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Thoughts from a Virtual GenCon

Hey, this is Ben! In addition to Paige’s thoughts on the blog, I’m going to start sharing some of my own related to game design, events, and personal experiences running content.

I recently attended GenCon Online. As a convention-goer, I hoped to have a similar experience I would at any other significant event. For me, the top three things I look for at a gathering are the opportunity to play D&D with new folks, sit in on some panel discussions, and chat with friends I rarely see. I was able to get two of the three of these done over the weekend, and it gave me a new perspective on online cons as well as some lessons to share.


The System Will Break

Over the four days of gaming, every system designed to support play broke at one point or another. For Roll20, failures included: maps not loading, long delays in die roll results, and macros not performing as expected (or at all). At some tables, this meant that play ground to a halt (or the players took a break) to reload and try to resolve. Discord crashed, dropped video feeds, or voice quality suffered. At the better tables, the DMs were flexible and didn’t use the VTT as a crutch. The lesson here is to be comfortable switching to the theater of the mind playstyle for encounters when needed and to plan for a game where there are technological hiccups. 


Show Your Smiling Face

Most of the games I played were audio-only, but the ones I remember most fondly (and the ones where I felt most comfortable) were sessions that included video. In audio-only, people frequently talk over each other and you can’t get a read on how people react to things (or if they heard you), or if they’re even there. Adding video – even low quality such as from a phone on wifi – can cut down on these issues tremendously.


Information Overload

In any online game, you’re generally looking at two or more interfaces - the Roll20 chat and the Discord chat - all while you’re doing audio (or hopefully video). Add in any other windows you might have open (Facebook, Twitter, yadda yadda), and you’re losing track of game state. While it’s hard to deny the siren song of social media and other websites, in order to really enjoy a game, avoid distractions if you can (plus it’s polite to the DM and players to give the game your full attention). Give your attention to the game, be ready when your turn comes up, and let others know you’re doing the same, so they don’t interrupt your play.


You’re Still at a Con

While you’re playing online with strangers, you’re still at a convention. Show up a few minutes early. Be polite. Take breaks frequently and let folks know when you’ll be AFK. If you are curious about something, ask in a level and genuine tone – the same way you’d do face to face with someone.


Gaming is Social

Baldman Games did a great job of planning out digital spaces ahead of time in discord for chatting, donations, and generally connecting with other participants. If you’re planning on hosting an online con, I strongly recommend you follow that example and create a place for people to communicate between sessions, just like in the gaming hall at a physical con.


Epics Should Still Feel Epic

One disappointment of the con fell on multi-table events, also known as Epics. The Discord servers provided for the Epic couldn’t handle the number of attendees, so the tables felt disconnected. Are we winning? Are we losing? Who knows! 

I've heard from a few friends who play Pathfinder Society that they're using Twitch channels for announcements to reach all the tables. This method seems like a great way to have people dress up to play characters and share information to give it a real convention feel.


Online is Exhausting

I spoke to many players and DMs over the weekend, and many of whom agreed that something about online play is exhausting compared to in-person gaming. A mix of fighting the UI, juggling windows, and repeating ourselves all create a draining experience. While I initially looked at the five-hour slots planned for GenCon Online, I thought, "I bet I can fit another game or two in here if things take four hours or a little less like in person…" that was a bad idea. Enjoy the time together, and enjoy getting away from the screen to come back to your next slot energized and ready to go.


Take Breaks

It’s appropriate to take a short break every hour or two, especially to get sunshine, stretch your legs, and hydrate. As compelling as the game is on the screen, you still need to take care of you.



Be Mindful this is a Brave New World

For a lot of people (myself included), online gaming conventions are a brave new world. We don’t have the luxury of tons of experience and best practices. We need to be patient, find efficiencies when we can, and share tips and tricks to make a better experience. Most importantly, be mindful that while online conventions aren’t perfect, they sure beat not having a convention at all.


Did you learn new things from GenCon Online or another recent online convention? Are you planning to run a virtual con soon? Let us know in the comments!


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