Roleplaying Online Under Lockdown, Part 1

Date : May 19, 2020

Malaysian roleplayers have stayed at home since 18 March 2020 under the government’s Movement Control Order (MCO). Many of us, myself included, have taken to roleplaying online through platforms like Discord.

These are the stories of our roleplaying sessions, under lockdown.

First, I spoke with Ian Adly, a professional game master and an organizer of the Malaysian D&D Adventurers League, to learn about how the organized play groups are adapting to this new online frontier.

Next, I heard from Amelia Liw, another game master and community organizer, about the challenges of running games online, and how roleplaying games help us in these “weird times.”

Ian Adly

What games have you played or run during the MCO?

Pretty much Dungeons & Dragons. I’m trying to be a Professional Dungeon Master so I figured hosting D&D sessions will get me a lot more clients than other systems since it’s a lot more recognized in the mainstream than other game system.

Roleplaying online using Discord: A sahuagin attack on a ship map in D&D.
A sahuagin attack

Are you gaming more or less?

I’m gaming more, if you include hosting four 4-hour D&D sessions per week, rather than my usual two tabletop sessions before the MCO, as gaming. It’s a lot easier to find players online. For obvious reasons.

Are these paid sessions, and are they part of Adventurers League?

The sessions I’ve organized are paid. Again, professional DM-ing. Also yes, they are part of the Adventurers League that we’ve trying to do here in Malaysia. However, I managed to rope in additional Dungeon Masters to do Adventurers League-format D&D sessions, and they do theirs for free. So players have choices but obviously most of them flock to the free sessions.

Those playing with me are mostly with me because they’ve been my tabletop clients or don’t mind paying. Man, I need to get back to tabletop sessions soon.

Roleplaying online using Discord: Bardic Inspiration in action during a forest encounter in D&D.
Bardic Inspiration in action

What platforms and tools do you use for online games, as opposed to your tabletop sessions?

Discord for voice chat. That seems to be the currently popular app for voice chat these days. I also use bots and other add-ons on Discord, Avrae and Beyond20, to help with character sheets and rolling the characters’ attacks, ability and saving checks. It also helps when you have a friend (Iskandar is his name) helping with the back end coding and troubleshooting.

The bot and add-on uses D&D Beyond for the data to make the rolls. Very useful and convenient once you’ve figured out the commands, of course.

And because I like my visuals, I have been using Roll20 since I’ve been familiar with it for about maybe five years back. Yes, it could be better, but it’s free and everybody can access it. Though that said, I am looking at other platforms.

So do you use webcams?

I don’t like face cams because it’s distracting, unnecessary and takes up screen space (I already have Discord, Roll20 and a lot of tabs which has the adventure book and maybe up to a dozen tabs of just monster stats). All I need to see is rolls and hear what the players are saying. Also, the “tabletop” so I know where the player’s character’s position are in relation to everything else during a combat encounter.

Roleplaying online using Discord: A fight against devils in D&D.
A fight against devils

How has the online experience been for you and your players?

So far, it’s been good. The platforms, apps, bots and add-ons I’ve been using have really helped make online sessions more convenient to run. Also as a DM, it’s easier to set up the encounter than it would be for tabletop. Only issue I have is that during online sessions and via the voice chat, it’s easy for people to drown out by other people talking. However, I do try to keep tabs on this and explicitly ask the other players to be silent for a moment so that player can speak his mind. Some have learn to type in chat instead which somewhat helps.

Only other issue I have is the commands you need to get the bot rolling the dice and keep track of spell slots, number of rages, HP, etc.. Some are quicker than others to learn these commands.

I’m actually going to use the same apps for when I do tabletop and also, D&D Beyond since I’ve already bought most of the digital books there.

I’ve heard about some DMs asking players to mute when not speaking. But would it come to that with your groups?

I only ask them to mute if their background noise becomes too audible. You hear some weird things in the background. So far my group are a bunch of friendly, polite fellows. I actually make a point to tell players to not speak and ask a player who wanted to speak but got drowned out. I think they are picking up on this. Unless I get a really obnoxious player, players don’t need to mute themselves. They just need to be aware if other people want to say something. Some people are more sensitive to this than others.

So are they all new to roleplaying online?

I think everybody is new (lol). Even I was unfamiliar with the setup at first. However, as the weeks went by, the players are getting more and more familiar with the commands. This is true for real newbies as well. They come in, ask to join and we guide them. During play, we let them know what to roll and how to type it in. Eventually, they understand and they could do it on their own.

Roleplaying online using Discord: A tense moment in Avernus Rising,  played in D&D.
A tense moment in Avernus Rising

Were there any other interesting challenges you encountered when playing online?

Well, due to the COVID-19 epidemic and the enforcement of MCO, there’s been a noticeable drop in Internet connection quality. So sometimes, there will be lags between typing in the commands and getting the roll results. Same with Roll20. Try to place or move an object on it but it doesn’t respond or you don’t see it. So you get lag.

Also microphone issues. Those are usually fun. Mic not working. Mic is not loud enough. Sometimes, it’s too loud. Sometimes, you hear the voice of the Old Ones so you need to re-plug the mic to resolve that.

Thank you, Ian. Is there anything or anyone you want to promote?

Me, Game Master Ian Adly, Professional GM. Also the Adventurers League Discord because we’re trying to build a much more cohesive community and organize official D&D events.

Amelia Liw

What games have you played or run during the MCO?

Okay so my own regular campaign that I DM has been put on hold, in part due to the feeling that I’m not good at running more serious emotional games online, since I tend to rely on body language and other cues.

One of the players has taken on DM-ing a short campaign during our Monday night slots so that’s nice. However some of the players simply don’t have stable enough Internet and can’t join.

I’ve tried The Quiet Year at a friend’s recommendation. Ran it once with friends and really enjoyed it, so I’m planning to run it again for A Good Day to Dice (local monthly RPG meetup) in May.

Are you gaming more or less?

I’m gaming more, because my Saturday game where I’m a player used to be harder to schedule, but now everyone’s more free so we’re playing weekly. I’ve also started a short intro game for some of my co-workers, and just yesterday a former lecturer messaged me asking if I’d show him and some friends what D&D was like.

Roleplaying online using Discord: Amelia's online RPG setup.
Amelia’s online RPG setup

That’s great. What platforms or tools do you use for roleplaying online?

Earlier on, I tried Zoom with my main Monday group (that I DMed for), but the 40 minute limit got annoying and we’ve gone back to Discord voice chat. Saturday group also sticks to Discord for voice chat. Friday coworker group uses Google Hangouts and some players use Snap Camera to put on funny filters while we play.

Gaming part is all on Roll20, though I only figured out how to set up the cards at the end of The Quiet Year. We relied on one of the players drawing physical cards in the beginning!

I actually have a Most Potent Brew game set up (on Roll20) with all the maps and tokens, + level 1 sheets for each class. So now when I have a bunch of newbie players I just throw them all in this game and kick the old players out (hahaha).

How has the gaming experience been for you and the players?

For me personally I’ve found gaming online can still be quite fun. I do feel bad for the players who are unable to play due to their Internet connection.

How many of the players were familiar with roleplaying online before?

I think my Monday gang eased into it fairly quickly. Saturday game had always been online. However, introducing Roll20 and character sheets to my coworkers from scratch has been tough though (haha). Especially since all of them are completely fresh. I made quick start slides that covered parts of the character sheets and Roll20 commands.

Which kinds of gaming seems to work better without the cues you get in face-to-face games?

I think that it depends on the DM and players. I personally struggle with conveying more subtle emotions and hints. When I DM, it helps me get into the mind of the NPC when I can lean back on the chair, or shrink into a tense posture etc. So I guess I’d say more light-hearted, silly stories are easier to tell online. But this is for me personally.  

I know that some DMs are fully capable of still setting a compelling scene online, and I hope that I can keep learning and get better at DM-ing through observing them (this is mainly talking about D&D).

Were there any other interesting challenges and situations that came up when gaming during the MCO?

Hmm. Not really during. But I guess I’m just seeing more clearly how important the Internet is for helping people stay connected. It’s comforting that in weird times, you still have your weekly game to look forward to.

Another thing is that it seems more people are expressing their interest in trying D&D (haha). I haven’t confirmed this, but I guess they might have had a passing interest before, but now that most other social things aren’t available they’re more likely to give it a chance. Perhaps we’ll see an increased number of players through this period?

Oh! Not about me, but a friend told me she and her friends were curious about D&D and I suggested Honey Heist to them as a way to start playing a fun improv rpg much faster. They seem to have had fun!

Yay Honey Heist!

Honestly that’s my go-to suggested gateway RPG, haha (Sorry Ben).

Thanks for speaking with us. Is there anything or anyone you want to promote?

Oh I wanna plug my Discord server for Malaysian+SEA Women/transmen/transwomen/nonbinary people (see Amelia’s post on D&DMY for more information, and how to contact her).

Coming soon: Part 2, where we meet Pathfinder GMs and more!