Monday, March 23, 2020

Gaming in the Time of Corona

How We Moved Our Game Online During the Virus

The world has changed a lot in a week.  We've jumped from a little over 1,000 cases in the US to 40,000 cases of the virus.  Competence is not a strength of the current government; it seems likely the reported numbers are significantly under-stated based on the poor testing and preparations.  Schools are closed, businesses are shut down, and people huddle in their homes.  Medical supplies are already dwindling and we're only in the opening weeks of the campaign agains the pandemic.  The local county hospital has already appealed to locals to donate extra masks - construction businesses and carpenters have been donating the masks they use for managing dust on work sites.  It's going to be a bumpy time for us.

There's a lot of stress and anxiety in our daily lives, much uncertainty about what's going to happen.  Will we be able to stay healthy?  If someone you know or love gets very sick, will the healthcare system be there to catch them?  These are frightening considerations.

I'm able to work from home, and my company manufactures stuff that's considered essential to the supply chain (not toilet paper, but other stuff that ends up in grocery stores).  Waking up, logging in, and follow a regular workday routine is surreal against the backdrop of the daily news, but the normalcy of it helps to breed a little calm.

It's important to stay connected during this period of "sheltering in place" and social distancing.  The kids are connecting with their friends on FaceTime and social media and video games.  It was important to me to figure out how to shift our table top game online and stay connected with "the boys".  I'll take a few hours of seeing friends, laughing, and getting to do our "elf games" as a slice of normalcy under these circumstances.

I did a survey of available technologies and approaches, and we landed on one that seemed to do well for us.  In the interest of sharing what we did and how it worked, here's how we brought our game online.

There are a handful of technological questions to answer:  Do you want to use a Virtual Table with digital maps and automation?  How will you solve for voice conversations (and/or video)?  Do you want online character sheets and an online dice roller?

The Virtual Table Tops are intriguing and they offer a lot of cool automation (but at a high price).  There are subscription costs, and the requirement of buying digital copies of books you already own.  Plus they seemed to have a high learning curve. Considering that this is only meant to be a stop gap for a few months, I wanted to try an approach that felt more like our regular game and didn't involve a huge learning curve.  (I'm tech savvy but that's not where I wanted to spend energy during the plague).

We looked at different options for voice and video, like Discord or Skype.  I use Zoom at work and it has some useful features during video calls that made gaming easier.  We coalesced on Zoom for the voice and video tool.

Zoom and no Virtual Table meant the players would have to be responsible for maintaining local character sheets and local dice rolling (the honor system).  I use a notebook to track hit points, spell slots, and all sorts of limited resources during our regular games, so it was easy to keep that up on my side during the switch to online gaming.

On Saturday, I did a technology test with each player, made sure their device of choice (either PC or iPad) had the Zoom client, good sound and microphone, and could see the map.  On my side, I used an iPad with a permanent view of the battle-map and a laptop camera to engage with the players.  We were ready for regular Sunday night gaming.

The players appoint a traditional caller and mapper each night; the mapper drew on regular graph paper and held their work up to the camera for the other players to see when they needed to make a decision.  During combat, I put the initiative order on my DM screen like always, and called on the players in turn; I was remote hands to move their miniatures on the battle mat as they took their turns and described where they wanted to move.

Here are some pictures.  The top one is the group in "gallery view".  Voice and video were very clear on Zoom, and the players can see gestures, body language, smiles, the whole thing.  One warning is you need a paid license for Zoom ($15 for the host for a month).

Zoom has a spotlight feature where you can make one of the videos persistent and large sized - this let the players make the camera on the battle mat larger size and zoom in to see more of the battle mat.

Stay safe everyone and cherish your loved ones through this mess.  If like me, getting together with your friends and playing some D&D games online offers solace and normalcy during the chaos, I hope our approach gives you some ideas on making it work.  Feel free to ask questions in the comments.  Be well.


  1. I also had my first online session this week. I used Google Hangouts and 'filmed' the map when necessary. I used my work-laptop as the camera and audio and my other to watch proceedings. As several of my players live together the big hurdle was ensuring we didn't get any horrible feedback!

    In some ways it was really useful. I could screen-share images and the world map and draw directly onto to it when the players planned their routes, and I could seamlessly drop spells form 5e's SRD into the chat when people wanted to look things up. I had one player handle initiative and throw that up on a shared screen.

    The big hurdle was honestly handling engagement and distraction. If a player isn't engaged in a segment of play (talking to an NPC, plotting an ambush etc) it's easy for them to start checking social media and whatnot and lose track of the game.

    I also found player conversations / planning a little harder as they spoke over each other a lot.

    I did try to use Roll20 and found it possibly the most unwieldy software I've ever experimented with.

  2. Also had my first online session with my old Stateside gaming buddies recently (22 Mar 2020, my time). Zoom + Roll20, and a huge team (military SciFi).

    Some in the group had experience before, which is fortunate because there were 15 of us, and it might've been a chaotic mess. Most folks were on mute, with the ability to raise hands -- and then speak when recognized by the GM or the team leader. Only the team leader and the GM were always on (helps on bandwidth a bit as well).