Back in April I offered to run a game online  for three randomly chosen Gnome Stew readers . Now I am going to share with you how I prepared for the game, how I ran the game, and how the game turned out.
But first I want to thank recursive.faults, Wulf Gar, and itliaf for participating in this game. All three of you were very cooperative, and you made my job as GM much easier. I will gladly GM for any of you if the opportunity comes up again.
Prepping for Online Play
The first thing that you need to do when preparing to run an online game is to decide which game system you are going to use. This will determine what technical solutions you will need in order to run the game with.
For this game I used my favorite rules light RPG system – Fudge . I have run online Fudge games before, but always for people that I knew in some way before running a game for them. Because I was running a game for three strangers I was worried that the subjective nature of Fudge might be too loose for an introduction to both the game system and the online gaming experience.
This is why I decided to use a mix of my own Fudge rules and a slight adaptation of Rob Donoghue’s “Fudge On the Fly”  rules. I sent each of the players a link to that article and it worked out very well. I am familiar enough with Fudge that I can teach the basics of the game to others in about five minutes, and the article took care of the rest.
How to Host the Game?
My favorite virtual tabletop software is NBOS’s Screen Monkey . The reason that I like it so much is because:
- Only the GM needs to buy the software. The players can use any web browser that they like.
- You can customize it with VBscript. Not my favorite scripting language, but it is better than nothing.
- It provides decent mapping and chat tools, including a chat based dice roller.
So Screen Monkey covered everything that I needed for the maps and the dice, but how would I communicate with the players? For that I used Skype , because chat text cannot deliver as much detail as the spoken voice can. I wanted this session to have some role playing, so I was going to need my voice for that to have more impact. Plus it is easy to miscommunicate with quickly typed messages. Hearing the players makes a huge difference.
Just to be on the safe side I used my notebook for Skype and my home office system to run Screen Monkey with. Either system would have been fine for running both, but I have the resources to spread the load out so why not do it? In the end I doubt that this made any difference.
I wanted to provide an easy to use character sheet that the players could edit, but that I could view in real time. I trust the players, but being able to see their character sheets was not a matter of trust but of being able to support them during the game. A GM sometimes has to see what the players see in order to explain what the character sheet means. Again, I also wanted to keep the burden off of my system that was hosting Screen Monkey.
With these requirements in mind I decided to create the character sheets as Google Docs spreadsheets. You can see them via the links below.
This worked out splendidly for the game. I had Screen Monkey open on one of my monitors, and Google’s Chrome Browser open on the other monitor with each character sheet open in a separate tab. Other than the browser my system’s resources were still devoted primarily to Screen Monkey, and as the players added details to their characters I could view the changes and offer feedback and answer questions.
Besides the technical work and creating the character sheets I also had to get three complete strangers to share a vision of the game setting with myself and each other. I did this by contacting each person individually at first and asking them about their expectations for the game world, what kind of technology they wanted to see in this sci-fi setting, and what kind of character they were considering playing. Eventually I used a Google Group to get everyone communicating with the group as a whole.
This is when the first curve ball came my way. I had built my expectations around the film Blade Runner , where the android replicants of humans are hunted and despised. Yet through player feedback it became clear that one of the players had a concept where that setting would not work. That concept had some limited replicant and human cooperation.
No problem. I scrapped my original plans and plot. This was going to be a one-shot game as far as I could tell, and possibly butting heads over such details was not going to help anyone. The setting would be some years into the future of Blade Runner where the replicants and humans have a truce but are still segregated. I asked the other players if they were cool with the change, and they were. Ironically, it was through prep work that I was given a reason to scrap all of my prep work. Better to find out early though instead of in the middle of the game.
Running the Game
Game day arrived quickly, and while I had a good amount of prep done I was still adjusting my original plot to the new game world setting. Some thing just did not click, and I could not tell what it was. It was not until I had everyone on Skype that I knew what the problem was.
Gaming with others for the first time via an online format is not about preparing an adventure as much as it is about building an adventure through invitations. With no body language to give me clues to the players’ moods, and no history of friendship to rely upon I had no idea as to how to get the ball rolling with this game. I was staring into a void, and it was up to me to form a game out of it. I stumbled at the beginning with my setup, but quickly decided that I would lead by providing details and then asking for player input.
It worked. Slowly the game began to take shape. At first I kept the rules very subjective, and I made it clear to the players that I was doing so. Once I had a better idea of how each player approached the game and what their play style was I tightened the rules up a bit. By shifting from a subjective to an objective style I was able to introduce the players to the rules and the game world.
But what about the plot?
The Story Unfolds
Based on player feedback the plot went from a dark dystopian drama to more of a film noir mystery. Mysteries are tough to run even for a live game much less an online one. When you have to run a mystery plot you just let the players lead.
I kept my mystery plot vague until the players started to provide the details. A whole new NPC was invented as a result of this in the form of a former Black-Ops soldier model replicant who was now an artist exploring what it meant to be a replicant trapped in the humans’ world. He made “art” by putting small creatures like mice in deadly situations where they could never escape pain and suffering in order to acquire food and other necessities. This was all improvised, but it was born of the players’ interests in the game world. It worked wonderfully. This only happened because I let the players decide how the mystery would be unraveled.
I do not mean to tease, but I do not want to focus too much on the plot of the game. It was a simple story where certain replicants and humans were trying to engineer another war between the two camps for their own purposes. The PCs were chosen to investigate the disappearance of a replicant civil rights activist who was actual behind the whole thing. In the end they caught her and prevented the war.
As far as I was concerned though the game could have been about leaving the planet, or starting a war between the humans and replicants if that is what the players wanted to have happen. My job was not to run a plot. My job was to put obstacles in front of the PCs as the players revealed their plot for the game. It just so happened that the players found my plot hooks to be interesting, so I rolled with that.
The key was to be loose. When you are running an online game you have one huge strike against you at every moment during the game: Your players are in front of a computer. That is a tempting distraction that will take over the session if you do not keep the game moving in a direction that the players find interesting. You are in essence competing with the very technology that makes the game possible, so you better keep your game appealing and challenging. Otherwise YouTube wins.
So how was the game? Overall I was very happy with it, but my satisfaction with my own GMing is not much of a story. I asked each of the players to provide me their feedback and they did. You can read each of their replies via the links below:
Wulf Gar 
The feedback that I received lined up with my own impressions of the game. I could have done some things better, and I agreed with the kind criticisms that the players offered in their feedback. Needless to say I was happy with the game, and the players were too. All of the players were willing to play another online game with me again, so I must have done something right. Not a bad ending for any game session in my book.
Running an online game is tougher than running a live game. You do not have as much to work with in the form of active feedback during the game itself. You cannot view body language, and the players cannot read your expression or see your gestures either.
Online games also require more prep work. You have to add a whole new level of technical work to your usual batch of tasks, and that is time consuming. An online game does not just fall together like a live one does. You cannot say “Be at my house by 3pm and bring your character sheets.” You need to think about how to arrange all of the usual materials to be available in a digital format to all of your players.
The most important lesson that I learned from running online games (especially this one) is that you need to connect with the players early and with some intensity. That is also what makes the games so much fun. You are at your best because as a GM you are not running the game fiddling with dice and stat blocks. You are responding to your players and listening for clues as to what will make the game more fun for everyone. You do not have the luxury of being distracted for a moment by your game notes, or looking for the perfect miniature to put onto the battle mat. You are dealing with the people at that virtual table, and that engagement is as real as any other game that you have GMed.
So try running an online game sometime for your group. It will challenge you to be at your best as a GM, but it will also make you a better GM if you let it. You will only improve your ability to GM a live game if you step up to the challenge of GMing an online game.
Do you have experience running online games? Have a question for me regarding online GMing? Leave a comment below, and let’s see how this online conversation unfolds.