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New GM to two players, both with limited D&D experience (we're playing 5e). We're all well versed in written roleplay, but theater and acting doesn't come overly naturally to any of us. Add in the complication that we're located across the globe from one another (two on opposite ends of the USA, and one in England) and we've chosen because of our own comfort levels to do a voice-only D&D campaign, using Roll20. This means we do not use video in our calls, and are incredibly unlikely to do so going forward.

Our specific technology setup is that we hang out on my TeamSpeak server for the audio, and use Roll20 for the visuals and dice rolling.

Generally we're doing quite well with this system and having a great time, but one of its biggest flaws has quickly reared its head; it's a lot harder to roleplay, particularly with characters who are slow to speak, when you can't see the other person thinking/pausing/gesturing.

Everyone's giving it their absolute best shot and all credit to my players for reaching out to each other to clarify if they're thinking OOC or IC whenever there's too much of a pause, and leaving each other time to think, but I'm still concerned that our chosen style is cramping in-character interactions. One of my players is more quiet and slow to speak, and the other player accidentally runs over her or dominates conversations frequently. I would stress that this is not in any way a problem with that person; she's quick to stop herself if the quieter one tries to speak and is very respectful, it's just hard to leave that much dead air when you can't see what the other person is doing.

I'm looking to see if there are any tested methods for how I as a GM can facilitate and improve in-character roleplay in an audio-only environment. I'm not even sure this is a problem that can be solved; personal experience is welcome!

Please note that suggesting that we use video is not an option in this case; I am obviously aware of the hypothetical benefits but it is not a good fit for this group.

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As you use Roll20 for visuals anyway, I would try to introduce specific text chat tags. You can use them IC or OOC and players can emphasize their need to speak next like:

[very upset, barely can keep her composure]

or how they are willing to not engage

[grabs some crackers from the backpack and watches people argue]

This also helps the other players to understand the position of other players while another player is still speaking.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How has this worked for you? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Mar 10 '17 at 22:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I love how simple this approach is; it's easy to implement and easy to keep track of. While other people will be getting upvotes I'm awarding you the answer as your response is more helpful to our specific case. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Mar 11 '17 at 1:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ When using roll20 you can emote in the text bar using /em. What this will do is take your selected character (found in the drop down menu) and will emote what is typed. It appears in an orange box. So using me as an exmaple if I typed: /em spat on the floor and put his hand to his sword it would appear in the chat log as: Matthew Perryman spat on the floor and put his hand to his sword in an orange box. We use this in our session to continue roleplaying when others are speaking. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Perryman Aug 25 '17 at 11:12
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Use a push-to-talk service that indicates to other players when you're broadcasting.

I participate in a similar kind of game, where one of our players can't be in the room with use and can only use voice. We've dealt with essentially the same problem; it's almost impossible to tell when our remote player wants to speak up, especially when we can read everyone else's in-person cues.

As a solution (to this and other problems), we use the Discord chat client. One of the nice things about this client is that you can set your voice to broadcast whenever you press a button. Importantly, whenever you push this button, your icon in the chat lights up with a green outline. Here's a screenshot:

Not talking:

enter image description here

Talking:

enter image description here

You can use this as an unobtrusive indicator for intent to speak. Whenever your quiet player wants to talk, they can press their button, which will light up the indicator for everyone else. You can keep a sliver of your display with this option on the side, allowing you to look at the notifiers while mostly looking at the Roll20 interface.

This solution uses a silent visual notification that doesn't take up much, if any, of your social bandwidth, and doesn't require any forced cycling of attention. Moreover, because push to talk is an option, you can simply use the default setting to speak normally, and let your players indicate when they want to speak up. I'm not sure if Teamspeak has a similar option, though I'd guess that it does (and if it doesn't, Discord is pretty great!)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ In discussions via TS or Discord I learned it is polite and easy to jsut tap the talk button once or twice if you want to say something - It not only gives the visual, it also creates a very slight sound without intruing too much. \$\endgroup\$ – Trish Jul 20 '17 at 11:03
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Borrow ideas tested in non-gaming systems.

Radio. While it will feel awkward at first, using a bit of CB (Citizen Band) radio jargon might be useful. By that, I mean when you're speaking you end your "turn" at speaking with a clear end-of-message flag, "[...]. Over!" Just to clear the airwaves and let the next person start up. Having used CB radios back in the day, this system does work fairly well.

Networking. Before the days of modern gigabit Ethernet systems, there was a token ring network system. This system said that the computer with "permission to speak" had the token. It would send data, then pass the token on to the next computer in line. That token would travel around the ring of networked computers so that no two computers would attempt to speak simultaneously. You could recreate this concept by asking each person, in turn, to say something. "Bob, comments?" If Bob had nothing to say at that time, he'd indicate this with a simple "Pass." at which point, you as GM would ask the next person to interject. This round-robin style means you clearly ask each person to talk, so the quiet types are more likely to participate. But it may mean that critical data may not be introduced as soon as it might otherwise be. If Joe needs to say something, he has to wait his turn.

Other ideas. Maybe ask players to have a non-vocal sound to indicate a "request to send." If Jane needs to speak, rather than talking over anyone else, she could simply slap the table or have her computer/cell phone make a chime sound, something that's mostly unintrusive, but everyone would hear it; the speaker would wrap up the sentence they're in the middle of and ask if she had a question or comment.

Your comment about knowing if something was in-character or out-of-character happens in face-to-face games, too. I've struggled with that as a player and GM. I've yet to find a perfect solution. Accents, if your PC has one, can work. But most gamers aren't trained voice actors, so it doesn't work well. You can ask that players always preface OOC comments with "OOC but...". However, my experience has been that players will forget to do so more often than not.

Specific to Gaming, I've used the "token" method as a GM. Bob, your turn.... Jane, your turn... and so on. This was especially vital during combat, so the entire game didn't grind to a halt due to cross-talk (talking at the same time).

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are these techniques you've used or seen in use? \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Mar 9 '17 at 23:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think that the techniques are real-world techniques designed to deal with this problem in other situations is enough to qualify as a usable answer. CM_Dayton also specifically mentions using the first suggestion personally. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Mar 9 '17 at 23:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @keithcurtis Not really. Emulating token ring authority, etc., are cute ideas, but as in business and science, ideas are worthless, testing and execution are what matters. Not having done it, there is no way to know whether there is that “one thing” that can make an idea totally unworkable for an untested use case. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 10 '17 at 7:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ We tried using the radio jargon method in our attempts to solve this problem, and it went poorly--it was quite cumbersome and people kept forgetting to use it. I'm not sure how well suited it is to a social game that involves a lot of back-and-forth. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Mar 10 '17 at 16:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you revise this to be about specifically the methods you have experience with, and speak more to the benefits and challenges realised during actual use? For example, explaining why CB jargon has been more useful as threat/escalation that practice is exactly the kind of detail that separates ideas from experience. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 10 '17 at 17:10
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I have a few hundred hours of GM experience through voice-chat, and this is something that tends to pop-up in new or ad-hoc groups fairly often. The loud and boisterous players/ the face character grabs all the talking roleplay, and the others have little to do but roll. The solutions I generally apply are the following:

Stay In-Character: Try to keep discussion In-Character on your part, and your players will generally follow. Even if it is something banal ("I ask somebody on the street which way leads to the castle") try to give an In-Character answer ("Milord, the castle is right on top of the hill, you turn left at the smithy, than right at the bathhouse" or "What are you vagabonds want with the castle?"). You don't have to make everything IC, but having to roleplay helps a lot for my players to stay In-Character. After a while they get used to staying IC for extended periods. I am also in the habit to call them out in their character names when I talk to them, though I am not sure if it helps or not ("What do you do Lancelot? instead of "What does Lancelot do, Kevin").

Give them time to shine: Try to give each character their time to shine, even if it means splitting the party a bit. Give them a chance to roleplay a conversation or small scene with you, when the other player/character can't interfere. It would give your slow-talking player an opportunity to roleplay, without even the chance of being disturbed. You only have two players, so try to make sure they both get their chances to roleplay something. It sounds like your players are respectful, so it shouldn't be a problem if one of them has nothing to do for 5-10 minutes while you take care of the other.

Don't be afraid to break the flow: Sometimes the IC conversation starts flowing between the GM and the player, and without visual clues it is hard to see if the other player wants to add something. This is a problem that still crops up for me. You shouldn't be afraid to break the flow of the conversation and ask the other player (preferably in character) when you feel like they could add something ("Lancelot, do you have anything to add"). This is sadly a downside of playing through voice-chat.

Give it time: My long-term groups tend to get used to IC after a while. Some of my favorite moments of GM-ing are the times when the group starts talking among themselves IC and I can sit back and relax without needing to give any input. But this tends to take time and experience in the group.

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I GMed through voice online, I had a lot of discussions in voice chats, I think, hundreds of hours of that, and I want to share my experience.

  1. Appoint one single Discussion Moderator, in your case it should be the GM. He is the only one in power to interrupt others, noone else can.
  2. If you plan to routinely use voice to declare actions etc, only one person should speak at a time. The GM should diliberately tell who can speak now. Otherwise the talk becomes a complete mess.

    2.1. With just 3 members, that might probably be an overkill.

  3. Use an application that makes it visible who is talking, at least while you don't recongnize each other's voices yet, then it stops being important. In your case, install TeamSpeak overlay.

  4. If you can't act well through voice, don't use voice for RP, really. Use it for OOC, and roleplay by chat. I would also advice you to use Fantasy Grounds instead of roll20.
  5. If you still want to RP by voice, by default you are talking OOC. You announce actions, and talking, gesturing is an action, just as if you would use a console command in a game, like "/say Hello". In our case, you pronounce: "I turn to Bob and say, presenting an evil smile: "Whatever you want today, you are not getting it!", and ready my shotgun to fire". This thing I even do when roleplaying off-line, helps a lot. Some GMs I have seen were opposed to that, though.
  6. Again, don't force yourself and your players into something you are not having fun from. Again, if you can't always stay in character, don't have fun from it, don't do it! Some are just to shy to RP by voice, and even if they can force themselves into it, their performance is hindered. Some people just don't have oral speech developed as well as written speech.
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