A glitch you cannot scratch …

An introduction to playing table top games online and a call for tips.

This weekend was the first ever Saturday Morning Grog Club. These are occasional online games that I’ll be running to help support the Podcast. They’re intended to help us refresh our memories about how the games work in play. This weekend was the turn STORMBRINGER, ready for the podcast due later in February, which I last played 33 years ago.

It also included my first ever meeting with @dailydwarf … I virtually know him now.

I’ll be reviving old school games online at irregular intervals. Look out for a ‘call for players’ on this site over the coming months. AD&D or Tunnels and Trolls is likely to be up next.

It’s all part the 2016 strategy of packing in as many sessions as possible into every hidden corner of the week. Since we revived our interest in the hobby five years ago, it has been frustrating attempting to find the time for us to be around the table. Every planned session has been foiled by the demands of ‘the toad’ work and family life: “sorry I can’ t do Wednesday, its parents’ evening … Etc.”

The availability of online platforms like Roll20 has increased the potential of playing more game sessions as it reduces the palaver of getting in the same physical place at the same time. On top of its convenience, it has many features to enhance the game-playing experience, including the facility to load maps and reveal them as places are explored and animated dice to recreate the full experience of rolling across the table. There are features on the application that we haven’t used yet, for example, we’ve been using off-line PDF character sheets, Roll 20 has the facility to create interactive character sheets which are more accessible during the run of play.

This month, we have managed to play an unprecedented four sessions, only one of them being face-to-face around a real table. Remarkable.

In addition to the extra sessions, the online game has introduced us to more players, with all the richness and excitement that bigger parties can inject into a game. There are only three of us usually, so we have to double up character sheets and scale down pre-written campaigns to suit smaller groups. Having 5 and 6 different players with different perspectives and experiences has enlivened our approach to the game.

Following the last two sessions however, I’ve been struck by a troubling realisation: I talk too much. When I’m GMing online, I feel a constant need to keep going, keep the pace up, fill in the gaps with wiffle and waffle.

My usual style of Games Mastering consists of throwing forward a situation, sitting back while the players explore their ideas, only adding the occasional dramatic poke when the momentum drops. I’ve realised that when I’m GMing online, I’m doing twice the amount of talking that I would normally do at the table. Why? Why does the online experience cause me to become so voluble?


Some of this can be accounted for in the conditions imposed by playing in ‘stolen moments’. Our regular Traveller session is a continuing campaign (The Aramis: Traveller Adventure), but it is designed in an episodic nature, hopping from planet to planet, with an over-arching plot that seeps into the episodes. These are 2 hour sessions (we have been remarkably strict in sticking to this timescale too). I have tried to achieve the dramatic beats of a continuing TV drama, with the action packed into the final third, and some tantalising cliff-hangers.

We’ve managed to achieve a sense of rhythm in play and the recent session was a scene of riotous fun as a planned rescue of a crew member from a church where he was being held captive, turned from genius to ridiculous by turns.

Despite the fun we’ve had playing the individual episodes, I have no idea how much the players are engaging with the overarching plot. There’s a conspiratorial narrative in the background that they’ve touched on and it will become increasingly important as time moves on, but at this point, I don’t know whether they’ve picked up on the elements of story, or the whether they’re even interested in pursuing it further. This could be down to the design of the adventure itself as it is written with lots of exposition, which I’ve tried to translate into action. I can’t help feeling that if we were playing around a table, I would be able to judge it better. As a consequence, I feel like I’m trying to over-compensate with information outside of the game, usually lengthy write ups on the Roll 20 forums.

The Saturday morning game was an adapted version of THE FANG AND THE FOUNTAIN from THE PERILS OF THE YOUNG KINGDOMS for Stormbringer. The next couple of podcasts will be all about the game, so I won’t steal my own thunder here. The structure was adapted to suit a one-shot:

  • Keep it simple
  • Have a big opening and an even bigger finish that calls back to the opening
  • Make sure the characters know their objectives and know why they’re there and their relationship to the others
  • Start the action as late into the story as possible
  • Make sure that every character has a chance to shine
  • Don’t kill the action with rules

The session worked well, with dice ‘virtually’ rattling around the screen, with death and destruction and body horror and demons and everything … but, it was hard-work, too much like hard-work. I don’t think it was down to injecting the scenario with usual energy that’s needed for a one-shot/ convention-like game, I think it was down to the channel … I was over-compensating for something lacking in the online experience.


I don’t blame my players for this lack of engagement, they’re all intelligent, love RPGs, witty and want to get the best from the experience as possible. My incessant talking comes from the limitations of the online experience.

Firstly, even the reliable Roll20 can be a glitchy experience, because you are depending on many factors: the speed of broadband, individual wifi arrangements, the processing speed of your computer and the performance of the servers. If this is multiplied across 6 people, there are many opportunities for it to fail.

This usually manifests as warble from the sound, or a player web-cam disappearing momentarily.

Secondly, most people tend to stare blankly at the screen.

Combine these two elements and it results in me becoming like Lee Evans on speed. My internal monologue is going like this: “Have they heard me?” “Has the screen frozen again … he hasn’t moved for 5 minutes” “If I keep repeating the same thing … they’ll get it … I’ll say it again just in case”

In the last Traveller session, the conditions worked well because the party had split and were talking to each other by communicators. However, there was a point on Saturday, where I described a scene where a man was ringing a bell. A mist emerging over the beach, with children running towards the sea, the bell ringing intensified … the children screamed within the mist!”

Players confer, followed by … “We’ll go and talk to the man and ask why he’s ringing the bell.”

but … “The children are SCREAMING!”

As I say, I don’t blame the the players, it’s something to do with online playing. It’s the strange way that staring at each other in little inch by inch windows on computer screens, renders normal human discourse inert.

It’s really difficult to encourage players to engage with each other. Normally, around the table, there are visual clues of when to take a turn to speak, or gestures of encouragement when someone has had a good idea. Online play seems to eliminate these clues of interaction that we take for granted.


Online tabletop games are a relatively new phenomena and I’m new to it, so like anything involved with RPGs, it will improve through playing more and players sharing tips and experiences with each other. I’ll get better at it as I do more of it because I’ll naturally want to get better.

I’m really enjoying the online gaming experience. I’ve really enjoyed meeting new players and had loads of fun during the sessions so far, but I know that it will get to the point where I’ll want more … I’ll want more of an engaging experience … more role-playing and discussion between players.

I’ll just want to stop hearing my own voice.






Author: Dirk

Host of The GROGNARD RPG Files podcast. Talking bobbins about Runequest, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, T&T, AD&D and others from back in the day and today.

11 thoughts on “A glitch you cannot scratch …”

  1. Very interesting post. Leaving aside my own luddite tendencies in getting Roll20 working in the first place, you’re right that the occasional glitches, added to the remote nature of the experience, did have an effect on player interaction generally. I felt that as the session went on, player interaction improved, as we all relaxed in each other’s company (and I got more used to the Roll20 experience). I’d imagine that over time the experience should improve. Nominating a caller was an interesting idea (and brought back memories of my very first forays into RPGs!). It’s one that I think is worth pursuing, as hopefully it will encourage more interaction between the players, and rotating it is a good way of involving everyone.

    There’s a lot to like about Roll20 (not least the fact that it’s provided free of charge). The fact that it allows remote players to get together for a game, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to (time pressures, commitments, no local players, etc.) is brilliant. I liked the technical facilities it offered – display of images / maps, gradual reveal of locations, etc. – they offered an interesting new perspective on the role-playing experience. For me at least, none of the issues got in the way of the fact that it was simply HUGE fun to be role-playing again. Exploring the Young Kingdoms, taking on Chaos monstrosities, rolling dice: I enjoyed it all.

    (As for the guy ringing the bell, you probably *can* put that down to player ineptitude. I can’t speak for the others, but I thought he was *summoning* the fog, so my focus was on him. “Screaming children? What screaming children?”)

    1. Yes once the seed had been planted about the the bell toller, we all became cautious and thought he was the cause of the situation. I also thought running after the children into the fog would lead to an early death, and i didn’t want to miss out on the finale, where death could be even more spectacular 🙂

  2. I agree with all that’s said here. However, while the technical aspects of Roll20 can take some getting used to, I think the game you’re playing makes a difference as well. Initially three of us tried Runequest 6 and Call of Cthulhu on Roll20. Both proved problematic. Runequest 6 because of its intricate mechanics that were difficult to manage with an on-line system. It takes a lot to keep track of combat in Runequest 6 round a table never mind via an online forum. While Cthulhu is a much simpler system, it demands discussion among players and has more of a sandbox feel to it. Too much discussion was tricky on-line. As Dirk suggests, online RPG works best when there are clear objectives and set pieces. An hour or so following red herrings and chasing up clues can be hard work and can sometimes cloud clear objectives. This can be good fun around a table, but online we struggled, I found.

    Traveller and Stormbringer have both been much better because they are relatively simple systems in play. And both differ from Cthulhu in that they can be built around set pieces and clear objectives, which makes it easier for everyone.

    At the end of the day, it’s still RPG and it’s still great fun. Roll20 takes some getting used to but I’d rather be playing on Roll20 than not playing at all.

  3. It’s inevitable that there is a ‘distancing’ effect from playing online. I think my desire to over compensate comes from my natural desire to create an ‘immersive’ experience and to create dramatic experiences. These elements are only possible if you feed off the players.

    You’re right Dwarfy, the ‘Caller’ tactic was an attempt to inject more player to player interaction. It did pick up towards the end as you all got more familiar with each other and, as Blythy points out, you became focused on the task in hand. We should certainly try this more and develop other techniques to shift the centre of gravity away from the GM.

    It’s interesting that Mike and Roger discuss ‘Video Conferencing’ in their latest Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice (published today). A strange coincidence!

    Roger talks about the technical challenges of playing, but he also mentions a free, Indy game, VIEWSCREAM which is designed to be used in a video environment. I’ll explore it further to see if there are other tactics built into the game that would work in general scenarios online.

    I wonder if a substantial handout would also encourage more discussion? A Dracula Dossier perhaps?

    It goes without saying that it’s good to be playing regular sessions, by whatever means, but what I’m looking for is how to push it, how to make it even better.

  4. I think all these points are right. As a group we have been getting more familiar with each other & how the system works on roll20. I feel the Traveller Game is really developing well in regards to the group and how we interact. The Caller tactic is a good idea to bring about more group discussion. Traveller seems to be developing well in this respect already. Stormbringer was a little different, probably down to the change in rhythm of a new game, and change in background. Its definitely something that gets better the more you do it.

    The obvious distinction of Roll20 game play, is that you really can’t talk over each other as you would round a table, where conversation is more fluid. In a way though this can also be good, & fits into the “taking your turn” aspect of RPG’s. In this respect the caller tactic would compliment the way roll20 works.
    Sometimes I think its just a case of warming up, and quickly getting the right frame of mind for the game. As a GM you have already done lots of prep immersing yourself in the game, and are warmed up & ready to go. As players sometimes we arrive at roll20 having not invested as much thought into the upcoming game,and consequently it may take a few minutes to warm up (like a finely honed athlete).

    I guess as players we can,& do review the right ups, and any additional material to help immersive our selfs and prepare for the game. Its a balance between being active and passive participants in the game. Session by session i think we have all become more active. As Players Its also about embracing the infinite possibilities, getting our minds ticking creatively.

    I am intrigued by the plot of the Traveller Adventure, and have given it some thought, however Bert & his monkeys needed rescuing and who else was going to fly that ship?

  5. That’s a very interesting point. I do have a tendency to hit the ground running in order to pack in the incident for the two hour window we have. Part of the challenge of packing this thing of ours into a busy life is the gear shift from one world to another.

    You’re right, the Wednesday games are warming up nicely and there definitely more interaction despite the glitches.

    I think I’ll employ a tactic of slowing down, letting everyone bed in at the beginning and introduce the caller tactic when needed.

    1. Yes I guess it comes down to finding the balance of when to step up, and when to take a step back.
      From a players point of view, we’ve all benefited tremendously from your experience and understanding of how to GM/craft a session. You’ve expertly orchestrated our sessions on roll20, which with its inherent issues as has been pointed out, is probably the ultimate testing ground of a GM

      I think being critical is good and will lead to even better sessions, however it’s important to remember that this is fine tuning, of what is already really good online gameplay.

  6. Just to add and to avoid any misinterpretation:

    Dirk said
    “I do have a tendency to hit the ground running in order to pack in the incident for the two hour window we have.”

    This is a very good thing, it’s more about us players quickly getting up to speed.

    Posted by – Paid a bod yn dwp Twitter

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