On Gathering an Online Group for Gaming

Following up on a Reader Submitted Question

We choose—or choose not—to be alone when we decide whom we will accept as our fellows, and whom we will reject. Thus an eremite in a mountain cave is in company, because the birds and coneys, the initiates whose words live in his “forest books,” and the winds—the messengers of the Increate—are his companions. Another man, living in the midst of millions, may be alone, because there are none but enemies and victims around him.
, The Citadel of the Autarch

I got the following email from a long-time reader:

I read you are successful playing sessions online and I was wonder if you have some pointers to share for people in their mid 40s with children and socially awkward that would like to play again but don’t know where to start.

What follows is a mix of experience and advice. With minimal “You ought to…” but hopefully instead some prompts to guide folks to finding their groups.

Overview of my Online Games

I’ve played the following online table-top RPG games:

A 5E Game
about 6 sessions, my brother reached out to run this. I played with a few childhood friends and my son.
A Grain of Truth in the World of Ardu
2 sessions, I asked about running this with the 5E group.
New Vistas in the Thel Sector
18 sessions, I assembled a small group of friends and my son.
Lavender Hack
about 12 sessions, I am on the GM’s private Slack and he wanted a play test.
The Captain and the Witch
7 sessions, we picked this up after wrapping up Lavender Hack.
Burning Mercia
about 6 sessions, I joined a Burning Wheel discord and answered the call for a game.
The Mistimed Scroll
11 sessions, I put out a private call to a few folks who I’d met online. One player from Burning Mercia and one from New Vistas.
Burning Locusts
16 sessions, this builds from the same group as Burning Mercia.

Most of these have used a mix of Discord, Google Docs, and Roll20. Most of those games were “scheduled” for every week at a set time; with each session being about 2 to 3 hours.

My guess is that we’d end up canceling about 50% of the sessions. But each week we’d have a quick touch-base to see if we were playing.

Advice for Finding/Creating an Online Game Group

I have a somewhat extensive “address book” of potential gamers; And I’d imagine if I put out a call on my blog I could get quite a few interested players.

Also my children are all adults, so instead of scheduling around my children, I tried finding times to schedule with my son. Early on, I prioritized sessions with my son. He lives on his own, so I used our game sessions as a chance to spend time together. However, our schedules have drifted just a bit; but in the future they might re-align. I mention all of that because it contextualizes my advice.

Before You Go Looking for a Game…

Before you go looking, establish three things:

  1. What are the modes of play that I’d be up for trying? Play by post? Email? Chat? Voice-only? Voice and Video? Theater of the mind? Grids and minis? Face to face?
  2. When am I generally available? for how long? at what frequency?
  3. What games am I looking to play? Or facilitate/Game Master (GM 📖)?

I know that Brad Murray has often play test and run his games primarily through Google Docs; as such I’d imagine Soft Horizon would work really well via a play by post.

Knowing your acceptable modes of play and availability helps you quickly answer any calls for games. I’ve seen calls for games fill up in a matter of minutes. But also, there’s lots of games starting (and stopping) so don’t fret too much. Having the availability in hand helps you quickly know if you can or cannot play in a game. Knowing what games you want to play helps inform where to go looking for games. Then go to where those games have a following.

For Burning Wheel, look first to /r/burningwheel; on the side navigation there’s a link to the Burning Wheel Discord. There’s a channel for Looking for Game.

For Stars without Number there’s an open Discord as well as /r/SWN.

There’s also The Gauntlet,

The Gauntlet is a community that celebrates tabletop roleplaying games. We have an active and vibrant online game calendar; a podcast network focused on the indie tabletop scene; and a publishing group that puts out games like Trophy, Brindlewood Bay, and Hearts of Wulin.

And they have a very detailed page Playing Online with The Gauntlet. Great stuff and a great community of gamers.

Now let’s dive into some specifics.

So You Identify as Socially Awkward…

I don’t consider myself socially awkward, but I’m going to speak to my observations.

Finding a gaming group is a lot like dating and relationships. There’s the various stages:

  1. Getting up the nerve to put yourself out there.
  2. Getting up the nerve to ask someone out.
  3. Scheduling a time for a date.
  4. Determining if you’re a good match; or breaking up.
  5. Keeping the spark alive.

One game that I didn’t list only made it through the Session 0. The GM put out a call to interview players for a Burning Wheel game. He set up 30 minute one on one sessions to interview each player individually.

Once he’d assembled the group we went through a world-building exercise, which established our lines and veils as well as what the campaign was about (e.g. the situation which our characters would be engaging).

Were I to start over on finding a group, I’d follow this pattern. Why?

First, I want to make sure that we have common gaming values. I’d also want to know a bit more about them, what are their interests outside of gaming. Would this be someone with whom I’d love sharing a meal and conversation?

In the Mistimed Scroll we’ve had lengthy out of game discussions about photography, Emacs, literature, life events, other games, television, and personal values.

In other words, do I feel that I can bring my authentic self to the game table?

So You Have Kids…

Twenty years ago, I had small children and still made time to game. I made it clear that we would play at my house, and we’d take a bit of a break while I helped get kids ready for bed.

Everyone knew that a toddler might be bouncing on my lap, or throwing some dice at the table.

That was a constraint I had, and my friends met me where I was at. And my children have become, in their own right, friends with my friends. Some game groups might say “No way am I pausing play while you tend to a kid.” Others might say “Absolutely, we’ll take a break, and maybe grab a quick snack or just chat until you’re ready.”

Jumping Into and Out of the Gaming Pool…

I like to frame things as experiments. I experimented with playing online and found that I very much enjoy it. It’s easier to coordinate games. The barrier to getting together is minimal.

I have found that framing to also help me “iterate” towards something better.

My advice is to look at “getting started” as an experiment. And be clear about it. As you find your group let them know this is you testing the water.

I haven’t done this before, and I’m interested but want to make sure this is a good fit all around. Right now I’m looking for 2 or 3 sessions.

Determine what you are ready to commit to and communicate that clearly. Then follow-through; so long as you are able to bring your mostly authentic self.

Forming a new game group takes energy, and is at it’s best when everyone aligns their expectations and has clear communication. It’s an awful lot like work projects; you need a project manager, a project kick off, and a shared vision.

Conclusion

I love my online games. I’m able to play with geographically dispersed folks. And because I’ve looked for folks with common values and somewhat overlapping interests, some of those game sessions have instead been broad-ranging and enriching discussions.

I miss my face to face games, but mostly because we had settled into the pattern of making a dinner together and then playing a game.

Postscript

I prefer audio-only sessions, we keep our videos off and instead listen to each other. The advantage to this is that I can get up and walk around. There has been many role-playing heavy scenes between Antonius and Ansidora in which I’ve paced the room as I speak on behalf of Antonius. In some games, I’ve played with video on, and I found that it actually detracted from the game.

For Burning Wheel, we use Roll20 as it has a very useful character sheet. But for other games, I’d just as soon have folks roll physical dice and share the results. We trust each other to report the results.

That trust is a function of the type of game. We try to clearly state the consequences of success and failure before we throw dice. This way everyone “agrees” to the outcomes.

And one other thing, if you see someone running and playing games that look interesting to you; reach out to them. Check if their group might have an opening, or if they know of an opening elsewhere. Ask them what process they might have for joining the group.

Some game groups have an “open table policy.” Where others are closed. In my case, I wouldn’t consider inviting anyone to any of the game tables without first asking the group. And even then, we’d want to have a conversation and almost certainly an “interview.”

One of the most powerful questions for solving a complicated problem is to ask: “What would need to be true to make this problem easier to solve?”