Remote Gaming

This year’s — and last’s, come to think of it — personal roleplaying renaissance has been interesting. All my players were new to gaming back at the beginning of last year, when we began. And while my new group is quite a bit of fun, I still hold some nostalgia for those who I played with previously. We were all close friends, and we had all been playing roleplaying games since we were children.

Here in London, I have the choice of close friends who are new to roleplaying or experienced strangers. And my mind turns to ways in which a remote game would be possible, and this dichotomy might be resolved.

Play by mail

The first solution that comes to mind is one that has been tried, tested, and repeatedly failed by my group: play by e-mail. This was first tested when my old roleplaying group graduated from University, and again when we became more geographically diverse.

Each and every one of these play-by-email games floundered.

On the surface, this should not have happened. All of us spend “too much” time online, are avid writers, readers and roleplayers. We made an assumption that changing the game into a written story format would work well for us, but it failed all three times it was attempted, no matter who was running it.

It turns out that e-mail games have a few detrimental things that need to be worked out logistically in order to function.

First, there is the problem of writing styles. Each player would write their character’s actions and scenes at a different place, find different places to stop for the GM’s input — or that of another PC — and when not in the same place, with different pacing. This means some players fall behind, others move ahead. Different playing styles become more pronounced, and the tools for dealing with them are not the same as they are around a table — not that I can give much advice on these tools, as I have not had much success in running these games.

Second, there is the problem of encounters. Long drawn out conversations can take tens, or even hundreds, of e-mails. Combat is drawn out as players describe their actions, the GM describes the resolution of those actions … and that’s two e-mails for one round with one character. You could not play a 4E D&D game with its long fights over e-mail.

Finally, there is the problem of volume. When playing, I found these campaigns to be easy. But as a GM, they became logistical nightmares. The e-mails could not just be fired off (usually), but often had to be thought out, written carefully, and sent. And the more players you had, the more e-mails were required. In the end, if you have a normal-sized group for tabletop play, it can become too much.

Video conferencing

But that was then, this is now, and we would like to explore further options that might now be available.

Conference calls and speaker phones have been with us with some time. But as anybody who has been in a business meeting or two knows, it is easy to forget to participate or crowd people out who are on the other end of the phone, and those running the meetings need to take care to remember who is on the other end of the line and not saying anything. And while roleplaying by conference call sounds possible, it is hard to believe that it would be fun.

But what of video conferencing?

With the near universality of VOIP (such as Skype), this is certainly a possibility, but one that I have not tried. Gnome Stew — and its commenters — offer up some Skype advice which sounds useful, and gets me thinking about attempting a Skype-based game at some point.

The Chatroom

Chatrooms seem to be a thing of the past. In the early days of the Internet, they were all the rage — go online, go to a chatroom, and find some strangers (or friends!) to chat with. Eventually they got overrun with bots, and this blogger no longer has any idea whether or not they still exist.

Still, they strike me as an ideal interactive tool for remote roleplaying.

If the chatrooms are private — accessible only to those playing — you can have a main chatroom: The Game Table. If the party splits up, you can divvy them into two chatrooms, monitor who is in each (the GM should be the only one in both) and play the two groups near-simultaneously. One-on-one conversations can occur through private messaging.

Encounters can happen in real-time, in a way that e-mail does not allow. Radio silence which is often required in conference calls (making the event less friendly and fun) does not need to be maintained, as people can talk on the side all they want — even have an extra room for it, players can have multiple windows open at once.

The Web Destination

Building on the idea of a chatroom as the ideal remote gaming platform, what about a full website for your game? There is no shortage of open source software out there, nor of cheap — or even free — hosting solutions.

Require a log in. Have chatrooms present for the gaming sessions. A message board/discussion forum for between games. Character sheets, character illustrations, player/character blogs. An online dice-roller.

All of which sounds like a lot of work. But who said running a game was easy?

Never forget the drawbacks

A piece of advice for those who intend to attempt a long-distance game: never forget the drawbacks.

While we outlined the problems with running games via e-mail above, our other methods cause difficulty as well. Video conferencing requires good lighting and background noise be kept to a minimum — that includes music, chit-chat, young children and your significant other watching TV.

Chat rooms suffer from the opposite effect. Distractions can be invisible, and with a lack of face-to-face interaction, keeping sufficient discipline around the “table” to have the game moving will likely be difficult. Make sure that your players are going to be sufficiently dedicated to the game before you begin.

And the website? That’s a lot of work if you are not sure that the chatroom method is going to work for your group.

Finally, whatever you do, do not forget about time zones. Any sufficiently diverse group of players, geographically-speaking, will be spread across multiple time zones. Real-time games need everybody to be awake and free to play simultaneously. The more time zones that are involved, the more difficult this becomes.

(Top image is the original artwork for the Dungeons and Dragons game. Bottom image is from Pen and Paper Portal)

3 thoughts on “Remote Gaming

  1. Additionally, many people who aren’t me have had considerable success with Google Wave for online gaming.

    I’ve done some experimenting with video conferencing in a remote player to a local game session. Results have been mixed. The biggest problem is sound – thus far I’ve had one mike (bluetooth earbud) for the GM, and a room mike for the other players. This doesn’t work. I figure to really get it working I’d need either some sort of really, really good room mike, or at least two, probably three mikes. Given that bandwidth limits the number of computers locally you can put in the conference, that will probably require some sort of mixer for the mikes.

    I’m not sure if I’m going to continue with allowing remote players in my games, mainly because I think to do it properly I will need to dump another $200-$500 into my conferencing rig, and even then I have no guarantees that other problems, like time lag and too many people talking at once, won’t make the experience still difficult.

    It would probably be a lot better if it was either everyone in different locations, or several small groups with only 2, maybe 3 people coming in from each location. Having one or two remote players and a room full of local players means the remote guys don’t know what’s happening half the time.

  2. @curgoth Thanks for the input — with the quantity of conference calls (in my professional life) and Skype calls (in my personal life) I find myself exposed to, I was already very sceptical of the group-with-a-remote-player.

    I do wonder if things might work out with each player in front of his or her own computer. Particularly if the game was real-time, and mostly text-based.

  3. I think that’s more or less how google wave games go; when the players are all there, it’s live chat, essentially, but the wave also provides a log and places to keep game documents.

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