Do I Now Favor Online over Face to Face?

Regarding Table-top Role-Playing Games, I Think I Do

, over on Twitter I read the following tweet:

things get missed without face to face communication

That isn’t a reason to force everyone back into an office setting, it’s a reason for people to learn how to use the tools at their disposal.

Also, lol @ the idea that things were never missed before.

And instead of thinking about my employment situation, I started thinking about gaming.

Comparing Two Modes

My last face to face Role Playing Game (RPG 🔍) session was . It was our first session for a new Eberron 🔍 campaign. As had become our custom, one person brought a growler of their delicious home brewed beer, another brought ingredients for making dinner, and the rest of us chipped in cash and snacks.

Before Covid-19 this group would get together about 3 Mondays a month and play.

In , when we all began keeping physical distance, we briefly talked about continuing our game over Zoom. But I balked. At the time, work was all Zoom meetings all of the time, and I wasn’t looking for more of that. I also was also prejudiced towards face to face play. That’s what I grew up with, knew, and found the most kinship.

, I have played about 50 or so online sessions with the following systems:

Most of the games have eschewed “battlemaps”, favoring theater of the mind. In some cases, we’ve used Roll20 to help with our character sheets. If you play Burning Wheel Gold online, use the character sheets for Roll20. The sheets help you track tests, difficulties, and negotiating the nuances of Beginner’s Luck.

Sometimes we’ve used Zoom with video, other times Discord audio. There almost always a shared Google Doc for campaign notes. And for quite a few of my games, I use org-roam as my note taking companion.

What I’ve Learned

First, I find that video detracts from the game. If a player requested video, I’d happily oblige. These days, in any video call I turn off my self-view; that alone reduces distraction and fatigue. With a bluetooth headset, I can stand up, walk around, and remain in the game.

Second, having access to computer assisted note taking helps my note capturing. I romanticize the idea of numerous hand-written campaign journals, and find them to be tremendous artifacts for later review, but truth is I wasn’t all that good at that aspect of note taking. I do find that I have better memory of things that I write with pen on paper.

I find that I do my best preparation with pencil and paper. There’s something free and creative about that medium compared to tapping away on a contained screen.

Third, with online games, things are easier to coordinate. Most people can play from their own space. No driving or ride coordination considerations. And I can open my table to a larger group.

I hopped on the Burning Wheel Discord by way of the Burning Wheel Subreddit. And after a while, I responded to a Game Master (GM 🔍) posting that they were looking for a game. I think that week I saw three or four games launch from the looking for game channel. Though that channel’s now quieter, perhaps most everyone there has found their campaigns.

Fourth, and perhaps serendipitous, I’ve found more players who dive deep into role-playing games. Finding others that will chat about a wide variety of games is rare in my locale. But online, it’s common place. This manifested , when after our Burning Wheel Gold session, we spent another 45 minutes chatting about systems and the session we just completed.

Earlier that day in that campaign’s discord we chatted about Emacs (Emacs), owning a business, other text editors, programming languages, and books.

At least three of us have often been GMs. There’s something fulfilling in finding fellow GMs who burn with that same intensity about games and systems. And I know for myself, there’s always that slight bit of separation between a traditional GM and the players. It’s been so rewarding finding a small cohort of fellow GMs who have played and ran games for three decades.

Am I Missing Face to Face Play

Less than I thought. I miss sharing a home brewed beer and a tasty meal with friends, but the game table experience I’ve found online has begun to overshadow the experience around the physical table. Audio play is different than face to face. No one can see me wildly gesticulating as I emphatically act out my characters speech.

In online play, talking over each other strains communication harder. Which means, as we play, we develop better habits for giving people their space to speak. In face to face, it’s far easier for me to inadvertently trample over another speaker.

The assistive tools help facilitate record keeping, which I’ve found helps keep the fiction more forward facing. And while I do miss the rattle of dice in my hand, that brief delay between submitting my Burning Wheel Gold test via Roll20 and seeing the results invokes that moment of bated breath as the dice tumble across the table.

I now know that if I’m looking for game, I can almost certainly find a group. We can interview each other and get started all within a week of time. I can seek out a game that best fits my schedule.

So, will I play face to face again?

Absolutely. It’s a lot of fun. Some games just need the roar of the table. Looking at you Dungeon Crawl Classics 🔍. But in these days of mutating Covid-19, strained hospitals, and vaccine in-eligible children, I’m not looking to minimize my contributions to the physical network graph of transmission.


I forgot to mention, but Alex Schroeder brought up one other consideration for online gaming:

There are some things that don’t quite work as well. If the group is large, it’s hard to joke with your table neighbour while somebody else is taking their turn. I’m easily bored and seeing human faces nearby keeps my monkey brain busy. But the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to just play with fewer people and use rules that don’t have long fights, or don’t have a level up system that results in combat slowing down the longer we play.

I’ve always struggled with limiting the number of players at the table. In years past, I’d think there’s always room. After all, if I’m the one running the game, I have a lot of control over pacing. But, when faced with a wall of faces, that very reality becomes quite different.

Give me an online game with 4 people; that’s my happy spot.