Undoubtedly, the advancement of technology in the past decade has done wonders for the gaming community. D&D Insider and its suite of tools have likely changed the way that millions of players create characters, design encounters and dungeons, and develop worlds.
But I’m not here to talk about the wonders of technology, though I probably would be nowhere near as experienced or seasoned if not for the ubiquity of PDF formats of the books that I use (for the record, I’ve been a good boy and bought hardcopy versions of the material I may or may not have pirated at one point…) What I do want to talk about is the accessibility of games, in particular the accessibility of gaming groups.
I don’t need to go into a length diatribe about how roleplaying is, essentially, a social game. Since pretty much every aspect of the game is created by the GM or one of the players, there is an imperative to find more players in order to add depth and breadth to the game. This is not to say that a game cannot be successful with only two players (or maybe even one, though I would call that less of a “game” and more of an “imagination”), but I will say that there’s a reason that games tend to be played in groups – it’s more fun that way.
Unfortunately, not all of us have access to groups. I’ve been very fortunate in my gaming life that, since high school, I have been surrounded by people who either are hardcore gamers or at least have an honest desire to become hardcore gamers. Not all of us are that lucky, and there have been times when I’ve craved more gaming than I’ve been able to get locally.
I’m by no means an expert, but I have run and played in a number of games that have unfolded completely in the online environment. Below I’ll share some resources for finding, running, and playing in a game even if you don’t have access to a local group.
I got my start with computer-aided roleplaying many years ago during college. A friend of mine was running a game of Mage: The Ascension (OWoD), and as part of the game he made us all create email addresses for our characters. That way, we would receive out-of-session messages from antagonists and other NPCs, receive funny news stories that reflected how we consistently screwed up the world, and so on. It was my first real experience with enhancing the game outside of the session, and I loved it.
I’ve tried to incorporate that, to an extent, in every game I’ve run since. When I do one-shots, I try to send out “trailers” and have people start thinking about characters well in advance. I create Google Groups for campaigns to have an easy way to communicate with everyone, and so I can send game-relevant information out to players while I’m sitting at work or laying in bed brainstorming. I’ve used the email device as well, which turns out to be a great way for players to “officially” send ninja-notes over the course of the game.
I’m running a short Call of Cthulhu game this summer and the players will be affiliated with the government in some way; they’ll all set up email addresses to receive weekly reports from their respective agencies, memos from bosses with orders and budgets, secret communiques from reluctant sources, and so on. Not only does it stretch the game outside the boundaries of the kitchen table, but it adds more and more layers of clues and realism to the experience. For a die-hard like me who can never get enough gaming, this works out wonderfully.
Again, not everyone had the opportunity to enhance their existing game because some folks simply don’t have a local group. I want to talk about one key divide in online gaming that stands out as particularly important:
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Games
The biggest difference between the types of online games comes down to when the players play. In a synchronous game, the online game is analogous to your table-top experience: everyone convenes at the same time over some kind of video or audio connectivity software and plays the game from there. In an asynchronous game, the players play more at their own pace and aren’t concerned when other people are around. I’ll refer to this kind of game as play-by-post, as it’s probably most commonly encountered on message boards where players and GMs post when they have the time and inclination. And obviously, there is always the option to have a middle ground between these two, a sometimes synchronous and sometimes asynchronous game (I’d say the way I run tabletop RPGs is like this – there are the synchronous sessions and the extra-session emails and machinations that are asynchronous).
When looking for an online game, you need decide what is going to be the best for the game you want to play or run.
A synchronous game is going to be very easy for players unfamiliar with online gaming to be able to grasp, as it is very similar to tabletop gaming: everyone picks a designated time, shows up, and games. The benefits are obvious: you don’t even have to get out of bed, you can do it from literally anywhere that you can make it work electronically (in the car, in a hotel room, wherever). The drawbacks are, of course, that it becomes more difficult to do what used to be relatively simple tasks like rolling, talking, using minis, and can even carry a financial component.
The number one tool I use for synchronous gaming is Skype, though I would be intrigued to try Google Talk. Skype is free as long as you’re using it over an internet connection, supports conference calls, has a built-in chat and linking feature, and is very well supported. It’s the audio-communication software of choice. I have tried video as well, but I haven’t found video to be entirely necessary. You’d think that people would be talking over each other all the time, but after a session or two, those kinks work themselves out. Obviously, you’re also going to need the appropriate hardware, usually a headset with a microphone, though I have gamed with folks without mics and they can usually keep up through chat. Speaking of chat, an all-text synchronous game is not out of the question, but boy, you had better be a fast typist. I find that text chat is a great supplement to the game, but the added ease provided by voice chat is unparalleled. There are other options, such as Vent or other gaming-style chat interfaces, but some of them require a paid server, so I tend to stay away from things that require a pay service, even if they are a little better.
Next up is your battlemap or battlegrid, if you use such things. I really like Maptool – it gets my strongest endorsement. The interface is not amazing and it can be a bit tricky to set up a server (you have to get around your firewall) but it’s rewarding. Maptool offers great design elements for creating maps, but is even better for uploading maps into it and then using it primarily as a battlefield management system. You can create tokens, add status effects, move them around, add and remove objects, the whole nine yards. There’s a built-in chat system with dice rolling enabled (I like creating macros the best, so you can roll your Knowledge: Dungeoneering with a single click) and a fairly seamless interface. The fog of war and line of sight is a bit wonky, but once you figure it out you can seed the map with all kinds of baddies and your players will only be able to see them when they turn the corner and shine their torch down the hallway. Very cool. I will say that it takes a long time to design maps on MapTool. I remember that once I spent upwards of 10 hours designing the map of a two-story house/dungeon that took the players a single session to clear out. I was exhausted, so be prepared for a lot more preparation time than a normal game, unless you’re a whiz at these kinds of things. There most certainly is a learning curve.
Finally, you’ll need somewhere to store your character sheets and information. You can download editable PDFs of all kinds of character sheets now, fill them in and print them out or send to your GM. You can scan hand-filled sheets. I upload them to Google Docs and share them with the group. I also use Google Docs to keep a running list of notes, sometimes copied and pasted directly from MapTool or Skype chat, and sometimes things that sounded important during gameplay.
For asynchronous play, your life is going to be a lot easier. It’s certainly possible to find a particular software that does everything you want, maybe something like OneNote or Scrivener, but, frankly, all you’ll really need for asynchronous game play is a web browser and a keyboard. There are numerous sites that house forums for online RPGs, but the one I use most frequently is Myth Weavers. The site features good support, archives, nested and private threads, character sheet hosting, dice rolling, secret text only readable by certain users, and so on. There are a lot of features and they are well-supported, making the game-playing experience about the game, not the interface (unfortunately, many times Skype or MapTool isn’t cooperating and those games do become about the interface).
However, asynchronous play is a different animal altogether. There’s no great analogue to tabletop playing, but you can imagine a game that is all correspondence – consider dropping a letter in the mailbox to your GM every time you wanted to make an action. It all goes down a lot faster than that, but there are some things to remember about play-by-post.
Firstly, the time frame is very stretched out. I can a mini-campaign once that I thought would take about 2-3 sessions of table-top playing which actually took about 6 months of online time. Combat takes a long time too, especially if you’re going with round-by-round D&D style combat. Along with this stretch in time there is more impetus to keep the game moving. Ironically, since the time is so unlimited, there is the pressure to not shoot the breeze or screw around too much, because a few errant comments that don’t move the game along can easily take up an entire week of play time.
Keeping players posting is also a challenge. It’s easy to have everyone participate when they’re all in the same room or in the same conference call. But people have lives; it seems like it would be easier to say “update at your own pace” but that quickly becomes “update never”. We implemented a “minimum one post per day” rule which worked out fairly well, although it did become a bit annoying for people who honestly had nothing to add but felt compelled to post for the day. Making sure that everyone is keeping up with the flow of the game is essential – it sucks when 5/6 people are waiting for a response from a single character and that person is incommunicado for four days. Myth Weavers has the option to subscribe to threads to get an email update whenever the thread is updated; I think this is huge because you don’t have to check in every day, but you should keep your finger on the pulse of the game. Also important is to not let one player de-rail your game by non-participation; it’s tough, but since the game moves slowly, you have to keep moving or it will stall completely.
There’s an added onus on players to be specific and precise. Something that you might hand-wave in a game (“I tell the city guard to buzz off”) is going to be role-played in a PbP setting. Some players might be very comfortable acting and playing in person but might be very insecure about their writing, or they might just be very bad writers. Finally, the GM can’t slack off. Whoever’s running the game is going to have to be on top of things even moreso than the players. A player might ask a question, or perform an action that requires a response from NPCs or the narrator, and the game might not be able to continue faithfully without that additional information. As a GM, I checked the site maybe 20 times a day, adding more information and responding to posts. You’re going to deal with people who want to/have the ability to post a dozen times per day and have others who meet the bare minimum in the same playgroup. Suffice to say, playing by post brings its own challenges.
But, I think the biggest challenge to online gaming is the disease that afflicts all kinds – many of these games simply slowly fade away. Posts start happening less and less frequently and reliably, sessions become farther and farther spread out. It’s easy to socially pressure your friends into tabletop sessions, you probably see them frequently anyway. But keeping an online game going requires the next level of commitment – I’ve seen and played in games where everyone was committed, supposedly, but it still faded after a few weeks due to not everyone being on the same page. Playing an online game requires, more than good software or a good story, a conscientious effort by everyone involved to keep the game going (especially true for PbP). Without that, it will eventually fade away.
What I’ve presented is not the end-all-be-all of online gaming resources. There are SO many more I haven’t even mentioned. What are your favorite sites and software for running, playing, or improving an online game? What tips can you provide from successful and unsuccessful attempts at playing online?
PS: One other thing that I forgot to mention is that it can be hard to find PEOPLE to play with. Any of the sites listed above are great for those things, but so can blogs like this, social media sites, things like meetup.com and so forth. Just get out there and start looking!