Wednesday, March 26, 2014

March RPG Carnival - VTT Gaming

Thanks to Douglas Hampton Cole over at Gaming Ballistic Blog for hosting this month's RPG Carnival. Doug asks some conversation starter questions about Virtual Table Tops, and I thought I'd take a stab at giving my thoughts on it.  Unfortunately, I have a deficit of experience and yet, oddly, an overabundance of opinion on the topic. So, foolishly or not, here I go...

Do you have personal experiences with VTTs and gaming online?

I do have some personal experience with VTTs, but in fact, with most of them, it's quite limited. In the case of Map Tools I tried it a few times. Fantasy Grounds I also tried a few times, but never so far as to actually run a game with either. I have, however, used Roll20 a few times, and have poked and prodded it more extensively than any other so far. I also took a gander at TableTop Forge before it got subsumed by Roll20, but again, limited usage. Sorry. I'm kinda busy with my own project, and also haven't really had the express need for a VTT so far as my players are local and we don't have too much trouble staying on our every-other-Friday schedule. I also very recently took a look at Tavern-Keeper and Infirno, but have not had time to properly evaluate them. Both look potentially great, but my experience with both left me feeling that they are not quite ready for prime time. I'll wait on those and see how they develop. I also took a look at PCGen a while back. Nicely done as far as getting off in the right direction is concerned, but the interface was kind of klunky and I found myself mumbling about something or other after a while.  Not sure what.  Anyway, it looks promising.  I think all of these tools probably have their place and serve specific needs of the community.   Which is best?  For me, so far, Roll20 is at the top of the stack, and I do intend to use it more.

What do you like?

I like the concept. The advantage, in today's busy post-high school world, I think the idea of being able to run games online with people you link to via Social Media sites has pretty great potential. A lot of times GMs and Players in the local arena have trouble scheduling games at convenient times, and so VTTs can pick up on that.

I also like that I can post a map (thinking of Roll20 at this point) and pop tokens on it and move them around on the screen. Roll20 also provides, as anyone who has used it knows, a neat way to add stats to the tokens which you can update as you play.

Here's how we used Roll20 in our game, by the way. We get together around my table and look at the Roll20 screen together. We move the tokens around by asking each player where they go when it's there turn, and generally I move the tokens myself. Yes, I know this is totally not how they intend us to use Roll20, and we're missing out on all of the cool chat features and so on. We also neglected to update the stats of the Player Characters, although I did update the Hits of the NPCs as we went. Mostly because my Players keep track of their stats themselves as we play, and we didn't want or need to spend time updating them in the Roll20 interface. Had we been playing this remotely together then stats updating would probably have been important to us. Anyway, as far as I was concerned the way we used it worked pretty nicely for the most part. Except for a glitch which in fact altered my story line, which I'll explain in a second. Overall, I think it's really very promising and I can see a future for VTTs as the technology improves.

When it comes to Roll20, what I like is the fact that we can size the maps reasonably easily (two or three tries and I can fit a hex map into their grid system - which isn't too bad). I like the fact you can resize the tokens, and can get tokens to use from their system. I like, although didn't use very much, the ability to add stats to the tokens. As I never got further with it, nor did I try the Premium features, I can't say much more about it, other than, Yup - not bad!

What do you NOT like?

Glitches. All of them technical. When we tried to play Roll20 via Hangouts the Hangout Screen took up a large amount of screen space, and one of my players has a low screen resolution during our test (yes we tested it remotely a few times) and wasn't too happy with that. His fault for not having a better monitor, I suppose. Another glitch was the mic of one of my other players was old, I guess, and started making horrible reverb noises to the point where I could no longer understand wth he was saying. He had to unplug his mic and re-seat it every fifteen minutes or so. His fault for having an old mic, I suppose. Also the first time I tried to synch a hex map to the Roll20 grid it took forever. I had a hard time figuring out how to do it. But once I got it, now it only takes 3 or for tries and it's reasonably good (ie - accurately linked to the underlying grid). All this said, I have not used Roll20 since October 2013, so a lot could have been updated since then.

Another thing that I kind of didn't care for with some of VTTs was the complexity of dealing with so many rules systems and the learning curve involved with adapting to the tool. Granted, I don't know most of the other systems, but still, the impression I got from applications like PCGen was somewhat daunting. Simplicity is a virtue. Of course, I'm probably just as guilty as the next guy at producing overly-complicated software... but at least I understand it. :p

Ah - I almost forgot the glitch that changed my story line.  Yup.  So there they were trying to escape the burning barn and the chicken and turkey (Dr. Chickenhiemer and his General of the Chicken Army, called affectionately "The Turkenator"), were hunting and pecking around looking for an escape route in the storeroom.  I clicked on Turkenator's token and it stretched.  Then I tried to unstretch it and it vanished.  Completely.  I could not find it again.  I closed Roll20 and came back in.  Still couldn't find it.  Time was a-wasting.  So ... "Turkenator suddenly becomes a flat plane, then a line, then a point, and vanishes!"... there was a certain amount of humorous consternation among my players.  We lived.  It was funny.  But I would not want that to happen a second time.  :p 

What features are the bare bones inclusion of what you feel are a minimum feature set for a VTT?

1. Connectivity to Players online with Voice.
2. Ability to post your own maps and move pieces/tokens on it.

What is a nice-to-have that content creators fuss over but really, in the end, doesn't help boost the experience?

To be honest, I'm not sure. I don't know what they fuss over.  However, in my case, since I have my own homebrew system which I've used since 1978, I didn't need them to fuss over adding support for all the different RPGs on the market.  I kind of feel for the programmers as well - that must have been something of a bear to implement, given the nature of a lot of those systems.  And once you start down that road, well there ain't no turning back, I suspect.  They've opened Pandora's Box, and I guess they'll have to live by that.  Best wishes.  It's very cool.  But I can't imagine how difficult it has been to put together.

What do I think the future of VTT looks like? *

I think there is plenty of room for VTT improvement, and I'm pretty sure we'll see some great things spawning out of the VTT market over the next few years.  I should add that it's my view that RPGs in various forms (everything from pure Table Top, to LARP, to VTT, and to Future VR-RPGs) are the new art form of the 21st Century.  The multiplicity of skills that are brought to bare by GMs and Players is, from an old world gaming perspective (ie - Chess, Monopoly, Poker) is nothing less than full-bore astonishing.  I'm often amazed and delighted by what I see GMs, Players and Game Designers doing these days.  It's incredible!

One thing I'd like to see is better World - Campaign Building integration. I'm working on something that I think will help with that, which of course, is my Elthos Project. It does not at this point have Mapping Features migrated in from the Elthos Prime program, but I may go that way with it down the line, unless other people come up with better mapping solutions than I have in the meantime.  Seems like they're heading in the right direction, anyway.

The Elthos Web Application also does not happen to host other systems, or intend to. It is a stand alone RPG mini-system designed for retro-style light-weight RP Gaming, aligned towards Table Top games, and with some possibilities for usefulness to VTT users.

I think that applications such as Roll20, and Elthos, are going to lead the way toward a fascinating future.  One that incorporates live Gamesmastering with thousands of players in Virtual 3D-Worlds.  No, we're not quite close to that yet.   But it's coming.  And the tools we are creating today are leading the way there.

Ok well that's my experience with it, and my thoughts on VTTs, for what their worth.

* - Note:  I added that question myself . ;)
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