Virtual Table-Tops – Impact on Games and Gaming

This month, Douglas Cole hosts the RPG Blog Carnival on his site, Gaming Ballistic. The theme is “Virtual Table-Tops – Impact on Games and Gaming”. This article will be about my personal experiences with online tabletop play.

Technology helped improve our games in several areas. One area in which technological advancements helped is communications and maintaining groups. In the past, when a group member left because of a move, we removed the character from the game. Now, when certain members of our ongoing campaign moved, we kept playing with them through the online networks.

In the early years of Skype, I remember the connection and communication problems which resulted in players stopping to play. There were many dropped calls and when the call worked, we had several times when the voice was garbled. That campaign ended years ago. Now, we use Google hangouts in our current D&D campaign. We’ve had some technical difficulties from time to time where either the connection was unstable or a player sounded like a chipmunk. One of the members switched to his smartphone when his computer had major difficulties. It works even though we hear some background noises like his roommates talking. Those technical difficulties are less frequent than when we used Skype so many years ago. Generally, we have a good connection and we have a great game.

We have to keep track of time zones. Right now, we have only two time zones to keep track of. We’ve had games with up to four different time zones. Managing time zones is similar to the logistics of scheduling. I mention that game is at a certain start time in the eastern time zone and expect the others to convert to their time zone. If they mention a time in their time zone then I will convert. Daylight saving time does influence the interaction if that area have different daylight saving time rules or don’t respect it. Right now, all members of the group live in an area of Canada where they follow the same daylight saving time rules.

For a webcam, we either use the desktop webcam or a tablet. The desktop webcam is stable and has a wider lens. It permits those online to see more of the group. It is great for conversations and seeing expressions. When a major combat occurs which requires a battlemat and miniatures then we switch to the camera from a tablet. The tablet permits easier manoeuvrability to show the current action. We show those online a bird’s eye view with instruction on where to move the camera. One player also points to the figures and tokens and mentions what they are. We are considering switching to a setup where we have the desktop webcam for the whole game and when we require to point at a battlemat, we use a smartphone to connect to the conversation to be used as a camera. We haven’t tested that method yet to see how it once. Once we do, I’ll update this to mention the experience.

Online games gives more options for mobility impaired players. My apartment has no handicap access. When the weather couldn’t permit our wheelchair-bound friend to join us at our public play area, we used my apartment as a backup. He would connect from his place and we would use the online tools that I use with my other group..

As a game master, I have to modify my technique when I have a mix of present and telepresent group members. I have to remind myself to ask those telepresent players questions and I’ve noticed that other players interact less with a telepresent player. I believe there is a certain loss of interaction with a player not being in the same room as you. You will tend to interact more with the person next to or across from you than someone online. It is an unfortunate consequence that we need to be aware of so we can tackle it. With the cloud storage feature of google drive, I’ve placed documents like character sheets of the characters and shared it with the group. Anyone in the group can access it. Several players at the table use tablets and notebooks to load their character sheet instead of printing it to paper. I like that since it saves on ink and paper.

Not all games work with online folks. Games with a physical components are impossible to play with online players. Dread requires the tower to get the tension and this doesn’t work with online players. Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple would need to find a way to recreate the bag with stones. Since the bag contents changes the odds after each player turn in Do, you can’t easily recreate that for online play. There is a Fate version of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple which I believe will help to play in the setting of the Flying Temple. Fiasco works very well using online play. I learned Fiasco through a google hangout game. We used the sketchpad to place notes on the various characters. I’ve played another time with my regular group where I had a blast with the Break A Leg playset. In the end, our characters had created “Sir Rhino”, a variation of Cyrano de Bergerac where a rhinoceros was the Cyrano character and had top billing. It was a glorious and hilarious disaster.

There are many tools available online to help run a game. For the D&D group, we still use the online character builder and monster creator. Even though it is no longer updated, it suits our needs. I use the monster creator to adapt existing monsters for existing factions. Then I upload them onto the 4eTurnTracker, a combat tracking utility which is easy to use. A tool I use for online games is Dice Stream by Mike Hasko. It permits one to roll dice in clear view of everyone. You can also have your character name and notes appear on the screen. I’ve used it for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and 13th Age so far. I’m still learning how to use online tools to properly run games which will work for both online players and those in the same room as me. One tool which I wish to try that Google hangouts provides is to record your games. As a frequent GM, I see value in reviewing what happened during the game. On top of serving as a reminder of the game’s story, I can see how I can refine my craft as a game master. I haven’t played a game where you have to actively map but I imagine the tools are there to simplify such tasks. I am curious of any additional digital tools which could help a group which is a mix of online and offline players.

Although most of my online play experience is as a GM, I have played a few games. As mentioned earlier, Fiasco was one. Additionally, I played a fun game of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. We were able to easily indicate stunts, assets and resources with virtual notes. I played a campaign of 13th Age with Quinn Murphy as GM. We easily indicated our backgrounds and one unique thing on the screen.  We used a shared document to take notes of the major events of each session. I enjoyed that game and hope we return to it. Our last session was a major game changer and it is unfortunate that we’ve been too busy to return to it. With the sale of pdfs through online stores like Drivethrurpg, you can have easy access of rulebooks for your online games. When you share the pdf with your friends, it becomes the online equivalent of passing the book around the gaming table. When I share with my friends, I recommend they purchase a copy of the rules when they can.

In the end, I enjoy this current age where we can play with friends online wherever they are. I look forward to see future technology be adapted for tabletop games.