Old Dogs, New Tricks: Teaching Myself to be an Online DM

This last Thursday, I ran my first session over G+ hangouts using the Roll20 app, my first session DMing an online game since the (very) early days of MapTool back in 2006 or '7 or something. Not unsurprisingly, my DMing skills as they apply to online gaming have atrophied since then. To be honest, I hadn't really thought about how different DMing via the internet would be different than DMing live, and so every time I ran up against something that I didn't expect, it sort of freaked me out.

Dear Jez Gordon, WATCH THIS MOVIE!
Every DM I've ever met (or Judge or GM or Storyteller or whatever your preferred term is) started off as a "live gaming" DM. That is, he or she began by running games in person with the players in the same room rather than on the other end of the internet somewhere, anywhere. There's a degree of gaming performance that DMs develop as they hone their craft, things they look for in their players' responses, methodologies of speech and action that help them moderate the story the group is telling together and react to their players' actions and (sometimes) even thoughts. In short, every DM develops a set of tools that he or she uses to move the story along and help make the fun happen (or set up the fun for the players to kill or be killed by, however you want to look at it).

A dungeon organizer; note: not a person
Our individual toolboxes are things that we develop as a form of short hand to allow us to be effective DMs without having to over-prepare or over-think what we're doing. They allow us to DM at an even keel and in a natural, organic way without skipping a beat. They, rather than any other bit of rules knowledge or even (usually) scenario design, are what make us Dungeon Masters rather than just Dungeon Organizers.

Google calls this a "kinesthetic DM"
I'm what you might call a "kinesthetic narrator" in that I'm always moving, always doing. I point to things on maps. I draw on those maps with the wet-erase markers to illustrate tiny points. I stand up and walk around, gesticulating wildly. I do all the voices (the trick is to vary cadence of speech as much as accent or voice-y-ness). I've never been an actor, but for me, DMing is a performance. I like to look my players in the eye to catch the hidden meaning of "does it work?" or whatever they're experimenting with in the dungeon. These are the tools that I have taught myself to use while DMing to accomplish my goals.

And guess what.

They don't work online.

None of them.

(Well, maybe the "do all the voices" part, but I didn't get a chance to do that one.)

And so, I've got to work to develop some new tricks, a new toolbox to short-hand my way into being an effective DM online. I'm not one for drawn-out pronouncements of "new, ongoing article series," and so I'd like to not do so here, but I think that, whenever I come up with a new trick or shortcut for my online toolbox, I'll write about it here in hopes of saving someone out there some time. Any time. Right, so here's the first one I've come up with.

Don't Fear "Boxed Text"

Maybe you call it "read aloud text," but I call it "boxed text" because it's more readily understood than "canned text" ("canned" in the sense of "canned laughter"). Normally, I won't use it. Or rather, I use it as a... well, not even really a guide, more like a signpost pointing me toward the things that the writers thought were important enough about the area to talk about. So, I take what they've given (or not given) and add the details I want to add, point out the things I want to point out (usually literally, as in "this thing is here and that thing is there and the trippy music is coming from over here) and sometimes gesticulate in particular manners that I believe will get across a specific kinetic or tactile or whatever detail ("like clammy damp and cold" while I grip my forearms to demonstrate the ickiness).

Fucking terrifying
In the middle of our Thursday session, I realized that I was trying to show my players stuff by pointing to it on my monitor. Yep, by pointing to it. On my monitor. With my finger.

That doesn't work.

I found myself talking with my hands, gesticulating explosions, violence, dramatic actions and all sorts of stuff that ended up being, as it comes to pass, completely off camera.

That doesn't work either.

Right, so I needed a way to get across details completely and fully without missing anything and so everybody knows what I'm talking about. It may be training wheels or a stop-gap measure for now, but boxed text just might be the right answer. From here on out (or at least until I find new shortcuts to replace wild gesticulation and here here here-pointing), it'll be boxed text for every keyed area within reason. Reduction of confusion, no missing details and a hopefully more stream-lined gaming experience. At the cost of using a crutch that I thought I was done with back in middle school.


  1. I can understand wanting to improve yourself, but don't be too hard on yourself. It was a good session. I just feel badly that I got myself punked so early. Man, I was rolling shit all night.

  2. I gesticulate wildly everytime I see a poster sized picture of Carrie Fisher in her Jabba-Whore outfit.-Oh sorry was the Carrie Fisher riff last week? I gesticulate wildly everytime I see a poster sized picture (poster) of Madeline Kahn in her Blazing Saddles Dance-Whore outfit!


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