Astral Projection - Tabletop Role-playing in the Times of Social Distancing

Let’s face it – Tabletop role-playing games are designed to bring our closest companions in arms together around a stout flat surface for high adventure experienced from the comfort of our kitchens and game rooms (generally with bubbly beverages and succulent snacks close at hand). Given the current need to maintain distance between our assorted social units, however, there are challenges to accomplishing these in-person meetings at this time. Fear not, however, as there are a multitude of tools at your disposal to keep your campaigns swinging swords and slinging dice despite the distance. Check our list of remote play tools to keep your games running via astral (read as: digital) space.

Communications Tools

While it would be wondrous to hold our games via magical spells or arcane portals, the reality is that we don’t truly have these powers at our disposal, despite what our character sheets may tell us. That said, technology has provided several options for communicating via text, voice, webcam, and screenshare. These tools have often been relegated to the office and boardroom, but they have great application for our purposes here as well (with some minor tweaking, perhaps).

When it comes to communicating across the distance, the following platforms can provide the means to chat and play in real time, and are offered in no particular order:

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Often used as a gaming or community management platform, Discord is a largely free application that allows users to setup voice and chat channels, as well as managing user roles and access. It can take a bit of know-how to setup initially (depending on the complexity of your desired outcome), but it offers a solid toolset

and the ability to scale to your need in ways that are often not found in the “free use” sector. Setting up a voice channel and sending out invites is easy to do. When paired with a text chat channel, provided links to needed resources as well as pictures for monsters or locations for reference becomes easy to accomplish. Discord also allows for person to person calls as well as screen-sharing and use of webcams. If you have not experimented with Discord yet, you should.

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The former common-use king of PC based voice communication is still around, and while it may have lost some of its former glory to newer players (like Teams or Zoom), the reality is that Skype is a fairly approachable software solution for video, voice, and text communication that is likely already installed on your home PC. Unless you are brand new to the PC space, you probably already have an account for Skype as well, easing the barrier to entry. With software options for mobile and tablet devices as well, Skype is a platform that our less tech savvy adventurers are often familiar with as well.

With the above said, Skype has converted many of its services to pay to play in recent years, and with its development under Microsoft often taking a backseat to Teams, you may find that you have outgrown this one-time leader in the space. Skype to Skype calls are still free, but if you are looking to do anything more complex than that, you should be prepared to shell out some shekels to accomplish what you need.

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Microsoft’s premier business communications software has experienced steady development in the last several years and is quickly becoming one of the go-to solutions for telecommunications work. Offering direct messaging, screen and file sharing, video conferencing and text channels for asynchronous communication, there is no shortage of ways Teams can be applied to the tabletop gaming space.

The primary barrier to entry here is likely cost; Teams is provided as part of the Office 365 suite of software. As such, it is only available via a subscription service. This barrier to availability may not make it the best option unless you and your party are traditional cubicle clerics and already have access to the software via your home businesses or employers. Those seeking a non-subscription-based model (which will be admittedly be difficult, given the trends in software development and monetization) will need to look elsewhere.

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A relative newcomer in the space, Zoom has quickly rocketed into the public eye as businesses use it to carry on with their day to day operations. Offering free 1 on 1 meetings, standard video conferencing features, and neat add-ons (such as the ability to replace your video call background with pictures, allowing you to meet from fantasy locations), Zoom hits most of the basics.

That said, if you want to meet with multiple players without arbitrary limits (such as 40-minute group meeting limits), Zoom may not be the right platform for you. Most of these features are shelved behind higher-cost plans, which may make it difficult to consider Zoom for use at your table. Finally, we’d be doing you a disservice if we did not call out Zoom’s recent struggles with security. While this may not be a concern for non-business usage, we should all take our personal data security seriously.

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Slack has historically been the go-to for asynchronous communication for small groups prior to the advent of Teams and Discord. With a scalable set of features and pricing plans starting at free and rolling up to Enterprise-level deployments, Slack has taken the stance of trying to do it all. The platform features channels for text-post discussions, direct messaging, voice and video calls, file sharing, and has many integrations with other apps (not that you are likely to need them, although integration with document platforms like Google Drive or Office 365 provides some options for sharing notes or character sheets). All that said, the traditional group would likely be hard-pressed to get everything they wanted out of the free option, which limits voice and video calls to 2 people. The standard package runs at the low price of just under 7 bucks per month and will likely tick all the needed boxes for most gaming groups.

Comms Online - What comes next?

Now that you have considered the above options and picked a platform, its time to look at some tools to assist in running games remotely. Communication is a cornerstone of running an effective game, but most of us know the joys of having art assets, maps, and other tools close at hand at the gaming table. With that in mind, our next post will examine a few options for virtualizing our past time without sacrificing too much convenience.