I’m a big fan of tabletop RPGs. Probably because it’s all the fun of storytelling coupled with the inherent zaniness of improv comedy. Imagine, you get a good group together who feed off of each other’s energy and are all too willing to “yes-and” off of whatever random plot or character development another player throws out. Stories spiral into ridiculousness, while still maintaining the cohesive shared fantasy of a mutually constructed narrative. Of course, it helps to have a Game Master who’s able to roll with the punches and keep the story going no matter the curveballs the players toss out there.
Virtual tabletop has been a thing for a long, long time, and with the pandemic preventing any sort of game sessions in meatspace, more and more people are turning to services like Discord and Roll20 for their games.
And by ‘people’ I mean me.
I’ve long been a proponent of tabletop games — RPG or board — being played in person due to the very specific sort of chemistry that emerges from people hanging out together. Yes, there’s the part of communication that’s done through hand gestures and facial expressions, but there’s also the knowledge that everyone around the table is doing the same thing, at the same time, with the same people. And side conversations too, those are fun. When playing games over Discord and only hearing someone’s voice, interactions change.
Of course, there are some parts of those interactions that change because they could only be done through computer-mediated communication. There’s the obvious stuff, like how the multiple voice channels that Discord offers provides a way for the GM to have a private conversation with a player. It’s a simulation of going off into a room for a beat in real life, and certainly does take on its own form of formality when heralded by the sound of someone leaving and reentering the voice channel.
That Discord also offers text communication allows for a second conversation to be happening alongside the game, although in my experience it’s mostly us sending funny gifs and memes around that relate to whatever’s happening in-story. This creates a bizarre record of the adventure, though one that’s done more through an association game than anything else (for example: dumplings, training montages, the Hatch from Lost, Ackbar declaring it to be a trap, and Eric Andre demanding to be let in). They may not affect the story or the gameplay that much, but they provide a bit of color commentary on the proceedings.
With actual gameplay taking place via a system like Roll20, however, the very nature of playing changes. Skill rolls are an intrinsic part of most any tabletop RPG, they’re what determines how well a character does something. Roll high on a Persuasion Check, chances are, you persuaded them. Roll low on an attack and that’s a swing and a miss. Technically, you can roll the dice on anything, so long as you can justify the skill you’re using (Animal Handling to corral a group of children, for example). Of course, in-person, you have to declare it, which can mean having to calm down a very talkative table trying to decide on the course of action.
When all your rolls can be virtual through a website and show up in the logs, though, things can work differently. After all, click the “Persuasion” button on your character sheet and the roll happens. It’s all there on the screen, the dice, the results, and the stat that was rolled. The GM can ignore it or uphold it, but, point is, it happens without the need to tell everyone “Shut up, I’m rolling to Intimidate!”
When it comes down to it, I think I’m less intrigued by the way it changes gameplay than by how it changes the interactions of players. Often we look at computer-mediated communication as a lesser shadow of in-person dialogue, but I think it really opens up a different means of getting points across. You can’t drop a gif into a conversation in real life like you do online, but that doesn’t make it a less valid form of communication, does it? Maybe after this pandemic we’ll have a better appreciation for all the ways of speaking.