Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Across the Virtual Table

As gamers we are living in a proverbial golden age thanks to the internet and virtual table tops.  Given that this is a blog ON the internet and for gamers I'm not going to take the time to tell anyone what a virtual table top (VTT) is, especially since it's really self explanatory.  Also I'm not looking to sell you on one particular VTT over another. There're a ton out there, some free, some premium, and all with their own advantages and disadvantages.  Instead I figured it would be nice to go a little into my feeling on keeping old players together, finding new players, and making the most out of your medium as well as the unique problems you might face with it.

Bringing the Band Back Together:
During my late teens and early twenties I was lucky enough to have a fairly consistent group to game with.  When I was in high school most of us worked at Subway and the manager would let us stay after closing to game there.  During and after college I always had at least one friend who everyone could crash at for days at a time for marathon gaming sessions (this includes my first and second apartment). Life was good and I was spoiled, all the way until I moved half way across the country where I knew no one, the closest gaming store was two counties over and up a mountain, and all my friends back home were left without a GM as I had gone full time into it for them over a year earlier.  IT was a weird experience having a hobby that I couldn't do and for about 6 months that's just how it was until one of my players found an early VTT program.  It's not hard to see how this hobby has struggled to grow over the years as honestly for it to really shine there are a lot of dominoes that need to fall into place.  I single kid interested that might have found a rule book in some used game store needs friends willing to try it out and more importantly at least a couple that will like it enough to stick with it.  If you move or lose your group its back to square one and that's not even taking in learning a system without help or finally finding gamers, but they play a totally different game you need to learn if you want to do anything.  Thank god for the internet.  It's really that simple.  Being half a country away doesn't have to stop you.  Finding new friends that enjoy what you do is no longer limiting to a few dozen miles around you.  Sure the internet it great for a million reasons and this is a small one by comparisons, but I felt like it deserved it's due for giving this hobby a stepping stone it greatly needed and never had before.

A Virtual Friend
So on to actual advice and not just old stories about "the dark ages of gaming".  Sometimes things happen and even with all the advancements of a modern age you can lose players to life.  Or maybe you're a new gamer looking to start a group and your current friends aren't interested.  Either way online is that fastest way to find other gamers, but be warned there are sharks and more importantly flakes infesting these waters.  I don't know if it's the anonymity of being online or that all the rejects that people kick out of their physical games flood the area, but I have had my fair share of horror stories from looking online for new players.  The first thing to remember is a lot of people aren't going to see you or your other gamers as actual people.  I've had tons a players just not show up because honestly they couldn't be bothered, just vanishing into the night.  I've had a few that actively look to troll other games making their fun out of ruining everyone elses because it's not like the guy across the table can get up and knock your lights out no matter how much he wants to.  One of the stranger types I seem to find with table top gaming in paticular is players that seem to think you live in their computer and (like any video game they also have) can be turned on to play at any hour without any notice.  Then they get upset and offended when told no.  No there's no real way to eliminate yourself from running into any of these, but you can mitigate the damage.  The trick is to always have a Session Zero, spend it getting to know your players, talking to them in real time not just text, and getting a feel for what they want in a game and trying your best to see if that fits with what you want.  Another tip is to make a worksheet/questionare for them to fill out with the deadline of when you are running your Session Zero.  This can help weed out those not willing to put the effort into actually making time for games while also giving you a good idea of what they are looking for in a game.  I also use it to test for the more pushy players, if they try to give the the worksheet early I tell them once for them to hold onto it till the session, if they keep pushing me to read  it early I already know they don't follow simple directions and they think that I run on their schedule.  There's no shortage of people looking for games anymore, but there is a shortage of seats at your table and I strongly suggest to take your time and find the right butt for that seat.  It's kind of like a job interview and yea in some ways that sucks, but its a hell of a lot better than either firing them a month later and forcing yourself to put up with them when you really don't want to.

Nothing's Perfect
On to some of the issues I've faced unique to VTT.  As I said earlier, players just not showing up is a big one and, honestly, outside of finding better players there's no way to force a person to do something.  The other biggest issue is holding the attention of the ones you have there.  Without being in person (especially if you are voice only) there's a whole lot less you have at your disposal to make a player look where you want and actually pay attention.  Anyone who's had players with phones or tablets at their table know how bad distractions can be.  Now realize that a computer is a million times more entertaining than a phone and you can't tell them to put it away because you have to use it to play.  I've had players playing video games while at my table, watching movies at my table, and flat out walking away to do something without telling anyone at my table.  In person you see Bob get up to go to the bathroom.  In a phone call you can have no idea.  At my table I'm a bit lax, but I have a limit.  If you can prove to me you can game while doing something else then I don't care, but I will repeat myself ONCE if you miss it after that tough shit and pay attention.  As for getting up, just tell me.  We all have life and I can bet you that your house respect the time your sending at your computer even less than the time you're at a table with people there in person.  There's also the fact that there is simply more people and distractions.  Everyone isn't in one room that might have a TV and one persons family around.  Everyone is in their own home with their own TV, their own family bugging them, and their own distraction tailored specifically to them.

Like No Other Show on Earth
Now for the reason I've learned to enjoy playing online more than any other way.  A VTT can do everything your old table did and so much more.  Some of these are obvious like being able to hide dice roll, but there's a heck of a lot more and making use of it it the difference between a back yard show and a concert.  Some of it takes practice and time, but most of it is just as simple as any other game prep.  First and foremost is music, most VTTs can play music and this includes sound-effects too.  I know GMs in person play music to set the mood, but in a VTT the play list is right there with you and more importantly the speaks are right on each of your players ears.  You can set incredibly quiet music that they may never notice, but still adds a tone to the scene all the way to making them jump out of their seats with a thunderous roar no one saw coming it's all up to you.  The second is images.  IF you are a gamer that uses miniatures this is your holy grail as you will always be able to have them look exactly how you want every time.  IF you don't, you still can ull beautiful high res art up for your players to drool over.  there's no passing a picture around or throwing it in the middle of a table and hope everyone sees it (with at least 1/2 seeing it upside-down) instead it's right there on their screen.  Some VTTs can even do line of sight, lights, and shadows to make a dungeon crawl actually FEEL like a dungeon crawl.  Then the biggest advantage of them all, notes.  No stacks of loose paper, no fumbling for what you need.  Take the time to learn some method to organize your notes digitally.  Personally I have a single note book to quick jotting down, heavy use of Sticky Note for Windows, one to two master word files for adventures, and then a Wiki for campaign notes.  It sounds like a lot, but most of it is just taking notes out of my notebook after a campaign and organizing them.  Making hyperlinks and foot notes also mean you can cross reference and search whatever you might need.  The Wiki I use for my players to recount important NPCs, Locations, and adventures they're had.  If a player forgets the name of someone I just tell them to look it up (same goes for when I forget everything, but they don't need to know that).

1 comment:

  1. I use Roll20.net which boasts 700,000 users, most free but there are perqs if you pay an annual subscription. It has a "ping" system where the GM or anybody can click and hold the mouse to make an expanding circle on the map to point at what they are talking about. The GM can Shift-click and hold to "force" people's view to center on that point. Tokens can be made up from anything (in Roll20 you have to save them as .png files to make the background of the overhead-view figure transparent so it blends with any map). Character sheets can be linked to tokens so stats changes like hit-points can be made on the sheet or the token and will show in both. It's a great system if you know the ins and outs, and it is system-agnostic (not tailored only to D&D or Pathfinder).

    It is true that you will never know if the players are playing video games or opening other windows while playing. As a player I will go to the bathroom but that's okay if I turn off my camera and keep my wireless headset on! I may miss any visual, however. It is best to ask people to type AFK (Away From Keyboard) in the chat, but if they miss something important, too bad.

    Multiple monitors are a plus (one screen for the player cam-views, such as Google Hangouts; one screen for the tabletop). It pays to see both the map and the face on players when you spring a monster out of the hidden "GM layer" of your tabletop.

    By all means, *screen your prospective players!* Ask them how much RPG background they have, how much experience they have in that particular game, make your time-slot clear and tell them it is inviolable. Test their dedication with the character-generation session. Get them to come with their undivided attention, to shut out family, dogs and small children for that time. If you have cams going, it will prove you are real people and not to be trifled with. There's no excuse to play a text-based game; RPGs are conversational and everyone needs at least a mic to play the game with any speed. I had one guy who had constant problems with his microphone, but for decades there has been audio chat on computers so he should have fixed it, fixed it, fixed it. Expect to give them some gentle help with the VTT, as there are a wealth of features and nobody seems to be exploiting every possible trick.