Successful methods for play-by-videochat RPG

Continuing the discussion from Successful methods for play-by-post RPG:

I experimented a few times, years ago, with running RPGs by voice-over-internet chat. That didn’t work at all for parties of four or five players because it was so difficult to sort out the cueing. I think I might have made it work with only two character-players, except that scheduling trouble killed the game. There were still little hiccups when two people tried to talk at once, or when somebody stopped and neither other started up — but they weren’t enough to cause real difficulty.

I tried switching to play-by videochat, in the hope that the video channels would convey cues to speak well enough, but so far I have only got that going for a one-on-one campaign. Scheduling again; … timezones; … inadequate bandwidth of the awful Australian internet infrastructure. I backed the kickstarter for Roll20, but it didn’t help with the scheduling and bandwidth problems, besides going off very much in a direction that I don’t much care for: emphasising tabletop combat games and heavy and specific GM preparation.

I understand that a lot of people get RPG to work pretty well, and that there has been a bit of a boom for it with the global bans on social contact we have been enjoying lately. There must have been lessons learned. What have you figured out lately?

  • What physical equipment is the schnitz? Huge 4k and 5k HD monitors? Over-ear headphones? Headset pickups, lapel mikes, or table mikes? Graphics tablets?

  • What software facilities rock the house? Dedicated gaming services? (Which ones?) Virtual-conference solutions means for the corporate boondoggle? Video-chat services meant for home and family use?

  • How can we adjust our games for a better experience over internet videoconferencing? Are there perhaps changes to the ideal group size? Is there some sort of genre, content, or emphasis that minimises the problems and makes the most of the advantages of play over the internet.

P.S.

  • Are there particular RPG systems or rules mechanics that work particularly well or particularly badly in PBVC?
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Definitely headphones are essential for all parties to minimise the chance of interrupted conversation. I’ve not had the pleasure of gaming online via any platform but have been running several webshows on facebook with remote interviews via Skype in the last two months, and headphones make all the difference.

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It has been a bit of a struggle for me as well. Any visual cue for the other players is pretty much gone, and any teleconferencing software is a barrier that makes having an organic conversation difficult.

I think small groups work best, it’s just less chaotic, and I find online games easier to follow this way. I also go for short sessions, and plenty of breaks: I am not sure why, but online games are absolutely exhausting for me.

I am kind of considering having visual signs (raising hands or similar) to signal that you want to talk, but it might be yet another obstacle for a natural conversation.

As far as hardware is concerned, I favor a moderately large monitor; I’m currently borrowing C’s monitor until my new desk ships, and it’s something like 27", but my own is a bit under 25", I think. That provides enough real estate for decent sized pictures of several individuals, or of one single person and a room full of other players. If you do the latter, it’s important to have them arranged so that all of them are in view; a wide angle camera is a big help if they have one. Sound doesn’t seem to be as critical; I do okay with the microphone in my Webcam and the built-in speaker in my Mac Mini.

Decent bandwidth can be an issue; one of the players in Tapestry seems to have poor bandwidth, and if she has video on, her speech comes through sounding like a series of notes on a harpsichord, as if it had been subjected to spectral analysis.

As for software, I find FaceTime better than Zoom, and Zoom better than Skype, though I haven’t tried FaceTime for more than a two-way call, and I don’t know if or how well it supports multiway. And of course I think everyone needs to have a Mac for FaceTime. Zoom provides the option of chat in a sidebar, which is a big help. A friend has tried using voice over Roll20, but while C’s computer can handle that just fine, I haven’t been able to get my Webcam mike to talk to Roll20, even though it works just fine with everything else.

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I do this with a laptop, using its built-in screen, camera, microphone and speakers. My sight is poor, so I need to get quite close to the screen, but that works OK. Since the start of lockdown, I’ve does this several ways:

  • As a player, using Roger’s Jitsi server, for a GM and 5-6 players. This has been generally fine, although some players have had trouble with bandwidth, and the iOS app doesn’t work very well.

  • As a GM, using Google Hangouts, for GM and 4-5 players. This is because one of my players has persistent trouble with Jitsi, owing to low bandwidth and self-inflicted problems with computers.

I’ve also played without video, using Discord and Roll20 for a GM and six players. Discord does voice better than Jitsi or Hangouts, even coping fairly well with people talking over each other. Roll20 is strictly for map-and movement sharing.

All of these take a bit of learning to speak over effectively. You have to get the hang of speaking concisely, and not talking over other people. People who start talking without knowing what they want to say can be quite annoying.

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They certainly can.

If like me you are technically paranoid (computer security is a big part of my job, and I was already that way inclined) then most of these services have far too much bad privacy/security smell to be acceptable. I held my nose and used Hangouts, but Jitsi is so much better that it’s become my default. (Though it’s worth running it in Chromium/Vivaldi/Edge rather than Firefox, at least for the moment.) I don’t touch Discord or Zoom.

Though to be fair the video is mostly useful for “oh, right, that person has actually frozen, they’re not just being quiet”.

Jitsi has a “raise hand” button, but it’s not entirely obvious.

In particular, because there can be quite a bit of lag, it’s useful to learn the habit of stopping one’s speech instantly if one hears somebody else’s voice.

For kit, I use a freecycled laptop, Logitech C920 webcam (one of my pandemic barometers is “when will this be back in stock on Amazon UK”; it hasn’t been available since March), and cheap earbuds. Many people find a headset microphone works better; I’m able to arrange a fairly quiet room, and physically isolating the microphone from me cuts out a whole class of background noise. (The C920 microphone also works well when most of the group is in one room but we have a single remote player.)

Note that I play mostly theatre-of-the-mind games which don’t need battle maps and so on. I’ve played a bit of Masks of Nyarlathotep, where the GM’s prepared handouts in digital form and sticks them in a public Google Drive folder when we find them. Screen-sharing from a second computer (or at least a second browser) could be an effective way of showing NPC portraits, but I haven’t yet tried this seriously.

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Even when you know it’s there I’m not convinced that it catches the eye once you press it. I’m wondering whether it would be better, if simultaneous talking is an issue, for everyone to have a Day-Glo card they can hold up.

My inclination and experience is to go for the simplest video conferencing available, something effective and reliable, and use an appropriate RPG. The more physical components - cards, tokens etc - a game needs, the more hassle it is to adapt easily to online play.

That said, there’s a guy who has been putting together an amazing system for playing Hero RPGs on Tabletop Simulator. He has a series of videos showing the current progress.

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Savage Worlds in particular, which wants everyone to draw from the same deck of cards, is peculiarly hard to manage. (Even if the GM has the deck, everyone needs to be able to see everyone’s cards…)

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That’s a key point: something designed to speed things up at the table - everyone displays a playing card each round to show when they act - is actually an impediment for an online game.

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Good point! I’m going to add a list item into the OP for game systems and mechanics.

I think I might summarise the components problem as: shared state needs specific support. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

A battle map is one form of shared state, and if your game uses one you’ll do a lot better with roll20 than with jitsi.

Individual pools of bonus points: no problem. A shared pool of bonus points (as in FFG Star Wars/Genesys): tricky, because everyone has to know how many the players have.

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Whiteboard next to the GM, where everyone can see the number.

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When I"m GMing, I rely on paying close attention to the screen and the speaker, and noticing when one of the people who aren’t as assertive starts to say something. And I also make a point of giving every player scenes that focus on their character.

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I’ve used zoom twice for savage worlds now.

Zoom was adopted by my workplace so I followed that path of least resistance.

The cards work reasonably well and add some GM business. In the first session I had my iPhone set up as a fifth participant displaying a sheet of paper with an area for each player name. I dealt the cards to their name on the sheet. In the second I waved the cards to the camera as I pulled them and kept the sheet next to me and called out initiative.

I also used sharing my second screen to present an excel mock up of a battlemap with highlighted color cells. It worked well as I could highlight and key in player initials for positions.

Bennies have been harder but the pattern I’ve observed in actual plays of bennies being held until late in the session was present. I keep stacks under player name by me and they keep personal counters and I just add a count to my GM patter to reassure myself I have the count correct.

Considering we’d never played savage worlds until then it went very smoothly. Due credit here to the hours of actual play, @BigJackBrass. I was well prepared for explaining the damage track.

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Here is my current set up for Roll 20 - laptop screen for D&D Beyond for quick (but a bit hard to search) rules lookup, main screen attached to laptop for Roll 20 interface, iPad running free Cisco Webex (free and not meeting time limited at the moment).

Brewdog Punk IPA, of course. Check out their Barnard Castle Eye Test …

And D&D rulebooks and adventure books and a notepad and pen on the bed to my right.

I agree with @Agemegos that Roll 20 D&D encourages a certain type of play - there are downsides though it suits us, in particular at the moment(!), though we did play differently as well with our one shot Call of Cthulhu adventure when experimenting with Roll 20.

I am lucky, we have repurposed a spare bedroom as a lockdown office. It’s a bit ad-hoc but it works and not everyone (in Britain at least) has that amount of space. So no headphones required!

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Because I am not professionally paranoid about computer security (Roger’s done his level best to convert me) and because I don’t want to spend much money I’ve been using

Hangouts (yes, I’m the one who forced Roger to hold his nose)

and Discord.

Of the two I’m finding Discord provides better video quality but not so much that I want to insist my other groups migrate from where they’re comfortably settled.

Anything else (Zoom or whatever) seems to want me to pay money or have more technical knowledge than I in fact have. I do wish I was less lazy, old and confused so I could put in the slog to learn Roll20: it would be ideal for running non-Theatre-of-The-Mind games like DUNGEON FANTASY but I fear it is not to be.

I’m using my everyday desk top with a Logitech webcam which contains a microphone. Yes, I’m wearing headphones and everybody needs to. Just one person without can cause horrid feedback for everybody.

What limits me most is the precise specifications of the computers of the other people in the group. There has been a shortage of webcams in the UK and it took several weeks into the current LAUNDRY FILES campaign before one player could get one for his desktop and not have to participate via his phone. Phones and tablets often have different versions of the software and you find yourself telling people to click on ‘the icon on the bottom left’ to adjust their sound or get access to a picture you’ve just posted only to be told they have access to no such thing.

A bandwidth problem is going to hit most people from time to time: the only continuing problem with this I have is a house where two people are taking part in the game and they insist on having separate machines and not sitting side by side: they really need to upgrade their bandwidth but that’s not something I can say.

I have problems with getting documents to players: it’s better to prepare everything beforehand and have it distributed to players in advance if possible. Sending them links and documents at the time is a little optimistic. Sketching something off hand is a bugger.

There are solutions to all these problems… But some of my players are as security conscious as Roger (being in the same line of business) and have objected to some means of delivery which I assumed were fine.

I’m working on it… When it works well, it’s a delight! I have one group with younger and less experienced players who are willing to be conducted and given ‘their turn’ to speak and act. I have one group with more experienced players who though they jostle more are willing to listen to the GM (who is not me) and work on co-ordinating things and giving others their moment…

And one group of more experienced players who do need to try harder. (I don’t think any of them are here.)

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Is Hangouts the one that Google offers? I haven’t found any substitute for Google Maps, but otherwise I avoid using anything from Google as much as possible, partly because I don’t trust them with my data but more because they seem to have given up on “Don’t be evil.” I was preparing to invest in the pay version of Zoom, but one of my players has it and is willing to conduct sessions as Zoom meetings.

I do everything on my desktop (a Mac Mini); nothing less than that big screen is adequate for watching three to six windows.

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You’re not, actually - it was Whartson Hall.

With respect, I don’t think https://meet.jit.si/ needs a lot of technical knowledge.

Yes. They’re gradually shifting it to Google Meet or whatever the new thing’s called.

In Europe at least, the absolute best mapping quality I’ve seen is on OpenStreetMap.

How are they on locating businesses and other organizations in specified categories?