Mar 25, 2020

Resources for Playing Online

I played in an online OSR group for about six years, refereeing for about two and a half of them. Since everyone is shifting their games online to avoid spreading coronavirus infections, I thought I would share some resources and suggestions to make that an easy experience. As always, all of this advice comes with the caveat to do it with charm and grace and not robotically.

Video Conferencing

I think Discord is the best videoconferencing software for gaming at the moment. Discord allows video chat for up to nine people via group chat with no time limit; asynchronous messaging as either a group chat or a private server; the upload of images under 10 MB, and is less of a RAM hog than Skype. You can also load in a dicebot (the one my current group is using is DiceParser) to handle dice rolling.

 I strongly recommend downloading the app instead of running it in your browser, since browsers' RAM usage surges and ebbs unexpectedly, which leads to very uneven video quality, especially when you navigate away from the tab that the video conferencing is running in. The app is much more consistent.

To get the best experience from Discord, I recommend you start about half an hour early for the first session to properly set things up. You should encourage people to shift to "Push to Talk" in their "Voice and Video" settings. This will mean that they're only transmitting purposefully and will eradicate the majority of problems with echoing and intrusive background sounds. I recommend keybinding the "Push to Talk" to an arrow key, since it won't interfere with typing text.

If people don't or won't use Push to Talk, then encourage them to practice good "mute etiquette" by muting their microphones when they're not speaking or getting ready to speak.

The biggest challenge with any online system is reducing cross chatter, which will cause most computer speakers to spit out gibberish and cause slower computers to lag. A related challenge is the pauses where a person has stopped talking and everyone waits a moment then suddenly starts talking at once because the nonlinguistic conversational turn-taking cues are suppressed in video calls. Push to Talk with help a bit, but you can also do a few things to reduce how often this happens.

My suggestions are to adopt gestures that:

1) People can use to indicate that they want to talk. Raising a hand and holding it up until called on by referee works well. Discourage people from flopping their hands up rapidly once hoping that you'll notice. Once the players are familiar with this, you can encourage them to actively "hand off" to the next person they see whose hand is raised.

2) Indicate disagreement or agreement with some proposition. Encourage players to ask simple yes or no questions instead of open-ended, convoluted questions that require several assumptions to hold. Then do a simple roll call and have people give a thumbs up or thumbs down indicating their assent or dissent.

3) Indicate that they're done talking or finishing up, or that you, the referee, want them to bring their comments to a close. I use the OK symbol or sometimes a horizontal hand slice at face-level (I know this as a "cut it off gesture" but these things are so regional).

The smoother you can make all of this, the easier people will find it to pay attention to what's going on and to follow the flow of discussion. The harder it is to follow a given discussion, the easier it is to drift off or become distracted.

Speed is less important than clarity and focus. I recommend supplementing the conversational component by writing out key decisions to be made, or resolutions that have been decided, in the text channel, and having people who have trouble speaking up write their responses there. Rather than handle it yourself, per se, I would recommend appointing either the Caller or the Notetaker to facilitate these discussions and bring them to the attention of the video conference as they think appropriate.

I recommend using the text chat element frequently. When people cast a spell that "lasts 24 hours" and like, have them type that fact into the text channel along with the estimated time of day they cast it. If the party develops a multi-step plan, have them write out the steps in the text channel. Use the text channel as a prosthetic memory so that you don't have to remember all of this stuff.


I also recommend using a digital whiteboard when you play. After trying a few options, I settled on Miro (it used to be called Realtimeboard). You can get a free account, but I actually pay for one that gives me extra space (I use it for work stuff and personal projects as well as gaming).

I like Miro because I think it's got the best and broadest set of tools for organising information, and because it gives you a lot of storage (especially with a paid account). I drag and drop images from around the web to create visual collages, and I toss up pdfs of errata documents, world write-ups, and the like.

With Miro, you can share links where people can only view but not edit the board, or you can invite them using their email address to the board which allows editing even if they don't have an account. I recommend using the latter, and make sure to set it up beforehand. Be warned that boards with lots of stuff that have multiple people logging in at once will be slightly slower to load than bare boards with only one or two people.

To use a digital whiteboard effectively for gaming, you should break up sections by function. I use frames for each collection of related items to aid navigation. I recommend at minimum the following sections:

1) A resources section that's mostly locked down so people can't accidentally move or delete stuff in it. These are your static images (e.g. the map of the campaign setting), errata documents, a document with the key stats for the PCs (like their saving throws), etc. Use Miro's "lock" function to prevent people from deleting, duplicating, etc. these pieces.

2) A "working files" section. This is stuff that you'll change or grab maybe once or twice a session but will need more than once. This is where you place comments or notes containing information the PCs discover about the world or NPCs, dump icons for enemies and PCs for battle map uses, and stick other reusable elements you might need.

3) A central working area where you'll be drawing battle maps, diagrams, and illustrations, moving icons around, sticking up post-its with NPC names during interactions, etc. This is where PCs should be drawing things and making their own notes before they're moved over into a more enduring section.

The real key to this is to use the whiteboard as much as possible to organise the presentation of information so people can understand things visually instead of verbally. This reduces the strain on your audio channel's bottleneck, gives people a different way to focus in on what's going on in the game, and lets you present information that might take a lot of speech to convey clearly, but can be conveyed very simply visually.

If you're just using it for combat, then two common outcomes are that in-between combats people will log out of it and lose their ability to navigate back to the link, or they will keep the chat program maximised on screen and only switch over to the whiteboard slowly and when explicitly told to. I recommend two practices to encourage more fluid switching between chat and whiteboard programs.

1) As referee, share your screen with the whiteboard on it directly into the chat to call PCs attention to it during deliberations, but not during combat. This lets them continue to use the visual signals established above to handle their deliberation, while also allowing you to focus them on the core elements you want to inform that deliberation (literally, by moving your screen to focus in on those elements).

If PCs want to focus in on something that's not on your shared screen during deliberations, encourage them to share their screen of the whiteboard while they talk (and possibly draw or type something out). It will help them capture the attention of other players.

2) Have them shift over to the whiteboard completely for combat. Start off each round with a call to attention for everyone who has drifted off since they last acted, allow them to briefly discuss tactics for the round, and then go through matters in a strict initiative order with the expectation that they won't interrupt one another. Encourage them to communicate with one another via sticky notes on the board, rather than talking out of turn.

Once again, this is the sort of thing that setting expectations at the start, consistently enforcing them, and investing a bit of time to build player skill and familiarity with these methods and the digital tools will make the whole experience much better for everyone.

I hope this is helpful in assisting you to play adventure games online. Good luck!

Mar 11, 2020

Roleplaying, Decisions, Intelligibility

The core activity one needs to master to be a "good roleplayer" is making decisions and rendering the reasons for those decisions intelligible [1] to the other players.

If you have ever written dramatic works, you probably know that the progression through a character-driven arc is composed of a series of decisions which cannot be reversed or undone. The challenge of this sort of progression is to provide a sense of appropriateness and intelligibility to the protagonists and antagonists' decisions and their consequences. Successfully doing this constitutes "characterisation" properly understood.

The folk understanding of how decisions work is broadly that beliefs about the world combine with desires to motivate acts which are undertaken to bring about states of affairs that correspond to the satisfaction of those desires (this is called the "Humean" account in ethical literature). When we are trying to understand another person's actions (and do not consider their actions arbitrary), we try to reconstruct the above elements in a coherent way that is appropriately situated. We can do this retroactively or predictively.

When we are "roleplaying", we are conveying the necessary information to other players to engage in these kinds of reconstructions, and our success is determined by how well they are supplied with the information they need to do this.

We cannot ensure that they will reconstruct things identically to how we conceived the relation between the pieces of a decision, or even that they are particularly good at doing this, but this is an ordinary problem of intersubjective communication that we navigate all the time, and not peculiar to this situation.

The silly voices, tragic backstories, expository monologues, themes, tones, and the like are (often fairly crude) tools to convey information about the character's beliefs and motivations, and to aid others in predicting the kinds of decisions they are likely to make. We rely on tropes, stereotypes, conventions, history and other activations of the attribution bias to transform these trivial and incidental features into meaningful information.

But despite how obvious this sounds, I recurrently run into individuals who have all of the trappings of characterisation, but can't deploy them to render their decisions intelligible to others. For example, it's quite common to give characters a bunch of "quirks" that occur only sporadically when the player remembers them. They sit around, being invoked or mentioned but not motivating any behaviour or having much relation to the decisions the character makes. Then suddenly, the player becomes bored or thinks it would be funny, and the quirk is invoked in an inappropriate situation as a rationalising motivation for some bizarre action.

e.g. A character might have arachnophobia. Most of the time this quirk is irrelevant to what's going on and so is forgotten, but then one day, while the player is bored at the table, they recall that their character is afraid of spiders and decide to do something stupid like stab the innkeeper, justifying the action with "I saw a spider on his back" or some such.

The problem here is not having a fear of spiders per se, or even stabbing the innkeeper because of it, but that because the quirk normally motivates nothing, it has insufficient persuasive or explanatory force in reconstructing the decision for the other players when it finally does crop up. It just comes out of nowhere and is clearly a post hoc rationalisation, and not a very good one at that.

I believe having a large accumulation of trivial quirks like this is detrimental to roleplaying well, much like allowing a lens to become covered in spots and grime does not improve its clarity or focus. Either they provide too many possible rationalisations, diminishing the ability of other players to pick the right one to predict or reconstruct your motivation, or even if they can be successfully picked out, the actions they motivate are usually unreasonably intense (e.g. murdering someone) in comparison to the trivial and sporadic nature of the quirk.

The more quirks, the more facts about one's self that one can draw on, and the more random and incoherent they are, the more possible situations in which these quirks can be invoked (however intermittently) to provide a ready-made justification. But this renders the character unintelligible. Because the other people at the table have no idea which quirk will apply to which situation, and how tightly any of them will bear on a situation relative to the other quirks, the character seems inconsistent, unpredictable, and incomprehensible.

Most problems of this type rely on an over-estimation of the explanatory force of a character's facticity. That is, they expect a single fact, or very small set of them, about the character or the world to do the bulk of the work of justifying motivation and behaviour, often regardless of other relevant facts.[2] "I am a chaotic evil orc assassin, so of course I stabbed the barkeep in the back". This sort of thing lacks a persuasive account of the desire at work and attempts to fill the gap (or cover over the actual desire) with some facts instead, which is unsatisfactory.

Against this, constancy, simplicity, and clarity of desires and sensibility and salience of beliefs are great aids in conveying a character whose decisions are easy to understand and predict. I think these values and the practices of roleplaying that display them are, if not underrated per se, at least badly taught in many instances where new people are being shown what roleplaying is.

One example of how they are badly taught is the value that is often placed on elaborate backstories for PCs. While by no means a universal value, I do think many people at one point or another come in contact with the idea that a good character has a lot of stuff happen before or outside of the game proper, which a good referee then activates in the game over the course of play. The backstory does the work, theoretically, of rendering the character's actions intelligible to others, by filling in various facts that situate their present actions as part of a larger causal chain. And, if kept simple enough, it can indeed help tremendously with this.

But the moment it requires more than a few sentences or a short paragraph to summarise, it's probably too convoluted and complicated to actually inform the other players' attempts to understand how it fits into the rationale for what you're doing. The more stereotypical and cliched, the longer it can be since we can rely on other resources (familiarity with genre and comparisons with other texts) to help understand it, but otherwise, I strongly suggest keeping it simple.

One perhaps inobvious paedogogical tactic that comes out of this understanding of roleplaying as intelligibility, is to teach people to clearly communicate why their character is doing something and only after they have mastered these kinds of rationalisations to move to conveying them through more coded means.

These can, initially, be relatively brief out-of-character statements, but you can actually get very good roleplaying out of people with even mediocre acting talents by having them provide these rationales in the first person, in-character, to the other players, especially if you have a couple of players doing this at once with one another. Instead of the cognitive load of a funny voice and a convoluted backstory, a player-character can devote their attention to persuasively arguing for their beliefs and desires.

As a supplement to this, you can bring things to a "dramatic crisis" as a referee by establishing the common and shared beliefs about the world that the debaters share near to the start of the exchange, thus removing the factual disagreements and forcing the PCs to talk explicitly about what they want with one another. If there's a trusted neutral party (a PC uninvolved in the debate) you can also have them do it, tho' I recommend also pushing this to occur in character and to be narrated in the first person. You can also do this with PC-to-NPC exchanges too, of course.

I've found that shifting over to this understanding of roleplaying from one that considers it to be more closely aligned with acting has been tremendously useful for teaching new players how to roleplay, especially since it does not simultaneously encourage them to think of campaigns as a type of prewritten story with a troupe of semi-competent improv actors assigned to figure it out. I encourage you to consider the above and determine its effectiveness for yourself.

[1]"Intelligibility" as I'm using it here means the motivations and considerations involved can be successfully reconstructed by an external party in such a way that conserves their persuasive or explanatory force. It contrasts with two failure states that are distinct from merely bad decisions or decisions one disagrees with:

a) "Bizarre" or arbitrary decisions are ones that cannot be reconstructed, or that when reconstructed lack persuasive or explanatory force.
e.g. Stabbing an innkeeper because you're bored and want something to happen, or spontaneously deciding that you hate innkeepers and plan to kill them all, despite having interacted with many of them in the past in non-murderous ways

b) "Perverse" decisions where one makes the decision based on a different space of reasons than the one normally under consideration in play
e.g. Screwing over Jim's character because you're pretty sure he's sleeping with your partner IRL or, alternately, making a choice that boosts your character's mechanical power but involves introducing an explanation that can't be reconciled coherently with elements of the character you've previously established.

[2] There is a related problem in games where people scrounge around looking for the single fact that will trivialise or eradicate the need to make a decision for themselves even when no such fact exists or can be discovered by them prior to making the decisions. This involves the extension and repetition of a useful behaviour - identifying and eliminating from consideration undesirable or less-optimal alternatives using evidence - until it becomes detrimental, in a sort of speculative turn by which a thing turns into its opposite, The further the desire to eliminate all but some theoretical totally optimal and satisfactory option is extended past the point of possible knowledge, the more detrimental it becomes, until one can no longer understand the situation or progress through it to some other decision. This is an example of Hegel's famous "bad infinity".