Computers, Roleplaying, and My Experience

by Julian Dellar

A friend of mine, both a player in my Dragon Age campaign and someone I used to catch up with on Sundays for a Gym session, spoke to me back in April about a game session he was organising between a group of his old friends. The different part of all this was that the GM is in Brisbane; two other players in Sydney and the final two players (myself included) are in Melbourne. He told me that the game would be hosted and run online. Details about the game session were later forwarded to me and the online system for the gaming environment was to be Rolld20.net.

Initially we had a few dry runs to test how the system worked and to make sure everyone could connect. We played around with using Internet Explorer (Ugh..) and quickly discovered that this browser had too many issues crashing (as expected). We then tried using Google Chrome - looked promising, but people kept dropping out after connecting and also there were issues with the audio cutting out. So finally we moved to Firefox and across the board it was the most robust browser to use and we have been using it now since May. Now if you've used Rolld20 in the past, you know that it has its own audio and video feed built in. We did try using that but we had a lot of issues again with audio and video feeds dropping out. One of the others players suggested we use Google Hangouts as Rolld20 had a plugin with this which would allow the use of both.

So our intrepid group of adventurers set out in Faerun using the Pathfinder system on Rolld20 through Google Hangouts. We started the group at Level 1 with an Illuskan Warrior, a Druid from a grove near to Waterdeep, a womanising Paladin of Tyr, a halfling Rogue and a fledgling sorceror (me). Our sessions run on a weekly basis of a Thursday evening and we game for around 3-4 hours. The group composition has change a little now since people have left the game and new people have joined. It’s easy to add people simply by sending them an invite for the Google hangout session (which our GM does just before the start time).

This article is less about Rolld20 but more about the experience of using it but to help give some context about its capabilities, I will briefly outline some of the features it offers. Rolld20 is broken into two main parts on your desktop. You have an overland/dungeon map taking up the bulk of the screen and a scrolling chat window on the right hand side. Using a series of commands which can be programmed into macros that can be shown on the screen as clickable buttons, you can emulate any combination of dice rolls which are then shown to everyone or hidden and shown only to yourself and the GM. The GM has overall control of the playable area and they can put dungeon maps on the screen, which supports an option for dynamic lighting so they can show or hide areas of the map based on the light source you are carrying. When a combat begins, the GM activates the initiative table which appears on the play area as a pop up window which you can drag around. When it comes to your turn, you can manually control your character and move it around the play area and then attack, cast or whatever you choose to do backed up with the use of the dice macros and commands.

I would liken it to playing a board game but everything is done on a computer screen.

Pros

Because of the people playing the game, had we tried to get together to play it would have been impossible as we are stretched out across the eastern seaboard of Australia. Having an online hangout which we can use allows us to play the game from the comfort of our own homes. There’s no need to drive or get to any place in particular so if you really wanted to, you could be sitting in front of your computer wearing pyjamas.

Which leads me to the voice chat and video option, our GM uses a program which allows him to replace his camera feed with a picture of the NPC that is speaking (we still haven’t convinced him to use different voices yet though..). The video chat option also allows a degree of interaction with the other players so that we can see what they are saying. Usually when the game is on though, we mute our cameras and have a picture of our character on the screen.

A lot of the automation built into the system allows us to create macros for rolling dice. Typically we have created macros that show the ‘To Hit’ rolls and then the ‘Damage’ rolls directly after it. It reduces a lot of the rolling dice, scrambling around under the table for the dice that decided to roll away and plus we don’t have to work out the calculation every time as its all built in. Playing a sorcerer with a series of nuke spells – this becomes a lot easier especially when I’m casting an empowered Scorching Ray spell.

Location is not an issue. In my group we have people from three different states of Australia playing. I’m sure, if the time zone’s permitted; it would be easy to have people from anywhere in the world playing. This sort of exposure to other players vastly increases the opportunities to find other people to play the game with, especially if you find it challenging to locate people locally.

Cons

It’s far too easy to lose track of who is talking when things get a little excited. If one person starts talking at the same time as someone else, it’s easy for the loudest person to dominate the discussion. This is no different than sitting around a table with players, but through Google hangouts it can become pretty difficult for everyone to be heard at times.

It lacks some of the social interaction aspect of the game. Often game sessions have the cheesy snacks and high sugar drinks which are shared around and there’s the typical gamer banter that occurs. While the web-cam and audio feed does help with this a lot, there’s still a bit of a detachment when playing the game.

For the gamers who like the tactile feel of the dice in their hands, the sound of the dice hitting the table as they wait hopefully for a success, or the character sheet with greasy cheese marks and coffee cup rings on it, then this is lacking.

Overall

I’ve made some new friends by being introduced to this gaming group and I’ve been exposed to a method of gaming which uses my computer from the comfort of my own home. I eagerly wait for my Thursday nights now and it is one of the highlights of my week. Cons aside, I think the use of Google Hangouts and Rolld20 are a positive option for people who also similarly enjoy roleplaying, especially by breaking down the distance barrier between players. While it won’t
ever replace all face to face gaming, it is a pretty close second and I would happily recommend it to others.

If you’re interested in more information about rolld20, you can look on their website here: http://rolld20.net. There are also other sites that offer similar services like MapTools.