My Pathfinder session last night, despite a few initial glitches, went fabulously! While I will not call it a resounding success as far as good sessions go, it provided a necessary learning experience for how to construct an online session/campaign. My staple Saturday game has given me a glimpse of the process as a player, but this solitary session has been much more valuable in crafting my own philosophy about online gaming.
The Virtual Tabletop is Almost Required
I qualify this heading with “almost” because I could see several games working well without the virtual tabletop, particularly those that de-emphasize grids and maps, as well as those that establish more fluid combat scenes. However, in Pathfinder and other systems that require a visual aid to enhance the combat experience, it is important to carry the tabletop over to the virtual environment. Last night, Roll20 provided the perfect degree of virtual immersion into the combat in two major ways, the first of which being visualization. My players could visualize the battlefield just as well as an actual physical map and were able to move through that combat effectively given the lack of an immediate presence at the table. Secondly, the level of immersion greatly increase for each of my players. In my Saturday game, when we use a map, it is not as seamless, for the GM must point a webcam at a separate battlemat, which heightens the feeling of disconnection and distance from the combat. I could not figure out why, but when we began a combat last night, it occurred to me: my players were able to move their own pieces around the map rather than rely on me to do it. This allowed them to connect more strongly with the events of the battle and allowed us to complete it relatively quickly.
Pacing is Key
Not only is pacing so much different in a virtual session, but also maintaining that pacing is much more challenging. The initial agenda for the evening involved wrapping up a coronation ceremony to install one of the PCs as ruler of a fledgling nation, which required sub-scenes of dealing with major NPCs and solidifying trade agreements and deals. This portion of session was so difficult to pace because the lack of physical presence at the table often led to players becoming disengaged. This disengagement often manifested in a lot of interruptions and disruptions in conversation between all parties. While we were able to establish the pacing more effectively in the combat scenes, the social scenes required much more thought for staging and pacing than I initially allotted.
The most intriguing development to come out of the evening was the level of engagement from PCs surrounding the tabletop and the maps stored on Roll20. For me, the fact that they had complete control over their own tokens (with the exception of my roommate who was allowing to do the interaction for him) made them much more enthusiastic about what their characters were doing in the scene. They explained their actions, but also moved their token around much fluidly (i.e. without prompting) to complement the verbal script of the game.
I am looking forward to pushing the envelop a bit more by GM more online sessions. By getting more and more practice with the art of virtual GMing, I feel that I can improve my abilities both in an online setting and a good old-fashioned table. Here’s to hoping that my ambitions will not be lost in the interface.