As the end of term (and the climax of the first-year test dungeon adventure) approached, the COVID-19 coronavirus came to London. I spent a bit of time worrying about how I would notify parents if I or anyone in the family started showing symptoms and we had to self-isolate so that at short notice I couldn’t run the club. But, when they announced that the school was going to close to most students, that ceased to be the issue; to let the kids complete their first adventure and give value to my customers, I needed to play online.
This was not something I’d ever done before. I’m not much of an early adopter. But I was aware that there were online play channels and I’d been bookmarking discussions of them for a while, so I hit the research. Fantasy Grounds: seemed like everyone had to pay and I didn’t want to ask the parents to do that. MapTool: I hear this is good, but from the first screen it wasn’t really obvious how to start creating a usable map or a game. There were tutorial videos but they started with how to plan out an adventure, and I needed to cut straight to the action, so I have shelved that for the time being.
Roll20 then: you can use it for free and when I set up an account they gave tutorials for creating a map and character sheets. Perfect. The mapping was fairly simple, since both groups were by this point already in the last room of the dungeon. Character sheets are also straightforward if you’re using core 5e characters. I can recommend the ‘charactermancer’ function, using custom options for non-SRD content. In the event I forked out for a subscription so that players on mobile devices could browse in free. I look forward to playing with the dynamic lighting, but didn’t get that far through the tutorial before this session so it will have to be next adventure.
I had heard that the problem with Roll20 was the audio/video quality, and I wasn’t sure that all the parents would be willing or able to use Roll20 anyway, so I decided to set up a separate video call on another service. The app of the moment, Zoom, wouldn’t do group calls longer than 40 minutes on its free tier, and Discord seemed like unknown territory to most of the parents when I asked about their preferred channels, so we used Skype.
There were some teething troubles. In both sessions it took some people a while to get connected, so there was a fair bit of faffing around to begin with. In the Monday group I made a serious rookie error by not realising that I had enabled ‘fog of war’, which prevented any of the players seeing any of the map. But anyway, we had video chat, and the Roll20 text chat and dice roller, so we played it out ‘theatre of the mind’. The Tuesday group was technically better as I figured out overnight how to show them the map so Roll20 worked as intended there. There was one player who didn’t get into the Skype call so that was a good thing.
The main downside to the move online was that one of the players didn’t have access at the right time to the IT to join it, which is a real shame because they’re keen to play. Seems like they are not going to join us until school re-opens, so we’re hoping that is not too long.
One upside may be that a couple of other kids I know who attend other schools may join us. So we’re pushing on through the adverse circumstances and looking forward to Year 2.
Report cards and home activities
The first online session was supposed to be the second-last club of term. But because it wrapped up the first year of the story and at the term break we are losing some players and gaining others, I decided we ought to wait until after the holidays to hold another live session. To deliver something in that last week of term, I created report cards for the teams and individual characters. I had fun with layouts and fonts, and especially writing in-character as the schoolteacher. I sent them round a couple of days ago and I have had one reply from a parent who said they liked it, but nothing from the others, so I’m a bit worried now about how they came across. I’ll have to seek more feedback before deciding whether to repeat the process.
I also offered some game-related activities that the kids could do at home between sessions if they wanted. Things that might be fun and maybe educational, like writing backstories and learning to recognise the dice and their shapes. Hopefully in a time when we’re mostly confined to our homes these might be helpful diversions.
How about you? Playing online? Share your experiences in the comments.