Dearest Interested or Perplexed Visitor into Online Tabletop RPGs,
There are many communities of roleplaying game online: free form chat rooms, forum games, Roll20 groups, Fantasy Grounds, Steam Groups, facebook/hangout groups, youtube GMs with a following of players, and Google Hangouts all paint the digital landscape with everything from Traveler to Eclipse Phase. These “communities” are a good substitute for those who wish to satisfy the urge to roleplay when a real-life group is not available and offer a wider range of playstyles, games, and group dynamics that even the most diverse of local areas.
For all the potential benefits of online gaming and the many flavors of it that exist, there always seems to be a few misconceptions about the medium and what it actually entails. I am sure anyone who has gamed long enough online has encountered one of these scenarios:
- A newer person posts asking about games for a particular game. People respond with games and yet that newer person never ends up gaming with any of the games even when invited.
- There are days when there are good GMs with good games up and no one is playing those games yet there are good players who are complaining they are never getting into any games.
- A new player feels reluctant to learn any game except a particular one they’ve heard of.
- There is a stalemate in a community because people aren’t running the games the others claim to want or people are playing the games they aren’t interested in.
- A person is banned from the community for an instance that doesn’t make sense where as someone who had a similar offense didn’t get the boot.
- Politics within a community suddenly arise and people start leaving to avoid or are discouraged to game.
- There is an outcry for a particular game or some vindication against favoritism or harassment in a group.
As of my personal observation, a lot of these reactions stem from similar issues. Often people come into online roleplaying with incorrect expectations and it is these expectations that turn otherwise small altercations into clashes of ideology or just misunderstandings into a community-wide harassment. I haven’t seen a single community that is an exception to this; in fact, it is the people who believe their community is the exception to the rule that cause the most problems for the community. What rules? What are these expectations that cause problems? If there are so many issues with online as a format then why do people use it?
The answer to put it bluntly is that people have overly idealistic expectations of the communities they are a part or lack the basic understanding of the medium in question. The following are two lists that deal the most common problems I have seen in people’s perspectives.
The Reality of the Medium
- Online Websites, Facebook Groups, and Forums are NOT communities. In fact, in many ways, this is the biggest misconception. People join groups, provide identifications for themselves, join events, create discussion, and play with each other; yet for all of that, the group or site is not the community. It is a platform: a means and not an end. This may seem like a huge contradiction. Haven’t I been calling them communities? Yes, out of clarification for what I am talking about. Unfortunately, people treat facebook groups or reddit forums as community when its not. Its a place where people come to play games or ask questions. That’s it. Realizing this helps temper your expectations, people aren’t entitled to games for new players. People are entitled to having the game they want represented. People are entitled to their games and groups made for them. Anything anyone does there is their own choice and just that. There is no expectation to participate; its merely a means everyone is using for their games. If people form groups or a campaign out of using a particular platform, the owe NOTHING to the community they got the group out of; at that point any innerworkings of the site or facebook group have NOTHING to do with that game.
- Tabletop RPGs inherently split themselves into small groups. The ultimate desire for people is to be in a consistent campaign with people they get along with. Forming smaller groups is the nature of people gaming together; people prefer to play with people for sharing the same kinds of games, playstyle, or preferences in tone. Ultimately, even the most altruistic and compromising of people can only do so many kinds of games with so many system for only so many people. They ultimately need to game for themselves since it is their hobby. You don’t divulge energy to something and not get anything out of it. It is not anyone’s job provide your dream group for you either on the player or GM side of things. Every game group and every game is its own isolated community; they govern themselves. Nothing changes that. It is as impossible to govern people’s groups as it is to prevent people from splintering off and forming new ones. When people like games others don’t: that’s a new grouping. When people have preferences of style: that’s a new grouping. When people don’t like being around each other and other people game with them: that’s a new grouping. It doesn’t matter if it is explicitly stated or labeled, new implied groups form within online mediums all the time. People get to know each other and make friends. Some people don’t like each other. Some people are toxic to others. Some people only play or run certain kinds of games others don’t want to be a part of. That’s life: accept it. We have preferences; we will divide ourselves even when we already have divisions. Its just the nature of the hobby and nothing to do with the community. Division is a sign that gaming is happening not a sign of a bad community: so don’t panic about it.
- All groups have politics. Where there is any moderation there is politics. Its going to happen. People will have egos and your friends could be one of them while you are overlooking it. People mistreat others. You can be a saint to one person and a complete toolbag to another. We all have good days and bad days. Know that when you are entering any medium some people somewhere have agendas that is not gaming; to promote their games, their channels, to boost their egos, to antagonize another member of the community. It is a reality. The group that claims not to be political is lying through their teeth. The person who says there isn’t any politics in a group larger than a single campaign of 5 or less people is lying either to you or to themselves. Don’t trust that person. All groups have flaws and no moderation is completely fair; be grateful for when it is fair and don’t force impossible standards on inherently amoral entities. The groups who think they are the exception or that they can make the exception are the most dangerous as they lack the self-awareness to correct themselves when they do have those issues.
- Personality Clashes & Moderation are necessary evils. There are generally two unrealistic ideals that people hold to when making groups online: 1) They wish to replicate the “freedom” that 4chan once had but without the anonymity or 2) They wish to police a group to protect keep the environment a safe place for people to game. The reality is that neither of these ideals can be achieved. Ultimately, there are people who don’t participate and do nothing but make the platform a place people either have a hard time gaming in or reluctant to game in. At the same time, without people who have problems with another we wouldn’t know the group has the option to not be what the group states it is for. In other words, moderation is necessary and the looseness to allow personality clashes between people is necessary. If there is never any clashes, it is likely people aren’t actually interacting with one another (as the nature of RPGs means people will get to know each other leading to conflict at some point); at the same token, groups that claim to offer true freedom can become flooded with people who actively prevent others from gaming and thus the platform itself becomes worthless. The reality is that each group maintains its own place of balance and the best they can offer is consistency in their own policies. Moderation and mistakes by the moderators will happen; the clash between members of a group and conflicts that result will happen. Having both indicates a group has some freedom and at least some standard to protect the platform from being trolled to the point of non-use.
Realistic Expectations and Misconceptions They Shatter
- People will get to know you. The fact is you can only be so anonymous in TTRPGs. Spending time with people in a hobby that exposes your habits and imagination to others will mean they will get to know on some level. If you are new and are scared about putting yourself out there, you need to know that it will happen. Entering a game means you will have to expose who you are to others; this is at least as personal as playing on a guild with people. Life circumstances will prevent you from playing games you committed to and you will need to explain why you couldn’t show. Remember, you can’t avoid that.
- Gaming on any platform requires commitment. If you are a GM looking for players, you need to know that it will take time to get people to trust they can enjoy games you run. If you are a player, you need to know it will take time for GMs and players to truest they can enjoy you playing in games with them. Online means there are tons of schedules working together and not everyone has the time to put up with someone who won’t communicate, be punctual, and try. You will have to learn systems, make characters yourself, and be on time. The group is not there for you; you all there to game and thus all have a responsibility to each other. GM’s trying to get people to play that dream game; you can’t expect people to own everything or like something they haven’t tried. You have to lower the bar and help people at least be able to make the commitment required to learn that game.
- You are not entitled to be helped or catered to. Often people come into these groups expecting people to come to their games or expecting GMs to fill in their character sheets for them and make it effortless for them. Neither of these expectations are realistic. Being new just means you are new, that’s it. If anyone helps you or is willing to help, they are taking time of their schedule and hobby to give you help. People who are willing to help are a luxury to be appreciated and not a requirement for you to demand. If you want help, make an effort to game with people first and learn the system yourself while asking questions. Learn as you go and ask for help when you need it, you’ll find that people are more than gracious as long as you are honest about how new you are. GMs who can’t find players: try running a few things people are comfortable with before asking for people to switch something on blind interest. Take the time to explain systems or genres you love to those who might be interested in. You aren’t entitled to players; they can choose who to game with as much as you can.
- Online Communities do not grant you complete freedom. Don’t expect a hobby where people have to function socially to be a place where you can anything it will fly. Different platforms have different regulations about what they allow or require; those are to be respected. All groups ultimately have some minimum requirements even if they don’t explicitly state them. A single group or game is their own isolated community for the context of that game; what goes on in that group is between that group and no one else. Don’t go into one game and expect that because your previous gaming group allowed or embraced something this one will.
- It takes time to get good games. The biggest advise to give to someone who wants to start something in a community or wants a player/GM base is consistency. Do you want a few GMs you can game with that will run games you like? Get to know as many as you can and find them. You want a player base for you games? Run games at the same time and keep trying until people who eventually come realize whether or not they enjoy it.
Wheaton’s Law & What It Means In RPGS
The infamous Wheaton’s Law (“Don’t be a Dick.”) is often the basic premise for social contracts between groups. The statement is made to assume that people have enough common sense to not cross implied social boundaries. From what I have observed in online communities, this expectation seems to dissipate. People don’t have the same idea of what the same online space is; the very space they are sharing. People can barely agree on what the conversation they’re having is, much less actually have basic understanding of what is kosher for the given discussion or public forum. And many people (sadly enough) don’t have a basic understanding of what it means to not “be a dick” with an online gaming community.
For simplification and for clarity: here is a metric by which anyone can measure themselves by to see if they have crossed that boundary.
Breaking Wheaton’s Law in an online RPG platform is this: to impose your way of gaming on a group without explicit communicated consent and/or to be antagonistic to another person’s (or persons’) efforts in the community or gaming as a whole.
Side-winding games that explicitly don’t allow it: breaking Wheaton’s Law.
Imposing seriousness on a comedy game: breaking Wheaton’s Law.
Refusing to compromise when everyone else is making an effort to: breaking Wheaton’s Law.
Not communicating your own triggers beforehand and expecting people to somehow know what upsets you: breaking Wheaton’s Law.
Preventing or Harassing others posting or creating games/community events: breaking Wheaton’s Law.
Knowing a person has triggers and specifically mess with them without consent: breaking Wheaton’s Law.
Not communicating: breaking Wheaton’s Law.
Actively preventing people from posting their own material: breaking Wheaton’s Law.
The line is simple: infiltrating what others are doing without consent or trying to impose your way of doing things on a group that already is doing something is “being a dick.” If you are antagonistic to others attempt in the community and their gaming, you’re the one whose crossed the line.
The Secret to Getting Games
The grand secret to getting games (as a GM looking for players and as a player looking for GMs) is actually quite simple: keep trying, put out effort, and don’t break Wheaton’s law. The advice I would give anyone going to online games are as follow:
- Don’t be antagonistic to people’s games or their activity on a platform.
- Save blocking someone solely to people who are interrupting your experience constantly; not for people who disagree with you. Blocking someone for reasons outside of harassment can lead to an entitled selectivity for your interactions; don’t be the one who jumps to conclusions.
- Don’t let anyone bully you, guilt you, or shame you for blocking or ignoring someone who interrupts your gaming on a regular basis. Some people do nothing but interfere with others gaming and use these online platforms for their own personal angst and reasons: there is no shame in leaving them and find their own place to game without ruining other people’s experiences.
- Read the policies or social contracts of the groups you are a part of and decide for yourself if you like how they do things.
- Don’t let others decide your opinion of a person for you.
- Try to game to game with anyone you can and everyone you meet at least once if possible.
- Give something to the groups and games you are a part of.
- If you are a player, make and submit a character to the game you want to be a part of. GMs require players to make a character and submit to show they are committed enough to possibly show up. This prevents people from signing up and ditching without communicating.
- Always be the first to communicate your own personal limitations. If you can’t play serious games, be honest. If you can’t handle rated R material, be honest.
- If you can, compromise.
- Form smaller groups and have games with people you like. You are never obligated to always have public games with people you don’t like or to put out material for everyone to benefit. Doing services to people in a hobby is awesome, let that be out of good will and never obligation.
- Limit your gaming. Over committing and spreading yourself to thin is a real issue in the hobby. Keep yourself to running or playing in 3 times a week max (in general for most people). Some people can only handle one game and most generally do best with 2.
- Try something new. Play something you see people need players for and just join to try it out. Run something you see is in demand to test it out. Be willing to try. Testing the waters is the best way to find good players, good groups, and good GMs. New experiences is one the best benefits to gaming online.
- If you are having trouble getting players, keep trying. Consistency is the greatest key. Someone will like your games in due time. You just need to be willing to try until a good gaming group shows up. Be regular. Keeping pushing that one game or keep trying that one idea from time to time. Eventually someone will try.
- The key is to being a good player is reading, taking notes, and asking questions. If you don’t understand it, ask. If you can read a rule, then do so. Understand what you are doing. So many issues and so many “brownie points” you will get as role player if you just write down things that happen in game and bring them up in character later. Doing those three things alone turns a bad player into a good player.
- The key to being a great player is building off what is there. Create and not Destroy. Good players pay attention and try to be a character that is entertaining to others; great players are able to add to what is going in the world, the plot, and the action at the table. You can add to the world, add to another person’s character, add to how the relationships within a party works, add something to a town, add a name to a place, add a new element to the plot, and many other things. The trick is to add; not undo what everyone is working towards. Not killing off the npcs and family set before you without reason. Not ignoring what is before you in world or plot or other peoples characters. Think of your character as your means of adding to everything else at the table. You expand on others’ characters or stories; not take over, not subtract, and not add something completely out loop but fill in a detail to the framework they provided. There’s a bar: talk with a waitress about a custom order and add a new drink or joke to the campaign. There is a new being: add a semi-clever name. There is a party: add details to the relationships within it. If comedy is happening, add to the comedy. If drama, add to the drama. If there is a problem being solved, add to the solution. If there is action, add to the spectacle.
- The key to gaming online is to do it. Above all else, learn as you go. Game. Making fan conversion, doing community projects, doing videos, doing meetups, talking with people, giving advice, and any other activity is nice but it is still not gaming. When push comes to shove, game first and then contribute to a community when you are gaming not before. This a hobby about gaming and gaming online means actually gaming online.
There you go. The secret is out. Game, Be Honest, Meet People, Don’t Be Antagonistic, Communicate, Be Respectful, and Just be Consistent. That’s it. That’s all.
I hope this article is helpful to at least one person in tampering expectations. Online is neither inferior nor superior to in person gaming; it has its own pros and cons. It is not a mecca of sorting out ideal players and group as some mistakenly claim, but it is a good opportunity to get a wide range of experiences and game with a lot of cool people you couldn’t otherwise. Remember, this article may seem a tad cynical only so you may look at the “communities” for what they are and your high expectations of them don’t crush your experience when you are inevitably disappointed. Most gamers I tend to find are fairly reasonable and welcoming individual: you won’t get along with all of them and you be able to game with all of them. In the end of the day though, every gamer doesn’t care who you are or what baggage you have, its just a matter of you being able to enjoy the game and respect others attempts to do same. If you can do that and put up with people who can’t, you will be fine.
Welcome to online role-playing gaming and I honestly hope it is a great experience.
It won’t always be great but I think you’ll find it is a rewarding past time in more ways than one.
With love and the nichest of niches,