I haven’t had to gamemaster much online (if there aren’t players in my local area, I’m more likely to make my friends into gamers than I am to turn online for players), but in cases when the game I wanted to run wouldn’t appeal to my normal play group, I’ve tried running them as online games. As I see it, there are essentially two modes of online play: synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (time-delay).
Synchronous play is generally what you’ll get on a chatroom—or nowadays, on Skype or Roll20—when everyone meets at a specific time and players together for a couple hours.
I like synchronous play because it feels like a regular tabletop RPG session, and digital tools now allow for things like custom dice and maps and so on. For those of us who do the bulk of our prep using the computer, it’s an almost-seamless transition. I’ve only played one session with video, but it seemed to me to forge a better connection between the players because of things like facial expressions and body language that humans are naturally keyed to understand and react to. The option to send messages to specific players can sometimes surpass note-passing at the table because the other players don’t become suspicious (and by extension, become more apt to metagame), but I’ve also had cases where note-passing added to the tension and fun of the game as a whole (Ravenloft and Call of Cthulhu, I’m looking at you).
The technology keeps on getting better, so I can see Roll20 and the like becoming increasingly ubiquitous with time. At last count, there were almost 35,000 players sampled in the 2015 Q1 Roll20 report! That’s like over half a Gen Con’s worth of players! Dedicated programs like Fantasy Grounds have made their way into the mainsteam now that they’re part of the Steam library, and there are even several gaming conventions that are now entirely online.
Asynchronous play is more what you’ll find in play-by-post and play-by-tumblr, in which players write the continuation of a scene at different times, whenever suits their schedule. You can use a normal tabletop RPG system and find a forum that has integrated dice mechanics, such as Myth-weavers, or you can go more freeform. Diceless systems occupy a middle ground, since they provide some structure but generally aren’t so complex that they require players to have purchased a book or PDF.
As a sometimes–creative writer (it’s an en dash, but a hyphen also seems applicable), I prefer asynchronous play because I can practice my craft while also role-playing. It’s like a never-ending thread of writing prompts! The daily/weekly writing requirements can also help in terms of setting and sticking to a schedule, which has always been one of my major battles with writing.
On the downside, GMing asynchronously also almost always entails administrative upkeep, whether it’s setting up and maintaining special forum software or keeping current a main hub with details like rules, plots, characters, and explanations of how to join and play. Those kinds of things generally get hammered out over voice chat for synchronous play, and besides from booting up the launcher and potentially maintaining a campaign wiki, they don’t constitute as much of a drain of the GM.
For me anyway, GMing online synchronous games is not functionally different from playing in person: you still have to prep material and run it, and the tools now are better than they have ever been. Running freeform asynchronous games could honestly warrant a post of its own, but I don’t have enough experience GMing regular tabletop RPGs online to really get into the nuts and bolts of it, but I can spot some obvious advantages.
Just like online dating, online play can help you find people more in tune with your specific play-styles and interests who might not otherwise be in your extended social circles. I’ve had much more success online when searching for players for the indie game Houses of the Blooded, or for games set in the world of the Black Jewels Trilogy, for example. Online play is also great for people with wacky work schedules or who legitimately live miles away from any other gamers. I haven’t taken advantage of it much since I found a gaming group in college, but in middle and high school asynchronous freeform play was my sole role-playing outlet.
Have you gamemastered online? What software did you use, and what are the unique hurdles and advantages? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for the next post on teaching the rules of a new game system. Thanks again for reading!