The joys of lockdown: Online play

I have played more role-playing games the last six months than I have done for a long, long time. One reason for this is that everyone has moved online so it’s much easier to get a group together. When the alternative is to not play, we can all help find ways to make it work. At some point during the pandemic, we got used to the new smalltalk markers “you are muted”, “I think there is something wrong with my internet today”, and “your voice is breaking off, please try to reconnect”.

I want to share some of my online experiences but first a summary of what I’ve learned about playing games online.

A laptop with a headset, pen and paper for notes, and dice to get that good old dice feel. We had two great sessions with my hack of How We Came to Live Here, set in a mythical, pre-colonial American South West. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2020.

Play for fun

Play should be fun and energising. Video sessions can be draining, especially with many participants. I’ve found that scheduling shorter and more frequent sessions with smaller groups work well. Also, don’t be afraid of the occasional silence and allow for plenty of breaks. Be sure to do a systems check with everyone before jumping in to the game and make room for smalltalk. If someone is not up for playing, either because of a bad day or bad connection, just reschedule. When no one has been sitting in trains or busses to get to the same location on time, the cost of a cancellation is much smaller than attempting to play when the circumstances are not for it.

It’s not about technology

You don’t need fancy technology with integrated dice rollers, ambient music, and gradually revealing maps. Story games are about creating and sharing stories, not about special effects. The important tools are voice and imagination, everything else is optional. A decent video app like Zoom or Google Meet plus a group chat is all you need. For the kind of games I enjoy, throw in the occasional physical dice roll.

Google Docs is good to share and edit documents during play. Or just email character sheets and background material to players before the session. Doodle for scheduling also still works.

Oh, and of course you need people to play with.

And good riddance

The first online game I got in after the Summer was a re-run of the scenario … and Good Riddance! by Malik Hyltoft.

It’s a game about people finding themselves completely alone in an otherwise very recognisable world. Friends, family, classmates, neighbours, the clerk in the grocery store, everyone else have disappeared. Our protagonists lives on and tries to come to terms with the situation. Can they find new meaning in a life in solitude as memories of past traumas and unresolved events haunts them, triggered by locations and events in their new, yet familiar world?

Waiting for the train to Copenhagen at an almost empty train station (Södertälje Syd). I had one work trip to Denmark in September before everything closed down again. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2020.

A dice-less story game for three players and one game master with pre-defined characters and scenes. A good choice for online play for gamers new to the hobby or with rusty experiences.

I played ... and Good Riddance! with three players in three hours including smalltalk. It was fun for me to revisit, a lot has happened in my life since I ran it at Fastaval 11 years ago, and with the pandemic fresh in mind, I related to the game and the stories it generated differently.

The Gargantuan

While diving into (the archive of Danish (Scandianian) rpg conventions) for more games to run online, I came upon The Gargantuan by Troels Ken Pedersen. Not only is Troels extremely productive when it comes to creating games, he also has a very clear idea for what he wants players to achieve with each game, and hence guaranteeing targeted fun (fun in the gut-punching kind of fun you have when you play games addressing heavy subject matter). The Gargantuan is about how language generates racism and classism, and how the ultimate consequence of that is to decide who lives and who dies. The game is set in a steam punk setting with a clear reference to a certain large passenger ship who sank on its virgin journey to the new world.

I ran the game over two sessions with a group from Skåne and we had great fun. The character gallery is quite large so take your time and don’t worry if some of the characters don’t get much screen time. We will remember the bungee jumping goblins in the Rock Bottom bar for a long time and look forward to the sequel(!).

No, there is not much spelunking in the games I play these days. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2020.

Image from the Wizard Torn

I played Ars Magica a long time ago and it was through that I came to learn about the Cathars and the siege of Montsegur that inspired me to create Montsegur 1244. Five years ago I had a go at a one shot game where I tried to capture the feel of wizards disagreeing with each other and blowing things up, another possible Ars Magica experience. For fun I signed up to run the game at Grand Tribunal, a game convention for Ars Magica fans organised by the very active, likeable, and organised CJ in Cheltenham, UK. The convention goers were a nice international group to hang out with (I had the fun experience to be perceived as a Swede as I had signed up with an address in Sweden) and I enjoyed to run my game for people used to a play style of arcane mystery adventures. I also enjoyed playing in games offered, including the traditional Saturday evening LARP with lots of conflicting secret agendas and plot lines.

A few weeks ago as I cleaned my spam folder, I came upon an invitation to join an online version of the Grand Tribunal, Image from the Wizard Torn, only a couple of days away. As my weekends aren’t busy I signed up for small talk and a game. CJ himself ran an introductory adventure about apprentices sneaking out on Midsummer’s night to have fun at the local fair. Needless to say, we ran into a few more complications along the way, including the accidental kidnapping of the lord of the manor. It’s not often I participate as a player, so it was great fun to take that role for a change. CJ also had some nice tricks for how to socialise 20+ gamers from across time zones and have appropriate talks about cats, kids, history, and playing games.

Same-same but different

Online play is not the same as face-to-face, but it has a lot to offer, also experiences that are unique to the online format. I enjoy to be playing again and to explore how to use the online format for maximum fun.