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So I have been gamemastering my university group (6-7 PCs) for more than 4 years, and recently since we moved apart for job reasons we have started to use Roll20 and Skype to play together.

I received some feed back from 2 of my PC that is more difficult to get into the "RP mood"/character, it's easier to leave the mood/character, that the feeling is less good during an online session than when we were around the table, and that they feel less involved because of the format.


According to this article from the Angry DM and some game designer there is 8 kind of fun, and what is fun make the player engage:

  • Sensation: The fun of having your senses stimulated.
  • Fantasy: The fun of losing yourself in an imaginary world and being something you’re not.
  • Narrative: The fun of experiencing a well-told story.
  • Challenge: The fun of overcoming obstacles.
  • Fellowship: The fun of interacting with others and working together.
  • Discovery: The fun of exploring and uncovering things.
  • Expression: The fun of leaving your personal mark on the world.
  • Submission: The fun of of turning your brain off and doing effortless things.

So knowing this how can I improve engagement with video/VTT gaming?
And counter balance the reduction of Fellowship.


(Answers are expected to be primarily based on real experience, what you did in this situation and how it worked for you - demonstrate how your recommended technique or course of action is effective for the problem.)

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I run a Pathfinder game using the same setup (Skype and Roll20), with between 4-6 players a session. We will have started 3 years ago in January. Proper ambience and player engagement are some of the things that I always aim for in my sessions, and are not always easy to establish. Here are a few things I've found that worked for my game.

The Jukebox is your Friend

Music is an astoundingly effective tool for setting the tone of a scene. While it is entirely possible to run a game without music, I have found player investment and engagement significantly higher when music was available. Music is even able to signal shifts in a scene's tone, or in the actions of characters, and your players will remember the theme of a recurring villain.

Roll20 has an excellent integrated jukebox feature, useful for adding music and sound effects. While there was recently some commotion when Soundcloud disconnected Roll20 from usage, Roll20 now has a number of other options, including Fanburst integration. Multi-track play capability allows for the potential mixing of background music and sound effects, which can further increase the ambience.

Descriptive Language is Important

While this also applies in regular tabletop, I have found that there is an increased need for description over voice to chat. As you do not have the physical presence of your players, you will need to keep them mentally engaged, or they will begin to drift off to do other things.

While most description tends to focus on sight, do not forget the other four senses in your descriptions. Sound may or may not be demonstrable using the jukebox, but describing the warm and smooth surface of the cobblestone beneath their feet and the scent of warm meat and wood smoke is a great way to remind your players of how welcoming the inn is.

Characterization is More Important

This is one that gave me fits when I was first getting used to communicating over Skype. As it is unlikely that your players are able to see you now, the subtleties of body language are now lost when your players are communicating with each other and with you. This may vary in impact, as someone who tends to speak with their hands will have a harder time than someone who tends to stay rather still.

As NPCs no longer have visible body language, any significant body language will need to be stated in description, or be lost. Attempting different inflections or tones to NPCs can also help to differentiate them, as can giving them differing personalities or tendencies. While I can't properly convey the anger of the character through my facial expressions and body language, my party can still recall the anger of the halfling supremacist who considered humans to be animals and scum.

I sincerely hope that my answer was of some use. Best of luck with your gaming.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Sounds/Music can work if the connection is good. But in the Roll20 game I am in we often have difficulties understanding the GM and I fear adding Music would increase those problems. \$\endgroup\$ – Umbranus Nov 14 '16 at 9:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Personally I have more bad experiences with the roll20 Jukebox than good. It tends to make things harder to understand, especially with earphones. \$\endgroup\$ – IanDrash Nov 14 '16 at 10:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @IanDrash This is why you can set the volume level of music and sound effects. \$\endgroup\$ – Momonga-sama Nov 14 '16 at 18:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Seconding what @Momonga-sama said. A lot of my jukebox tracks have the volume bars far to the quieter end of the bar, and I also turned up the volume of the Skype calls to increase the difference of volume between the two. \$\endgroup\$ – Ray of Light Nov 14 '16 at 19:44
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I've been DMing and playing online for the last three years in both long- (campaign) and short-term (1-4 sessions) groups. My experience is, that it is much easier to do something else and fall out of the mood when you sit in front of the computer with the whole Internet at your fingertips. Especially when you know no-one will notice you doing something else while something boring happens, or your character is not a part of the action.

Encourage in-party interaction

Make sure your players have a good chance and a good reason to interact not only with NPCs, but with each other. There is a quality difference for most players between the two, and they are more liable to get into it if they think it is important. Even if it is just two characters calling each other names.

Stand-out NPCs

Make your NPCs stand out. Give them accents, specific speech patterns, describe their emotions in a bit more detail than usual. Make your NPCs a bit different, even if it's Guard #3, whose sole reason for existence is to be fooled by them as they sneak in somewhere. Make him fat, smelly or rail thin. Have him wear rusted armor, or make him lament about his pay. Give him a few small details that your players will forget in ten minutes, but it will make him feel more alive for them. Near the table, you can use body language and facial expressions to do this. Through Skype, you have to use words for everything.

Use the Tools

A big advantage of roll20 compared to playing at the table is the amount of pictures and maps at your fingertips. Find pictures about enemies, get your players to choose their tokens, show them maps. It can help the immersion factor for some parties immensely, though not all parties require it.

Streamline combat

Try to streamline combat as much as you can on your part. Use roll20-s macro system to make calculations and dice throws into a single click of a button. Use a single throw to decide NPC combat, or simply handwave it. Be very sure about the rules for the players as well. Make sure that the majority of time spent in combat is on the player's side, and not the GM throwing virtual dice. Also don't let it devolve into a player looking through sourcebooks for modifiers and such in the middle of combat. Next to the table most people are too polite to start browsing the Net on their phone, but if you already sit behind a computer... I have played in a Deathwatch game, where the GM was a bit inexperienced with the rules, and moved a lot of characters, which meant that I had about 5-10 minutes of sitting around before I could play for 30 seconds and attack with my Flamer. ne of the other players told me, he played some games during the downtime. Me, I caught up on my reading. That is not something you want as a GM or a player.

Seven might be too many

From the last point, it comes naturally, that if there are a lot players, some of them will have nothing to do for long stretches of time, and that breeds boredom and given the usual attention span of people, browsing the Internet. I don't know if there is any way to solve this, but one of the big disadvantages of playing through Skype is that there can be only a single "talking" game at same time, and two characters can't interact/roleplay on sidelines, which is something I tend to do when I'm out of the action, nothing interesting for the character is happening and I have a partner for it. Personally I prefer having 3-4 players if I play virtually, and GMing for more than 5 is not something I would try.

Conclusion: One of the big differences of playing through the net, is that it is harder to keep the attention of people when they can't see you, you can't see them and there are a lot of things that can be done in the "downtime" when other people play. Try to make sure that the players have something to do and that they don't have to sit around for a long time doing nothing but listening. Best case scenario is, when you can leave to party to itself for a while and they keep on playing while you get yourself a beer.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd even argue that seven is too many for normal, in-person D&D anyways... I've found that my games are usually the best with 3-5 players. \$\endgroup\$ – PipperChip Nov 14 '16 at 19:09
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Here are a few observations after playing more than 1500 hours on roll20.

Play to the system’s strengths

Utilize the online system to increase immersion in ways that are difficult to do on a real table.

The roll20 system you are on has some very cool features, such as dynamic lighting. This can make revealing areas of the dungeon quite realistic, and can even allow different players to see different parts of a dungeon, depending on where their characters are.

Check out the other tools in roll20, like Fog of War. Mix up when you use them, and tie it into your narrative.

Use visual aids

There’s lot of art on the Internet that you borrow and show on your players’ screens. Instead of describing NPC’s, environments, and buildings, you can often find something appropriate, and show the players when appropriate.

You can use the images as inspiration for your role-playing. If the NPC portrait you pick out looks like they might have an outrageous accent, run with that.

Queue the music

Nothing sets the mood for an RPG quite like a good soundtrack, so do a little research into the which music (available in roll20) would be good for upcoming events in your campaign.

Limit the number of players

Now for the bad news:

One problem with online systems is communication is a little bit harder. There is often some latency in the communication, and even if there isn’t, when folks can’t see each other in person, communication is a little more difficult.

I find that with more than 4 players (plus the DM) just talking can get a little cumbersome, as people tend to start talking at the same time.

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I have been running campaigns through Skype as a DM for about 6 months now. The group counts 7 players, and we agreed that we would play with at least 4 players whenever we have a session.

Help them enter the game mood with an introduction

This is not specific to online roleplaying. I always ask my players, before we start again, to make a summary of what they accomplished in the previous session. I introduced this because I did not always have the same players from one session to the next, but there was always at least one player who played the previous session and could brief the others. This 5-min introduction works as an ice-breaker, and allows the players to remember the setting. I feel this is especially important in a setting like Skype, to get everyone on the same page before starting again.

Secret actions are way easier than in table roleplaying

Before using Skype, our secret actions had to be written on a paper, which was then handed to me. Everyone knew that a secret action was going on. It was extremely hard to prevent meta-gaming, especially in theft situations. With Skype, all of the players can basically perform complex secret actions (such as negotiating with a Demonologist without the group knowing that the player has an interest in Demons).

A real-game example: one of the players served a God who asked him, to prove his willingness to serve, to sacrifice (by destroying) any magic item he could find. He stole several magic items from the party during nights, and did his thing without anyone ever suspecting him. That would clearly not have been possible in a table setting, because people would have seen the papers go around.

This allows for the players to not only be interested in the main story, but also to their very personal sides of the story. They really got involved with their side activities, which allowed them to feel closer to their character, and I believe they felt more engaged due to that.

Online mode allows for more graphic options

To make the thing more interactive, we have used an online tool which allows to make drawings, in the specific case of maps, or visual clues. (I can't remember the name of the tool, sorry). The enemy monsters encountered were shown through a picture, but not over-described, and the players never had the name of the creature, so they had to study it to understand how to fight it. This helped them focus on the game a lot: they have to stay focused and look at what you want them to look at if they wish to play correctly.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Does your group know that you encourage PvP? One player reducing available loot to further his own interest hurts the other PCs and as such in clearly a form of PvP for me. \$\endgroup\$ – Umbranus Nov 15 '16 at 7:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ They know they can do it. He has since then explained what he was doing (after the first TPK) and nobody took offense. \$\endgroup\$ – Thalantas Nov 15 '16 at 7:10
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Literally use hundreds of handouts

Roll20's storage limit is quite big and you should use it. Furthermore the cataloging system allows you to easily group everything, so no one gets lost. The possibility to allow only certain players to see something is very useful.

For the second time I ran a one-shot adventure, about 20 documents, that could be found in various places. The players were as uexperienced as previous group, but they had way more fun. Especially when a dwarf knight found a hidden message, that could be only seen by "eyes, that pierce the deepest darkness".

Avoid splitting the party

I have been using roll20 since June 2016 and played nearly 2 thousand hours with a dozen or so different people, as well as a player and a game master. I know a little about both points of view.

The most important thing, I learned is that spliting the party and player characters may be used by more experienced game masters in classic sit-by-table roleplaying, it definitely should be avoided.

Luckily you use video communicators, so websurfing probably will not happen as it would be too noticeable. However if it happens, make sure to reprimand them. Such behaviour is not only rude, but it also ruins fun for themselves and you as well.

During a real-life game other players may directly give you a subtle hint or two they are getting bored. Unfortunately it is impossible with a camera which lets you to look only in one direction.

If you notice, that spliting the party is unavoidable or the players want to do so you should stop your game at that moment and run a solo-games for every character or group who decided to stick together. It requires more work, but believe not every player wants to wait an hour when their wizard can't solve a puzzle.

Acting and gesturing

Making faces in front of a camera might seem silly, but it really helps. Of course the camera limits your acting possibilities, but nothing stands in your way to perform with your face. If you roleplay someone prudish, raise your head, chin and look not directly into, but under the camera. If it would be some coward slouch, bow your head and look a bit over the camera. Record yourself performing this way and see which facial expressions would fit your NPCs.

Props add a nice flavour

Nothing stops you from using a few simple props. Put on a monocle when you roleplay a rich gnome aristocrat or an owner of a pawnshop. Play with a knife for a dangerous thief. Put on a hood a deep hood for some mysterious people. Drink water from an empty bottle(playing drunk is not recommended) for some drunkard. When they encounter an assassin, pretend you dropped something, bow and put on a mask, that you put under your feet. Slowly stand up and when your face is about to be seen, quickly raise your head. At least goosbumps are granted.

A few regular tips for Game Mastering

Always try to improve your vocabulary. Adding some exquisit words will absolutely improve the game mood. A cutthroat yelling "I will slaughter you one by one." sounds way more terryfying than simple "I will kill you all". Avoid some specialised jargon and be sure you are understandable. Not everybody knows what is Erlenmeyer flask.

Remember to modulate your voice to match. A venerable librarian shouldn't sound like a stalwart army general, just as dragon shouldn't resemble a cute little princess. Use more quiet and calm voice for women and children. For more devillish creatures try to growl, like the singers of heavy metal bands.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Did you accidentally check “community wiki” when making that last edit? (We can undo that if so.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 14 '16 at 19:55

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