Gamebook store

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Goodbye to the tabletop?


There's a division among roleplayers when it comes to gaming over the internet. It's not quite as fraught as the bonkers split about mask-wearing but it seems to run deep. The other day we had a player drop out of our game. As he put it:
"The whole Zoom thing is a pain. I just don't enjoy sitting in front of the screen, trying to get a word in, moving a marker around on a map, or waiting for the referee to come back when he's got several private messages to deal with. I much prefer the snacks and drinks, the face to face interaction, and the quick 'can I have a word'. It feels more real like that somehow."
Until recently I was playing in two online RPG campaigns, one on Zoom with Roll20 for dice and maps, the other audio-only on Discord. Of course there are good and bad points. I rarely bother with a full tactical map, but in Roll20 it's harder to do a quick sketch to show where everybody is. (Do please point me at some good software for that if you know of any.) As for the Discord campaign, I loved it but we did benefit from having stripped-down rules and a brilliant referee in charge. It wouldn't work so well with a complicated game system and lots of dice rolls. Also my private gripe about Discord is that it was designed as a chatroom; players who miss having visuals will comment on the action by posting cartoons and movie stills, which runs against the immersiveness of pure audio. If there was a way to turn off that legacy feature and go full theatre of the mind it would be perfect -- at least for those of us who are radio hams in spirit.


Our disaffected player's point about snacks and drinks was interesting. I like having friends round for dinner. Also I like gaming. I don't much like mixing the two. One of the great things about gaming during lockdown was that we can jump in, play for three hours, and say goodnight. Nice and focused. No need to eat supper, stow everyone's coats and bags, clear a metric pileup of crisp packets and wine bottles off the table, and so on. Admittedly Zoom and Discord aren't so good for dinner parties but, hey, you can't have everything.

If anything the quick 'can I have a word' is much easier online. You can set up breakout rooms in both Zoom and Discord and it's easy to pop over to those for a private chat. Around a table, everybody has to get up, squeeze round, avoid tripping over other players' scattered belongings... You could waste two minutes getting into the next room just to say, 'You secretly search the body and find nothing.'

For me, the biggest advantage of online gaming is being able to play with friends who live at the other end of the country. They could hardly ever make it along to a real-life session. Avoiding salt-saturated snacks and tooth-corroding fizzy drinks is just a bonus. So I'm in no hurry to get back to physical games. But what do you think? Screen or table?

33 comments:

  1. I've been playing and running online games for a several years now and I do enjoy it.
    One benefit is the convenience of not having to drive anywhere. I live in a small town and our weekly F2F game was 45 minutes away. Now it's moved online and I have to say I prefer it this way.
    Also, I've found it much easier to find games of not-D&D online. I've been able to play a much wider variety of games than I would if limited to local groups, of which the vast majority I see advertised are 5e D&D.

    That said, I very much prefer the 'theater of the mind' variety of online RPG. I've been in a few Roll20 groups that used all the bells and whistles and it let to a lot more technical issues, as well as feeling like a boardgame. Having counters and maps seemed to limit Players willingness to interact with the setting in ways that weren't directly represented by visuals.

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    1. I'm glad you said that, because in a month or two I have to take over our Tekumel campaign to give the referee a rest. He's done Trojan work getting the fog of war to work on Roll20, setting up the maps, etc -- but I don't use figurines IRL and so I was wondering if I really needed to get my head around all that.

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    2. Dave, you can use R20 at a very simple level. Just use a plain grid and assign tokens. Draw lines that "snap to grid" to indicate walls and etc, just as you would've with a vinyl mat and markers. R20 is also nice to store handouts and to display an area map with one "you are here" token representing the party's location.

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    3. Phew -- I'll try that, thanks!

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  2. Almost all of my roleplaying in the last 20-ish years has been at the friendly local game store, at least in part because I worked a lot of gaming retail and know how much it can help sales to have a campaign going in-house. Even if it's full up on players you invariably get to chat with customers and can drive them to buy things just by answering questions about your pet game and showing that yes, people do play these rules. And that's done. Gone. Over with for the foreseeable future. I'm not even confident that the main FLGS will survive with no in-store gaming until there's a vaccine and restrictions relax. My existing circle of gamer friends doesn't include a single person who could host a full RPG group, either. And there are no public spaces that would allow a meeting even if people wanted to do so. So for me, it's online or nothing.

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    1. I'm not even sure if I have a local game store. The ones I knew seemed to be going the same way as bookshops and my comic store (the much-lamented Avalon Comics in Lavender Hill) that were seen off by internet sales. But hopefully the social/community aspect of FLGSs will keep them afloat once the coronavirus is behind us.

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    2. Gaming stores are becoming even more rare than before. My local, the famous Aero Hobbies, went belly up several months ago. But I have to say that it was far less than ideal for gaming, and the players there were extremely opinionated. I ran an open Classic Traveller game there and was the target of some serious ridicule as a result. So I guess I'll pass on gaming in a store.

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    3. Might be cruel to say it, but if they couldn't appreciate Classic Traveller they deserve to go out of business.

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    4. Now Dave, the couple that owned the store were very nice and often invited me to run games there. It was the clique of gamers that hung out there that I had a problem with. I'm sure they spent a lot more money there than I did, but they were not a welcoming bunch at all, and they had a dismissive attitude towards anything that wasn't a part of their own top five games. Those are the guys that deserve not to have a gaming home anymore.

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    5. Some background on Aero Hobbies may be found here:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Manual_of_Aurania
      Gary Switzer passed away, and the shop was owned by Keith Alexander and Shanti Ellis until its recent demise. Keith had been one of the resident gamers and an employee before assuming his role as new owner. It's a shame that the store was no longer viable.

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    6. That is a shame. I still remember the days of the original Games Centre in Hanway Street. It was so small that if you wanted to open out a game map for a good look, you had to ask the other customers to step outside to make room. And they happily obliged, knowing you'd do the same for them. Funny how it's only when the money starts to flow into a hobby that you get unwelcoming assholes like those guys you encountered.

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  3. We're now four months into our daily campaign (don't think we've missed more than five sessions since we began), and it's been great over Zoom. If the situation improves, I don't think we'll go back for most sessions, but we might well for occasional 'specials'. The ease of gathering (and lack of domestic tensions over tidying, guests, noise, etc.) is huge.

    That said, we're already playing a combination of physical tabletop (because about a third fo the party is in the room with me, the miniatures and terrain) and theatre of the mind. Some sessions - and even some whole sections - have been purely theatre of the mind, but we did all of Keep on the Borderland with miniatures and floorplans. It's easy to connect to Zoom via a tripod-mounted and muted smartphone - 'Battle Vision', as it's been dubbed.

    And now the party are heading to Tekumel (by dint of mysterious 'Crimson Gates' in the southern ocean that are rumoured to lead to starless skies), which will entail heavy use of miniatures again, principally because I think the best way to impress the weirdness of the setting upon the players is through the visuals. (This has resulted in the frantic amassing and converting of suitable miniatures: https://hobgoblinry.blogspot.com/search/label/Tekumel) I've been delving deeply into Tirikelu, for which many thanks!

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    1. Battle Vision might be the way forward for me. I'd have to dust off my Tekumel figurines, though -- the few that I have are mostly Red Devastation legionaries and black Ssu.

      Re Tirikelu -- you're welcome, but did I hear right? You're gaming *daily*? Wow.

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    2. Ah - those Ssu must be like gold dust! I'm in the midst of converting some from various insect people and aliens; the Qol were altogether easier.

      Yes, every day - and we've had a couple of mini-campaigns on top (including the first two adventures of the Elven Crystals played with World of Dungeons). It's been great - 40 minutes prep after work, then an hour and 20 minutes each weekday, with longer sessions at the weekends. My kids, some of their friends and one other parent make up the party, so it's a nicely focused way for the children to hang out online, as well as some nostalgia for the grown-ups. No one had quite twigged the Tekumel twist until my kids looked at the illustrations on the back of the sourcebook this morning and remembered the strange, rubbery be-finned and four-legged corpse they'd found among the dead crew of a drifting galley a few weeks back ...

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    3. The real genius there, JC, is how you've incorporated the kids into the game. Most of my gaming crew dropped out as families came along -- but now it could be their key to getting back.

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  4. Over the last three months, I GMed six online/VTT sessions (five with Roll20 and one with a promising still-in-alpha service called Let's Role -- all using Skype video/audio), and I sat on one session as a player, run over Google Hangouts (no map).

    - 01: as a GM, I have a hard time "reading the (virtual) room". It's easier for me to feel how engaged my players are when playing face to face. As a result, I feel more pressure as a VTT GM than as an IRL GM: because I worry that my players might get bored, mostly thanks to that technology we have to deal with (screens, headphones, audio/video issues, private messages, etc.), I "make mistakes" that I would not make in real life, like use more maps or more visual cues than usual/necessary, simply to keep people interested, etc. This tends to take us away from the at-times richer "theater of the mind" experience, which, I feel, gives us more room to imagine things and more room to be creative -- maps are very useful for important moments, but a proliferation of them limits what's possible/the imagination.

    - 02: I love being able to play with friends who live in different countries and time-zones.

    - 03: I love that in those three months, I was able to test/use four different game systems. It would have been hard to accomplish this IRL. Same with trying unusual game worlds, like Tékumel (my next session, fingers crossed).

    - 04: I miss the discussions we had before and after our face-to-face meetings. Once our virtual sessions are over, poof, we all log off and that's that. Sure, we then email each other about the game, the PCs, etc., but writing about those things is creatively limiting and time consuming.

    - 05: those VTT sessions are more work, at least for me as a GM, if only to come up with maps and to create all those virtual NPCs the PCs will probably encounter. Not fun.

    - 06: VTTs do indeed work better when the game system is relatively light. I GMed two Runequest:Glorantha sessions and, well, it's slow. It would have been slow in real life too, but, virtually, it's even slower. Thank the gods for virtual character sheets, which make those more crunchy systems easier to handle.

    - 07: I miss rolling dice by hand. Yes, it's "slower" than pressing a button on some screen, but that slower speed gives you time to think and/or imagine things. Or simply enjoy the physical act of rolling dice. As a result, at my VTT tables, I've had my players do whatever they want with their dice: throw them for real and/or virtually. No rules. Just go for what feels right -- I prefer to roll real ones myself.

    - 08: drawing stuff at the last minute is a pain. I have to say that none of the VTT services I've used so far have good drawing systems -- to delete one line, you have to delete all of them for some reason. Plus drawing with a mouse is awful -- which is why I've now bought a small second-hand pen tablet from Wacom to draw things quickly. Works well, after some getting used to.

    - 09: I feel that it's harder (impossible?) to evoke a strong mood or tone during VTT sessions. As a GM, I like to describe things to my players (this is at the core of what makes RPGs interesting for me, as a GM and player: evoking worlds, moods, tones, people, etc.). Doing it around a real table is easier and effective since it’s quite like theater: it’s words, but it’s also sounds (produced by the players/GM), movements of the body or the hands, or facial expressions, however grand or subtle those may be. Virtually, even though the same is done, it’s much much harder to get a result. Things feel distant, removed, colder, and harder to read.

    So, that's about it. Although there's some good and bad, I would say that, overall, it's mostly positive … even though I personally prefer face to face meetings, which, truth be told, didn’t happen much before the pandemic. I play more now.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to make some really interesting points, Alex. I've found the mind's eye more vivid over audio, but I hadn't considered whether my own game descriptions were communicating less effectively to the players.

      And I'd been thinking about a Wacom tablet, but was wary because the ones that Leo Hartas and Martin McKenna bought for our Mirabilis comic cost most of the project budget -- maybe I don't need one quite that swish.

      Players are getting into generating their characters using Excel random numbers, which I dislike. It seems too blithe to me; actual clattering physical dice show you're treating character creation seriously.

      I am wondering whether I need to move over to much simpler systems for online games. Nobody ever needed a tactical map in Sagas of the Icelanders, but it's not so easy in Tirikelu or RQ and it'd be impossible in GURPS.

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    2. I got a used WACOM Intuos CTL-4100 Small tablet for £50 on the bay -- it's about £80 brand new. I use it with my old laptop, which is my got-to machine for my games, preferring it to my workstation, which I reserve for ... work. The ratio small tablet/small laptop screen size works well.

      The tablet allows me to draw quick maps before the games (don't need to scan anything anymore), and quick sketches during the games proper (still looking for a good platform to share illustrations too, one that doesn't require some sort of registration, another one!). It takes some getting used to, as said before, but I find it useful. The next step for me will be to actually improve my tablet drawing skills for my maps to become as good as the one I draw on paper.

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    3. That's a *lot* cheaper than the tablets Leo and Martin needed. I'll take a look. As for sharing the visuals in real time -- I guess Google Docs won't do it, but how about Slack?

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    4. This is the kind of thing that's worth getting here, where second-hand is looked down on so much that the prices are incredible. I could probably get you one on auction or in a used shop for a tenner. Only problem is that for some reason there are only sea mail services to the UK at the moment. Japan seems to think it might catch COVID-19 by sending packages...

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    5. A tenner for a Wacom! That'd be something. I was about to add, "Can you bring one next time you're over?" but cannot possibly recommend you entering the festering Petri dish that is England at the moment. (For once I'm referring to the virus, not the political situation.)

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  5. I think I already posted here with some of my thoughts on online gaming, so I’ll try to add something different this time.

    I prefer playing in person when possible. But the pool of potential options is much more limited than if playing online. Especially if you want to play something other than the 5th edition D&D “Next,” which is what all the cool kids play these days. But I like to use my minis and such, and that’s something that I really miss when online.

    On the other hand, while it’s easier to find players for a specific game and edition when you have the entirety of internet gamers to interact with, online gaming has its issues too. I need to see visual representations in order to make tactical decisions. They don’t need to be pretty, but there’s too much disconnect between player and GM if it’s all in someone’s head. So I really dislike audio-only gaming. (I gave up on “play-by-post” as well, years ago, because it converted gaming from improv theater to a writing assignment.)

    Along the lines of Alex’ post, I agree that there’s a layer between participants when you’re online. And that puts a damper on shall we say ‘visceral’ interaction. Not to mention all of the potential distractions to participants in an online game. And a lot of people seem to have trouble staying focused these days.
    I prefer the participants in an online game to be using their webcams so that we can interact more effectively. Disembodied voices generate little in the way of camaraderie. I can’t develop a friendship with a voice in my head.

    I also have to agree with Alex in that setting up an online game entails more work. Certainly the GM gets to decide how far he wants to take things; you’re under no obligation to implement lighting and music and sound effects and to automate everything. But at the least you’ll need some tokens at hand, and one thing leads to another, until you’re caught up in a spiral of photo-shopping graphics. Also some players may come to your game with certain expectations (fed by video games and other GMs), and that’s a potential source of disappointment.

    But ultimately, I am grateful for online gaming. These days, there is no other option for me.

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    1. I have found that it's harder for me to run a game over Zoom, because normally I walk around and gesture. That's the point Alex was making above, only I think that what doesn't work about sitting down isn't that I don't communicate effectively so much as that I don't have such dramatic ideas. I need movement to get blood flowing to the brain, I guess. (Always been that way -- my dad used to say when I was a kid, "Why do you pace up and down when you're talking?" and I said, "It's how I think.")

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    2. Regarding the choice between visuals (Zoom or Skype, say) and audio-only (which is how we use Discord, though visuals are an option), I find that even when we're playing in Zoom I spend most of my time looking at the Roll20 screen rather than at the other players' faces. But that might be because a couple of the players (male, late 40s) have chosen to play women, and I can just about suspend disbelief when listening to their voices but looking at them creates an obstacle my imagination can't get past. (They might have the same difficulty themselves, as I notice they mostly refer to their characters in 3rd person. I blame Lara Croft for middle-aged men wanting their avatars to be fit young women.)

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    3. This is why I recommend using Roll20's native video. The little "portrait" windows for each player appear right there in your Roll20 session, and it's an integrated experience. I use Discord for audio-only, because R20's audio has been spotty at best for years. But you can keep your Discord window minimized, and watch the R20 video feed to identify who's speaking. It's the closest online equivalent I've found to sitting around a table with friends.

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    4. Good point. I have a portrait in Roll20 that depicts my character (a former legionary of Mirkitani) but most of the other players use their regular online avatars. Maybe I can persuade them to dig around for an appropriately Tsolyani image.

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    5. I try to get all participants to modify their "labels" for each game, which can be done in Roll20 and Discord too. So if my name is Shelby and I'm playing Gandalf, I make sure I'm identified as Gandalf (Shelby) everywhere. Character sheet, token, player label for Roll20, and Discord ID for the particular server we're using. I ask everyone to eliminate all of their online nicknames and personae from the labels, because that just adds another element that fosters confusion. I don't know how many times I've been in games where I can't tell who's speaking, either the player or the character, and so I don't know how to interact or respond. First world problem I know, but it can be avoided if everyone cooperates.

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  6. I've been running two Blades in the Dark games over Discord for three months, one with my old gaming group who haven't played together in seventeen years. It's been working really well, though Blades has a pretty simple system.

    The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game I play in has moved to Zoom, but that's just me and the GM. I'm also playing in a D&D game over Houseparty, which is much more complex to manage. You definitely can't play as fast as face-to-face. Still, it works for us, and slow gaming is better than no gaming!

    I'm looking forward to moving some of these back to physical space, but of course, logistics are harder when you have to add travel time, need to stay in with the kids, availability of transport, etc. I suspect online gaming will be permanent to at least some extent. Why skip a session because we can't meet face-to-face, if we can do it via Zoom or Discord?

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    1. Added to which, we need to start exploring different ways to play that are made possible online. JC mentioned daily sessions. It becomes much more feasible to do short sessions with just one or two players. I think that if we're just looking for ways that Zoom, etc, can substitute for physically meeting up then we're missing the opportunities.

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  7. My personal impression is that role-playing is better over Zoom or the like (I'd go for Jitsi Meet myself, but that's just the anti-big-company type ranting). If we'd had it 40 years ago, we'd have jumped into it and never looked back.

    Having said that, I haven't played more than a handful of games in the last 20 years, and I won't be taking advantage of the current shift by joining in Zoom games. That's just because role-playing became, for me, a hybrid activity incorporating a very important social component (and looking at the comments above, I see I'm not alone). That's just conditioning, however. The role-playing purist in me knows that the pandemic has actually provided an opportunity. I can imagine a stream of interesting possibilities, unavailable in tabletalk games (bit of Japanese terminology there, just for authenticity) emerging as the technology is better exploited.

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    1. In fact we did discuss whether you'd want to join in the current campaign, Paul, but it would mean you and Jack Bramah getting up at 5:30 am. Now, I like Tekumel, but I like my sleep more.

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    2. You start playing at 9:30pm? Blimey, things have slipped since the good old days!

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    3. 7:30! *reaches for calculator* -- of course. Duh. That's 3:30 your time.

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