Monday, November 30, 2020

Playing RPGs Online 101

You've recently checked out some RPG actual plays and think it's about time you slay some dragons for yourself. Or maybe you've been struggling to secure a solid RPG group for years and feel fed up. Either way, this guide should offer some clarity to anyone floundering in the nebulous online ttRPG world. This guide turned out much lengthier than expected, so I'm including a summary at the bottom with the key takeaways.

My Experiences with Online Gaming

Feel free to skip this section if you're just here for the advice, but understanding my perspective should help you decide how to evaluate my guide for your own needs.

Several years ago I heard about Critical Role and watched a few episodes on a whim. I've loved fantasy novels, video games, and movies all my life, so getting into D&D seemed like a no-brainer. Trouble was, I didn't know anyone who played D&D.

I looked around online and stumbled on Roll20 and their looking-for-game forums. Cool, a public place to find games with strangers! Turns out, it was not cool. I spent months trying to join games only to watch them implode from constant flaking. The games I did manage to join were absolute messes of poor player and DM conduct--racial slurs, constant backstabbing and infighting, miserable DM ego tripping--the works. For years I endured this in the pursuit of D&D, until I finally realized that I wasn't having fun and it wasn't worth it.

Gamer Anguish

I looked into other RPG systems and other places that people play games online. I found Google+ and played a ton of wonderful games in diverse and exciting systems (Troika!, Mothership, Spire, oh my!) with cool people. G+ died and many of its users including my new friends moved to Discord. There, I continued to play and run fun games with cool people. I'm still doing that today.

Here's how you can skip over the miserable learning period and go straight to the having fun part:

Where to Look

Avoid public looking-for-game forums like Roll20's and Reddit's r/lfg like the plague. They're impersonal, indirect, and chaotic. They're the most publicly facing ways to find games online and are consequently flooded by clueless, flaky people with minimal investment in actually getting a game going. Finding a half-decent game here will feel like a job, make you miserable and want to quit RPGs. Don't do this to yourself.

Instead, find a Discord server for an RPG system you want to try out and try to join a game there. Official servers run by the developers of Indie RPGs are best, but you might have luck exploring a more general RPG server. Avoid servers with anything more than a few thousand members. I can personally vouch for the official Mothership server and the Melsonia server (for Troika) as great places to find games. I'll post invite links for these at the bottom of this post.

Why Discord? Smaller Discord communities feel intimate and personal. You can chat with people you might want to play games with to gauge compatibility. Even with user handles, Discord servers provide accountability for its users and feel far less anonymous than forums. People care about their reputation in a server will behave well accordingly. Further, users of a game-specific server tend to be experienced with that game and can teach you how to play. Indie RPG game servers also tend to uphold high standards for user conduct, and consequently you'll find most active people there kind and mature.

Don't Stress About System

You can lose yourself in painstaking research into the hundreds if not thousands of RPG systems on offer. Don't worry about finding the absolute perfect game, you won't be stuck with it for life. If you're new to RPGs, you won't know what exactly you want out of a system until you try some out anyway. Do some cursory research, pick anything that sounds reasonably cool and has a solid online community, join their Discord server and ask around for a game.

If you're new to a system, let people know. Experienced game masters will go to lengths to accommodate you. I personally tend to seek out inexperienced players so I can show them the ropes. When you find a game, familiarize yourself with the system but don't worry about memorizing it. If in doubt, ask your GM. Some GMs might require no prior reading whatsoever (like me), preferring to teach as they go.

Make Friends and Mentors

Be visible in your chosen community. Talk to people, play and run games, post cool ideas and ask questions. If you click with a particular group, play more games with them. Stick with people who seem like they know what they’re doing and learn from them. Eventually, you will make a group of core friends and live the dream gamer life of playing regular games with people you like.

Set Reasonable Expectations

Playing games online with strangers will never quite be the same as playing in person. Flaking players, miscommunication, microphone issues and other technical difficulties all come with the territory. I started to enjoy online games much more when I accepted all these realities and adopted a more laid back philosophy.

Click to enlarge. Trust me.

Be flexible and don't give people a hard time when they no-show or games fall through. Expect around 2/3 of players to show up for any given game, so plan accordingly. I prefer to wrangle 4-5 people for my games, expecting 1 or 2 drop-outs. If only a couple people show up for a game, either try to find a last-minute sub or let it go and try again next week. Enjoy the games that pull together rather than agonize over the ones that don't.

On Running Games

Here I'll outline how I recruit players for my games with some insight into my choices. Take this as an example more than a model--you'll have to devise your own method.

I advertise sessions in the game server's LFG (looking-for-games) channel. I tend to have the most success when trying to schedule games about a week out. Shorter and you might not find enough players, longer and people tend to atrophy. Here's a list of good things to include on your LFG post:

  • The system you're using.
  • A brief description of the session's content. Hook players with something fun and informative so they can decide if the game seems right for them.
  • The time and day you plan to run the game. Include your timezone. Give a range or a few options of game days if you're flexible and willing to navigate different people's schedules.
  • How long the game will last. Include an estimation plus a hard cutoff. 2-3 hours tends to work best for me.
  • How many players you're looking for.
  • Where and how you're going to run the game. I highly recommend keeping things light and not using a virtual tabletop like Roll20. The fewer avenues for technical difficulties, the better. My players keep their own character sheets and roll dice however they like (online dice roller or physical dice). I run my games exclusively using discord's voice chat.
  • A content warning and any safety tools you plan to use. Playing with strangers can be delicate, particularly if your game has the potential for horror or graphic content. Laying out boundaries and expectations for player and GM conduct before a game is essential. Just mentioning things like content warnings will help deter unsavory folks who might otherwise ruin your game with inappropriate behavior. You might wish to formalize your safety measures with tools like those outlined in this helpful resource and toolkit.

Once I have a group of interested players, I make a private Discord group chat for the game. I introduce myself in the chat and provide additional detail about the game if necessary (character creation stipulations, a longer scenario introduction, etc.). I explain the safety tools we'll be using, if any. I solicit questions and answer them to the best of my ability. I prefer players generate characters in advance so we can jump into the game faster come game time. I provide pre-generated characters for anyone who wants them.

After a game, I try to get feedback on how things went and de-brief the players a bit. It's nice to hang and chat after a game if you have the energy, particularly if you're trying to make new friends. It's good practice to keep a list of all the cool people you've gamed with so you can reach out for future games. I highly recommend posting session reports (even extremely brief ones) to the server you found your players in. Building a reputation for running games will make it easier to find good games in the future.


This is by no means a comprehensive guide to playing RPGs online. I'm not an authority on the subject, this is just one perspective on enjoying online gaming. I was deeply discouraged when I was first getting my start in the RPG hobby and found no useful advice for joining online games. I hope this advice spares someone the heartbreak and anxiety of hunting for online games without any guidance.


  • Avoid public looking-for-game forums like Roll20's and Reddit's r/lfg.
  • Choose a system you're interested in and find games in that community's Discord server.
  • Approach the inconvenient realities of online gaming with a relaxed attitude.
  • Entrench yourself in gaming communities. Make friends and build towards more stable campaigns.
  • Develop a personal methodology when recruiting for games. Be informative, be flexible, be kind.

Invite Links

As promised above, here's the places I've had success fining games to run and play in:

The official Mothership RPG server

The official Melsonian Arts Council (Troika RPG) server


  1. Create a YouTube channel for discussing your favorite table-top RPG. People will find you to be in a game with.

  2. Nice round up of your experiences, thanks for that. "Set reasonable expectations" should be carved into stone on a monument...

  3. Any advice for dealing with the incredibly crippling anxiety that has me by the neck hours before play because I'm scared nobody will show up? Any words to help against the insecurity I'm caught in when I don't hear back from a player and I never even get a reply? What should I tell myself when I'm crying and regretting ever getting into this hobby because nothing scares me more than getting rejected and ignored?

    1. Hey, if you're going through all that stuff, consider reaching out and talking to someone about it. No hobby should cause you so much stress.

  4. Your writing style is engaging and captivating. I was hooked from the first paragraph. Looking forward to reading more of your work!
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