Guest Blog: Level up your in-person games

Robert Reeve

Robert Reeve

Narrative Designer

I’m a forever GM who loves telling stories. I started playing tabletop games in my hometown, Detroit. All my deepest friendships were with the people I sat down with, week after week, pouring ourselves into our characters and the shared world we built together. When I moved across the country to Washington, D.C., I made new friends by inviting them to sit at my table and roll dice for the first time.

After a few years in the District, one of my oldest friends told me his home game fell apart. Vince asked if he could join my game and I knew he’d be a great addition—a model player who took notes, obsessed over his character builds, roleplayed his pants off, and never missed a session.

Just one problem… there are about 520 miles between Detroit and D.C. That’s a lot of Wisdom (Survival) checks to make, but I knew this quest would have a great reward.

Vince’s character from the campaign he played remotely. Omerta Cirelli was a greaser werepanther assassin whose leg was eaten by a hag. He forged a silver chicken-legged prosthetic. I commissioned M.S. Corley (the artist who created this post’s banner art!) to illustrate Omerta as a birthday present for Vince.

Fail Forward

Adding a new player to a group can change the vibe, so first I added Vince to my D&D Slack group so everyone could get to know each other (yeah, my group of career-minded millennial nerds uses Slack instead of Discord).

I’ll admit, the first sessions were rough. Here’s what I used for my beta set-up:

  • Blue’s Yeti USB microphone, popular with burgeoning podcasters
  • Logitech’s C930e wide-angle webcam designed for business conference rooms, so Vince could see everyone at the table
  • A Joby GorillaPod tripod. I regret this one; two nubs on the bendy legs broke and it wouldn’t stay standing.
  • The desktop PC I built, which I was already using to reference my campaign materials.
  • Skype. Did I mention regrets?

I positioned the mic and camera on the table near me. At its best, it was like Vince was sitting with us. At its worst, it was like the episode of South Park where Stan trick-or-treats over FaceTime. Vince tried to explain how he moved his miniature around our board like he was inventing chess notation. Another player was our camerawoman, giving shaky-cam shots of the board.

It was… fine. But I found that because Vince wasn’t using a webcam, other players weren’t interacting with him. It was like running a group game and a solo game at the same time. I heckled him out of camera shyness—this was the pre-pandemic days—and added a dedicated tablet for Skype so the other players would remember he was there.

From the Digital Plane to the Material Plane

Everything changed when I bought the cheapest big TV that Best Buy had. It was 50 inches for two hundred bucks. I also bought a protective piece of plexiglass and cut it to the screen’s dimensions. Then I pulled my extendible table apart and put the TV where the table’s leaf would go.

Boom. The virtual tabletop became a real tabletop.

Finally, the beautiful maps I get from Neutral Party and Czepeku are blown up to real size. I could use Dynamic Lighting, as well as the GM layer for stealthy monsters and traps. Now, instead of holding up a creature compendium to show off a three-headed beastie, I could click “show to players” on an art handout or press shift+Z on a selected token to zoom into it.

My players would yelp and strategize, pushing physical minis across the screen while Vince moved a virtual one around on his end.

We had all the tactile joy of rolling dice and playing with props, and all the convenience of digital character sheets that track resources and do complex math. Much of the original set-up stayed. I traded the small tripod for a big one in the corner of the room, giving Vince a wide shot of everybody at once. I traded Skype for Zoom, and video chat got far more stable.

Let’s talk Roll20 set-up. I kept my GM computer, but I used a second computer to run Roll20 on the TV, using a wireless keyboard and mouse. It doesn’t have to be a fancy gaming computer—mine didn’t even have a dedicated video card. Another player’s laptop could do just fine.

We set up a “party” account with access to everyone’s character sheets and tokens. We also switched video chat from my computer to the player characters’ personal computer (the PC PC, if you will). Vince’s face floated in the corner of the very same map he was looking at on his end.

Campaigns and COVID

I had no idea at the time that all these digital experience points my players and I were gaining would teach us the skills we needed to keep playing during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past 18 months, our group has had cross-country moves and beautiful new babies. Throughout it all, Vince became our remote gaming expert, sharing tips on normalizing audio and building time-saving macros that would let us wring the greatest amount of joy out of our limited hours of play.

I know many of us are excited to get back to in-person gaming—to dust off that big TV, share snacks, and roll physical dice again. When the world gets back to normal, that hybrid set-up is going to be there waiting, like a trusty longsword hanging over a mantle.

In the meantime, my game lives on because of Roll20. I’m forever in awe of my players’ resilience, and I can’t wait to see how they gleefully derail my intricate web of stories next.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Special thanks to M.S. Corley for the incredible art provided in this piece. Here’s the banner image in a full 4K wallpaper size! Open the image in a new tab to see it at full resolution.

Robert Reeve Narrative Designer

Rob designs 5e adventures that bend genres and satirize our lives. Find him on Twitter at @RobertGReeve.