Online RPG With VTT: How To Engage Players Better - Roleplaying Tips

Online RPG With VTT: How To Engage Players Better

Recently an RPT GM asked how he could help his players engage more and roleplay better after switching to online Virtual Tabletop (VTT) games.

Several of our fellow RPT GMs wrote in with fantastic tips. Thank you!

Here’s what they said.

Losing that People Connection

From RPT GM Ian Gorham

Hey Johnn,

Pretty much all my groups went online after a big move from MN to WA. I had really enjoyed tabletop until then, but the magic slowly and silently disappeared after that.

It took me a really long time to figure out what was going on, but about 2 years later, while playing a game of FATE with some local friends at a game bar, things finally clicked: it was the format that’s the problem!

I’ve spent a ton of time thinking about this since, so this post touched on some stuff I care a lot about.

In the years since, I’ve spent a ton of time paying attention to what makes online play different from local play. A short list (some of which you hit on):

Monochannel

There’s none of the cross talk or volume dynamics that you get in-person. You can’t do an aside whisper to someone or anything like that.

This makes layered communication impossible (most tables have 2+ conversations going on at a time in many situations as required, but you can only ever have 1 cogent conversation at a time on Zoom etc).

And makes it impossible to put in side remarks or comments without trampling over the main conversation.

Worse, direction goes away. You can’t get someone’s attention by saying “hey” in their direction, because it sounds like it’s coming the same direction for everyone.

This ups the complexity for communication on a subconscious level in ways you don’t realize unless you look for it.

Dilution

There’s a lot less of a focus on the person. Not only does using Roll20 put everyone in tiny boxes while the map is blown up, but even if you use Zoom and put people big on a second screen you’re only looking at them half the time.

The mental dynamic of having the entire internet at your fingertips makes temptation to get distracted much harder to resist.

It might start with looking up rules for something that just happened, but soon you’re looking up new character builds based on that feat you found, and then before you even realize it you’re just surfing reddit or whatever.

You lose eye contact entirely, and often people do a garbage job of actually pointing their camera at their faces.

A lot of people have two screens, and then put the camera above the screen with Roll20 or whatever on it. So whenever they talk to you, they’re looking somewhere else.

Solutions

We spent a bunch of time figuring out how to remedy this. The first big breakthrough was rephrasing the environment.

I dropped Roll20 and switched to a format where it’s just me looking at the screen while at a table without a ready keyboard and mouse.

More of a video conference setup than a “chat at a computer” setup. If I need notes or whatever, I’ll use a separate laptop or phone same as I would playing locally.

Setting expectations. People should know they’re not supposed to be wandering off mentally or otherwise unless they’re not in-scene.

Small scenes with only 1 or 2 people — 3 max, and especially with heavy roleplaying prompts.

It’s often best to just kick this off yourself as DM. Players will pick up on the cues.

I’ll regularly say stuff like, “Hey Brom and Gix, Lysta pulls you back as you’re all walking back to the hideout” and then launch into the character asking about stuff.

Or I’ll just say, “Hey Pyotr and Lan, you do something over downtime together. What was it?”

Going around in a circle and prompting two and three person scenes between each pairing is a great way to prompt improv and roleplay without worrying about spotlight balance.

Switching side conversations and smart remarks to text. The twitch stream I run just uses twitch chat for that sort of stuff, while the non-broadcast campaigns I’ve seen use discord chat.

On our twitch stream shows, we have players watch what’s on-screen through a screen sharing setup. When it’s just two players talking, we try to make a point of switching scenes so it’s just those two players blown up.

This gives people a chance to drop focus a bit and relax (although I’m not really sure how to replicate this without that particular context and setup).

Then of course there’s the standard “Zoom hygiene/manners” stuff.

Make sure you have a decent camera, and it’s on the same screen as the people you talk to.

Consider looking directly into the camera if you’re talking in-character during a big scene, even if it feels a little weird. It’s more for the other person, but it can help add a level of engagement you don’t get without that direct eye contact.

Minimize background noise, get a decent microphone, use headphones, make the conversation as much of your focus as possible.

Make sure your background is uncluttered and that you’re relatively well-framed. There’s plenty of software to reframe if you can’t get it right with camera placement.

Whispers & Roleplay

From RPT GM Drew

Hey Johnn,

I really related to Hornick’s recent question about virtual GMing. And as I’m currently running a couple of games and playing one, I thought I’d take a shot at offering some tips that have worked for me.

I had some of the same issues the first couple of sessions, but these days, the sessions tend to be better. That said, Hornick shouldn’t beat himself up too much (or his players) because online games aredifferent. It’s important to recognise that.

Get Players Used To The New Medium

Something I did which I think helped was to leave spacesin the conversation.

I leave room for the PCs to talk, especially about stuff that wasn’t strategically important, so there was nothing riding on it.

Create a RP encounter just between the players.

For example, meeting in the local tavern to share info.

And if they say “I tell himtry a gentle prompt, such as “go on then…“.

Even have an NPC join in the casual chit-chat — especially a recurring, friendly one — so you’re able to lead the way and prompt them.

Allow players to discuss in-game issues to let them get used to just talking in this new weird, environment.

In a sci fi game recently, my players spent a lot of time discussing which starship to buy. I let it run. It was too long and too involved to ask them to roleplay but it did get them chatting about in-game issues.

Whisper

Use the whisper function on Roll20 to give info to one PC but not everyone, so the player has to share, then ask them to do it in character.

In a recent session, I took this to an extreme and added to the info the PC already had, as the player was talking

It began as an accident, but it became kind of fun as the player tried to keep up and I tried to type faster and we both tried to hide what was going on from the other players.

Later, I tried to work my way around all of them, feeding little tidbits to them, as memories from the past, or stuff they just realised they had heard.

You can overuse this, but once in a while it’s fun.

Making the medium itself part of the game is useful for breaking the self-consciousness and increasing the fun, which naturally helps players let go a bit.

Include a lot of choices in the adventure so PCs have good reasons to talk.

Reward RP generously with XP, even if it means you have to reduce other XP a bit to keep the progression curve the same.

Ask your players. Just ask them to RP more. Tell them it makes it easier for you and you’d appreciate it. Then give them an opportunity, straight away.

Tweak Your Dice Rolls

From RPT GM Shawn Hennessy

Johnn,

I enjoy your emails, and although I have been DMing since the 80s, I always learn something new. I am a virtual DM for 3 different groups, have been using Roll20 since 2014 and have some perspective on the subject.

Ditch or at least limit digital dice rolls. Nothing beats physically rolling a D20 to determine skill checks, combat and death saves.

There needs to be some trust between a DM and their players, so I always encourage real dice rolls in lieu of virtual ones. That is one trick I use to keep players interested, which almost always works.

The second thing I do, and you have touched on this in many articles, is try to integrate a PC’s backstory into your main plot.

Doing so does not have to usurp your main story, whether home brewed or written. Sometimes all it takes is having a player bump into an NPC they know, or read a book or scroll on a topic that is related to something in their back story.

I try to do this at least once a session with at least one specific PC, or more, depending on if the current point in the story can support it.

Another thing to do is put the spotlight on a PC when they do something cool.

Be it disarm a trap, remember some rare arcanic knowledge, or crit a bugbear, put the spotlight on them and ask them to describe the who/what/where/when/why/how they did what they just did.

Encourage a flair for the dramatic and role playing via description or dialogue from the PC that just accomplished a task.

Reward Player/PC success or involvement by giving them inspiration [Johnn: A 5E mechanic that grants a bonus die roll].

I usually reward inspiration for an OOC player making me laugh or saying something funny as much as I do for in-game successes or cleverness.

Another thing I find in virtual play is combat is often tedious or just plain boring.

Sometimes the application is slow, sometimes the map is jittery, sometimes somebody has a bad connection or they don’t understand how to use the virtual tools. These interruptions and lags affect the immersion of the game.

So to combat this, I often just preroll any rolls that I think may occur during the session. This speeds the game up regardless of in-person or virtual, and it prevents any interruption to a dramatic happening because Roll20 is overburdened and slow.

Also, your PCs don’t need to know that you pre-rolled if you think it may hurt the dramatic effect of randomness.

Along the same lines, I sometimes encourage players who experience interruptions more than others to do so as well, or use real dice, as mentioned above.

Lead As They Learn

From RPT GM Terry

Hi Johnn,

My group also switched our weekly D&D 5e Campaign to Roll20 online and I love it. I am a “Pro” user, so there are many things I can do online that I could not do in-person as a GM. 

My group is small — three players. We sometimes have problems with everyone talking at the same time, but I appoint an “Agent” (alternates each session) to manage player discussions, comments, and desires. I rarely have to intervene in their discussions.

The players discuss what they want to do between themselves and then the Agent tells me (the GM) what they have decided to do next.

This has worked very well. However, we always use initiative order in combat to give everyone an opportunity to declare the action they will be taking during the encounter.

I still encourage the players to communicate between themselves before acting, such as getting agreement on positioning for flanking or getting permission before casting an Enlarge spell on the Fighter.

The following are things I do to stimulate interest in character — NPC roleplaying (items 1 & 2), keep players interacting between themselves (item 3), and keep players interacting in the game (item 4):

1) Roleplaying: I add items (a map, rusty key, scroll, picture, bottom half of a letter, or any other seemingly insignificant item) to my NPCs’ possessions (mostly street people like beggars or kids).

During the conversation, the NPC will eventually offer his/her item to one of the characters. The NPC will offer the item after (1d6) PC interactions (with nothing given if 1d6=1).

The players initiate roleplaying with every NPC because they know there is a good chance the NPC might end up giving them something after talking for awhile.

I also treat these roleplays as encounters by rolling initiative and tracking who is next to interact. This keeps things organized and gives each player an exclusive reason and chance to participate. The NPC also gets to ask a question when it’s his/her turn (I use a random NPC Questions/Comments List for the NPCs).

2) Roleplaying: For NPCs who are barkeeps, bar patrons, shop owners, and the like, I fragment the rumors these NPCs share to invite additional questions. That way the PCs get better information as they ask more questions.

And of course some of the information will contain some exaggerations, omissions, and lies. Note: I used your Tip from “Truths, Lies, and Twists” to enhance what I was doing in this regard. I use the Initiative Order style for this also.

3) Player to Player Interaction: I get my players to interact with each other by always asking for a party consensus on all decisions and choices before telling me what they will be doing.

“What has the Party decided to do next?” instead of “What do you do now?” or “What has the Party decided on for the marching order and how does the Party want to proceed down this narrow passageway?”

This requires all players to interact together (with the appointed Agent) to gain a consensus each time they start or perform an action.

Each player gets a vote and majority rules. Some agreements only require a vote with minimal discussion, but some choices produce considerable inter-party discussion before producing a decision. 

4) Player Game Interaction: I encourage in-game player interaction by asking leading questions.

The Agent says, “We proceed cautiously down the corridor.

Before they move, I will ask something like, “Have you discussed if anyone will be performing a specific action I should know about as you proceed down this corridor?

One player might discuss his/her character’s desire to search for traps while another player might discuss his/her character wanting to search for secret doors.

The Agent tells the GM, “The Rogue will be looking for any indication of a trap, and Tiann will be on the lookout for any secret doors as we proceed slowly down the corridor.

My players know that I add +1 to everyone’s Perception Checks for “declared” searches and investigations (rather than using their Passive Perception like when they are not specifically focused).

The more things I prompt them for, the more options they get to consider.

My players are still not seasoned D&D players, so I prompt them if they are preparing to charge ahead without regard for the situation — this is leading them sometimes, but they are always learning.

Engage Player and Character Senses

From RPT GM Paul

As the DM we need to establish some ground rules. One of mine is that the party is all of one alignment, everyone is good or bad.

This builds cohesion and sense of purpose. “Rescue the village!” doesn’t work when one or two players decide it’s not worth the trouble.

I have found over a decade online that clearly defining what can and cannot be done in-game weeds out those players with a more independent take on playing.

In-person it can be handled, but with a single speaker online it presents a challenge that is best dealt with beforehand. We have to stick to our preferred style and trust that the players will as well. Once in the campaign you need to rule quickly and with a hammer hand if necessary. The best players always roll with the punches.

I spend time describing things. The weather, the smells, the sounds, how the characters feel. I often ask for perception rolls even for mundane events and tell them what they sense.

It’s great to throw a situation in where one player is convinced the party is being watched and the other thinks this campground is perfect.

Award experience for role playing and not combat. The bard plays a tune and the player tries some poetry. I give xp for that. The more the others react the more xp I award.

Setup encounters with premade effects. It’s raining, it’s hard to hear, there is a loud boom of thunder! Roll perception. Player A sees movement in the bush, player B gets water in their eyes, player C lost their boot in the mud. 

Use images. The monsters almost always have art, but we can throw other images into a folder to share.

The party meets a merchant. I’ve already put that image in and share it. The shop looks like A, smells like B. “Something is off here, it just doesn’t feel right” to a particular player. “You love this place” to a different player. Let them sort it out. Xp all around.

Those who don’t roleplay often are encouraged to decide what is for dinner. Who will catch the food? How is it prepared? Do you need a fire? Roll a survival check (anyone who wants to) you find some green wood, so the fire is very smokey. The venison is chewy and not very good, but it does satisfy your hunger. The barbarian is still hungry after the meat is eaten.

Engage each player with the small parts. 

It’s also important to note which players are introverts and make sure to include them in the conversation. “The cleric says to help look for clover, do you help? You see some bushes to the right, a large tree with vines to the left and a small creek straight ahead where do you go?” When they answer tell them what they see, hear, and smell.

I always tell ALL players to roll perception checks. Survival checks too. Which way do they go? The bard says east, the fighter west, the wizard doesn’t know but is tired of waiting.

When everyone starts talking at the same time, let them sort it out. A great phrase to say is “I’ll wait for a consensus.”

I rarely if ever talk over them, but will type in the chat.

In FG we can call for a vote if spirits get up. /vote and each player gets an anonymous circle to check.

Use Music

From RPT GM Emma

I have run a VTT campaign for 4 years now. I also had this issue, and one thing I did was to add background noise and sometimes music.

If using Roll20, they have a jukebox option. But there are also music bots that you can get to run in Discord.

Then it’s just a case of queuing up the music from Spotify/Youtube (depending on the bot).

For example, the players were going into an abandoned dwarven fortress and forge, taken over by orcs. So when I added quiet blacksmith noises, and made it slowly louder as they got closer to the forge, it really drew them in.

I also find that weather effects and such while travelling can get them thinking more about what they are doing, rather than just the standard setting up watches and several dice rolls.

If it is windy, they might describe tying the tent to a tree as well as pegging it down, finding a sheltered area for a fire, etc. 

From RPT GM dragonofdispair 

Go Episodic

Create a game with episodic sessions that have a clear beginning – middle – end.

Create a problem, let the players tackle that problem, and then bring that problem to some sort of clear ending.

That doesn’t mean your game can’t have an overarching plot. But self-contained sessions give players a sense of accomplishment and helps them engage when they can’t even reach over and roll dice.

It can be tempting to take advantage of the VTT to present them with a huge, intricate dungeon that they need to explore.

But the best games I’ve played online were ones where stuff happened quickly and they ended the game for the day at some natural, if minor, high point instead of just marking off a day’s worth of rations on their character sheets and camping in the dungeon for the night.

Recently, b/c the campaign calendar showed it was the full moon, the players woke to find the town they were in had suffered some animal attacks in the night. Beginning.

They investigate and determine it was a werewolf, start equipping themselves with all the silver bling they can carry, then start tracking, suffering through the random encounters for that environment. Middle.

Instead of finding the werewolf, they instead find a chapel with a portal in it and decide to go through it. End.

The portal, werewolf, and cult are related elements of the ongoing story, so they didn’t get to dispatch any of them on the first day, but they still ended on an ending point, instead of just camped out in the wilderness to continue tracking the next session.

Let the Players Talk

You do need to keep control of the conversation and make sure everyone has their turns, especially if you have shy players like I do.

But every situation where players are acting in some sort of initiative order (whether in combat or out to keep them from talking over each other) they WILL check out between turns.

This happens at the table as well (dice stacking, scrolling on the phones), but in a virtual game your ability to get them to check back in at the right time is limited.

So create situations where the players aren’t waiting their turns. 

Interrupting players should be minimized. It can be hard to balance that with the need to let everyone talk, but in a group call, such interruptions tend to completely shut down that instead of encourage them to engage.

They feel “talked over” not “encouraged to participate”. 

Sometimes, you need to ask one very talkative player to please finish up so someone else can talk, but breaking in to impose your own needs and desires on that time will make them either argue or retreat. Their spotlight time is so much more precious without the visual feedback of having the table look at them while talking. 

Minimize Dice Rolling

At a physical table, dice rolling is fun. You show off your shiny dice, they make wonderful sounds while you juggle them in your hand, and then there’s a sense of anticipation while they tumble across the table.

Not so with a VTT.

In fact, if your players aren’t super into writing macros, they may find it a chore to type in the dice rolling command for everything.

So think about whether something REALLY needs to be rolled before you demand a roll.

The words “you’re going to succeed, but tell me how” will spark way more discussion and roleplay than “okay roll it” followed by that awkward pause while your player types in slash-r-o-l-l-d-2-0-+-2. 

Session XP With Callouts

I do agree that you should reward what you want. I do not agree that mid-game xp bonuses for good roleplaying is the answer.

While scheduled breaks are good for attention, players (and DMs) are much more distractible in a virtual game, and it’s much harder to bring the focus back onto the game.

Instead, at the end of the game when you are tallying xp make it clear what you are rewarding them for. “And you get an extra 100 xp for that awesome stunt you pulled while fighting that vampire…”

The way I personally do it: instead of forcing everyone to keep track of their own xp, we do communal xp and I actually keep my xp tallies on a google spreadsheet players can access.

In that doc I don’t just put the tally for each session as a single number. Instead, it’s broken up into its components with a separate column describing what each bit of xp was rewarded for, so they can clearly see that they got X amount for killing monsters, Y amount for roleplay, Z amount for advancing the campaign’s plot instead of going off on a random tangent and getting arrested, etc.

I hope that helps.

Use Character Names

RPT GM Gustavo

One thing I found that helps a lot with keeping people on character is addressing them in character. 

It might sound trivial, but at the table you just look and say “what do you do?” Now that’s off because you need to actually ask the player by an identifier he reacts to.

Since we are friends, we tend to call the friend name, it’s the natural thing to do, but that forces the disconnect. 

The solution then, is for the GM to enforce himself to use character names every time when addressing people. 

Increase Player Agency

RPT GM Gregg

Hi Johnn,

I do think choice of game helps.

In Powered By the Apocalypse games, by design, the GM is constantly encouraging the players to speak up by asking what they do, and then the GM reacts (whereas in D&D, it’s more of the players reacting to what the DM sets up, which is easier to be low key about).

I’ve also found since the players in PbtA games by design are coming up with the fiction, they tend to be more “GM like” in their roles. So if you have more people than just the DM doing that active role, it naturally makes the game more vibrant (in other words, the balance is tilted away from it being solely the DM’s job to helm the ship).

So my advice to D&D players is to try to mimic this where possible.

D&D’s rules naturally fight this, since the rules don’t encourage meaningful roleplay. It’s very hard for players to do anything but look at the char sheets and pick the thing to do.

Animated people in shows like Critical Role are actors, and are thus very good at “show boating”…doing more than what D&D by design demands of the players.

But it is possible by sheer force of will to have the DM ask lots of questions to engage their players, pushing them to be more active rather than reactive. This will offset some of that gulf that naturally exists by not playing in person.