Online Gaming Guide for GMs and Players

The following is a compilation of the basics and pieces of advice that have been floating around for online GMs, players, and coordinators. Thanks to everyone who contributed to and reviewed the document!

Please send comments to .

Last updated 12/09/2010.

A detailed update history can be found below.

Table of Contents

General Information

Links to Tool- or Campaign-Specific Information



Getting Started

Finding and registering for games

A number of Yahoo!(R) Groups ( ) exist to organize online RPGA and other living-style games. Most of the groups specialize in specific campaigns (though they are not necessarily sponsored by the respective campaign staff) The major ones are:

One way to register for games (either as a player or a judge) is go to the Polls section of the respective Yahoo!(R) group. The con coordinators usually set up polls for each game, specifying the times they are running. You then "vote" for the session in which you'd like to play. Paying for the games is done after you've played and varies according to the game organizer.

Setting up to play

The tools used for online games are agreed-to beforehand by the GM and players. AIM chatrooms with Google spreadsheets for maps have been very popular for their ubiquity and low cost of entry, but a number of other tools have also been popular. For example, many Living Greyhawk players used OpenRPG, and MapTool is popular for Living Forgotten Realms and D&D 4e. Just be sure to ask (if you're a player) and decide (if you're a GM) what tools to use well before gametime, as people will invariably not have a tool installed, or the GM will need to prep maps.


General Tips

  1. Online games usually take about 50% longer than face-to-face games. As a general rule of thumb, plan six hours for a regular 1-round module. If you're splitting the game over two nights, that's three hours a night. If you're playing all in one shot, plan 6 1/2 or 7 hours, since you'll want a break about halfway through. Note that this can vary both with the tool you're using, and the module itself. An average module without an excessive number of combat encounters will take approximately 6 hours on AIM; more combat will probably take longer. The same module will run in 4 hours using MapTool and Skype.
  2. What kind of encounter maps are used depends on the application you're using to play (AIM or OpenRPG, for example), how the GM prefers to run online encounters / online combats, and sometimes on the encounter itself. (My personal preference, for example, is to run small or cinematic combats without a map. For bigger or more precise combats I use a grid much like one you can produce with an Excel spreadsheet. So, a typical PC move might be: I move from A5 to C5, and whack the bad guy in D6, flanking with Hunter (who happens to be in E7).)



  1. Relax. :-)
  2. Make sure your environment is comfortable - that you have drinks and snacks if you want them; that you have room to type; paper and pencil for notes; and most of all, nothing that's going to pull your attention away from the game and your players - and have this all done at least 15 minutes before the start of the game.
  3. Create a screen name just for GMing (if you're using AIM)- then *don't* give it out! Make it clear to those who do know it that you won't reply to IMs during a game, unless they're really important.
  4. Ask for at least Player name and RPGA number (if appropriate), and PC names at the beginning of the session. This is also the time to gather any other PC information you'll need and put it somewhere - on paper or in a file - in a form you find easily usable.
    1. It's usually a good idea to ask for physical descriptions as well.  The easiest way to do these is to have people put that information (or a link to a URL) in their AIM Info, but they can also describe themselves in the main window.  At any rate, they may wish to amend their standard description if they're wearing something unusual, or behaving in a particular way (angry, sad, etc.).
  5. At this point, match up PC names, player names, and screen names. Since not everyone's PC name matches their screen name, having the correlation and using the PC name keeps the feel of the game.
  6. You'll need to save a copy of the game log.
    1. Start *now* and give the file a name that reminds you of what you're running. Concatenating the module name and date usually gives you a unique and findable file name.
    2. Save the log periodically during the game session.
  7. Keep as much of the action as possible in the main chatroom, not in individual IMs. This accomplishes several things:
    1. It keeps your distractions as a GM to a minimum.
    2. It keeps players involved and aware, even if their PCs aren't.
    3. It shows that the game is moving along, and you are paying attention or doing something. A GM who goes "offline" from the main window is perceived to be "gone" even if he's furiously typing somewhere else.
    4. It keeps the resources used by your machine down, and makes for faster processing of individual requests.
  8. If you must do something in IM, tell the players. A message like "dealing with an individual action in IM" really helps. So does checking back with the main window periodically; sometimes a player will post a question there you can answer quickly, and let them have more "think time" while you're off.
  9. When the party splits or you're dealing with individual actions, make it clear who has the spotlight - then switch that spotlight at reasonable intervals.
  10. Tell the players if you're having technical difficulties, or if there's anything that will prevent you from running a smooth game. In the former case, there might be players that can help you out; in any case, they appreciate knowing that it's something beyond your control. If this is a *really* bad day for you, consider rescheduling if possible.
  11. Keep the game moving. This is really important in online games, where the players can't see that you're doing something.
    1. For boxed text, use the signals bt (or <bt>) for the start of boxed text, and /bt (or </bt>)for the end.
    2. If you have a text version of the module from which you can cut 'n' paste, 3-4 lines or 2 sentences appears to be a good rule-of-thumb for how much AIM can handle.
    3. Type (or cut 'n' paste) in small chunks instead of long monologues. The idea is to have the players read the snippet you just typed while you type the next one; small snippets keep the illusion of a continuous flow of information. Use the signal <more> after a piece of information if there's more coming but it might not be obvious.
    4. If you have a text document, keep it open and scrolled to the right place. Move it as you use it, or take advantage of lulls when the players are talking amongst themselves to "cue up" the next encounter.
    5. Keep a printed copy open to the correct spot and the text (or rtf) file open at the point where you currently are.  The printed copy helps you to look up things, plan actions, and such while the text is what you need to paste and copy boxed text.  The text does not work well for finding the stat block for an opponent or looking back to verify something.  Use both.
    6. Have a feel for the pacing of the module and figure out when in real time you should be reaching a certain point or have completed a certain number of encounters. If you can adjust the pace early, you won't be running the final big, wonderful scene when you're overtime and players (and you!) are tired.
    7. Don't be shy about pushing the players a little. They can't read your body language for when they're going down a dead end; you don't need to be blatant, but you do need to give verbal signals for things which in a face-to-face game would be nonverbal.
    8. Don't be afraid to do a little creative editing when appropriate. If you're not running on schedule, cut combats short when it's obvious that the PCs are winning and won't use up significant resources to finish the battle. If the PCs have done a decent job roleplaying and are moving onto another roleplaying encounter, consider summarizing NPC information for them.
    9. Recap frequently, and especially at the end of each round of battle - particularly if you're running without maps or with many opponents. The minute you spend re-describing the current scene will save many more minutes in player questions and confusion.
    10. Pre-roll sets of Listen, Search, Spot, Hide, etc. checks for your NPCs, as well as the results of the personal spells they are most likely to cast.
    11. Particularly if a player may miss an obvious alternative action (usually because of lack of visualization), you can give them alternatives: "Would you like to keep attacking the monster, or take a 5' step and whack the wizard?" Or, "you might notice that the evil cleric has moved awfully close to your fallen comrade ..."
    12. Discourage splitting up the party if at all possible. It's boring for the people not involved, and it takes real time.
    13. If there is a rules question about a PC's action, move on to the next PC if possible while the player looks up the rule, then come back - unless you know the player can look the rule up very quickly. (There's a tradeoff between the time spent waiting, and the time spent sorting out potential confusion from going out of order, and from the effects of the action.)
    14. When all else fails, use the infamous red herring or neon carrot.  Have them meet an NPC named Red Herring - a bartender, perhaps, or a cleric - the High Priest of Perpetual Pompousness, Herring the Red. The NPC can drone on and on about nothing until the players /PCs catch on that there's nothing here for them. Or, someone can spot the neon orange glow of the neon carrot in the distance, indicating a good direction in which to proceed.
  12. If you can, put Player Handouts (especially long ones) and maps up on a website and just paste the URL into the window when it's time to look at them. Alternatively, you can send them as email to the players, but there can be a lag between sending and receiving it, and some people don't like to have their email client up during a game anyway (takes up those machine resources..... )
  13. Combat
    1. Using a gridded map for combat can make life easier, especially when you can tell the players "the bad guys are in A3, A5, and A7" and have the players describe their positions accordingly.  One version of a generic gridded map is here.
    2. Prepare the combats before hand. Make sure that the opponent's stats are easily at hand or in a form most useful to you (here's one some judges find useful).
    3. Gather all of the PC information you'll need for combat before the game starts, and put it in a form easy for you to use. If you don't need PC information (asking PCs for their AC or Def during the combat is perfectly acceptable), at least make sure you have some way to keep track of initiative order during the combat. Initiative cards (they can be found here) are extremely useful.
  14. When answering players' questions, particularly during "Q&A" encounters with NPCs, it's a good idea to be specific about to whom you are responding.  There may be several posts from other players between the player's question and your answer, which means it may not always be clear to whom you are responding.
  15. PC hygiene suggestions
    1. Reboot your computer 15 minutes to a half-hour before the game or mustering. Many programs use lots of machine resources - and too many programs don't clean up after themselves. Rebooting resets all of your machine resources and makes them available again.
    2. Once you've rebooted, bring up ONLY the programs you need to run the game. Typically, that's whatever game tools you're using and the viewer for the text version of the module (if you have one). Unless you must, *don't* bring up even a browser or email client unless you know you won't have problems.
    3. If there's a program you have to bring up, keep it up for the least amount of time possible. Don't clutter your PC's resources or your screen space with anything unnecessary.
  16. A tip not specific to online gaming, but worth repeating: read and prep the module before you run the game. Think ahead to how the party might react to each encounter and determine what you'll do. Also identify any 'holes' in the module, and plug them.
  17. Check below for online forms that make event reporting easier.
  18. Read the Judge information or FAQ available for the con for which you are running if one is available. Conline, Crossroads, and OGD (OnlineGameDay) all have FAQs in their files sections that list their special requirements and contacts.

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Tips for High-level Combats

  1. Be ready. When it comes to your turn in initiative, have your action typed in as well as any modifiers (Ex. PA5/HA5/LionsPounce). If you don't say it, it's not going to happen. No "I meant to do this", or "That's what I always do."
  2. If you aren't ready, the GM should consider you in 'Delay' mode and will progress with the normal initiative. He will give a reasonable typing time. If you have a question, say something like, "Question, first." That will alert him that YOU are alert, but need to type.
  3. Do not assume any buffs. Tell the GM any that are active (long-running, etc.). Tell him when you raise them. If there is any prep-time before a combat, he will tell you how long.
  4. Have a breakdown of any extremely high number for AC, Attack, Damage, Skill checks, Saves ready to copy-and-paste. The GM very well may ask for it. If you are stacking bonuses, note the type of bonus. Something like:
  5. (These should actually already be standard practice at high levels.)

  6. If you have any variable damages, type them in with the results (Ex. 23 damage reg + 11 fire + 16 holy) when presenting the results.
  7. If you have any special tactics, or clever combinations, you may want to verify with the GM that he agrees that they work the way you think they do. If you are using a special ability, have the page number or link to SRD handy.
  8. Have any certs or curses/blessings/enduring affects that need to be presented to the GM ready to be shown.

High Level combat can bog down and become miserable very quickly and for hours on end, so help keep it organized and smooth and have fun!

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  1. Tools tip: Use the online forms below, and send your judges copies or point them to the forms.
  2.  If you are planning on running RPGA games online, you should double-check with the campaign in question, as they may each have slightly different restrictions or requirements for playing the mods online (for example, LG only allows Core mods played online, LDS requests a copy of the game results, etc.).

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Common Word Abbreviations

Away From Keyboard
Back (to indicate you've returned after BRB or AFK)
Blaster Pistol
Blaster Rifle
Be Right Back
bt (or <bt>) and /bt (or </bt>)
Boxed Text and end of Boxed Text
Heavy Blaster Pistol
In Character
Out Of Character
Universal Cutting Tool (Lightsaber)

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Update History

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New material copyright Maryrita Steinhour, 2003, 2010, with thanks to all contributors!