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The fatigue and loneliness of playing tabletop RPGs online in a pandemic

For players used to the intimacy of face-to-face sessions, taking games such as Dungeons & Dragons onto the internet can be exhausting and alienating.
Illustration of four people in a video call on a laptop screen
Image: Menara Grafis/adobe.stock.com

The odds of getting a natural 20 - that is, rolling a 20 on a 20-sided die - in a Dungeons & Dragons game is so low that doing so can only be said to be a result of improbable, ludicrous luck. Sneaking an attack on an ogre? You’ve just shanked him so gruesomely that his clan is howling and scampering from sheer fright. It’s such an audacious display of perfection that it warrants only the most rambunctious of cheers from around the table. But celebrating this twist of luck over a cacophony of choppy voices in video platforms such as Skype, Discord and even Facebook Messenger feels like an oddly muted experience.

“Missing out on seeing a natural 20 or 1 and the excitement, and not being able to play off each other as well - especially in a bigger group - [can feel lacking],” says Maddie Cullen, who has been participating in online Dungeons & Dragons sessions since the global COVID-19 outbreak.

To avoid putting their group’s health at risk, many players have moved their tabletop RPG sessions online to comply with social distancing rules. But for an activity that’s heavily dependent on collaborative storytelling and frequent communication, this shift has caused many players - and game masters alike - to experience a greater sense of dissonance and fatigue.

"It's a radically different environment full of strain and discord, and one where I'm not comfortable," shares Oma, a game master who has been conducting Monster of the Week sessions since September last year. "It's much more of an uphill battle being comfortable telling a social story, and why I've only scheduled two play sessions so far."

The phenomenon of playing tabletop RPGs online isn’t new to the pandemic, of course. Players who can’t find a like-minded group of friends in real life have long turned to online communities to hunt for players, with virtual tabletop platforms like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds stepping in to offer deeply customisable and tabletop-specific features.

Dungeons & Dragons is some of the only time I saw certain people so it’s hard, missing them.

“Using an online platform gives us tools we wouldn't have in person, like maps of locations in which the dungeon master can hide areas we haven't yet seen,” says Dave McAdam, who played his first online session recently. "Having digital dice for more complicated rolls is [also] handy. Generally as a new player, having the [platform] keep track of things for me is extremely useful."

But the circumstances are different for players used to the dynamics of in-person sessions, forcing them to turn to online games during this period. For them, these games are predominantly a means to hang out with friends, and the severity of the pandemic also weighs more heavily on their mind. “It being a pandemic, you’re worried about people, and not seeing them in person reinforces that. Dungeons & Dragons is some of the only time I saw certain people so it’s hard, missing them,” adds Cullen. Despite this, her core group of Dungeons & Dragons players has since shrunk, with sessions becoming less frequent.

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Fantasy Grounds is one of the many platforms dedicated to offering a virtual tabletop for RPGs. Image: Fantasy Grounds
When one person says they can’t make it, other people are quick to suggest we reschedule. If this happens a couple weeks in a row, the group dies.

This isn’t an anomaly faced by Cullen alone; another player, Nick McCormick, who is part of two Dungeons & Dragons groups, saw the frequency of the sessions dwindle over time. Without the impetus of meeting up in person, both games were pushed back indefinitely, to the point where picking up the campaigns where they left off from felt like a hassle. “This happens a couple weeks in a row and the campaign is dead, mostly due to awkwardness,” McCormick explains. “People were enthusiastic in the first month of quarantine, but it waned and by the third month, people kept saying on the day of the event, ‘Something just came up and I can’t make it today,’ over text. And when one person says they can’t make it, other people are quick to suggest we reschedule. If this happens a couple weeks in a row, the group dies.” He believes that the initial enthusiasm stemmed from hopes that the quarantine would only last a few months in America, but this faltered as people felt more restless and unhappy over the course of the pandemic.

Making the games more disorienting are a host of technical problems, such as poor connection and faulty equipment. McAdam shares that this worsens the feeling of disconnect among his group: “Sometimes the connection goes bad and it becomes impossible to hear people. Because of this setup, there's a lot of instances of people accidentally talking over each other, all things that wouldn't be such an issue in person.” In one instance, a player’s microphone was malfunctioning, which rendered them inaudible for the rest of the session.

Oma’s waning enthusiasm over hosting virtual games as game master is also partly due to such technical challenges, requiring them to put in more thought into planning the game beforehand. Pre-pandemic, Oma was used to hosting games in their living room - this included preparation outside of the game itself, such as making snacks and drinks for their friends. This sense of togetherness, however, is noticeably absent with online games. Coupled with personal struggles with sensory overload, Oma found parsing the voices over chat a strenuous task. Without the nonverbal cues of their group in-person, managing the flow of the tabletop game was challenging and amounted to significant stress.

“When I'm in a room, with a shared focus and no distraction, it's easy for me to have a good time, since I know where everything is coming from and how I'm relating. I can also take in everyone's engagement and energy from more than just their voice - from all the social cues - and it's easier to feel in time with the players,” Oma shares. “A voice chat with people in different places flattens that experience, pushing everyone's voice onto the same stereo channel, and introducing a variable sound quality that can glitch, be distorted and so on.”

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Technical issues and delays while video calling can make it hard to communicate while playing RPGs over the internet.
When it comes to online communication, sometimes we have the semblance of communication, but the nuances of whether the message is actually received is sometimes lost.

Lay-Ping Kwa, a senior lecturer teaching at the School of Life Skills and Communications in Singapore Polytechnic, pegs these issues to the limitations of digital communication. “When we talk about communication [in general], there are many aspects of it that we need to bring into play. It's not pure message sent-equals-message received. It's [also] about all your other nonverbal cues. That's why when it comes to online communication, sometimes we have the semblance of communication, but the nuances of whether the message is actually received is sometimes lost in the conversation,” she explains. She points out how online platforms have flattened the intricacies of regular conversations - which include smaller discussions that take place outside the main dialogue, as well as nonverbal cues exchanged between participants in an activity as social as tabletop RPGs.

To counter these issues, Hylke Langhout, who frequently takes up dual roles as player and game master, has to go the extra mile to describe every detail verbally. Devoid of the physical props, such as handouts, maps and figurines, that make games more immersive, Langhout has been struggling with translating the nuances of their scenes online. “I don’t have access to my reusable battle mat anymore, now that I don’t have a real table to put it on, so I have to describe everything verbally. So whenever I’m doing prep work, I make sure I understand where everything in a room of the dungeon is, so I can accurately describe it to my players.”

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The likes of Roll20 allow users to simulate aspects of playing around the same table - such as dice rolls and maps - but can lack the atmosphere of in-person sessions.

Before the pandemic, I used to attend Dungeons & Dragons sessions with a group of friends once every few weeks. As the dungeon master of this group, Noel Lee tends to narrate his stories with expressive gestures, even adjusting the tone of his voice to adapt to the scenarios he conjured. These days, however, these cadences are harder to capture and pay attention to online. By only relying on words, Lee is concerned about the effectiveness of his vocabulary. “I do miss the interactions in offline meetups, because I think I'm generally a pretty animated dungeon master. But online, I need to pick the correct words, and sometimes it feels like my vocabulary is limiting the excitement of the event.” Langhout faces similar concerns, given that he prefers a more theatrical touch to his games: “I find my own roleplaying has suffered significantly. I really need to inhabit an NPC to roleplay them properly so I like adjusting my movements and mannerisms. Things like that don’t really come across over video chat, so I find that I’ve almost stopped doing it altogether.”

Online, I need to pick the correct words, and sometimes it feels like my vocabulary is limiting the excitement of the event.

Kwa believes that getting used to these new circumstances is a collaborative effort; it means coming up with new rules together, and getting used to the nature of the technologies that enable us to play games, for now. The initial stages will often be jarring, but she’s optimistic that given enough time, the issues inherent to online platforms - be it Zoom or Skype - will recede into the background, allowing for more natural conversations to take place. In this case, it means that online tabletop sessions can only run more smoothly when everyone is on the same page. “Once you’ve established the rules that enable you to function without that distraction of technology, then [we can adapt to this] new normal,” she adds. “With all sorts of adaptation, we’ll just create new rules and get on with life, get on with the games that we want to play.”

For now, some players such as Langhout still see these sessions as a creative outlet despite the drawbacks of moving tabletop games online, and a small ray of distraction against the pervasive gloom of the coronavirus and state of the world. “My players have all been hit with different bad things during the pandemic, so to me it feels less like a fun social thing and more like a very welcome distraction from all of the bad things that are happening to everyone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I still enjoy the game a lot, but it is undeniably different,” he says.

On the other hand, Oma decided that hosting online sessions simply isn’t worth the fatigue it entails. “I know there's obviously people who have been playing RPGs online for over two decades at this point and, for some people, online tabletop RPGs are a lifeline, socially and accessibility-wise. I personally have no further interest in it at the moment though, especially not for a group I had such a good time with in-person, and who I don't want to become tired of talking with.”