Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Roll 20 And Playing In A Virtual Environment Part 3

So with all the preparations completed, I was ready to run my first Virtual Table Top game via Roll 20.

The Game Session

With a small group of decent role-players lined up we all connected and started playing.

Roll20 has some nice features, one of which is the addition of background adventure music controlled by the GM.  I have always felt that one of the roles of being a GM is in setting the session mood and atmosphere.  With the background music (and sound effects) that you can control I thought this would be a great feature, and it is, however, for a first session, there's quite a lot to manage on a VTT.  By the time you've switched to a different scene, got all the player's tokens moved over and positioned, got your notes ready, the background music falls a bit down the priority list.  I think with more practice and experience running a Roll20 VTT session, managing the music would become easier, but initially, it's one extra thing to have your hands on.

We gathered together via voice only chat using Skype.  I've never been a huge Skype fan as I have always found it glitchy but I thought that not using the video portion would improve it's functionality.  Well, it didn't.  More than a couple of times we lost one player here and there and they had to reconnect.  And at the end of the session - the wrap-up, I lost all Skype connectivity.  Which made it a real hassle to get back on with everyone just for planning next session and 'see ya laters'.  It took longer to get everything connected again than it did to 'wrap things up', one of the things that annoy be about technology in general.

Why I didn't go with Google Hangouts?  I guess I was worried about computer performance but with all the Skype issues I had over a three hour session - which wasn't too many - but it intrupts game-play as we 'look' around for a missing player, I'll probably go with Google Hangouts in the next session and see how that goes.

The Gameplay Itself

Sitting around a table you have faces to interact with.  A face to face conversation or storytelling is a bit more enveloping and interactive than over the interwebs.  It took me a while to get use to just talking into 'space' even though players were floating within that space.  It was a bit tricky placing a disembodied voice with a PC or token.  I had a couple of nice distinct voices to separate but I constantly had to ask who was talking for which PC.

Again, talking into space took awhile to get use to but play moved along.  The screen did become, at least for me, the hub of what I connected with, something to keep my eyes occupied while we chatted and played.  Getting over that, the gameplay progressed as any other face to face session might.

The game mechanics within the Roll 20 VTT itself worked flawlessly.  Dice rolling was a snap, along with keeping track of hit points, which was linked between the tokens and the player's character sheets. Combat moved quickly with the system as well.

The lower basements as explored by the players. 
 Letting the players move their tokens around the map was nice too.  It made my job as GM easy in terms of knowing where everybody was at any given time.  In fact, what I discovered was that the players interacted with the map way more than they do in a usual face to face session.

For example, players would point to items they saw on the map and asked what they were and examine and explore the environment that way.  They were using the dungeon dressings that I placed on the map page as what they actually saw and relied less on my descriptions.  It caught me off guard a bit but it's something worth noting.  With some of the points I made about map-making in my previous posts, and how the more detailed maps would pull the game out of a players imagination and focus it onto the computer screen seemed to hold true.  The more detailed map played in this virtual table top changed an important element of the game.  I'm not going to judge it as bad or good, just different.  And I think I would adapt my GMing style a bit to accommodate that change.  If I were to continue playing with these detailed maps, I would be sure they are way more accurate knowing they were to be used by the players more as a way to interact with the environment in the game session.


Overall, I have to say that the VTT gaming experience was pretty good.  It's different than a face to face session, without a doubt.  It does present different challenges running a session.  Adding a layer of technology can make a GM's job that much more complicated, but with some practice some of that can get ironed out.

I was surprised by how the players interacted with the maps and what they saw on the VTT screen and that brings up the biggest point - would one pursue that direction of controlling the VTT experience by letting the players explore more of what they see and less of what they hear from you as GM or strip all that away and use the VTT more of a blank slate to project your imagination onto?  I think the VTT can work either way.  There would be a lot less prep time  if you just used the drawing tools to draw maps on the screen on the fly as needed and NOT use the VTT as the be-all end-all environment with which to play.  Use it as a blank table.  It would be just as easy to play the sessions in a full detailed mapped out environment, though slightly different than what one might be use to.  The differences are subtle but they are there.

I do know that if I were to run an ongoing campaign, especially sandbox style, I would not spend all my free time preparing for a session by creating detailed maps and populating those maps ahead of time to be imported into a VTT system and used as a what you see is what you get game-board.  Free-form sessions usually never work like that.  I would go with the former method of stripping down the VTT game play area, leaving it open to be used only when needed, much of how my table-top sessions usually run - pulling the minis out only when needed.

I'll probably finish the game as I had intended and created, as a fully detailed game play map but I would like to try the VTT in a more stripped down version that I'm more use to.  Roll 20 VTT should easily adapt to those different styles and anything in between.  Me, I'll just keep rolling with it until I find that perfect sweet-spot on the Virtual TableTop.

Read part 1 and part 2 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Roll 20 And Playing In A Virtual Environment Part 2

Part 2 of my experiences with running a session, from an old school perspective, in a Virtual TableTop (VTT), specifically Roll 20.

You can go through your own research, walk-throughs and toying around with Roll20 if you haven't already. I think you'll find it pretty robust.

You can also catch up on Part 1 here.

Preparing the Session Part 2

With the VTT maps completed I began to populate the dungeons with our familiar denizens.

Now the standard VTT maps, when created, tend to have a video game quality to them;  an overhead view of a semi-realistic portrayal of the dungeon environment displayed upon the virtual table.  My main concern was that this display would pull players out of their imagination and stick them within the computer screen.  Don't know if that was good or bad but, instinctively I felt that was something I would try to avoid.  So when it came to adding the monster tokens I was faced with another decision.

Since the maps are top-down views, the tokens for monsters and players tend to also be from a top down view.  This also pushed the visual experience of a VTT into a realm of a video game.
VTT monster tokens
Overhead, I don't know what monsters are going to kill the party!

It also made it hard to tell what monster you were actually facing.

I decided to go with using token rounds that I customized and created from old-school art.

VTT monster tokens
More representative monster tokens.  Ah, goblins are going to kill the party!
I think these had a better feel to them, at least for me.  But what I also felt was that the more realism I pulled out of the graphic represented on the screen, the more my imagination fill that space in.  This lead me to the conclusion that I can probably pull out all 'realism' from the map as well and that would let player's imagination participate more.

Since I had already created the maps, I left them as is as I wanted to experiment with using the VTT in this visual extreme.  So I ended with detailed maps and hand-drawn tokens.

Gathering Players

I posted my campaign session out there on the Roll20 Boards to gather players.  I was running Swords & Wizardry Complete with my updated house-rules.  I was hoping an old school set of rules would bring in some curious players. I decided I would take the first 5 players that responded.  I was open to playing with veterans or players new to RPGs alike.  Basically I just wanted to see who would show up.

It only took a day or two to get six interested parties, one over what I had planned.  I thought, why not challenge my first time running a VTT session.  Six players at my real table, though rowdy is quite fun.  I also figured that by game time I would loose one or two players for whatever reasons would come up - and that was indeed the case.  One player took himself out of the mix while the other just never responded or replied after their initial poke of interest.

So I ended up with four virtual players, all of whom were pretty decent role-players.

Since Roll20 VTT's game sessions, once activated, can be used by the invited players whether the GM is present or not.  So we worked out character creation where they would make their attribute rolls in game, which records all the dice rolls and used the message board for CharGen and rule questions.

With everything in place, I was finally ready to begin playing...

Part 3