Getting Started with Playing Tabletop RPGs over Google Hangouts

I prefer playing face to face. But sometimes it’s not possible. Or you want to play in a campaign where your GM is in Pennsylvania, and you live in Oregon.

Google Hangouts is simple. Players have their printed character sheets, a computer, video and audio, and off you go.

Edit June 29th, 2017: Dice Stream doesn’t work on Google Hangouts anymore, because Google dropped all support for the Hangouts API. 😦 You’ll need to roll dice by hand or use a second window with a dice rolling app. I use

dicestream-icon-2_256_256I’m talking Google Hangouts with the DiceStream App. This is one of my favorite ways to play online. You see everyone’s smiling faces, and whoever is talking gets their video feed plastered on the big screen, while everyone else is down in little windows at the bottom. It’s almost like being together, though you can’t share drinks and snacks.

The GM can switch windows to show maps and other handouts. Use the green Screenshare button on the left side of hangout.

Running a game over Hangouts with DiceStream works well for theater of the mind type games, where you run without minis and just describe everything. DiceStream is perfect for games with fairly simple dice rolling mechanics. For example, Numenera, Trail of Cthulhu, Fate Accelerated, or Basic Roleplaying all work well in this setup.

Click on the Dice Stream icon on the left of the Hangout and start rolling dice. If you roll the same numbers of dice often, I like to go into Dice Stream’s Settings tab and uncheck Clear Dice Selection After Roll. I usually check Clear Dice Before New Roll, so my screen doesn’t get filled up with old dice rolls.

You can add the Hangout to a Google Calendar event, which will send reminders to your players.

Google Hangouts is free and can be found here ->

DiceStream is also free and can be found here ->

Click on the Start a Hangout with Dicestream link. From now on, you’ll have DiceStream in Hangouts.

Here’s how to create a Hangout for your game in a Google Calendar event ->

Here’s a great Tutorial Video from Starwalker Studios ->

Next I’ll talk about using the Roll20 virtual tabletop. This is great when you want more powerful dice rolling and/or a virtual tabletop.

And don’t miss -> Getting Started with Fantasy Grounds

Fun in Phandalin

I’m still in boxes from my recent home move, but took the time to play in a roll20 5E game. Like pretty much every rpg game I’ve played, we had the most fun roleplaying. The combat had tactical interest, but the banter and imagination of the roleplay segments were great.

Fun In PhandalinI’m the idiot on the right.

It’s one thing to play a D&D Cleric. It’s another to have 2 heal spells and then have to rest for 8 hours. First level is a bit too old school for me.

If you want to see the unedited* recordings from Starwalker Studio, go here: It’s D&D Lost Mine of Phandelver. Part I starts at 13:15.

If watching someone else play doesn’t do it for you, I understand. It’s way more fun to play than watch. For those who like to watch, enjoy!

*Not picking on Starwalker Studios here, just setting expectations. Almost all Actual Play recordings are unedited. Editing is a ton of work, and no one is paying for these.

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #4. TPK Anyone?

tpkThis month’s musical question is:

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

As fun as it is to kill PCs, I don’t do it often. A few deaths a campaign, and that’s gritty for me. I don’t kill them enough. I used to kill them too much. Now it’s rare. And that really bothers me.

So I maim them.

Of course, every system is different. In Call of Cthulhu or Dark Heresy players expect very bad things to happen. I maim them a lot. In one Dark Heresy game I had a group of killers break into the PCs bedrooms and burn the characters with plasma rifles. The PCs woke up screaming and melting.

But no deaths. Eyeballs melted out of skulls? Check. Limbs exploded in fatty flames? Check. Players freaking out? Check.

I miss that game.

Warhammer_fantasy_roleplay_coverI really miss Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay v2, now out of print. Those crit tables were to a maimer’s dream come true. Luckily you can see the same kind of terrible effects in FFG’s 40k books. Limbs gone, faces burned off, eyes melted (didn’t I mention that already?), and more.

Besides maiming, one-shotting NPCs allies helps create a sense of threat. The players know they are tougher than an NPC, but when they see their ally transformed into a stain on the floor in the blink of an eye, it does set the mood. And when you get to the maiming, the player doesn’t feel so bad.

A Song of Ice and Fire RPG is another maimer’s playground. When my character (see, I don’t always GM!) wouldn’t yield, and my captors held my hand down on a stump, you can’t say I didn’t know what was coming. Jamie isn’t the only lackhand in Westeros.

In games like Numenera, it’s more about exploring a weird and dangerous world, and the system gives the PCs control over how they manage that danger. I knock them down and they find a way to get back up. Somebody always pulls out just the right cypher.

The Numenera core book includes a rule for maiming instead of death: Lasting or Permanent Damage as a Death Replacement. In place of a good maiming I often mutate the PCs. Love those mutants. And those knights who like to hunt them down!

D&D and similar games have mechanics to always keep the players ahead of the monsters. Even a hard fight doesn’t have a significant chance of death if you follow the guidelines. These games are about heroes, and maiming them doesn’t stick in a high magic story. I at least want the replacement bits to look alien and frightful. Kind of takes the fun out it when some cleric chants and the hand grows back, no scars or nothing!

If you want gritty stories, then exceed the safety limits. Use threats of a higher level than normal.

I appreciate 13th Age’s battle building advice: “We’ve provided balanced monsters so that you can choose interesting ways to make most all battles unfair…” Then it goes on to list entertaining ways to make things unfair to the players, and encourages you to use them in every single battle. You’ve got to cheat a bit to maim and kill.

a-diceI also like something else from 13th Age: the Meaningful Death Rule (stolen from 7th Sea): Bad dice can’t kill you, only named villains can fully slay a PC. Nameless monsters can only put you in a coma, carry you back to their master, who is of course a named villain, and prepare you for sacrifice. Scary stuff, but this provides plenty of opportunity for daring rescues.

Hillfolk and other story heavy games might have very little or no violence. Player death might only happen if everyone at the table agrees it makes a better story.

Of course, Fiasco can be a bloodbath, but people expect that. Fiasco is also always a one shot, not a campaign, and players are more accepting of death when they know their is no next game to worry about.

For me, it comes down to the story we’re collectively telling at the table. Ask your players, what kind of story do they want?

And check out this post on Run Away or Always Win.

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker.

The rest of the Roundtable has great things to say about player death. Read on!

Marc Plourde – The Mortality of the Situation at

James August Walls – Dead and Loving It – My Evening as a DCC Player at

Scott Robinson – Lethality and the RPG as a Relativistic Game at

Lex Starwalker – How Lethal Are Your Campaigns? at

John Clayton Fatality! at

Peter Smits – PCs and the killing thereof at

Arnold K. at

Evan Franke – To be or not to be . . . a Killer GM at

Of Dice and Men

I haven’t written up a book on this site, even a game book, but I wanted to share this little gem: Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt.

OfDiceAndMenI had been hiding out in the library. We were selling our house, and we had to leave when prospective buyers wanted to come see it. So the dog (Prince Henry the Navigator) got a walk, then had to stay in his crate in the back of the SUV. Alison (my wife and editor) sat in the car and read, and I went into the library, to work on The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady.

Eventually I got up to stretch, and decided to look for books on game design. Nothing. So I did a search for role playing games, and Of Dice and Men showed up. Despite the glowing back blurb by Felicia Day, I picked it up with low expectations.

Two pages in I’m blown away by David Ewalt’s writing. Then I find he’s an editor at Forbes. He covers gaming as part of his job. I’ve read this guy on before, and liked him.

What you get is the history of roleplaying games, mostly D&D, told within a framing device of David’s own campaign. From the earliest games found in Egyptian tombs to 5th Edition D&D, he covers a lot of ground. When he jumps back to his own campaign, it reads like mix of great swords and sorcery with post apocalyptic adventure. You want to know what happens next.

And then he cuts to the first GenCon, or the rise of D&D and the media attack on this “satanic” past-time. You want to keep going, but he’s back to his campaign. Works really well.

Well done, even includes some great GM advice from Frank Mentzer, one of the original D&D designers. The way I figure it, if you can’t game, at least you can read about gaming. Highly recommended.