7 Ways to Improve Virtual and Online Game Sessions

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1144

With the amount of online games I’ve been playing and running, I’ve learned a few things that help make virtual sessions better.

Be Clear on Mission & Focus

It’s more difficult herding cats in online games.

With numerous distractions via computer, software, and home environment, we must work strategically to keep players focused.

Having clear party goals gives us one way to do this.

One RPT GM uses Trello to post all quests, Loops, and hooks. The party decides their current mission and moves that card to the top of the pile.

Campaign Logger GMs can use the share Log Entry feature to stream quests publicly to players.

I’m also finding virtual sessions take longer to gain consensus.

Bandwidth is reduced (harder to pick-up body language, stilted conversations due to mono-channel audio, fading attentions).

And the remoteness sometimes makes players feel disconnected and less likely to engage in full.

One trick I’ve started using to cut through a noisy group and get heard is to call out players by name.

This gets attention quick.

In face-to-face games I use character names to address players. However, many players don’t tune into this while on virtual.

But everyone notices when their name is used.

“Hey Johnn!”

“Wait, what? I’m here.”

“Roll a strength check please….”

So help your party out with a clear quest. It means less consensus is required, more plot advancement, and less time wasted during sessions.

And use real names to get attention fast.

Aim For Shorter Sessions

My preference now is 2-3 hour sessions.

Thanks to a computer-based day job, I spend a lot of time working on my screen tan.

Putting another clump of hours behind the keyboard at the end of a day fatigues my body and eyes further.

And thanks to not having travel time for a virtual game, it’s easier to hold shorter sessions.

Seems to fit into busy schedules easier too.

If you’re like me and you grew up on marathon D&D sessions, then going shorter might feel wrong.

But a shorter session format might work out better for your group and let you game more often.

I also find shorter sessions more helpful for prep.

Encounters play out slower in VTT, so prep load is reduced.

However, I have not found a fast way to source and load maps on-the-fly.

If using prepped maps, no problem. But if I need a new map during sessions, I’m stuck.

I tried to draw, but my mouse skills are such that it looks like a 2 year old rolled a critical fumble with the Crayolas.

So shorter game sessions bail me out when I need to improv a map. I can stall sometimes until I can make one between sessions.

Use Multiple Devices

We use Zoom or Discord for voice and video. Also for back channel chat.

And we’re finding it easier to chat on a secondary device and run the VTT on our main device.

For example, I’ll Zoom on my iPad and use Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds on my PC (haven’t tried Foundry yet).

Some players have older machines and this reduces the CPU load.

Some folks have single screens or small monitors, and this gives them more visual real estate.

And some players are mobile. One player played while biking trails in Japan. Being able to take the chat with you keeps you in the game even if you can’t access the VTT for awhile.

Jump Them In Fast

Some groups need an on-ramp to get into the right headspace for a good session. Some groups can start playing right away.

Regardless of your player types, once gameplay begins get everyone engaged with a fantastic first 15 minutes.

Start your sessions with a bang!

I’ve found slow starts make it harder to get everyone engaged, focused, and in-character.

For on-ramps, show up early and launch the meeting or chat so players can talk about the real world for a bit and get it out of their system.

Another trick is to push out a great graphic when the time is right. Props and visuals tend to hook players easily and get them into the game. Perhaps a map showing the current party location, or some news or gossip heard recently done as a scroll jpg design, or an image you’ve dug up for an item, location, or NPC.

A clear demarcation between end of real world and start of our imaginary one helps everyone know they need to pay attention, get into character, and warm up their dice.

You’re on Mute

Good housekeeping helps make games more pleasant.

We find the last half of sessions to be much more productive because we remember to stay quiet and let others have uninterrupted turns. The chaotic starting energy has worn off and we’re in full online gaming mode.

Unfortunately, online voice and video do not allow the same freedom and flow of conversation as in-person.

So we need to clamp down on noise a bit.

Ask players to go on mute to reduce background noise.

When you’re speaking, others should be listening. If you’re engaging a player, then just the two of you should be off mute.

Mute also helps control folks who have a direct and unfiltered line between brain and mouth. That little bit of friction of turning off mute often waylays a reactionary interruption of little value. 😉

Other good housekeeping habits to encourage amongst your group::

  • Clean your room or use a virtual background
  • Don’t eat in front of others if you can help it (mute on!)
  • Put your character name in every place possible instead of your real name (VTT chat, vid chat, Discord alias, etc.)

Mix Theatre of the Mind With the Grid

Back to the point of ad hoc maps being tougher to summon while gaming online, I have started using a blend of grid and no grid.

A lot has to do with preferences and system. For example, I don’t need the grid at all for Night’s Black Agents.

But if you’re a crunchier GM running a system that does well with the grid, you might find grid combats a bit more involved to run, and more time consuming.

So I often reserve grid fights to the important combats.

I’ll use simple, boxed “zone maps” or photos for location and flavour, and do the encounter without a tactical grid.

You might already do this in your virtual and face-to-face games.

If not, give it a whirl and see if it helps speed up minor encounters.

Think Scene, Not Encounter

VTTs makes it easier to run large maps and vertical space.

In face-to-face, your table size often sets an arbitrary map limit.

This works against you when characters earn greater abilities.

Good foe tactics must involve full use of space and time.

For example, if characters can fly, you’ll want flying foes, too. Or if you want to kite to divide and conquer, you’ll need more space to manoeuvre.

Virtual gaming allows easier map switching, map zoom and pan, and tokens to stack.

Take advantage of the technology by making bigger maps.

You can also think of your 5 Room Dungeons holistically, as one unit.

I think of my 5RDs as a body.

The PCs are viruses. 🙂

And I run the “immune system” of my 5RD by tapping any and all nearby encounters.

This approach hit home while I GM’d D&D 4E.

Running each encounter as a silo loses me good gameplay opportunities, makes adventures less challenging, and makes games less believable.

So when characters make noise, loot, attack, and behave like hobos, you can activate all your 5 Room Dungeon’s defenses and resources to expunge the threat.

It’s Your Turn

There you have it. Seven ways to improve online gaming, regardless of what software you use.

If you have any VTT or online gaming tips, please hit reply!

We could use help tackling this interesting medium and ensure we’re having more fun at every game.