21 March 2020

Taking your RPG session online

I've been playing traditional tabletop RPGs over the internet for a while now. As a few people have posted about 'how do I do that' recently, I thought I'd write a little about my experiences.


The first platform I used was Skype, for a game of Hot War played using just audio. It was very much like a conference call. It was in the earlier days of DSL, and we did experience some challenges with dropout and stability. However, overall we learnt that you can have a great game online, but the way you do it will be different.

Note 1: People will lose connection; you'll end up with delays and need a bit of patience. This is more of a problem if it's the GM who is struggling to connect.

Note 2: You need to be more respectful as a player, and let everyone have the spotlight. It's easier to talk over people by mistake when you're lacking the immediacy of face-to-face contact.

Note 3: Use a headset as you're much less likely to miss things, have feedback or make it hard for others to hear.

Google Hangouts

For a long time, Google Hangouts has been a favourite platform for me to game with. It feels more like a traditional game, as you get the video images of the other players. You can also share handouts, pictures and maps with players with the share screen option. It used to be flaky every now and again, but these days we rarely suffer issues. You can switch the video off if you are struggling with bandwidth, although my experience is that it seems to be more all or nothing. You can get feedback or noise from people, so they may need to mute their microphone when not speaking.

The platform used to have a dice roller plugin, but this was removed, so you need to have trust to play with the platform. There are online dice rollers that can be used. The chat is usable, but it tends to be more commonly used for the snark and clever comments you see around the table in a normal game. There's no way of hiding messages.

I played Liminal with Hangouts this week and it was rock solid. I've played extended campaigns of The Esoterrorists and The One Ring with it too, so it's been the platform I've used most. You can use a phone or tablet at a push. Chromebooks usually need 4GB RAM to work well. In principle, the current version of Skype will be exactly the same as Hangouts as a platform.

Note 4: You may need to drop the video if bandwidth is limited.

Note 5: if you're the GM, you can share materials with players using the presentation tools.


Roll 20 landing screen

Roll20 is a paid-for virtual tabletop (VTT). However, you can go a long way with the free level.
It has character sheets available for many games, and some of the bigger ones have made the rule sets purchasable and integrated to the game (for example D&D5e, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu). I have been running Curse of Strahd for 5e using this. I purchased the module which uploads handouts, NPCs, monsters, maps and the whole text as a searchable plugin. It allows the Tarokka cards to be drawn as well. The open elements of 5e are integrated, but you can buy the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual if you're a GM. These are shareable with a number of games and players, dependent upon the level of membership that you have. The base share is 5 players and 1 game. This means the players can reference it. 

Example integrated character sheet

The character sheet integration usually works so you can make dice rolls, cast spells etc, all of which report into a chat window. The platform has video and audio integrated, but they can be unstable. We usually use either audio alone or use Discord for audio.

As a GM, you need to be more prepared and upload handouts, maps and other elements in advance. For D&D you'd build the NPCs or monsters (which is why having the Monster Manual or a module available is useful to make this drag and drop). There is a 'fog of war' feature, and you can also add dynamic lighting at higher levels of membership.

Example VTT on Roll 20 for Curse of Strahd

I really like the platform for games where maps, or crunch, is important. However, I'd use Hangouts for lighter games. Roll20's base service is free, so I'd recommend signing up and trying it out.

I've run Alien and D&D5e, and played Coriolis and Heroic Fantasy using the platform.

Note 6: Discord often works better for audio than Roll20. I'd recommend using it. 

Note 7: If you're playing a crunchy game, Roll20 works well.

Note 8: Roll20 needs more preparation and time if you are a GM, but it does payback for it.

Note 9: A dice roller is integrated into the platform.

Note 10: The chat allows hidden messaging.

Note 11: As the platform is more visual, video isn't really needed. Just turn off the AV options in settings.

I happily use both platforms for different games and styles. I'd love to hear your thoughts on online tabletop roleplaying solutions.

21 March 2020

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