Monday, April 4, 2011

Gaming whenever, wherever, however...

I have played rpgs over a variety of mediums.

I started off with tabletop, of course, because the internet didn't come around until 15 years after I started playing. I still played tabletop games, even after the internet was available, although that started me talking about roleplaying games with people online, introducing me to new people, sometimes a city away, sometimes a hemisphere of the planet away.

My first experience with online gaming, if I remember correctly, is when I moved to Ottawa, Ontario, in the fall of 1998. I had been running a Star Wars game for my friends up until that time, and I really saw no reason why that shouldn't continue. I had been chatting with people over IRC (Internet Relay Chat) for some time, and the mIRC program had some very nice features that would be useful for running a game. It even had a built-in die-rolling script. So, once a week, on Sunday nights, my friends from the Toronto area and I all got online, logged on to IRC (on the MagicStar server?).

After that, I got into Play-By-Post games, on internet forums. was one site, and was another one. I also played in some "freeform" roleplaying games, such as the Xavier Institute game that was based out of (which was at the time). Freeform was interesting. No rules set used, just a set of common rules of conduct. I guess they had their roots in the MUDs of the early days of the internet. I liked the storytelling aspect of the freeform games, but the D&D player in me always was a bit more interested in die-rolling mechanics to resolve things, rather than just a "whatever I think is best at the time". Too many players getting full of themselves and always wanting whatever was best for THEM, as opposed to what was best for the story.

I digress, though.

Play-by-post games are, by their very nature, slow. They are usually played by people in many different time-zones, sometimes on opposite sides of the planet, and sometimes people's lives get busy, and there can be times when days go by between posts. My ADHD compounded the problem at times, since if things slowed down at all, I'd usually lose interest fairly quickly, and I'd have to be prompted a few times before I got around to posting. In general, though, they usually went fairly well, but still slowly. I ran an experiment once, involving my D&D3.5e Dragonlance gaming group. I arranged for everyone, no matter where they lived, to sign on at a specific time one Sunday, and we all played together at the same time. There were some rules to keep things orderly, and it worked fairly well. In the end, we went through as many posts in that day... playing for about 4 hours... as we had gone through in the past 4 months of regular play-by-post gaming! That, unfortunately, was the death knell of that game. I was running them through the entire set of 16 Dragonlance modules, and they were in the middle of module #2 at the time. It had already taken us about a year and a half to get to that point, and I didn't want to still be playing this game 20 years from then, so I basically gave them an ultimatum. Either we continue to meet each week like this, with posting allowed in between, or the game was over. Noone could commit the time regularly, so that was that.

One thing I did like about play-by-post gaming was that it allowed me time to come up with good, well-thought-through posts. I could be rather impulsive when playing tabletop games, and it frequently got my characters into trouble, and sometimes caused some conflicts with other players as well. I didn't think very well "on my feet" either, so coming up with good plans wasn't exactly my strong suit. The story I wrote about Alron leading a band of elves to rescue prisoners from an army of orcs is a good example of that. I couldn't come up with anything right then, so I basically said "I'm sure I'll come up with something good when we get there". Steve's expression, showing the reaction of the elven leaders to that, is something I think I will always remember. heh. Playing in the Xavier Institute game held its challenges as well, since in that case, people usually were all online at the same time, so I had to think and post quickly. I caused some very angry reactions at times, because it took me awhile to write good responses, and I probably caused a couple of players to quit over it. I don't blame myself, honestly. I didn't know I had ADHD at the time, and they were pretty jerkish about it overall, so whatever.

I digress again, though. heh.

Okay, where am I leading to...

Last year, I started a D&D game. I was already playing in a weekly group on Saturday afternoons (run by my friend Craig), and running a 4eD&D conversion of the U-series "Saltmarsh" adventures on, but I had some ideas for a tabletop D&D game. Most of all, I wanted my wife, Caroline, to be able to play. So, I got a small group together (Craig, Jennifer and Caroline to start), and we started playing on Sunday evenings.

Unfortunately, things started getting complicated due to Caroline's schedule. She works night shifts, and gets off of her last shift of the week on Sunday at 5am. Her ability to participate in the game was highly dependent on whether or not she was able to get enough sleep Sunday morning/afternoon. In addition to that, playing at our place meant that our dog, who is not fond of men (other than me), especially those who come into her territory (our apartment), would spend much of the night barkhowling and trying to dominate the man in question (Craig) into leaving. Playing elsewhere would limit our time, and switching to another night, like Monday, would also limit our time (since we couldn't start until around 8pm), so we looked for a compromise. The solution I came up with, which would also allow me to add a few new players, was to play online.

I looked into the various gaming platforms... GameTable, MapTools, etc, and started building the necessary library of pictures and the like that I would need to run the game to my satisfaction. However, there was some disappointment with this idea, since it would not allow me to use the miniatures and tiles I had bought, nor the 3D terrain that I had spent time building. So, instead, I figured we would try playing with Skype and a webcamera, and if that didn't work, we'd switch to something else, like GameTable, and go from there.

This was a completely new way of playing for me, so I was excited. When the next session rolled around, I set up my tiles, terrain, and minis for the first encounter, and started up Skype and the webcamera from my laptop. The first snag we discovered is that you can't send video to multiple recipients using Skype. At least not with the older versions or even the Beta version we were using. A quick setup of a U-Stream account solved that problem, but it was a tad unsatisfactory, since the view was rather small, and the webcam was pretty old, so the view wasn't very good. Further still, switching between encounters took a long time. After the first encounter, the group took a completely different direction than I'd hoped, and I was basically scrambling to come up with an alternate encounter. In the end, I took too long, and by the time I had the encounter set up, it was time to call it a night.

We hit a further snag when, the week before the next session, Craig admitted to me that playing over the web wasn't for him. It caused too much of a disconnect from the game for him, and removed the more social aspect of the game as well. I totally understand his position on that. There is a definite disconnect, especially for someone who isn't used to playing online. I almost canceled the game then, since I was finding that running the game was very stressful, and I wasn't spending the proper amount of prep-time, but he convinced me to hold off on that.

Taking a step back to examine the situation, then moving forward again, I purchased a new webcam, got a few new players, and one of the players suggested using the Mikogo interface. It is a free desktop-sharing service, which allowed me to run the webcam software, giving me more options to adjust to get the best resolution and clarity possible, and we used Skype to talk. With this new group and setup, I started a Sunday night Encounters game, which also eliminated the need to switch between encounters, and we only play for 2 hours, so it keeps things from getting boring.

What my players see in their browser is this:

Now, I will say right now that image in the webcam view is not the real image they saw in the webcam view that night. It turns out I didn't take any images of that fight with the webcam, I only streamed video. That picture is from my Canon Powershot, copied and pasted into the image to give the proper view of that encounter.

The webcam view is still a little grainy for my tastes, as it sometimes makes it hard to see the map/tile grid, and there is some confusion at times about which miniature is which, but I think we're getting better. I think it is a lighting issue, so it's something I can work on for future sessions. I've been toying with the idea of using the zoom on the camera more too... perhaps zooming in on a particular character when it is their turn, zooming out to show the whole map when needed. I picked up some correction-fluid pens the other day and marked the miniatures with numbers, so they're more easily identified, and I'm going to make or get something to put around miniatures or miniature bases to denote them being marked, quarried, bloodied, etc. I have Post-It tags that might work for that, with different colors denoting different things (and writing on them any extra info, if needed). The only issue I can see with that is that some miniatures don't lend themselves easily to sticking tape to them. I'll give it a try tonight, and see how it works. If it doesn't, maybe something with different colored clay would work better...

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