RPGs in the time of solitude

Connor Eddles

RPGs in the time of solitude
August 10, 2020 Connor Eddles

“In times like these” is a phrase I’ve heard often, particularly in regards to the current pandemic. But there haven’t been any times like this that I can remember, especially considering the massive embargo on socialising with other people. If you’re a player of tabletop roleplaying games, or want to take your first steps now that you have more free time, this is the guide for you! We’re going to look at how you can get adventuring, questing and just plain murder hobo-ing from the comfort of your own home…

The easiest option is to just use Skype, Discord, Google Hangouts, or a few cans and a really long piece of string to carry out a typical session; no need for anything but the ability to talk (and maybe see) each other. This is the most low-tech solution; you’ve almost certainly used this kind of software for work or keeping up with friends and family at a distance. 

But what about dice rolls? You know, the thing that brings in the ‘game’ part of the deal? While it’s okay to think that everyone can just roll their physical dice and tell the gamesmaster (GM) what result came up, I’ve yet to meet a player who’d willingly swallow a natural 1 if they could just bluff it. So, more dedicated dice-rolling software is advised. Besides the number of Discord bots that can do this, there’s also rolz.org, the simplest group dice roller I’ve been able to find. 

If you’re after a more interactive experience, Roll20 is probably your best bet. It’s already the most popular online platform for tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), with quite a few groups using it by default instead of looking for physical games. After making a free account, you’ll have access to a campaign creation screen. You’ll be able to name your gaming space, assign a rule set from a drop-down menu, and get your fellow roleplayers sorted with automated character sheets and a robust dice roller and chat system. It even has its own voice chat feature. While a subscription gives you more toys to play with, I’ve used the free version for years without running into any problems. 

An oft-overlooked feature of Roll20 is the ‘looking for group’ (LFG) forum , where people make postings to find other players for their campaigns. One of the biggest pitfalls of sourcing random internet players is the high proportion of flakes, troublemakers, and general bad-faith players. However, the LFG forum allows you to put a paywall on your campaign, charging would-be players a small sum to join. While this may seem like a terribly exploitative mechanic, putting a $5 entry fee works wonders to deter most of the would-be campaign saboteurs and their trollish brethren.

But what if you don’t have reliable internet, or a decent microphone, or you’re chronically awkward when it comes to calling people? Fear not, dear introvert; Play by Post is the answer! PbP has its origins in literal postage, with all sorts of games designed to be played over mail existing in previous decades. And now with a messaging app and some dramatic flair, you could run a sprawling campaign in no time!

Some specific RPG rulesets lend themselves more towards PbP than anything else; the game Undying by Magpie Games is my preferred option. It revolves around vampire politics and uses a points system instead of dice, to represent blood. The real kicker is the favours system that underpins the whole power structure; cunning players balance their deeds and favours owed, and hatch incredibly cunning plans to rule the roost, as it were. But any system that emphasises plotting and drama more than quick ‘hack and slash’ would be perfect for PbP campaigns or one-shots. 

One of the main advantages PbP has over regular RPG sessions is breathing room; players can plot and plan without overt time pressure, and create complex stories that might not be feasible in person. It also removes the need to speak in funny voices or constantly think about the ‘optimal’ solution. In short then, PbP turns a campaign into a background chronicle that players can dip in and out of, read back over at their leisure, and generally invest as much energy into it as they’d like. 

More than ever, RPGs have the power to bring us together and make the problems of the world less painful, even if it’s just for a little while. And with the power of modern communications, most of the barriers keeping people from playing have fallen away. Even before the pandemic, I was using Roll20 to play in two campaigns at once from the comfort of my own couch. What more could you possibly need?