One thing I’ve been doing to stave off cabin fever this last month or so is to run an online role-playing game for a few of my friends. In my callow youth, I was an avid RPGer—mainly D&D (white box and then AD&D) and Traveller, but I had a group that was willing to try out different systems.
So for the last few weeks I’ve been running a fairly low-frills online game. No Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds with cool graphics and whatnot. Just a Zoom meeting, occasional screen sharing for important visuals, and everyone on the honor system to be honest about their rolls. I have appreciated the Fate ruleset for a while because it’s a great support for narrative: just what a storyteller needs! For this short-run game, I opted for the streamlined Fate Accelerated variant. Basics are easy enough to grasp, and at pay-what-you-want for the rule book, the price was right!
I proposed a one-or-two shot game (turns out, it was a three-shot!) to some of my friends and soon found that many of them were as tired of being cooped up as I was!
The adventure I’ve been running is called “Obsidian Dawn,” which I pitched as “Law & Order: SVU meets the Dresden Files in the heart of New Orleans.” Our cast of characters took on the roles of members of a secret organization of paranormal investigators. The story begins as they come upon a murder scene and word of a missing person: Lizamar, a teenage girl trafficked into New Orleans from Mexico. Evidence suggests that the traffickers bit off more than they could chew with this girl, who has apparently brutally murdered her captor and escaped—with three different factions of supernatural baddies on her tail.
I don’t want to give you a blow-by-blow summary of the action, but I thought I’d at least share some random reflections.
(1) It’s just like riding a bike…sort of. I haven’t gamed seriously since college, but muscle memory is apparently a thing, even if the muscle in question is your brain. I know I started off pretty rusty, but the beats, the pacing, etc. came back before long, at least to minimum standards. I think the same was true for at least some of the gang around the virtual table. The Fate Accelerated system was new to almost everybody, but everybody has had at least one cool moment of great role play. And that’s what has always been the most fun for me, even when I was young and stupid and couldn’t have put it into words.
(2) It was good to be with old friends. The guys in my group run the gamut from a fairly new friend I’ve only ever interacted with online to a couple of high school buddies. These weren’t the first people I ever played D&D with, but they were the group I was with the longest.
(3) We all need something to fill the void. Maybe the void isn’t coronavirus-inspired cabin fever. Maybe it’s just a long week at work or personal worries it would be nice to take a break from. Like many other things, a good RPG session can be therapeutic. As the weeks have gone on, I’ve found myself thinking almost pastorally about the group: what they might be struggling with, how I can do something nice for them by providing them a couple hours’ diversion. If I haven’t been eager to run marathon four-hour gaming sessions (we’d have finished the whole adventure in one such session, or come awfully close), at least partly that’s because I’ve been hesitant to let the experience end too soon.
(4) Story is happening. If I have a philosophy of game-mastering, it’s probably something like: set up a cool dilemma and see what the players do with it. I don’t like to be overly railroad-y, though with a short-term, self-contained adventure scenario, I find I’m doing that a little more than I would prefer in an open-ended campaign. I figure if I can propose an interesting problem and everybody gives it their best, a story might happen. And so far, I think it has! The team has pursued leads, confronted dark forces, come oh-so-close to rescuing Lizamar and/or learning her secrets. Next week, they’ll cross into the Underworld for the big, explody climax of the story, and I think it has the potential to be awesome!
(5) Online gaming is not my thing, but I see how it can work. Some things simply can’t be part of the RPG experience when the players are spread over four different states in two different time zones. Nobody can bring snacks. Nobody really has time to socialize much before or after the game—which is a shame, because I think my old friends would like my new friends, and vice versa. It’s hard, though not impossible, even to look each other in the eye and read how they’re processing the clues and plot points I divulge to them. You’d think that wouldn’t be a problem for somebody as keen on a “theater of the mind” approach as I usually am, but there it is. At the same time, I’ve come to appreciate how this format can work if it’s what you have available.
That has been my experience the past month or so. Are there any online RPGers out there? What has been your experience? What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about gaming online for the first time?