Deep Thoughts Done Quick: Long-Distance RPGs

The days of yore, where D&D sessions were in the basement with my best buddies, have fallen by the wayside. I shelved those roleplaying dreams for a few years while I tried on other versions of myself, only to come back to that dusty Player’s Handbook tucked away on a wayward shelf. As I’ve dusted off those roleplaying muscles, there have been attempts at campaigns using the now defunct Google Wave, Tabletop Simulator, and Skype. They were enjoyable. I had fun. But, something felt off.

For a long time, I knew that something was missing from the experience. We’ve swapped platforms more than once. It didn’t help. Was it the material? No, it was troubling even with Shadowrun. We meandered along and attempted to restart adventures over and over again. I didn’t realize what I’d been missing until I started playing and podcasting with The Play Better crew: eye contact.

Who knew that video was the missing component?

The platform doesn’t matter with long-distance roleplay, as long as everyone can see each other. I’m an expressive person. Words are useful, yes. Tone is important, for sure. But it was body language and facial expression that took our gameplay sessions from “this RPG system is cool and I like where this story is going” to “this is the most fun I’ve had roleplaying since my early twenties”.

My early twenties were the last hey-day of roleplaying. It was the last gasp before I got married, started a business, and had kids. We bounced around from RPG system to RPG system, sampling fantasy and science fiction alike. Campaigns were built, torn down, rebuilt in a new system in a new setting, and decimated by an errant mana ball that killed every player character anyway. Late nights, too much beer, a mess of dice among the remains of dinner — nerds in their native habitat.

Recapturing those glory days without having a roleplaying crew nearby seemed impossible. In the days before voice-over IP (a la Skype), proximity was everything. These days? A couple of webcams, a decent internet connection, and a great headset make up for physical location. But nothing, nothing, is more important than finding a roleplaying crew that challenges, delights, and slightly exacerbates you. If someone isn’t groaning from a bad pun or laughing themselves into wheezing, it’s a failed RPG night.

The best kinds of location-independent roleplaying experiences are narrative.

In theory, Shadowrun is a great RPG system. It has solid structure, detailed rules and charts, and a luscious array of story-arcs to pull into campaigns. Shadowrun is a mechanics-heavy system. It is very, very difficult to play, even when everyone is in the same room. It’s next to impossible when players are scattered to the four winds. Skipping the mechanics and moving right into narrative is where long-distance roleplaying really shines.

Telling a story without worrying about getting tripped up on complex rules is far more palatable for a group of people who are playing from their computers. It takes a skilled game master to create engaging narrative arcs that encourage players to think laterally and drop into their characters. Without video, it’s impossible to manage remote play. People get distracted. They get bored when they have nothing to look at.

Video encourages connection. It creates an intimate environment, allowing players to drop their guards and get into the story.

When used effectively, technology removes communication barriers. Proximity doesn’t matter as much as it once did. My new crew is in Maryland. I’m in British Columbia. We are a country and three time zones apart. Still, being able to see those goofy, beautiful faces on a webcam, as we make our way through yet another (kind of) impossible scenario, has shown me that this is the only way I’ll play long-distance RPGs in the future.

Not sure where to start with your long-distance RPG? Try the Cypher System or 13th Age.

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