On Sunday I pulled off an rpg trick I can only do once. It worked because a) I'm a creature of habit and b) my players know those habits. We'd moved into the fourth session of our online Tales from the Loop campaign. The previous Sunday we'd wrapped a three week arc. So the players expected we'd move into the next story, perhaps even ahead to summer vacation for our mystery-solving kids.
Back to those habits. I run a ton of online sessions, usually three per week. The AP videos in my YouTube Channel stretch back to my first Gauntlet games from 2016. Over time I settled into a routine. I welcome viewers to the session, mention it's a part of the Gauntlet Hangouts, explain what the Gauntlet is, share a link, explain what we're playing, and then finish with where we are in play. In session one, and occasionally after, I mention our safety tools.
Tales from the Loop adds a repeating segment. Each session so far has started with a home life scene: waking up, going to school, getting ready hang with the gang. It's a chance for the players to showcase more of their characters' lives. It's also the place where I twist the daggers of their home life problems (weird family behaviors, a dying father, sibling tensions, etc.). It's one of my favorite elements of the game (and probably the most easily stolen for other rpgs).
This Sunday from moment one I launched right into the game—hard framing the group together for a summer "tech" camp and visiting a research facility. Right away I asked the players about the activities there, what they'd done the previous days, what the bullies in the group were like, what food the cafeteria served. I kept the scene rolling forward quickly. I could see some players getting worried, thinking I'd forgotten my whole preamble.
Then I shifted the scene to a scientific demonstration, a test firing of a new device. The scientist pushed the button,
"Welcome to the Gauntlet Hangouts, my name's Lowell. This session's part of the Gauntlet community of games which includes a Patreon-supported zine, a blog, multiple podcasts, and of course all of these online sessions. You can find out more at…"
And I went from there, actually starting the session. I told them they'd be moving into summer and attending a tech camp. I shifted to the home life scenes, and as I usually do had the first player describe getting up and ready for their day. And then I asked them, "At what point does the déjà vu hit you? At what point do you realize you've done this before?"
And then we rolled into the group trying to prevent a Groundhog Day scenario which ate their classmates with each iteration.
In the session debrief players talked about how much they'd dug that. It ended up being an evocative trick, supported by the online environment. Obviously you could do this in a face to face game. Well probably you could; I couldn't. There's no ritual or pattern to my f2f sessions. We've played with each other a long time and there's usually a half hour of BSing at the start. Eventually I break that by asking if anyone leveled up or bought new stuff for their character, and then recapping with, "OK, where we left off last time…"
Which brought me back to thinking about ways we manipulate online play to enhance games. We've had a revolution in the last couple of years with Roll20's advanced tools and the polished performance play of various D&D groups. Those rely on a level of skill and investment well beyond my grasp. There's a parallel to that gap in my face to face group.
One of my players also runs a Pathfinder campaign. Over the years, he has backed multiple miniatures and terrain Kickstarters. He hunts for useful pieces and bits at conventions. He paints every figure he puts on the table. He bought a second 3D printer to supplement his first one because it didn't churn out terrain fast enough. I can't even imagine how much time and effort he's put into that. My 13th Age campaign can't compete.
So it doesn't. I look for quick, cheap and interesting things I can do to give the game unusual color. I created a giant poster map players draw on and add stickers to. I used Hex Kit to craft a large city map we put in the middle of the table and mark locations on. I collected fantasy character pictures to put on cards which fit in a nine-sleeve binder. My most recent dungeon had a map with stickered pieces over the rooms. When they explored a new area, they peeled those away like a sinister advent calendar.
And on the miniature front, well I don't pull figures out very often. And rather than go for hyper-realism, I go the other direction. All I use are chibi figures, drawn from Arcadia Quest, Super Dungeon Explore, and elsewhere. For monsters I use whatever looks cartoonish. They fought The Bumble from Rudolph a while back and I have several fringe Pokemon in reserve.
With that kind of sideways, cheaper approach in mind I'd like to crowdsource online ideas. What techniques, tricks, and approaches embrace the online gaming medium, rather simply fitting in? Some designers have worked with this, Viewscream being the best example. In our community Gerrit Reininghaus has been working on ways to LARP in these settings. What else can we do with people online in different places using mics and a camera? I have some ideas but I'd like to find more (and maybe be pointed to other posts and essays talking about working in this play space).
Costuming: Rich Rogers wears a lot of hats. I'm always amazed at how much that simple prop adds to the feel of his NPCs—what hat, how they wear it, how they fidget with it. I'm not suggesting cosplay, but singular items-- badges, jackets, ties, masks, fans-- can create emphasis. It's also a fairly cheap approach. As an added bonus given my camera's resolution, I can get away with a host of sins in terms of costuming quality.
Puppets: Another Rich favorite, and useful only in a few contexts. In particular if you don't have a stack of toys next to you when you run Threadbare, you're doing something wrong. If you dig AP videos, I highly recommend checking out my sessions here.
Isolation Rooms: I've seen GMs have everyone but one player mute their audio and video. This creates a sense of paranoia while still letting the other players watch. It's an interesting adaptation of the old "taking the player away from the table to talk" move from f2f groups. Another idea would require running two calls simultaneously. Maybe you could have one player act as a contact point between two groups, trying to keep them coordinated.
Whispers: I love when players provide running commentary on someone's scene via chat. It's an underused resource for online play. I'm not a great typist so I often avoid using it heavily. I can't really speak and type simultaneously. Most chats allow for "Whispers," messages sent to a single player. Imagine a session with a second GM who uses no video or audio. All they do is maintain weird and ominous secret threads to each player. Perhaps they're literal whispers for the PCs.
Links: I dig the idea of ARGs or augmented reality games. These use in-world artifacts players hunt down or work through. Online you could do this with wikis, Google docs, Pinterest boards, etc. It's likely more work than I'd want to commit to. But imagine a weird game built on a crowdsourced Dictionary of the Khazars. Regardless of how you do it, it would need tight material to keep players moving.
Overlays: Hangouts used to give you access to custom overlays: framing cards and spots for names. They created atmosphere. While you can do something similar with OBS, I haven't figured out that set up yet. It would be awesome to find a way in Hangouts which isn't just screen sharing.
Camera Positioning: Keith Johnstone mentions "status" in his handbook for improv. On stage characters establish power and status by standing above a character, looking down on them. In f2f games, a GM can echo this by sitting up straighter, leaning in, or even getting up and looming over players. The opposite works by bowing or making yourself smaller. We can emulate that by shifting the camera position—looking down or upwards into the lens. It would require testing and practice. You'd need to establish a couple of quick placements for different angles.
Sound Effects: An easy one I keep forgetting. Obviously you want to be careful playing any music in the background if you're recording. But you can easily use small effects—especially if you keep the source unobtrusive. A creaking door, haunting laughter, or a clap of thunder offer small, effective intrusions. For The Bat Hack, Rich has baseball musical riffs and sounds cued up on a small player. It adds hugely to the feel.
Lighting: I have seen Jason use lighting to great effect—running with an almost darkened room, his face the only thing visible. You could use specific colors of lighting for mood. I use a three-headed lamp and I could swap out a couple of bulbs with blue or red for specific moments. Alternately something like the color-changing Hue bulbs could be used to signal a shift in the story.
Musical Interludes: Tyler Lominack has a trick I keep meaning to steal. When we go to our mid-session break, he often has a particular piece of music appropriate to the situation. He drops a YouTube link in the chat and players can listen to it at their leisure. It gives you something to do when you're the first one back from a break and it can reinforce tone.
Videos: Related to that, a GM could use short videos about a particular place to illustrate it. This might be a challenge, but for games which travel to new cities or notable landmarks, you might be able to find some simple walking tours. Alternately, if you had time and inclination, you could possibly create in-game video artifacts: conspiracy videos, messages from the future, or training seminars for companies which never existed. Or you could create a character who comments on the events of the previous session…
Obviously these kinds of tricks have some limitations. Most importantly any technique should enhance the game and not break the flow. We used to have a GM who would fumble around at the table looking for a particular CD with a specific piece of music to set the scene. The players sat in painful, awkward silence as he futzed around. Also, as I suggested earlier, my ideal technique doesn't require too much effort or cost. If it does need that, then the payoff should be awesome.
I'd like to hear your ideas—what have you seen, what have you heard about, what have you done, what can you imagine? How can we make the online environment for rpgs a utility, rather than something we have to wrestle with?
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.