RPG Transitions: Play-by-chat to Face-to-face

We all have our favorite formats—ways of running or playing our games that for whatever reason we’re more comfortable with. But the more we specialize, the more likely it is that at some point, we’ll need to step outside that format and try running a game in a different context. The group that was scattered throughout the world comes together for a week and wants to try all being in the same room; someone goes to another time zone but doesn’t want to quit; everyone’s schedules de-sync… and whatever just happened, we have to adapt.

For instance, we have the jump from play-by-chat to face-to-face. Admittedly, this is relatively rare; most groups are likelier to have to go to digital rather than from digital. But every now and then you get someone who’s just fine playing through an IM client but has never actually sat down with the dice, the table and the snacks. So what changes?

For a GM who’s already more comfortable with typing than talking (you’re not alone!), the biggest change is going to be the format. Face-to-face really doesn’t allow for self-editing, or color-coding to make it clear who’s talking, or going back and making sure you didn’t already point something out—and having people’s eyes on you tends to magnify any social anxiety or stage fright you might have. On the other hand, if you’re repeating yourself, or even contradicting yourself, your players can’t go back and check either—and trust me, the odds are against you sounding even half as stupid as you think you sound. Cue cards and prewritten text can help a lot with your big set-piece descriptions, and for the improvisational stuff, your players will probably cut you at least as much slack as you cut them for delays due to indecision or trying to make things sound good. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Everything’s more visible, making it a lot harder to hide your inner workings. The dice are on the table, the sheets aren’t too far away—if you fudge, or if you’re doing ad hoc numbers, people are much likelier to notice. This, though, is what GM screens are for. Besides, one of the most visible things is people’s reactions, and if you depend on feedback, actually being able to see people catch their breaths, exult over a character discovery, laugh at one of your offhand jokes or whatever helps.

Last, there’s the issue of multitasking. For an online GM, relaying secret information or splitting the party isn’t necessarily a bad thing; between private windows and additional chat rooms, the worst that happens with a multi-split group is generally slowed response time or posting something to the wrong window. With a live group, though, you have to think about these things—splitting the party means time when people don’t get to play at all, and every time you take someone away from the table for an explanation gives the rest of the group that much more time to get restless. (I’ve seen a lot of workarounds for this, though, ranging from the old passed-notes gambit to, when the equipment allows, using the communication functions of portable game systems. It’s all what you make of it.) You have to think a bit harder about what actually needs to be secret.

Switching over can be intimidating, but there are a lot of benefits to balance out the new challenges, and most of the big stumbling blocks can be worked around with a little bit of planning ahead. Know what you’re doing, and you’ll do fine.


  1. UZ says:

    Maps! It’s the maps, I still have no idea how to supply a map in PBP to indicate where the characters are standing.

    Well I mean there are ways, but they are not good…

  2. Ravyn says:

    Wait, people need maps? What heresy is this?

    My groups usually just gave up mapping entirely, though there are a few online playing structures designed specifically to have mapping features, and one could try one’s hand with LiveMinutes and its chalkboard function….

  3. UZ says:

    Yeah, it was one of the big changes going from face to face to PBP; I’m still adjusting to the idea of most of my locations being nebulous. Dungeon design used to be a major thing for me, and now I get into trouble if I have more sub-locations than “upstairs” and “downstairs”.

  4. Ravyn says:

    If you really need a map, there’s always generating it in something that does image output and uploading it to a picture-sharing site, or using a wiki or something.

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