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Analog Effects for Your Digital Table

Even before the pandemic, playing tabletop games digitally, or even streaming your sessions as a podcast through a video platform, was becoming pretty widespread. Around this time last year, at the very start of the pandemic, I was writing about gaming in isolation, providing a brief guide on how you could continue your group roleplaying online. Since then, digital tabletop roleplaying games have seen an explosion in popularity with the continued need for social distancing. I’ve used this medium to run a game allowing me to reconnect with old friends across the country, and even joined a few games myself for a chance to play and make some new friends... also across the country - the digital tabletop sure widens options for people to play with! Compared to playing at the table, though, digital play does lack a certain something. It's difficult to match, and probably impossible to beat, sitting around a shared table with friends, rolling out the dice, and just having a good time in each other's company. How can we bring some of that old in-person feeling back? Let's take a look at what we might do to recreate some of that magic at our digital tabletops.

Controlling the environment of your games when you’re all at the same table can be easy. There are even companies that make candles with scents themed for your tabletop adventures (and guides on how to make your own). Digitally though, it's impossible to control your player’s spaces, and certainly how they smell. One thing that's become popular in video calls of all kinds is the use of backgrounds. Professionally, we use them to avoid showing our coworkers how messy we’ve let our homes get during the pandemic. Depending on your circumstance, you may not feel the need to do this when gaming with friends, but a custom background image helps to set a scene for your players. Even if you aren’t going to change it during the session, placing yourself in a genre-appropriate setting such as a wizard’s tower, spaceport, lively inn, or smoke-filled cantina can really convey a specific mood. It may seem humorous at first, but will help to draw your players in. If you’re really into this idea, you may even want to invest in a greenscreen for a more professional-looking background. If you do go this route, though, make sure to be careful with your lighting! Bad lighting can ruin both the scene and your virtual background. Even if you aren't using a background, getting your lighting right can help the set the mood, as well. You can present your players a sunny afternoon or a candlelit tavern to enter.

Another thing you can control is your camera and the way you interact with it. It might be easier to act out a character in person, but there are tricks to help you portray your roles. You can pull yourself in close or you can back off far away. You can angle the camera so it appears as if you are as short as a Halfling or as tall as a Wookiee. You can pull your arms up, your head down, and lean in to become a menacing dragon or demon. If you aren’t up to acting out your roles, you can still simulate the rumble of an oncoming giant or tremors of an earthquake with some minor shaking of the camera. No matter what you do, remember to speak directly to the camera when it's your turn, and watch your fellow gamers when it's not.

If you are into acting out your roles, you can still use costumes and props at the digital table, although GMs might want to pick a single look for the session and stick with it. Otherwise, you can collect a box of hats and various face coverings to give your characters some flair. Magic wands, staffs, and blasters aren't things I typically bring to the table, but they are certainly options you can incorporate either physically or digitally. Props draw attention and add visual depth to your game. While you may not be able to place a puzzle box or scroll directly in front of your players, they’ll still appreciate your efforts (if you want to really go all out, you can mail them something ahead of time). Another trend that's come in recently is the usage of different kinds of puppets. If your table is up for it, they can stand in as another character for them to interact with or an NPC for GM conversations. Players may giggle at times, but that's the point - they’re having fun.

There are, of course, tons of tools out there to remotely handle music, maps, and handouts - all easy things to replicate in the digital form of tabletop games. (If you’re going to include music, make sure everyone is using earphones/headphones to avoid potential feedback.)There are also a variety of ways to handle dice, from the virtual dice to random number chatbots to just letting your players roll at home. Many dedicated virtual tabletop platforms can handle all of these things to varying degrees of success. You, though, get to control your background, lighting, and usage of costumes and props. You can bring your players into the scene and help immerse them, even when you aren’t all in the same room. It may not be the same as an in-person session, but your games can still have that magic touch to them. Until next week readers, enjoy your tables (virtual or otherwise) - get out there and break some dice!

- A

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