Here are some notes I have from running Discord games as a GM for two months. I'll post the list here and go deeper into them if you scroll down.
- Keep games short, like 2 hours
- Encourage using webcams
- Take a 10 minute break halfway through
- Use a rules-light system
- Dice Maiden or other dice bots are a must
- Use good mics and headphones
- Practice theater of the mind
1. Short games
I miss 4+ hour games of riveting role play, nail biting action, etc. However I do not enjoy games of that length over Discord. There's no real ability to get up and grab a soda from the kitchen yet still hear everything and not lose the context of the scene. Even getting up to stretch can be a hassle, making sure not to distract too much from the other players or even maxing out the length on your headphone cable. Treat it more like a mainstream movie's run time- 2 and a half hours at most. This means the session will need to be all killer, no filler, at least from a GM prep perspective. You can certainly go over if everyone is engaged and no one is drifting off. I find this is most helpful because most people are working from their laptops and may get fatigued from spending another 3-4+ hours at it if not unchecked.
2. Use Webcams
I encourage this, though I don't mandate it. Some may not be able to afford a nice one, and a crappy one is about as good as not having one. They help discourage players getting on their phone as well. If everyone makes an effort to look at the camera when they speak, you can approximate eye contact. There's also a cool hack to try and make eye contact more immersive here.
3. Take Breaks
For some reason, I've found that it's super easy to forget to take breaks. Let your players know ahead of time so they don't have to have anxiety about when they should time a potty break. Make it 10 minutes so they have enough time to use the bathroom, grab a drink, pop some popcorn, and maybe talk about stuff outside of the game before diving back in.
4. Use Rules-light
Unless you and your players are really married to a particular system, play rules-light. Not having to look up rules, remember formulas for rolls, or even something as common as handling initiative makes for a much faster flow. Here are some that I like and can recommend:
- Into the Odd / Electric Bastionland
- The Black Hack
- Tiny D6
- Lasers & Feelings (and its many hacks)
- World of Dungeons
- anything by Grant Howitt
- Fate Accelerated Edition
- Lady Blackbird
- Maze Rats
- maybe a PbtA
5. Dice Maiden Enables Trust
Dice Maiden is a great Discord bot for rolling. It provides robust formulas but a basic roll is as simple as
!roll d20. You can also label them so it's easier to go back and see which roll was for what. Try to insist players label their rolls or else they may still do the age old trick of "Oops I rolled, does that count?" Just like real dice, some nights it will feel like that Dice Maiden is out to get you.
6. Get Good Equipment
This should be for everyone, but you can't really force it on your players due to cost: get a headphone set with a built in mic. At the very least have everyone use headphones or earbuds. Not having audio bleed is essential with virtual gaming. This eliminates the "could everyone mute one by one until we find out who's making the echo?" issue. Even if echo isn't an problem, not having to use a laptop's crappy mic helps audio clarity and prevents asking players to repeat themselves constantly.
7. Practice Theater of the Mind
Get good at theater of the mind, if your system allows for it. On every player's turn describe what the current scene looks like, in terms of actions and positioning, and what just happened. Emphasize what's out of balance in the scene- a dam about to burst, a fire about to flare up, an innocent person about to die. Pick up some adjectives to help differentiate this cavern, road, bridge, city street, forest, etc from the last one. Make sure something can happen in every scene you set, and if not, transition the players through it very quickly.
And finally, (this isn't a Discord tip), I've found that the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master book has been essential in tightening up my game. The time constraints and needing to be evocative are reinforced by having the flexible prep that the Lazy DM makes you do if you follow their system.