RogerBW's Blog

RPGs on-line: how I do it 02 March 2014

Douglas Cole asks about experiences with RPGs played on-line and/or with virtual tabletops.

I'm in an odd position here, because while I've played on-line quite a bit, I barely use VTTs at all. Instead of one big piece of software to handle everything, I use a bunch of smaller programs that deal with individual components. I've now done this with one or two remote players while most of the group is in one place, and with all the players remote.

First is voice chat, and that's handled via SIP/RTP. I run an Asterisk server with conference-room software (the built-in ConfBridge), so my users can connect with whatever SIP/RTP client suits them. (Linphone and Ekiga seem to be the most common choices.) Nobody needs a Skype or Google account; just install the software and go. ConfBridge doesn't handle many-to-many video chat, so if I have multiple remote players I tend not to worry about video at all but instead stick with voice only. A single remote player can sometimes get drowned out, but we've found that with a bit of speech discipline around the table it doesn't turn out to be a major problem.

For things that can't be readily handled over voice, such as passing notes, I tend to use an IRC server. This is handy because it provides both a group chat (for general coordination and calls for help if someone's voice connection has failed) and individual channels, and again there are lots of clients available for different platforms. I also have a robot which can sit in a channel and respond to requests for die rolls, in case some players don't have dice to hand. Other IM systems would probably work as well.

Out of the standard features of something like Roll20, the main one that's left is the tactical map. And this is one I don't really care about very much. The games I run are much more talky than tactical; on the rare occasions we need some sort of tactical map, I'll post an image URL in the IRC channel, and people can describe where on the map they are. (I have plans for automatically overlaying grid squares, but this hasn't been necessary so far.)

I haven't played in any games run by other people (particularly since most of them are in US time zones while I'm in the UK), but this seems to work for me and for my players. The next challenge will be to combine three remote players with three or four local ones. I'll give it a try, at least; if it doesn't work, well, it doesn't work, but it's worth a shot.

As for Doug's questions, I wouldn't say I've got much more gaming this way, but some of my players certainly have. It's not as good as physical presence, but it's better than not having the player at all.

I think there's more of a feeling of pressure to get on with the game when one's gone to the trouble of setting up a net connection. In a regular session it feels OK to digress a bit as long as everyone's up for it; in a remote session it's harder to tell when someone's not enjoying it any more, so it's safer to stay with the game.

Tags: rpgs

  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:28am on 02 March 2014

    I've done a game of ARS MAGICA by text-chat over Google Wave (when there was such a thing). The problems with it were probably mostly my problems with the system and setting but it was slow to work and I would probably try play-by-post if I ever did anything of the kind again.

    Anything as technically complex as video/voice conferencing is probably a bit much for my limited technical skills. Virtual tabletops seem to me to be providing a lot of very clever tools for stuff I don't use much at all.

  2. Posted by D. at 12:43pm on 02 March 2014

    As one of those remote players Roger mentions, I figure it might be worth throwing my perspective into the mix. On the whole things work surprisingly well, and without this arrangement I'd have had to leave an enormously interesting and satisfying campaign. No, it's not the same as being in the room with everyone else, and there were some teething problems that were fixed by a combination of tech and behavioural modification at both ends, but overall it's really not bad at all.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 04:26pm on 02 March 2014

    Michael: I wouldn't mind having a video conference as well as the audio, but what I like is basically a system that gets out of the way rather than one that one has to remember to drive (so for example the microphone's always open, there's no push-to-talk). Peter dell'Orto has talked about teething problems with Roll20 that are basically alien to me because all that map and token and stat block stuff simply isn't a part of the way I run games.

    D.: yes, it's worth emphasising that you can't just stick a laptop where one of the players was and expect everything to work the way it did before. That's one of the cases where video is handy; you can at least make some approximation of eye contact. As a GM I try to push more of my attention at the remote link than happens naturally, because I think I'm prone to ignore it in favour of the players in the room.

  4. Posted by John Dallman at 08:24pm on 02 March 2014

    Two additional bits:

    It would be worth describing the boundary mike and external speakers setup that you use, which seem really important to me. Laptop built-in mike and speakers can be adequate for 1:1, but they won't do for a remote player talking into a room where several people can be talking to each other.

    The mixture of remote and local players probably wouldn't work well if you had players who tried to seize all the airtime. The groups of yours I've played in don't have a serious problem (I suspect I'm the worst offender) with that, but others will.

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 08:43pm on 02 March 2014

    Good point. Yes, I use a cheap generic boundary microphone, taped down to a 2'x2' resonator plate (I use the lid of an old rack-mount computer), usually vertical at one side of the room. That way it picks up most of what's going on in the room, without getting lots of external noise. (Apparently there's something acoustically cunning about vibrations going along the plate versus the ones coming directly into the mic. I do not claim to understand this.) They're also sometimes sold as "conference microphone".

    I use the same rig for podcast recording, except with two microphones on separate plates for stereo input.

    And yes, a decent set of external speakers is vital to allow the remote player to be heard; I'm still using the set I got off Owen, since they do the job nicely. These are a step above typical "computer speakers"; they take direct mains power and have plenty of headroom. I don't think I've turned the volume above half-way. Obviously position them so that they're not pointing straight at the resonator plate; feedback can still be a problem but good echo cancellation in the SIP client usually takes care of that.

    I think the main behavioural modification for the local group is to remember that there's lag, so it's good to leave a bit of a pause between people talking, and to shut up when the remote player starts saying something. It's really easy to leave a single remote player out of things accidentally, and I'm grateful for D.'s patience while we worked most of the bugs out of the system.

  6. Posted by D. at 04:32pm on 03 March 2014

    And that's something else worth mentioning for the remote player: it's not going to be perfect. Sometimes you get lost in the action or in chatter, and while it can be frustrating it's something you'll have to get used to. One thing I appreciate in my group is that it's not just the GM listening out, and another player has more than once made sure I was able to get something over.

    Oh, and every so often something's going to happen to that plate. This can hurt if you're wearing cans but, like the rest of this procedure, there are points where you'll want a sense of humour as much as dice and a character sheet.

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