Some Unorganized Thoughts Upon Returning To In-Person Gaming
Virtual play is weird, and I’m not sure if it completely vibes with my brain. I suspect that it’s a similar phenomenon to Zoom Fatigue – voices are present, video might be present too, but bodies are not.
I didn’t realize how dependent the act of playing a TTRPG is, to me, on tactile elements. What I mean is: while a dice roller app might convey the same information, in the same idiom, as a handful of dice, there’s subtly different experiential information being picked up from the two scenarios. I’m not saying one is better than the other (although I prefer the physical over the virtual), but I don’t think either is well-served by treating them as straight-up equivalent.
Same goes for gaming rituals. Every group I’ve played with has had a set of handed-down things they did or didn’t do — don’t use someone else’s dice… that’s bad luck. That sort of thing. As a GM, I also delight in rituals to evoke a shared emotion. Like in D&D, where a GM producing a tactical map or scribbling down terrain on a dry-erase mat means shit’s about to go down, and everyone knows that. Or, in Blades in the Dark, producing an index card for a Clock, with theatrical malevolent flourish. Or ripping up the card when the scoundrels pull off the heist.
These rituals are important to me. They act not only as some sort of communal practice, they serve to heighten the experience in some small way. As much as I appreciate the automation that goes into a good Roll20 sheet, it smooths out the ritual in favor of expediency. I think it’s the right call, but I can’t deny that something is lost.
Struggling with learning a system also is somewhat of a ritual too, I think. Once the Blades in the Dark game concluded, we went back to a game of Forbidden Lands that the lockdown put on hold. I am enjoying the game immensely overall, but I had a real trouble learning the system. That process – of jotting down as much of the ruleset as I needed to understand play, of tentatively picking up the different colors of dice and trying to map what they were to what they meant – was a ritual in and of itself. Automation makes for an easier onramp, but, again, something is lost.
The GM of the Forbidden Lands and I chatted a bit, and we both agreed that a game such as it, with its diegetic, fold-out map and myriad dice, would feel way different (and way worse) virtually. YMMV, as always.
Lastly, I missed my friends in ways I wasn’t ready to confront. Perhaps I’m still not fully ready. I might never be. 2020 was such a weird year, and it affected us all in ways that will probably take years to shake out.