The differences between running a game at the physical table and online.

danddtablegame AND howrerollscreenshot

So as many of you by now know, I have been running Dungeons and Dragons and other Role Playing Games for over three decades. An unfathomable amount of hours of my life has been spent sitting around a table with a group of people, and bringing stories to life. More recently I began using virtual tabletops and playing the same games online. Since October 2014, I have also been broadcasting these games live on the internet on my channel Howreroll. Since then I have come to realize the vast differences in how I run a game between these two mediums. This article is aimed at explaining those differences and if you are a viewer of my online show it may explain a few things to you as well. Please note that there are even more differences to draw upon between private virtual tabletop games and live broadcasting virtual tabletop games. I will detail those where applicable also. My goal will be to break this down into sections and draw the comparisons as I do so. Here goes.

Story Preparation.

This is one area that is pretty much the same. I still do hours of work writing my stories and developing my plot lines, no matter if the table is physical or virtual so really no differences of note here. The one thing I will say is when I am writing for my online show I do think of it from a viewer perspective. For the show I try  not to make the story overly complicated and as such difficult for a new viewer to follow or pick up on. I also only display good quality visual maps and tiles (and  do not draw them on the fly, which is an option with most virtual tabletops), so I have to keep the adventures somewhat linear and when I allow them to become more open I have to create multiple maps to cover multiple eventualities. Which brings me to the next section.

Map Creation.

Huge differences here. When playing around a physical table I am afforded the luxury of total freedom. No matter what the players do I can improvise and create either a quick sketch or give a good verbal description of just about anything. Even though I would still draw out my dungeon or town layout, Its not needed to be visual to the players. If I want it to be visual or if we are using miniatures then I can use dungeon tiles and lay them out as we go. For the virtual table top I am confined a good bit in this regard. Now again while hand drawing the maps as you go is an option, for me it is not because we are producing a high quality show and as such it needs to look good and I am by no means a virtual artist. Because of this I have to manually digitally create each map. Every Inn, shop, village, forest encounter etc has to be created and made visual. This takes many hours of work. A typical live show takes ten to sixteen hours of behind the scenes work for a three hour broadcast, and most of this is tile and map creation. Of course, not all live shows go to these lengths, and many just show a world map and live cameras but for the quality of show I want to produce, that is not an option.

Dungeon Master style.

In some ways it is the same but in others it is very different. Either way I am a voice actor. Each and every Non Player Character that I bring to life will have his and her own voice and mannerisms. I role play these out regardless of it being a physical or virtual tabletop. The big difference is that around the physical table I am incredibly animated. I leap around, I rarely stay seated and I can put more physical aspects into my role playing. Instead of just describing a sword swing ill act it as well! online and at the virtual tabletop, I am stuck inside a little pip box on a screen, and confined to the field of view of a web cam so I am limited to minor hand movements and facial expressions only. Another difference is in the way I describe a scene or area. Around the physical table unless I have a hand out ready to show the players I have to leave much to their imagination, and have to be careful to make sure that I verbal describe important details. For the virtual tabletop I have the luxury of producing nice graphical images, tiles and maps, so less verbal description is needed, and all the players (and viewers for the live show) can see the same thing.

Player Interaction.

Some minor differences here. Around a physical table the players can take ques from the Dungeon Master and other players to know when it is their turn to speak etc. Online it is a little harder and especially when we are playing on the live show, we have to be careful not to talk over one another. Also as the players are not in the same room (and in Howrerolls case not even the same state or country), they all have different personal distractions that have to be overcome. The cat, the neighbors dog, the climate etc. While this may not be something you would at first consider, it makes a difference when it comes to interacting and the level of distractions that can be present.

Player character decisions.

For the most part again there is not a huge difference, but in a couple of areas it is substantial. Around the physical tabletop, if your character is currently not involved in the situation at hand you can get up and go to the fridge etc and still hear the Dungeon Master and be aware of what is happening. For virtual tabletop play you use a microphone and either a headset or ear buds, because if you have the sound coming through your speakers you get sound reverberations. Because of this if you leave the Virtual table you are typically cut off from play and anything that is happening. This issue is amplified for the live broadcast show. The other big aspect which again is vastly amplified when we are live is what happens when a character goes of on his own and does not stick with the party. well apart from the obvious possible dangers for the character in game, how it affects the other players is different. Again around the physical table you can occupy yourself a little if your character is not involved in the action. When playing at the virtual table, you are pretty much stuck staring at a screen and just listening. Because of this I try to discourage players from taking their characters off on their own to often, and only when it is a necessary action.

Player Meta game control.

This within itself is kind of an odd subject as you can never really stop a player from trying to meta game, only deal and react to it. Good players will not meta game or at least will not do so frequently, where as poorer players will meta game their asses off. What I refer to here is what I can see with my own two eyes. Around the physical tabletop, I can see if a player reaches for the Monster Manual or pulls out his smartphone to google what weakness a monster may have. At the virtual tabletop I can not. If a player goes online and looks something up I can not stop him, or even know he has done it. Online I have to rely on the integrity of my players to not meta game or use player knowledge where their character would in fact be oblivious. Players can also chat privately using chat programs and discuss strategy in private. At the physical tabletop i do not permit players to pass private notes unless I know the reason and content of said note. ALL in game chat should be done by the characters, and if the characters want to discuss something it should be done in real time and in front of the Dungeon Master. Private text chatting allows for discussion to be had in a non realistic way, alter the game play and, can fudge the time mechanics of the game. here is an example. John (who plays Ragnar the barbarian) privately messages Sandra (who plays Salindra the cleric) and tells her to cast hold person on the chief when it is her action. In reality the characters are in the heat of battle and Ragnar would have to shout this suggestion to Salindra. In doing so the chief would be forewarned. make no mistake this IS metagaming.

Session length.

Typically you can play way longer around a physical table than you can a virtual one. Staring at a monitor causes some people to feel tired, causes eye strain or even causes headaches. We take scheduled breaks while we play on line to help alleviate some of this, but even then a longtime at the computer is more draining than sitting at a real world table. Due to this, we tend to play shorter sessions. Howreroll runs for three hours each session we play.

Dice rolling.

The only thing to note here is one of the fun aspects of any table top game is the physical act of rolling the dice. Feeling that polyhedral dice roll around in your hand and then drop to the table to come up a natural 20 is a good feeling. At the virtual table this is taken away from you and replaced with a mouse click or typing a command like /r 1D20. Now as the Dungeon Master at the virtual table,  I use the fact that the players can only see head and upper torso as my Dungeon Masters Screen, so I still get to roll physical dice. However the players do not of course as it is necessary for the Dungeon Master to see the dice rolls they make.

A pointer I can make here for anyone using a virtual tabletop, as the Dungeon Master you can still create the anticipation of the physical dice roll by hamming up the need for a good roll, or being a little more descriptive about the potential outcome of the action. This is something we have achieved very well on our live show, and as such have found a way to recreate that feeling of tension you get when you actually roll the dice.

Game Mechanics use and game flow.

Around the physical tabletop, you all have access to the same resources and books. A bunch of players can share a players handbook for example. When playing at the virtual tabletop, you are on your own. You have to have your own resources. Some virtual tabletops include game systems (for a price) but if not you need your own books or pdfs. Another consideration that really only applies to live broadcasting Dungeons and Dragons is keeping the game flowing. We have an audience when we play on Howreroll so I sometimes simplify game mechanics and as such have a set of home brew or house rules that I apply. I also make certain other concessions in the interest of live entertainment.

Viewer interactions.

So this one ONLY applies to running the game over a virtual tabletop and making it live for viewing. Howreroll has an amazing community that chat to us and each other via a text interface while they watch our show. All the players and myself can see the flowing sea of text and as such it is hard sometimes not to be distracted. A particular pet peeve is when a player gets distracted or the tone of the chat changes the mood or attitude of the player during a key moment. A comedic comment or two can have a player laughing when the mood should be tense and anxious. We are all human and all of us (me included) fall foul to it all the time, but it is something you do not have to contend with around a physical table or even a private virtual table. Fortunately most of our regular viewers know we can’t really interact during game play, and that we do a Questions And Answer session during each break and at the end of each show.

I am sure if I spent more time I would come up with more differences and if I do I will edit the post to include them.

If you are thinking of starting playing virtually, then these are some of the things you will realize and find a little different. Also if you are a viewer of our show maybe this gives you insight into why we do somethings the way we do……..

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