Players “Checked Out” When Campaign Switched To Virtual Online

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1125

RPT GM Hornick switched his game to virtual and now has trouble getting his players to roleplay:

My players have started to outgame-play the sessions with little ingame interactions. Maybe this is due to the medium of Roll20 and Discord.

Do you have any ideas on this besides talking to them about this?

They lately tend to state what their characters are going to do from an outgame perspective without actually communicating ingame or talking to each other.

They act on knowledge that only specific characters have. But I do not want to give this information to those specific players only, so that all players can have such experience like talking to an infected mermaid, even though their characters only see that one of them knows what she is saying.

They don‘t ask why they all should rescue her. They don‘t ask what the character is doing. They just don‘t roleplay.

And even more, I honestly expect them to describe and roleplay in a way that is fun for all.

But they lately tend to just say they use this or that skill without getting creative, describing something cool, giving tid bits of personal character experience or background, talking ingame about every day life stuff, or creating something new in this world we all play in.

Do you have any tip how to deal with this?

That’s a tricky one, Hornick. Thanks for the question.

In virtual, it’s easy to mute your mic and wait your turn. Expected, even, in a medium where it’s hard to hit your social cues, people talk over each other, and we all start speaking at the same time. Easier to be quiet until called upon.

And if using video, you become a small box or circle on the screen while the rest of the real estate goes to the Virtual Tabletop (VTT). When once you were a star of the show, now the map is.

And GMs must work extra hard to bring energy from their little screen square. No more pounding the table, walking around making big gestures, or even being the centre of attention. It’s tough making enthusiasm infectious in virtual.

Books and pencils are gone, replaced by databases and keyboards. Even the dice require no more than a click to chuck. It’s a minimalist’s dream.

With all physicality and presence from your game removed, the emotional connection wanes.

It’s tough being a virtual GM. Even tougher on players, methinks.

I’d love to hear from GMs experienced with VTT gaming about how to keep remote players engaged and excited.

Here are a few thoughts of mine.

I think we need to focus on three things:

  1. Energy
  2. Engagement
  3. Environment

The following tips each touch on one or more of these factors for making VTTs more fun at every game.

Create More Situation

Get your party debating and planning so they start talking to each other.

Pose dilemmas so players weigh pros and cons of each choice.

Go the Gumshoe route and make information easier to come by so players know what’s up ahead and discuss plans for it.

Toss in more puzzles to get players collaborating on solutions.

Create situations that necessitate player interaction.

Be the Example

Good leaders do the things they want their teams to do.

Be sure to do all the things you’d like your players to follow along and do as well.

Roleplay your NPCs. Speak like the NPC would. Use a different voice. Portray them well with props, attitudes, and hooks.

Add brief but interesting details to people, places, and things. Show them images you’ve googled.

Demonstrate how NPCs and monsters do not use information you have as GM.

Keep your energy up and pouring through your talking head box on the screen.

Some players might see the pattern, notice what you’re doing, or subconsciously pick up what you’re putting down and start roleplaying.

In turn, this makes it more obvious and clear to other players what they could be doing, as well.

Take Break

Do you call frequent small breaks when you play online?

Try it out.

Use these breaks to set up the next map, or get ready for the next encounter.

As you call each break, ask group members some questions to prompt discussion.

If you want a personal discussion, ask for updates about players’ family, work, and hobbies.

If you want game discussion, ask them about character goals or attitudes about recent game events.

Give players unstructured game time to chat and serve up conversation prompts.

Some people have learned it’s easier to listen, stay quiet, and sit back in virtual. Better than interrupting or being interrupted all the time due to lack of the usual signals we get in-person.

Get them back into the conversation.

A Good Host

Be a connector. Players are staring into their monitors now, not at each other directly in-person.

This creates a social gap.

If you connect people, they’ll often start engaging directly with each other again.

Little Phingers, what do you think Sir Valiance should do?

Sandy, you have dogs too, right? Terry was telling me his bark all day now. Do yours bark a lot too?

Hey everyone, remind me what magic items you’ve got. Just read them aloud. If you could, describe each one a bit too. I want to update my records.

Templeton, what spells have your prayed for today?

Who’s cheering for Hebra here as she tries to take the on raging dinosaur?

I’ll give anyone who helps Krug here lift the gate a bonus roll.

Roghan, the bartender says “Greetings, this tavern is protected” in thieves’ cant to you.

Keep getting players back into the game. Call them by name. Get them to perform an action. Match them up to help each other. Have NPCs initiate.

VTTs spend more time focusing on fancy map controls and 3D dice than on interplay. Compensate by being a good host.

Ask For Details

You mentioned not talking with players directly about your feelings. Perhaps you’ve already done so and need more ideas.

But nothing in-game beats calling players out to supply details.

Terry: Can I use athletics to jump the pit?

GM: Yes. Do you take a running start or just leap from where you are at? What do you do with the heavy bag of loot you’re hauling around — do you jump while carrying that too?

Terry: Oh, right. Yes, I ask Hebra to throw me the bag after I get across. Then I….

GM: [interrupts] Hey Hebra, are you ok with that? Krug’s asking you to heave all his stuff over the pit when he gets across.

Billy: Definitely not. You’ve got all those orc skulls in there, right Terry? I’m not touching the bag.

Terry: Sigh. Ok. Robbie, can Templeton throw me my bag?

Robbie: You really should do something about those orc skulls. They must be getting very smelly. It could give away our position. But yes, I’ll toss it to you.

Ask one person a question and they get engaged. Ask a person to share something with another, and those two start engaging.

Keep prompting for character descriptions and portrayal of actions.

Ask for details to bring other players into the scene.

What You Reward Gets The Focus

In a recent Musing I went on about players being a reflection of their environment.

What you reward will be what gets played.

If each monster is worth XP, you get murder hobos.

If being the first to break into rooms gets first pick of treasure, you get impulsive characters.

If you spend more time fiddling with tricky software than gaming it up, you get disengaged players.

If you want more roleplay, reward for that. Offer bonuses mid-game to acknowledge great roleplay.

If you want more details, ask players to describe things they find important that you then spotlight in gameplay.

Get Physical

The game is now about who can sit in a chair the longest while soaking up a good monitor tan.

Get players — and yourself — moving.

For any player consensus, ask them to raise their hands instead of saying yes or typing into chat.

Ask players to demonstrate what their character is doing.

Set a timer to take a few deep breaths every half hour. Invite players to stand and get oxygen into their brains.

Keep healthy food within arm’s reach. Drink water instead of soda. Avoid sugar crashes.

When players “roll” their virtual die for a big test, have everyone beat their tables and chairs for drumrolls.

Emerge from the dark hole and keep your room well lit.

Get physical and move around to keep energy up.


Your players might be suffering distance fatigue.

VTT games are slower. Remote. And sometimes a bit dehumanizing.

Focus on your three E’s next session to liven things up:

  • Energy
  • Engagement
  • Environment

Ask more from your players. Have them create things. Name things. Describe things.

Create gameplay that needs more intra-party discussion and interaction.

Make combats and turns go faster.

Be good to yourself and keep your enthusiasm up.

I hope this helps, Hornick. Let’s see if GMs more experienced with VTT gaming than I have some additional ideas for us.