Lessons Learned DM-ing Long Distance
Dungeons and Dragons is a fantastic game and hobby. Played for over 50 years by gamers all over the world, D&D has helped bring people together as they share in a collective role playing experience. It can bond friendships and comradery in a way that is unique for any form of game. What is more, and something that has grown more important over the past few weeks, it can be played long distance.
It is fairly well known on this blog that I am both a DM and D&D player. At present, I have two sets of adventurers on the go, both at different points in the same campaign. Up until now, I have always DM-ed in person, as there is something amazing about being able to get everyone around the same table sharing in the story; however, due to recent social distancing efforts, we have taken the playing online so we can still get regular games in.
It has been a learning curve, and so today I thought I would share a few core points I have learned over the past few days about DM-ing online.
Choosing a Platform
The first hurdle for DM-ing online was choosing the right platform. Now, for Dungeon Masters who like to share a lot of things with their groups, then Roll20 is apparently a very good platform to use. I personally haven’t used it; however, I have heard good things.
Instead, when we set out for our first long distance session, there were 7 active households taking part. This meant that accessibility was the key. As a DM I also wanted to have all players visible at any one time, and since I was using a phone, this ruled out Zoom. An alternative was Cisco Webex, but not everyone had access.
What this meant was that the platform we ended up using was Facebook Messenger. This kept all cameras static and visible at any one time.
During a game of D&D it isn’t unusual to pass messages to certain players when they find out information no one else has. It also isn’t unusual to take players to one side to tell them specific information. For this, Facebook Messenger allows for directly messaging players as well, which made it a useful platform when players found certain bits of information other players didn’t know about.
Be Prepared…And That Means Everyone
Okay, so there are three key things in regards to preparation that need to be noted when playing a Dungeons and Dragons game online. As with all games, the DM should know their campaign. Where it is possible to blag everything in a game of D&D, there are enough trials with running a digital game that it really helps to know roughly where your players are going.
More importantly; however, it is important to make sure that your players are prepared and you understand what their characters can do.
To ensure this, I have a PDF copy of the majority of my players characters, and I keep them on my desktop whilst playing. This means that I can easily track their HP and their abilities whilst running the game. Where this isn’t necessary, it helps, especially with newer players.
Likewise, I ask my players to know their spells and keep notes on what they do. Anything that can cut down downtime is great in a D&D game, but when playing online that downtime can be kind of debilitating. If you know what you are doing as the DM, and the players know what they are doing, then everything can run a lot smoother.
“Okay, let’s pause you guys there – [Player Name], what are you doing?”
One of the hardest things about playing long distance, especially with new players as well (we had three new players in our group in the last session) was ensuring everyone is active. One useful thing to do is to get everyone on webcam, as it allows for you to read faces and react to your player’s reactions; however, another thing that I found useful was, when players were describing what they were doing, staying with them until key moments in the action, and then asking what other players are doing.
This meant telling one group they had found a book with a bookmark in it, before jumping back to another room where other players were to find out what they were doing, giving the book-finding players an opportunity to think before going back to them for a decision about what they want to do with the book.
Constantly asking players what they are doing helps keep the action going for all. It can help build suspense at core moments, whilst also allowing for time to think without awkward pauses.
Of course there are other core ways to keep players engaged. Another useful one was –
“So, how do you want to do this?”
In my 20 years of playing D&D, I have found there is no more gripping a sentence a DM can say than “so, how do you want to do this?”
That one sentence, “how do you want to do this?” can be used all over the game and is used to help bring the players deeper into the action. “How do you want to do this?” is both a social storytelling cue as well as a way of allowing the players to get deep within the roleplaying elements of the game.
Useful examples include when a player wants to do something abstract and bizarre, allowing for you (as the DM) to figure out the tests and checks they need to do. Another way to use “how do you want to do this” is when the player wants to do something cool, or tricky. If they want to scale a wall above guards, hopping from ledge to ledge in an Assassin’s Creed style parkour run, as an example. Finally, and the way I probably use it the most, “how do you want to do this?” is a great way of allowing players that hero moment in battle. They can describe anything from the spell they cast to the way they save another player. Finally, it allows for the “finisher”, that moment in battle where a player takes apart an enemy, and they can describe what is going on.
“What do you want to do?”
Whilst on the topic of keeping players engaged, this is one of those points that is important in regular D&D as well as when playing over cameras. One thing that is especially important when playing long distance is encouraging the players to interact with one another. This can be as simple as getting players to make decisions by encouraging they discuss something as a group, or getting one player to read something out to everyone else (see my above point about messages over Facebook Messenger). Those moments help promote unity in the group and bring everyone into the game. If a player isn’t participating or is being side-lined, just ask a few basic questions to bring them into the fold.
Trusting your players
Finally, one of the most important aspects of a D&D game is trust, and this is no less important when playing online. Where it would be possible for players to cheat and for the Dungeon Master to ask to see every single die roll as it is rolled via the camera, there is nothing that would remove the immersion faster from the game.
Instead, when playing digitally, it is so important to trust your players to say what they roll, and to make those hits count.
So there we have it – a few hints and tips based on my own experience. As we play more games online, I may find more hints and tips which I will be sure to share.
In the meantime, I am sure other DMs are doing a similar thing right now, playing games over the internet. What advice do you have for Dungeon Masters? How do you keep games running online? Let me know in the comments below.
Interesting read. I haven’t made the jump to DMing online and I probably won’t anytime soon, but I liked reading your experiences about it. I can see where it would be a very different experience than in-person. Interesting too that you are using Facebook Messenger rather than things like Roll 20. One of the drawbacks, as I see it about Fantasy Grounds, Roll 20, etc. is the learning curve and the fact, as far as I can tell, that the DM or someone has to pay a bunch of money to make it happen. Unless I’m mistaken five people can’t get together on these platforms and all play on a free account with, say, restricted features that are only opened up by spending some money, or perhaps timing out after a time.
I agree with trusting your players, though I don’t usually extend that trust to creating characters. For some reason, I’ve met many players who don’t cheat on in-game rolls but you tell them to roll 4D6, drop the lowest die and arrange however they wish, and many times they inevitably present me with something that is, let us say, statistically unlikely.
I saw this as a player not too long ago in a game where we all had characters who were about what you’d expect to slightly about statistical average with rolling, and one player showed up, who was allowed to run his pregenerated character, who had three 18’s, two 16’s, and a 10 using the above method. I didn’t say anything but it made me mentally roll my eyes.
So when I DM in a game where I’m “trusting” my players, I use a point buy.
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That’s fair. I guess that depends on the players. Agreed when a PC comes to the table with 3x 18 it is a little bit suspicious, especially when that is supported by two sixteens! The average on 4D6, drop the lowest, seems to be around 12 in my opinion, so that would raise some red flags!
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i liked the part as a player of DnD, as in because i have just started connecting this community and startedplaying couple of months ago. So i am still learning this game. and your post turn out in great learning…will be looking for more real content from you… thanks
Good advice and thanks. I’m hoping to venture back into this myself. Some random stuff on your question:
Prepare maps in advance or have a blank piece of paper ready to go to use with the camera. When the DM has to stop for 20 minutes to kludge together a map when PCs do something unexpected it brings the game to a screeching halt.
Use shorter less complicated encounters than in a tabletop game. The virtual environment makes it hard to recreate a large battle scene and have everyone remember important details if you have to break in the middle.
Store commonly accessible documents somewhere like Google Drive. Give everyone links.
Try to recruit someone to the notes on the adventure. If someone misses or wasn’t paying attention they can catch back up later on the story. And yeah, people will miss sessions.
The DM can use the “fog of war” aspect of people not paying attention during a session. Don’t be mean but don’t be afraid to put someone in jeopardy either.
Take a break halfway through any 3 hour or longer session. Use the restroom and think about where the night is going.
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Those are all amazing bits of advice Bill – I’m going to use some of those myself. Thanks for sharing!
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