Running An Online RPG – Crashing, Burning and Lessons Learned

I’ve played in a handful of online RPGs – generally run on a blog site or a combination of blog-site and chat-forum, and have had a variable time. One game kicked more ass than I can briefly describe, a couple were fun-enough for a couple of months. I started to think about running an online game of my own. There’d be no fuss of trying to get players to a physical location, the resources required, I already had.

I can do this, I told myself. How hard can it be?

You can see where this is going, right? Yep. Stinkeroos, every time I tried – and I tried several times. Looking back, I can see that I made the same mistakes each time.

Cool Setting, No Plot. This is a mistake I warn against on my LARP Advice archive. The most beautifully realized, the most exquisitely detailed world setting doesn’t do you a damn bit of good if there’s nothing for your occupants to do once they get there. Both of my failures featured a nifty little premise, but not enough plot to keep the players interested past the first few weeks.

Reliance on the Players To Carry The Plot. I’ve been spoiled by LARPs. When players show up at a LARP, they’re ready to do things, lest they spend the entire event holding up a wall and bored out of their minds. You can’t count on this in an online forum. In an online game, players will check in when they can and that might be far too infrequently to keep the plot bubbling.
A useful counter to this – and one I saw used very effectively in the kickass online game in which I participated – is to have scheduled chat sessions with most or all of the troupe. During a chat session, you can be reasonably sure that the participants are paying attention and if you throw plot elements at them, the players will pick them up and run with them.

Not Enough Players. This is almost a sub-set of the point, above. One of my failures was an online Harry Potter game, set among a community of wizards and witches living in London. Not only did it suffer from Cool Setting, Not Enough Plot but I simply didn’t have enough folks to keep things ticking along in the online forum. A dozen players makes for a large tabletop group – too large, in my opinion – but unless they are all crazybuckets for the game, it’s not enough for an online event. Nor was I smart enough to utilize scheduled chat sessions to keep the players engaged and the plot moving forward. D’oh!

I’ve seen other issues occur in games not under my purview: plots being hogged by a minority of crazy fanatic players (flattering for the GM, discouraging for the other players), plots getting dropped very abruptly by the participants for no readily apparent reason and, of course, the ever popular OOC drahmuh when an IC action hurts someone’s OOC feelings. But I’ve not had to manage that – in an online game, that is – so I can’t suggest any solutions born of my experience.

If – and it’s a very big if – I was going to attempt an online game again, I’d have to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • At least thirty participants. Maybe forty.
  • Plot fodder for at least three stories – stories that can play out independently of each other, but nor will they vaporize if they happen to intersect.
  • A certain minimum level of activity by the player would be required – but nothing too onerous. A weekly post to the online forum or their IC blog would suffice, I hope.
  • Twice-weekly chat sessions. Not necessarily formal gaming sessions – running a plot via a chat room is a tricky business and fraught with potential for disaster – but a time and place for PCs to interact with each other in real time and, if not move the plot forward, at least play with their characters a bit and have some fun.
    • On a related note, I’d insist strongly encourage players to attend one chat session every seven days.
  • I would take on at least one co-GM. Despite appearances otherwise, I can’t be online all the damn time and, with a group that size and – one hopes – a thriving game bubbling away, multiple GMs would be vital to avoiding burnout.

Many of these sentiments are applicable to any kind of GMing, which is why I’m sharing them here. Learn from my mistakes!


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