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GM Tips: Improving Virtual Game Night

Online gaming has exploded in the past few years due to quarantine. However, players and GMs have noticed that keeping everyone’s attention on the game can be very difficult. No longer can GMs ask everyone to put their phones in their pocket as the internet is right at the players' fingertips. Players no longer have faces to focus on, unless everyone’s computers are powerful enough to run zoom alongside the game. How do you keep engagement when separated by miles from everyone else?

Splash Pages

Disable the grid on Roll 20, and create a “splash page” for role-play-heavy sections. Include a background and some pictures to give players someone to “talk” to. These are quick to create and help players visualize what is happening. This can also help hide when something is a role-playing encounter and when something is a battle. After all, if everything begins on a splash page, there is no grid to give away the fight. Players may even find ways to be diplomatic and avoid a fight, bringing a mechanical reason to role-play.

Quick Aside

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In a mystery-heavy game, you can use Roll20 to create a pinboard for your players. When the image is moved onto the page it becomes a token. Under token settings, use the “Controlled by” box to give permission to all players. Alternatively, you can create a text document in a shared Google Doc and set the image wrap to “in front of text” to move the image around easier. By giving control of the images to the players you have given them ownership of part of the game. Players can move the images, change the size, and connect the dots to solve the mystery.

Guiding the conversation

Sometimes, players are quiet due to discomfort. Many systems use “safety tools” to allow players to give simple cues for when a scene is disturbing or uncomfortable. Common tools may be an “X-card,” which will stop a scene when it becomes too much for a player to handle. Another common tool, found for free on Roll20 Marketplace, is a Safety Card Add-on. This will display as a deck on the side of the board consisting of 3 cards. A “green” card indicates the player is enjoying the role-play, a “yellow” indicates the role-play is becoming uncomfortable, and a “red” means to stop entirely. This tool can be used to ensure everyone feels comfortable at the table and is having a good time.

Another tool is to use a small chart at the side of the screen, taking tallies of who talks and contributes. This will make it easier to notice if someone isn’t talking, or if another player is hogging the game. While this may seem ominous or ridiculous in-person, online no one will see you taking these notes online. This can help catch someone before their attention wanders off, or before someone dominates a game to the point of making others leave.

Create Scenarios

Downtime may seem unimportant in the grand scheme of bringing peace to the kingdom, but it can be used to create small role-play scenarios. Perhaps two players take a watch at the same time. What do they say to each other? A cleric takes a few minutes to heal another player. What is the wizard doing during this? You can also discuss with players beforehand if they want to have a scene together.

Create situations that need to be solved by teamwork and reward players when they work together. Ensure that simple skill checks aren’t enough to solve a problem. Remember, not everything needs to be decided with a roll. If two players are creating a distraction while a third is trying to steal something, use the role-play as the roll and just give the person stealing a bonus. Sometimes, the rules need to be ignored to make things fun and keep the pace of the game flowing.

Final thoughts

Sometimes, the best way to keep engagement is to have an awkward but important conversation with your players. Tell them how their lack of attention is making you feel, and ask how you can involve them more. Perhaps they need a reminder at the beginning of the game to put away the phone. Maybe they need help sticking up for themselves if other players are hogging the limelight. Maybe there’s real-life stuff happening and it’s keeping them distracted.

How do you keep your players engaged online? Let me know in the comments below!

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