Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Lo-fi Online Gaming Manifesto

The Lo-Fi Online Gaming Manifesto

"Lofi Girl" CC-BY-SA 2022 Firstman2507
How to play a TTRPG online game using only the technology that adds to your game.

The Disaster

Back in October of 2019, shortly before I started my blog, I ran a game of the 2017 edition of PARANOIA for friends online. I was hoping it would be the first of a series of events built around that game, and I really wanted to wow my players.

I planned on wowing my players. To that end I wrote secret journal entries for each player with their faction mission complete with graphics that would pop up.

I drew a map of the area I could slowly reveal using the fog of war using Roll20.

And then I spent nearly 5 hours sniffing, writing down, and programming in the various cards used in that edition of the game. Creating several unique card decks in roll20 is a nightmare at best.

The actual event was one of the worst sessions I've ever run.

  • Discord wouldn't let everyone log in at once on the call.
  • Roll 20 glitched out multiple times kicking users.
  • Roll 20's card interface was so unintuitive players accidentally revealed their hands.
  • Players had to be walked through their secret messages and how to check their journals.

Overall, it took me over an hour to get the game rolling, and then difficulties with the mechanics for some players meant that they never got past the second encounter. It was 4 hours of aggravation and disappointment. (But at least there was PARANOIA-style intra-party murder)

The Problem of Technology and Bloating Prep Time

After that, I vowed to keep online sessions as simple as humanly possible to make sure my prep time was well spent and the game was fun for the players. 

Technology can only enhance a game so much. At the end of the day, sound effects, cool visuals, music broadcast over your VTT, the fog of war, and buttons to execute complex die rolls aren't that much enjoyable than a game simply played Theater of the Mind over voice while players roll real dice on their desks.

And the time-investment to learn some of these tools is absurd. Not to mention potentially expensive. While I learned how to compose some basic macros on roll 20, a lot of their most advanced tools are only available to pro users. After the way roll 20 treated Matt Coleville, I'm certainly not interested in giving them any money. And I have been using them since 2014.

My "Zones" map and sometimes-
UDT-substitute from Deathtrap Lite
I had just as muh fun handling tactical encounters using virtual minis marked in an image based on the Zones in Index Card RPG and Professor Dungeon Master's Ultimate Dungeon Terrain, and handling the rest by way of Theatre of the Mind. And so do my players. i don't think any of them enjoyed it less than my early multimedia extravaganzas. And so I came up with a simple rule:

Use only the technology that gives you high-value returns for your time.

This is what Michael Shea might call "Additional High Value Activities" in his Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. These would include:

  • Visual aids
  • Maps (in easy-to-share formats)
  • Visual aids and handouts
  • Shared treasure tracking documents.

Almost any other high-tech solution are going to take a lot of time, and offer not much return. Even "Time Savers" like D&D Beyond, I have found, cause more delays than time saving measures.

At the end of the day, the game must be fun for you as GM, too. And that mans making sure you value your time in and out of the game, and do the things that make the game more enjoyable; not the things that make it a handful.

The Lo-Fi Game

I set up my online campaigns very simply:

  • I have a PDF campaign primer that is just a few pages. 
  • A Living Google Doc that fills in campaign details as I invent them. This should be pinned in a general chat for your game's discord channel. (Here's my Xen campaign doc)
  • A World Map. This can be drawn on hex paper, or made with software. I Prefer to draw a map with Worldographer or Campaign Cartographer 3.
  • A Discord Channel with a chat for sharing maps.
  • A Google Sheets Doc to help keep track of treasure, pinned in a "Housekeeping" chat.
  • If possible, I get the players to keep a copy of their full character sheet on a Google Doc. If not, I ask for a new PDF each time they gain a level.

I will also note that Donjon can provide you with a randomly generated primer, some details, like a calendar, and the world map.

Individual aadventures don't need much, either:

  • A location map or several interesting locations the PCs might visit.
  • At least one good treasure hoard or a few small hoards and a few magic items they might find.
  • I often prefer to have an old-fashioned dungeon map. Sometimes I draw them on graph paper, randomly generate them with Four Against Darkness, or draw a map with Dungeon Scrawl or Dungeon Alchemist.
    • Donjon's random dungeon generator is perfect for this if my prep time has been short.
  • If I am using a dungeon or hexcrawl, having it traditonally stocked,
  • If I am using an event-based adventure, having a list of possible encounters.

While Playing

Visual Aids

I post visual aids in the general channel on Discord.


I have several methods for sharing my map:

  • I post a version of it on Roll20 and use the fog of war feature. This is my least favourite option. It requires an extra login, more bandwidth, and more complications.
  • I remake my map as I narrate using Dungeon Scrawl and share my screen.
  • I pre-prepare several smaller images of sections of the dungeon map to share in the cartography chat as I go. (This is easiest)
  • I Put the map in photoshop and paint a black layer over it. Then I delete parts of the black layer as the players explore, and post new saved ,jpg versions of the map each time I reveal an area. (Also easy if you know Photoshop)
  • I go into Dungeon Alchemist and share my screen in cinematic mode, moving the point of view to whichever room they are in. (This is the fastest and most immersive)
  • I draw bits on a pieve of graph paper where my webcam is aimed. (This requires very little savvy.) This one can be enhanced greatly with a reading lamp or an OTT lite (I steal my wife's from her beading kit)

This is if I share my map at all. it certainly isn't required. If sharing a map requires too much effort, ditch it! You can play truly old school and let players do their own mapping. A Player sharing a screen while using Dungeon Scrawl or Dungeon Alchemist


I generally play with people I know or people whom I beleive that I can trust. Which means that I let them just roll their physical dice on ther desk. If you are going to play D&D and cheat, that is your own dumb problem. i have a table where players want to play a game where they overcome problems while in a high-risk situation. I am not here to watch superheroes crush the competition when they were never in any real danger.

I didn't even have Avrae installed on Discord when i started, but one of my players lost his dice during a move. And so I put Avrae up. I would be just as happy to let him use Google's built-in die roller. I don't necessarily trust Avrae to keep working once D&D Beyond becomes part of WotC's walled garden.

If I were to play with someone I didn't know, I might ask the whole group to use Avrae, screen-share the roller, or roll on a camera for three sessions. if I didn't detect any suspicious activity i would go to dice on the table.

Making Lo-Fi Gaming Easier

Simple Rules

As a general rule, Lo-Fi online Gaming is going to be easier if you stick to a rules-light system. The more complicated the game, the more information has to be shared. I have found Swords & Wizardry, ICRPG Core 2e, Tiny Dungeon 2e, Mecha Hack, The Wasted Hack, (and likely other Black Hack games), Tiny Frontier, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess (and likely most B/X-based games), FATE Core, and DCC RPG work way easier for this style of play. On the pther hand, GURPS, Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons 5e can be less fun for players attractied to the tactical elements of those system if you are playing mostly theatre of the mind.

Rules light games are also  easier for players to learn so that less time is spent teaching the rules of the game.


Ideally, I would like to make my Lo-Fi games as low-cost as possible for my players. If I could allow them to play with just a smartphone or laptop, that would be ideal. Choosing games that are free, PWYW, or at least have free quick-start rules.  By ensuring that everyone who wants a copy of the rulebook can get one, and expecting them to have nothing but what they need to be online, and maybe some dice, you are able to make your game as low-impact on your players.

Don't Fool Yourself Into Thinking Your Voice Isn't Enough

Some of the tech out there like VTTs, games with GM Modes like Divinity Original Sin II, sound mixers, and online character model builders let you add a hell of a lot of Flash and Dazzle to a campaign. For that matter, so can fancy terrain for your miniatures.

But the Flash and Dazzle is not there to impress your players, really. It is about selling the idea that you are a special and unique GM to you. They sell the idea that if you invest just a little more money, a little more time, and a little more attention to these flashier tools, you are going to impress your players. And many GMs, especially new ones, are worried that they aren't impressive or showy enough.

How can we, goofy teenage kids - or goofy teenaged kids trapped inside adult bodies - possibly hope to be that impressive?! We're hardly the authors of the Great American Novel, and we sure as hell aren't Robin Williams or David Copperfield. Impostor syndrome seems to come hand-in-hand with GMing.

But here's the thing: the players want to play. They want to hang out, tell bad jkes, and solve problems. They want to dive into a world where they can use wits, and luck to do wild, crazy, dangerous stuff. Most players will be wowed if you just show up and make a decent effort; they don't need you to perform magic tricks

You don't need pizzaz. You need confidece. Don't let your own self-consciousness fool you into wasting hours trying to be perfect. This game needs dice, paper, someone to play with, and an imagination. What was true in 1974 remains true now.

These games are fun. No qualifiers or special tools required.

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