My experience growing up with Tabletop RPGs was fairly traditional; a furnished basement with me and my party all huddled up on the couch and chairs around a large battlemap ridden table, and our GM at the head, surrounded by a library or rule-books and notes. Nearly every weekend we’d follow the same routine and all meet together to have our sessions. Nowadays though, my weekly RPG experience is very different. With our party scattered across the country due to jobs and school, our weekly sessions consist of sitting down at my desktop, booting up Roll20, and talking over Discord to have our adventures.
Online sessions have become increasingly popular. Whether you’re like me and have your party members living in other states, or decided to branch out and meet new groups of people and join their games, the ability to host online TTRPGs has helped a huge number of parties be able to play and connect with each other.
But while online sessions help players connect and run games, I’ve found that the system has one flaw, and that’s maintaining attention in the players. Unlike when the party is all together in person, running online sessions mean that the players in the session are all technically alone on their computers The potential for them to lose attention is exponentially higher.
Just like any form of online entertainment, online RPG sessions and keeping your players’ attention rely on two major aspects, the visual and audio experience.
Unlike in-person sessions, where the GM can use body language and props, and only typically need visuals for battle maps, online sessions will have the whole party relying on all of their queues and interactions to occur on a single screen. With all the players relying on a screen for their visuals, it’s important for you to include as many visuals as possible to contemplate for the lack of an ability to act things out for your players. Beyond just battle maps, implement visuals for all of your situations, exploring , RPing, character interactions, anything you can think of. Implementing varying visuals such as NPC portraits, tavern interiors, or even artifact designs, will allow you to continuously show your players new things and keep them from just staring at the same screen outside of battlemaps.
Luckily there are lots of tools out there to allow you to implement these visuals into your Roll20 (or other online RPG tool) games. Tools such as Inkanrate or Wonderdraft are great for making your world and city maps, and there is a litany of images and other resources online for any other images you might want to implement into your game. By adding these visuals, you can always have something for your players to see and pay attention to in order to supplement your storytelling.
Like all RPG sessions, one of the most critical parts or every game relies on the audio experience. For online sessions, the audio experience is 1000% more critical to your sessions. Since the party isn’t all together in person where you can physically see if one of your party members is starting to drift off, the best way to tell who is and isn’t engaged will be through who is and isn’t talking. Every party will naturally have a dominant player, the one who usually does the most talking and RP. For your online sessions, it’s important to keep in mind who is the dominant player and who isn’t really talking. Dominant players are good to help keep things lively, but they also have the risk of making you seem like everyone is paying attention when in reality it could leave opportunities for other players to lose attention.
Since you can’t see your players and if they start losing focus, for your online sessions, it’s important to properly structure your NPC conversations to counter this. Long series of conversation or lengthy exposition can easily lead to your players zoning out as they stare at their screen. To counter this, try to structure your NPC conversations and exposition into multiple short bursts. For example, instead spending a while detailing the whole city as your party enters it, only talk about the entrance gate or the street they are on, and then let them take their actions or RP on their own before going into another explanation or NPC conversation. By having shorter, but more, back and forths, your whole party will actively be paying attention and making actions.
Furthermore, when structuring your NPCs and the conversations they’ll be having with your players, be sure to keep all of your players’ motivations and ambitions in mind. When a player is on their own in these online sessions, if their character doesn’t feel involved in a scene or feel the need to talk or RP with your NPCs, it’s very easy to them to stop paying attention as they sit there waiting for the scene to end and potentially just switch tabs on their computer in the meantime. Having your NPCs make an effort to talk to your whole party will help keep everyone involved and prevent a dominant player from acting as a crutch for others to zone out.
Online RPG sessions have definitely revolutionized the Tabletop RPG genre and expanded the accessibility to these games more than ever. Players can both play with their friends as well as meet new parties and be unrestrained by their location. As great as this is, the online RPG landscape leaves an issue of attention. While as a GM you’ll be busy coordinating the game and may not notice the difference between your in-person game and your online game, remember your players on the other end of the computer. While they’re just as excited to play as you are, they’re on their own with just their computer. As fun as online RPG sessions are, they lack the synergy of everyone being together in the same room and playing off each other. Even though online sessions are a bit different, they can be just as fun as any in-person session so long as you can keep everyone involved and paying attention.