Tips for Running Applied RPG Games Online

As COVID-19 spreads, a lot of people are finding really creative ways to move their work and play online, but in a lot of cases, this feels like reinventing the wheel. This has absolutely been true with my teen social skills group, but yesterday I ran an amazing session without having to reduce my group size or split the group into smaller parties and run multiple sessions.

I run a social skills group with 8 teens, and given that demographic, the idea of moving to an online format was incredibly daunting, and I've been plagued with anxiety about it ever since we started. However, after the third session online, I think we're getting the hang of it without having to reduce the group size- and the key component, I feel, has been letting my students drive it.

When we had our last in person session, I brought up the fact that we would likely be moving online, and asked what the students would prefer as their online medium. They requested Discord, so I set up a Discord server, and the following Friday we ran our first online group.

It was a bit of a mess, to be honest. There was a lot of cross talk, and some students barely spoke, while others dominated the conversation. However, the voice chat was very crisp, and while we had some technical issues, we were able to get through a session without it falling apart. For a first session, I would say that was a win, but I learned a lot about how it could be better.

The following session was Session 0 for the new quarter, which couldn't have come at a better time. I use Session 0 to go over expectations and check in with my students one on one, and this time I was very intentional about getting their input on what they felt would work, and how they felt they could help. By framing this as something that I needed their help to make happen, the whole endeavor has felt like a team effort rather than me exerting something on them.

Then, the following Friday, we had our first actual session of Spring quarter, and it went wonderfully. We had a new player, and several of the students arrived early to help him troubleshoot character creation. I saw this happening and awarded inspiration points as a way of saying thank you. Then, I set some clear expectations about what I wanted to see as far as behavior to make this work, including limiting cross talk and making sure everyone is getting a chance at the spotlight. I stated that I would incorporate a hand raising system if it became an issue, and one student requested right off the bat that we do that, so I declared that we would.

And, wonderfully, the kids complied. We had our voice channel, but also used the general chat as a space where kids could type 'hand' when they wanted to talk, and I would call on them so they would un-mute and speak. There were a few cases where kids spoke out of turn, but it was never disruptive, and the one time when it became a little busy, the kids immediately asked the offending player to please stop and respect the rules.

The other thing that proved to be a boon was having the general, and a random chat channel. The general channel allowed kids to type things when they didn't want to raise their hands (i/e "Guys I think he wants us to drop the crystal" or "His name is Yavin, not Yevin."), while also allowing me to drop visuals, something that produced the same sort of excitement as handing out a physical prop- there was a loud outpouring of "OH NOOOOO!" in the chat and over voice when a notorious NPC's signature avatar appeared, and that, paired with my diabolical laughter right before had the effect of the students geeking out and laughing hard. Meanwhile, the random section was a great place for sidechats, memes, and the students asking each other for help. And what was even cooler was that the students did an amazing job of policing the rules- Making sure that the game relevant chat stayed in general, and sharing memes and everything else in random.

On top of that, I saw a bit of an increase in engagement from students who were normally very quiet, as I suspect the online format may be more comfortable for them. The ability to type things out, as well as raise their hand and have a few moments to think about what their character was going to do did seem to really increase engagement and comfort speaking out.

That being said, I can see how many would state that running a social skills group online defeats the purpose, especially if video isn't involved. My counter argument to that is, given the group size, video would be unwieldy, and personally, given that I use videochatting for my day job with my own clients, I'm completely sick of it- Other students have stated similar opinions. Second, given that we're currently engaged in social distancing, we have to make do with what we have, and this is the best way to practice social skills that are relevant in our current era.

By letting the students take ownership of the transition, and framing it as a team effort, I feel like this group has had a very successful transition to online gaming. I am going to stay vigilant, however, as there will no doubt continue to be challenges that arise as time goes on, but I'm excited for the promise. Furthermore, if this proves to be a successful method for social skills groups, I think that this could open a lot more doors to running games that aren't as geographically fixed, and really rocket the field of applied RPGs to the next level.

That being said, I really, really, really miss sitting at a table with a bunch of friends in person and throwing dice. But until this ends, we have to make the best with what tools we have, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have this level of technology that makes it run so smoothly.

So to recap, here's what's helped our group transition online successfully:

-Run a session 0 where you reassess the groups needs, restate the rules, and check in with each player.

-Use multiple channels. The game chat is for game stuff only, but have a random chat for students to have side conversations and goof around.

-Use a hands system, and be firm and direct about enforcing it- i/e is a student speaks out of turn, do not engage with them, simply state that another student had the floor and you want to go in order.

-Frame the transition as a team effort, and be genuine about it. Let the students be the experts, lean on them for ideas, and let them feel ownership and agency around the transition.

-Keep learning. This is a challenge for everyone, but there's a lot of amazing ways to incorporate online tools to make your game a treat for everyone.

Hope these help, and let me know what ideas you've incorporated into your groups as you've transitioned online at @rollforkindness on twitter, and stay safe!