‘above’ the players. The engine of a car is a critical component, without which the car cannot function — but there are many other parts that also fit that description. Just as you cannot play a game of D&D5e without a GM (though someone has probably tried), you cannot play it without players either1. The most toxic environments I’ve seen for RPGs have been ones where the GM believes themselves to be some sort of god, author, or puppetmaster whose role it is to steer the players into the ‘correct’ way of playing their game. The game belongs to everyone at the table, and the GM is a player in the game as well, just with a different role.
Why am I talking about this? Well, I think playing online reinforces this GM-first viewpoint. It can feel like you’re sat in the seat of a control room, pulling levers and pressing buttons, watching a swarm of rats scurry through a maze. In a lot of online play, I’ll be spending time futzing with the software, getting it to play the sounds that I want, or leafing through character sheets and inspecting stats. The game feels less like a collaborative storytelling experience, and more like a videogame that I am in control of. I can place virtual walls and boundaries, and if you find a way of scaling that wall in the game, it is only (literally) by my hand that your token finds its way onto the other side. If I wanted to delete your character, I need only press delete on it and poof — it is gone. Does it need to be this way? Of course not, you could choose to use no software at all. Sit in a discord channel and theatre of the mind everything, have the players roll their own dice, but then we have a problem of engagement which I will touch on later. It’s a strange feeling, and this might sound like the ramblings of a madman, but I feel less like a GM and more like a sysadmin at times. I’m managing the software, trying to keep things streamlined for my users, making sure they’re not roaming around in places they shouldn’t be. To me, it feels a bit perverse.
When sat at the table, the only artifact of the GM’s primacy is a GM screen — and a lot of people will eschew that entirely. The ‘canvas’ here is the imaginations of everyone sat at the table — a shared creative space that everyone can have their own nuances and understanding of. The canvas for me online, is FoundryVTT. Maybe this is completely bouncing off you, and you’re thinking to yourself “These feel like limitations of software, not of the online component”, and you might be right, but I think the manifest spatial difference is important. At the table, people have faces. The GM is sat right there, with only a piece of card to divide them (if that). This is a space that is shared by board games, by dinners, by casual conversations. It’s a space of equals, and I think it’s something missing from the online experience.
I used to be brave. I created rooms, locations, spaces that were only constrained by what I could think up. When it came to game-time, I’d find some way of representing that space with the tools I had. Empty battlemats with squares, some absolute guff plastic tokens to represent furniture that I had in every rooms, Pathfinder Pawns and marker pens. This was my arsenal, and with it, I would find a way. The fact that these tools are so limited meant, ironically, that I never felt constrained. What I would show in the physical space with my tokens would be so far removed from the mental image that I wanted to share with the players, that I never felt the need for it to be realistic or even passable. If I wanted something to be a really big setpiece, I’d pick up some specific physical artifacts for it and that’d be a little treat. Otherwise, who cares? I trust my players to imagine the world as we’re describing it, and the physical tokens are just there to remind people of distances and enemy types. Were the enemy types properly represented by the tokens? Absolutely not — while the Pathfinder Pawns selection is extensive, it’s not exhaustive, and there were plenty of occasions when I wanted seven skeletons but only had five tokens. Guess I’ll just have to make do!
I used to be brave. Now I can’t play out a scene unless I’ve spent a couple of hours mapping it out. It’s so easy for me to make absolutely satisfactory maps with the innumerable mapping tools that I have, that god forbid we do something that isn’t mapped. You want to what? No, you can’t go to the Forest of Kelem’Dir, I haven’t spent four hours mapping it out and writing the journal entries in FoundryVTT yet. I’ll spend ages agonizing over the tokens, making sure the image is just right — after all, there’s such a selection of images on Google that one of them has to satisfy my relentless requirements. Suddenly, the space described on the screen is no longer just a mechanical aid, it becomes the space. I don’t need to use my imagination, my players don’t need to use their imaginations, and critically, the walls have been erected. “What happens if a token runs off the end of the board?” — strangely this was never a problem when it came to in person play. Everyone knew the boundaries of the physical space because you’re playing on a fucking table, but our imaginations weren’t limited to that. The Forest of Kelem’Dir wasn’t limited to a 30×30 grid, that’s just what we had for that engagement. Online though, why should I give you flowery and in-depth vocal descriptions? The map image is right there you know, just stare at it and accept it. Yes, that bush is real. No, those crates that I put there last time for a little encounter aren’t real, j-just ignore them.
I always laughed at how Critical Role was billed as being dynamic and an evolving story, but when they had encounters, Matt Mercer would bring out the most elaborate and hand-crafted of terrain pieces. It felt a bit like a food show, where they want to convince the audience that they’re cooking things off the cuff, but the chef keeps producing premade flans and yelling “STRANGE COINCIDENCE THAT I JUST HAPPENED TO MAKE THIS EARLIER”. I wondered to myself, if they did something truly bizarre, would Matt just bring out the felt tips and plastic sheet? Now look at me. That’s what I’ve become — I have to be pre-prepared for every encounter, and if I’m not, I’ll just try and steer things away from that. Otherwise, what will my players be looking at in FoundryVTT? An empty grid? After the dozens of maps that I’ve just thrown at them? How horrid! No, no the Forest of Kelem’Dir will just have to wait.
Obviously, there are plenty of people that play online and just use the most basic of tools to represent spaces. This could very well be a ‘me’ problem, but I’ve heard similar points from other online GMs. Things like the line of sight/walls feature in FoundryVTT feel fantastic when you start using them, but they funnel you down a certain direction. To use line of sight, you need to have walls. To use walls, you need to have a map, and to have a decent map with those walls on it, you probably need to have done it beforehand as the tools are a bit too finicky to do on the fly. You’re certainly going to struggle to throw a map together in Dungeondraft in time for your players to walk through the door. Foundry is a great tool in a lot of ways, but it constrains as much as it gives, and that’s something that I’m beginning to understand more and more.
Waste the Motherfuckers
Ah yes, the big one. The eternal problem that has been a problem before online play. “One of my players keeps looking at their phone and forgetting what they’re doing until its their turn, and it takes forever. AITA for shooting them in the face with a glock 17?” Is engagement worse in online play? Absolutely yes. You’re playing at a computer (most likely), and you need to have a thing called The Internet. Sadly for us GMs, The Internet also provides things that aren’t just RPGs — but a myriad of entertaining, soul-stealing activities. Those are the things that your RPG needs to contend with for attention, and those things have been finely tuned over years and years to steal engagement. Who’s going to win: you, or the thing that the ICO tells you to worry about? Spoilers, probably not you, at least not all of the time. The worst part is that it only takes a short lapse for it to be very frustrating for everyone else at the table. 20 seconds of missed attention, and then you’ve got someone going “oh sorry was it my turn? What just happened?”. This feels like slamming the handbrake in a session, and if it happens repeatedly, then you’re in trouble. Did this happen in-person? Yes. However, there’s more of a social taboo about whipping out your phone and ignoring everyone else at a table. Plus, it’s far harder to ignore people when they’re sitting right there, possibly talking at you.
There’s another side of this which I think is very important. Much like the experience of working from home, playing RPGs on your computer can make it meld in with everything else. You close the application you use for playing other games/writing/whatever, and you open the application you use for RPGs. The lack of ceremony makes it seem incredibly pedestrian. Whereas in-person play makes certain demands. You have travel time, you have food, drinks, a sense of tactility to the whole experience. Usually when I DM, I’m running things at my house, but I have to do a fair amount of rearranging to get it to a state where we can play: so even for me, there is a procedure to getting into the ‘RPG-playing-mode’. These things are important because I think they force your brain to change gears in a significant way. It also breeds a level of commitment to the game — if you just travelled 30 mins to an hour to get somewhere, you’re less likely to want to fob it off in the moment. If you’re sat at your PC, using the same actions, peripherals, wearing the same stuff as you were for the previous hours of consciousness, you’re less likely to believe that this RPG game-playing time is special.
I would even go as far as to say this extends to the very mechanics of playing RPGs as well. Rolling a dice in person is a very exclusive action unless you’re a compulsive gambler. You are highly unlikely to be rolling dice for any other purpose other than playing a game. What about rolling a dice online? Hell, I use my keyboard and mouse for basically every waking moment of my life. If I’m “rolling a dice” using those tools, then that activity has entered the most pedestrian, commonplace group that I have. It’s not just the feel of the dice as a physical object, it’s how we’re engaging with them. Physical, on-paper character sheets can lend a level of value that characters in VTT platforms just don’t have. A player is more likely to care about a character that they’ve physically had to fill in a sheet for, and have a physical artifact representing, than a character that could be easily copy-pasted a thousand times. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to care about a character you created in a VTT platform, that argument would be utterly ridiculous, but it’s a question of what mode of playing encourages what behaviours?
I haven’t talked about the advantages of playing online really, because I think they’re going to be fairly obvious. You don’t get COVID, you’re able to play with people who are very far away, it’s easier to schedule, and you don’t need to have a large-ish room to do it. There’s plenty more that I’ve missed, but there’s just an insurmountable point against the online platform. Fundamentally, TTRPGs are an incredibly unique thing — there is nothing quite like them as an activity. At a time where we have incredible technology driving videogames to be more immersive, more engaging, and more realistic, people are STILL playing roleplaying games driven by their imaginations and some dice. More and more people join this group every day. This says to me that videogames do not scratch the itch for a TTRPG, and until we’re floating in shared-mind tanks, I don’t think they ever will. Something else that reinforces the uniqueness of TTRPGs is the difficulty of describing them to someone who has never played. It feels impossible to put it into words without missing some fundamental aspect of the experience — yes, there’s a level of improv and theatre, but it’s not quite that (and some people ignore that element entirely). Yes, we’re playing a game, but you can’t really win it (though some RPGs might define that state). Yes there’s rules, but they’re not rules in the same way that Monopoly has rules, they’re more like a framework for thinking (though some RPGs might define some very hard and fast rules with very strict action spaces).
The things that make TTRPGs unique and engaging are the things that make it hard for software to deal with them. Computers do not like vagueness, they do not handle grey areas well. This is slowly changing, but for the time being, the realm of the computable is the plane of the rigid. The lovely automation features that FoundryVTT brings are constraining and shackling play to try and enable computation. Yes you can have walls and line-of-sight, but there’s these limitations and restrictions on types of wall — and you better not have too many otherwise performance will tank. You can have maps to represent the space, but there’s size limitations and predefined grid types. These little things are slowly but surely whittling away what makes TTPRGs a joy to play. They live in that grey space of uncertainty, where only a human mind (for now) can properly explore, comprehend and express. Weirdly the thing that made me realise this was happening was a module for the Pathfinder 2e system in Foundry that meant you could click a button on an attack and have it roll the attack, check if AC was exceeded, roll damage, apply damage and resistances. Surely I should want this, right? All of these things are just mathematical paperwork that could be filed away to leave time for the proper decisions?
And yet…it feels wrong. The ceremony of stating “I’m going to attack the kobold”, rolling the dice, stating the outcome…it feels like it is more than just the mathematical computations being performed. When a player says what they’re going to do, rolls the dice, and tells us the outcome, it comes more across as what they are doing. They are responsible for the whole activity, with the GM telling them whether or not their activity has succeeded. Whereas with a VTT platform, it feels more like we’re asking the computer to do something for us. The players are spectators to the computation that the software does, and in some weird way, we’re no longer in full control of the game. We have an additional player, the computer, doing things as well. This is a weird ramble, but I can’t fully express why that level of automation seems to be ‘too far’. I don’t think I’m unique in this sentiment though. It feels like the freeform, maleable, imaginative gameplay has been constrained to a box for the purposes of automating the shit out of it. When that box is there, it becomes much harder to see past it, and your choices very quickly become limited to what the software allows, rather than what you actually want to do.
Obviously a lot of these criticisms are targeted specifically at the automation software that makes online play easier — if we are defining online play in terms of “you go on discord, roll dice in person and maybe share images occasionally”, these won’t apply. In that scenario though, the problem of engagement is the primary roadblock as it’s going to be difficult for some people to sit at their computer without visual stimulai to remain engaged. Anyway, this is all a fairly moot point, because most people won’t be playing online at the moment out of choice. Just wanted to write down my thoughts on it.
1 Such wisdom on this blog eh? You can’t play a game without players, put that on my gravestone. I’m the next Socrates.