As basically all gaming becomes online gaming during the pandemic, it’s important to know all of your options.

While video-conference-based gaming is the current default, I haven’t had much luck with it: if people don’t have great computers, cameras, and internet connections it can cause problems, especially if you game with couples who are trying to share an internet connection and suffering audio bleed from being in the same room. Dropping down to voice loses some of the video complications, but also loses all the body language feedback from your players. Both can have issues with slight audio latency that leads to talking conflicts that you don’t get as much when face-to-face: spotlight time goes to whoever is willing to just bull through someone else trying to talk at the same time.

Many have forgotten the grandparent of both of these styles, from the ancient days of IRC and AOL chats, before ubiquitous webcams and headsets: text-based gaming. This can be playing by post or email or everyone live in a chat room. The main difference is just the synchronicity. Text-based gaming has a few very interesting perks:

  • It self-documents, so you can always have the log to read back later. This can be for entertainment or to review information.
  • GMs that, at the table, feel too pressed for time to give good descriptions, or just forget to do so in the rush of talking, can enjoy license to go very purple with prose.
  • It’s leisurely. Even with live chat games, you often have time waiting for others to type to multi-task. My players, in particular, have expressed gratitude that it lets them game while also cooking, wrangling children, or doing other projects.
  • From the GM’s side, this leisure means it’s often possible to run on-the-fly in a way that would be madness face-to-face. There’s plenty of time to improvise, even for those that aren’t used to doing so, and the players have a much harder time telling when everything is by the seat of your pants.

It, of course, also has downsides:

  • Leisurely is code for slow. Depending on your players’ typing speed and distraction level, it can take two hours to knock out a scene that might have only taken 15 minutes at the table.
  • The format is not always intuitive to those that haven’t tried it before, especially people that are not comfortable writers. It can take a while for people to get into a groove.
  • Despite having the record right there, when you’re typing you’re not reading. People tend to miss what’s already been posted way more than you would expect.
  • All of this can be much worse if you don’t adapt to the format. A tactical-map-heavy, rules-dense, initiative-based play style is very challenging to do well in this format.

If you’re interested in how the medium works, my logs for years of Fading Suns are available. Currently, rather than the action formatting that was popular in the days of yore (double colons around actions), I’m trying a more prose-style notation, but the procedure holds up. The session times in that were usually 2-3 hours, for context of how much you can get done in one sitting. That was also mostly with players very comfortable with the format. Currently, with several players learning it as they go, I get maybe half as much done in the same session period.

I also have several specific tips for the format:

Narrative-Heavy

My number one piece of advice is to use a narrative-heavy system, or just eyeball the system you have for purposes of narration. You do not have time to request rolls for everything, particularly if the system requires multiple rolls to resolve a single result. When a player tries to do something, then you tell them what to roll, then they roll and calculate success, then you resolve the results, you’ve at least doubled the number of text exchanges you need, and that can take a long time in text.

Instead, consider the Technoir mindset: the PCs always succeed unless acted upon by a serious, opposing force. And when so acted upon, you can just eyeball relative competency, and suggest that a mechanically superior opponent means that the PC needs to come up with a winning strategy, not just get a lucky roll.

By all means, throw in narrated drawbacks if you think that success against the environment shouldn’t be easy given the PC’s skill level. And if they’re awful at something, you can just narrate that it’s not possible (or that they fail in an amusing way). This isn’t about making the players unstoppable, just removing the obstacles that slow down play.

In general, you’re looking to see if it makes sense to remove the randomizers in order to speed play. You can still use them when you want tension (but be prepared for things to slow way down). And if you’re really unsure about what should happen, you can roll physical dice “behind the screen” to resolve it. But it’s still almost always faster for you to do that than to wait for the player to realize you’ve called for a roll and to make it. Get straight from the player wanting to do something to you describing the result.

Have the Sheets Handy

As an aside, relevant to narrating and rolling behind the screen, keep the PC sheets handy. Just have them open in another browser tab. Unlike at the table when you’ve got a billion books and opponent stat blocks taking up your visual space, it’s much easier to keep the PC stats handy when you’re playing on a computer. It saves so much time for you to just look up what skills the PC has that are relevant to what you’re trying than to ask them to tell you their total in chat.

No Initiative

Largely related to the narrative aspect, but distinct, is that you should do your damnedest to avoid initiative order. You think people check out when you go around the table for initiative? It’s so much worse when you’re not sure if the person everyone else is waiting for has wandered off to do something else, totally unaware they’re holding up the game.

Try to set things up as parallel as possible, where everyone can do something if someone doesn’t respond for a minute. This can be legitimately running separate scenes that aren’t clearly linked in time to everything else going on (so the fast typists can do as much as they want while the slower ones are off on their own scene). Generally, though, it’s just that everything is very open and that you assume that people that are posting less frequently are doing something useful that just isn’t being clearly described. “Botting” idle PCs by incorporating the actions you assume they take in your GM posts is much more acceptable than face-to-face.

Mostly, just do everything in your power to avoid situations where you’re waiting on one player to say something before anyone else can advance the scene.

Always Have a Ninja

Corollary to keeping one player from hanging the scene: be prepared to prevent all the players from hanging the scene. This can be especially prevalent when the PCs have gotten off to a safe location where they’re planning or trying to investigate something at their own pace. If you don’t have an active participant in the scene (whether that be an NPC or just a dynamic situation), you can get stuck where the players are stumped as to what to do next, but there aren’t any obvious things that you can add in-play to unstick them from the problem or at least convince them to move on if they’re stumped.

The obvious solution is the Raymond Chandler standby: have a guy with a gun kick in the door (or a bunch of ninjas). This can feel punitive, but maybe the players will keep things moving if they know all you have is a hammer to try to unstick them.

While GMPCs are generally not the best idea, they can be really useful in this format to give you a mouthpiece in any scene. As always with important NPCs, you should avoid having them just take charge or have the players assume they will always have the answers. Instead, the character can usually have middling to bad ideas, but just having someone to pipe up and go, “So it seems like what you’re saying is…” can be enough to break the deadlock, or at least get them to continue talking rather than sitting, sullenly waiting for someone else to post.

Finally, you can aggressively scene frame. If a scene peters out, just describe the next one. This is hard if the players are stuck on how to resolve something and wouldn’t move on without it being resolved, so it’s not my favorite option. But if you can just move them on, do it.

Consider Artifice Exposure

Sometimes, you just have to explain, out of character, what you’re doing. Text loses the nuance you would get from body language and tone of voice. Often you think you’ve described something perfectly, and if the players successfully tag your prose with their own, you’re going to wind up with just the most beautiful piece of writing for posterity.

But while you’re sitting there, unwilling to type anything else because you ended your post on what you think is the perfect feeder line for the player to say something awesome, the players might be sitting there completely baffled by what they’re supposed to be doing. You may need to just throw up an OOC line where you’re like, “Okay, in case this is not clear, the options I see here are X, Y, and Z; you can do one of those, or do something creative I didn’t think of.”

I’m guilty of this a lot.

Examine Your Clarity

As part an parcel of exposing the artifice, consider your clarity in general. As noted, even with the text record indelibly floating above the chat, people can miss an awful lot. It’s very hard to keep track of several posts that come in at once from other players, particularly when you’re typing up your own masterful piece of dialogue. I pretty regularly see players repeating actions or asking questions that were covered only a line or two above. You can even miss things for quite a while, before someone finally notices a discrepancy (in this log, two PCs executed the same villain in two very different manners).

This can be very challenging if you’re trying to run split scenes. In this session, even very clearly noting in chat which characters I was focusing on, players were still getting confused whether I was describing something that they could interact with or something happening on the other side of the zone. Be explicit and repetitive in your descriptions about who can interact with something when the party is split. You can always rearrange the logs later to make the soup of player responses make a little more sense.

Ultimately, always consider that you can basically have a similar problem to peer-to-peer multiplayer video game disagreements. In P2P shooters, one player is the host computer that has the “real” record of all the actions that happened, and if the other computers lag, they can think they’re accomplishing something only to suddenly be confused when it didn’t happen (e.g., shooting a guy that their computer said was in line of fire but the host computer thought had moved). As the GM of a text game, you’re the “host computer” and your vision of what’s going on is the authoritative one. But through various issues with clarity or noticing what’s going on, you can “desync” from the players’ vision of what’s going on.

If the players are doing something that doesn’t make sense for your view of what’s going on (even if it just seems like it’s suboptimal, like they’re ignoring an obvious thing they can interact with) it falls to you to make sure they’re not punished due to the disconnect. If you think they’re missing something, ask them OOC if it’s deliberate before you narrate them failing. You’re never as clear as you hope, and it’s important to make sure everyone has a good time.