Among the many things that are different from when RPGs first became a thing, the development of technology has been one thing that has had a dramatic impact on the gaming industry. You no longer need to pull out a suitcase of books to flip through each of them looking for an obscure rule, you can now just run a search through your PDFs to find it. You don’t even need to be near the people you’re playing with; you can play online with others from anywhere in the world! The myriad uses of technology at the table help make connections and improve the overall immersion of the gameplay experience. But technology is a knife’s edge – as helpful as it is, it can very easily have the opposite effect and do more harm than good.
But before we dive into this, I think it’s helpful to define what it is that’s at risk with using technology, and that’s namely player immersion. How I understand player immersion is that it’s the degree to which the player’s imagination is easily evoked. The higher the degree of immersion, the more easily the players can get into character and mentally ‘see’ what’s being described and respond accordingly. But immersion can be like walking on ice, once it’s broken, the whole charade crashes down into the icy waters below, and it can be hard to climb back out.
You can bolster immersion by bringing technology to the table in the form of playing thematic music, displaying evocative imagery on a screen, messaging secretly with players about character-specific things, having a digital space for notes to be stored and shared, sharing a virtual tabletop with remote players, automating things like dice rolls, modifier adjustments, and HP tracking, and more! Any one of these benefits helps keep the players’ (and your) focus more on the game than on your surroundings, which will lend to deeper immersion, progressing farther in each session, and crafting a more compelling story together.
But as beneficial as any of these things are, each comes with the risk of the technology failing and breaking immersion completely. For example, let’s say you have a music track all queued up to play a musical score to ratchet up the tension as the players step foot into that long-deserted temple. The moment comes, and as you describe the scene, you hit play. But the only thing coming out of the speakers is silence! What usually happens next is that the game gets put on pause while you figure out what’s going on with the music player. When you finally do get it all working, the immersion the players had is now mostly gone and you have to work to everyone back into the flow of the game.
Virtual tabletops typically come with a digital dice roller, and many times it has direct, automated tie-ins into your character sheet. This allows players to look at their sheets less, spend less time crunching numbers, and gives them the mental space to stay focused on the game. But what happens when the player can’t find the right button to click? Or it throws error messages? Or their computer crashes completely? You may end up spending more time working to get the software to work than it would have taken to do things by hand, and by the time you do get it working, you might have forgotten what you were even rolling for!
Technology is a great asset to the gaming experience, but it’s best used when you are very familiar with it and you are prepared for what to do when it fails. As part of your campaign prep, go through the various pieces of how your technology works and get a good understanding of what might go wrong with it. If you’re playing online or using a virtual tabletop, it might be good to use part of your Session 0 or even dedicate an entire session to training everyone on how to use the different pieces of the software, that way everyone knows how to trigger their powers or roll their dice. And before you start each session, test the technology you’re about to use. For example, if you’re going to use some thematic music, be sure to hook it all up and hit play to make sure it works right. And if you’re doing anything over the internet, double check all your camera and microphone connections and your internet stability before getting started.
For my home game, I have four players who are physically present and one who joins us virtually. Over the years, we have tried a number of different technology options trying to find the combination that fits our group the best. And we’ve discovered that using the bare minimum of technology works really well! So even though we use Fantasy Grounds (FG) for a virtual tabletop where we can see scene-setting imagery and the battlemap to tokens around in combat, we still use paper character sheets and roll physical dice. As the GM, I like seeing the entire monster stats, so I’ll usually run the monsters by referencing a PDF or a physical book and rely on FG just to track the monsters’ health. Other than that, we leverage Discord for our text conversations and Zoom for our audio/video connection. Every group is different, but we found that if we use much more technology than that, we start losing that immersion factor.
One of the benefits of our hybrid setup that we have discovered is that we can now be very flexible in accounting for players who can’t physically make it to the game. And we can even switch to playing entirely online for a session or two with very little advance notice. Subsequently, this has allowed us to miss fewer sessions due to player absence than we would otherwise. It adds a bit of extra work for me as the GM to set up and run all of that in addition to the game, but despite the hiccups along the way, it’s been worth it.
It took us a while to settle in on what works, so if you’re wanting to introduce some technology into your gaming group, be patient, and have an open dialogue with your group. There are countless options out there, and I’d love hearing what you’ve found works for you!
Written by Nick