Advice wanted on internet RPGing

Started by The Magus, January 12, 2009, 03:01:07 PM

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The Magus

Sorry if this is not the right place for this but here goes anyway...

I've just got back into RPGing after many moons away and wanted to hear about forum posters experiences of playing RPGs online. I've looked at a number of RPG sites and all of them seem to offer a lot in the way of facilities. I've seen Fantasy Grounds and it appears to be a most impressive-looking product. However, I'm much more into narrative RPGs, such as Sorcerer and Cold City and would not have the need to use over 10% of that program's facilities.

I've also looked at openRPG and that looks a bit too programmery (pardon the adjective). My own idea was to use something like Skype, whereby all the players could chat but I might want to send photos or documents also.  Possibly a dice-rolling facility would be good. Is any of this feasible? What do others use?

All comments welcome (other than 'n00b, u suk lol :P')

Ron Edwards


Someone else will have to provide the information you're looking for, because I'm sort of old & ignorant about on-line play ... but I can tell you what will really help.

Can you describe some play-experience which was the kind of thing you'd like to enjoy via on-line play? In other words, what about it was "good play" for you?

Again, stating generic principles isn't what I'm asking for. I'm talking about characters, players, events, what play was like for you as a person, what the system was like, and similar.

Without getting an idea of that (about you), then people providing advice are going to have to guess, and that never goes well.

Best, Ron

Filip Luszczyk

Most of my gaming these days is via Skype (i.e. only 5% of my sessions last year were face to face). It's the closest to face to face play one can currently have online, I believe. Note that I have no experience with videoconferencing, but I can't wait the day when it finally becomes an efficient option.

The main problems that you are likely to face:

1. Finding players. This is arguably the most difficult part, as many people have a strong bias when it comes to Skype gaming, preferring a text-based environment. Depending on your country, there might also be some sort of cultural bias (e.g. Skype gaming is almost universally perceived as inferior where I live, even though the same people tend to accept play by forum games and such as perfectly viable). It's less of a problem nowadays than it was a few years ago, as technological issues gradually disappear and people start to get more open for alternative gaming venues.

Either way, it is much easier to play via Skype with people you actually know in person. Throughout the last year I played with over 20 different people via Skype, but among them there were only two whom I've never met face to face and played more than a single session with. Incidentally, my regular Skype players are mostly people I've met offline, socialize with online a lot and play other sorts of online games with (Carcassonne being the recent favorite). There are certain social factors involved that make it more difficult to maintain a stable regular gaming group online (e.g. less opportunities for socializing outside the gaming context).

2. The lack of visual contact is somewhat problematic, though it's possible to get used to it. Communication is still incomparably easier than in a text only environment. It's useful to quickly establish certain routines, like letting everyone know you're leaving the computer for a moment (otherwise they might talk to an empty chair) or quieting and working out the speaking order whenever people start talking simultaneously. It's important to clearly, honestly and immediately communicate your displeasure or ask questions until you're sure everyone is on the same page, as there are no visual cues people could rely on. This is one of the main reasons why it's so much easier to play with people you've met offline and interacted with for some time - it gives you some rough idea on how they react and you can actually visualize them.

I've been thinking about having video conversations with new players to mitigate those problems at least a little bit. Cameras are still not good for gaming purposes, but should work well enough for that. However, I haven't try this so far.

Essentially, I believe Skype as a gaming environment makes social issues extremely transparent. While in face to face play certain problems can make a game difficult, but still remain relatively "hidden", on Skype their presence is easy to recognize. They will typically emerge very quickly, making any progress virtually impossible.

3. Depending on the game in question, there might be some problems with some players not having access to the book.

4. As for the software, I've been using Gametable for quite a long time. It's free, cross-platform and is stripped down to that essential 10% of facilities. MapTool also seems to be popular among Skype gamers (though I prefer Gametable, as the additional features of MapTool do not make it much more useful).

However, there's plenty of indie games that are difficult to play with applications created with traditional role-playing games in mind. Recently, people started creating game-specific Vassal Modules that solve this problem. There are modules for PTA, Grey Ranks and possibly some other games. Myself, I made A Bucket of Dice, a generic tool which serves as my application of choice for most online gaming these days. I plan to rebuild and improve it eventually, adding some extra features like relationship maps, more space for notes, cards and some uncommon props, but for the time being, it covers most of my immediate online gaming needs.

You could also use a blog, forum or wiki for character sheets and stuff.

The Magus

Thanks Ron and Filip for your prompt answers.

To answer Ron's points first the play experience that I am after is very much of the narrative type you have described in the Sorcerer rulebook.  Having played Malcolm Craig's Cold City I realise what I am after is not so much levelling up and getting more cool swords for my character for killing orcs but rather than co-creating an exciting, involving story with some friends.  Additionally I've been drawn to Sorcerer as it has scope to be played by just one PC and one GM.

In terms of play experience I was fortunate to play a game of Cold City at a games con at the end of last year.  For those of you who don't know Cold City is set in 1950s Berlin.  The Nazis have used occult rituals and technologies for their weapons' potential but things have got out of hand.  The players have to hunt down monsters.

I was less drawn to the theme (I like Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy and their illegitimate offspring in equal measure) than I was to the way the game could be played.  The characters were all attempting to meet their own agendas.  The game was played open, so all the players knew what each others agendas were and could play off these easily.

My character, Eli was pretending to be a Jew although secretly he was a Nazi called Juergen looking to preserve Nazi occult technology.  It was essential my character hid his past as he was now a trusted member of the monster hunting organisation.  He was sharing a car with an American, Guy who wanted to get as much of the technology for the US.  However, it was essential that Guy hid his homosexuality from the rest of the group and his superiors.  Guy suspected Eli of having a Nazi past and waited until they were visiting a synagogue looking for an occult text to confront him.

Guy   It must make you sick coming here..
Eli   What do mean?  These are my people
Guy   You know what I mean.  You were in the back pocket of the Nazis a few years ago.  Everything you've done has been to hamper our investigation. You've made up all that stuff about your time in the camps to get into the boss' good books.
Eli   How dare you!  My Etta and Judith were taken from me!  I was forced to work for the Nazis in Peenemunde.
Guy   I'm going to the boss when we get back to tell him...
Eli   Well, I'm sure you've got skeletons in your closet that the boss will want to know about.  There are loose tongues in this city who I'm sure will cough up your secrets for the right price.

We then rolled to see the outcome of this situation.  Both of us wanted our characters to gain the upper hand but as a player I couldn't care less about the outcome as both would lead to a satisfying role playing experience.  In fact Guy lost and his closing scene was that he had been discovered and hung himself in shame, a grotesque twist on the opening scene for all our characters. 

I like a system that uses some form of interpersonal conflict to drive it along as well as playing with people who are interested in constructing a great story.  Open games allow contributions from all players which has the potential to push the game into exciting new areas.  I'm planning on setting up a Sorcerer campaign with a friend and we will take it in turns to GM.  The game will be open and conflict-driven.  The only thing we plan to keep secret is Demon scores and some abilities.  The game will hopefully evolve based on NPC interaction.  We've set up a Yahoo group as a resource to keep information on and will possibly blog in character.  I'd also like to set up an online campaign for Cold City with a few friends as we could push each other on in scene development.

This leads me on to Filip's points.  I agree that I would not want to RPG-Skype with people I did not know.  My friends and I socialise away from games and I think we know what each others limits are.  We also trash-talk with each other and new players coming into this environment might feel intimidated.  I know that I've felt a bit put off when people assume a familiarity with me that I feel might not exist.

I think not having rulebooks would be less of an issue with a narrativist RPG than a gamist one.  Presumably that's what a program like Fantasy Grounds exists for.  I prefer the flexibility of the narrativist system.

Thanks for the heads-up on Gametable – it looks like the perfect partner for Skype RPGing.


Gametable is good, but I believe Maptools to be much better.  I've been using it for about 3 years now and it does way more than anything I need for my gaming.  One of it's best features though is the dynamic lighting and vision.  Due to the lack of visualization that can occur with virtual tabletop games, it's nice to have a PC perspective on the action.  It's like having an individual view of what your character sees.  It's also great for handouts and visuals of locations and NPC's.  Of course it has a dice roller (and even handles FUDGE rolls), and a built in text chat utility.

Another great addition to the program is the ability to create macros.  Now, I am designing a FUDGE-based Sword & Sorcery game, so we don't need them.  But if you are playing a crunchy game like D&D or Rolemaster, you can create macros that automatically perform functions for you, most commonly attacks.  This saves a lot of time with games that have lengthy modifiers and rolling, and it's a very versatile system.

It's free also, and the folks doing all of the work on the program are active on their forums daily, so feedback is extremely quick.  Best of all, it's a great community where people are just waiting to help newbies acclimate to the program and customize it to suit their particular game and group.

They actually have a number of tools at their site, but MapTools is by far their most popular.

You can check it out here.  If you happen to stop in to the forums, tell Trevor "thelevitator" sent ya. :)


Oh, and another nod to Skype for voice chat.  The quality is excellent and there is virtually no lag.  My only suggestion is to have a player host the voice chat if you are using a program like Gametable or MapTools, to keep your resources at a minimum.