IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE
In which further friends are met as strangers, recompenses are paid for a broken door, and the matter of several strange documents become of quizzical importance…
As I’ve mentioned before, the players for my Ptolus campaign were originally scattered to all corners of the country: Indiana, Iowa, Arizona, and Minnesota. The group included my oldest friend, one of the players from my original 3rd Edition campaign, my brother, and my girlfriend. This was, in short, the only way I could play with these people.
Today we’re fortunate enough to have a plethora of online game tables to choose from. Back in 2007, there weren’t as many options to choose from. And most of them were expensive. IIRC, one involved purchasing a $50 piece of software for the GM and then $25 licenses for all of the players. With 5 players it would have set me back $175, which I considered to be a fairly ridiculous price.
The solution I eventually settled on was ScreenMonkey: It had the dual advantages of being affordable and not requiring any special software for my players. ScreenMonkey allows the GM to host a session that can be accessed through any browser. That being said, it’s not a great piece of software and — at least when I was using it — prone to severe lag. But it handled dice rolling, let me display maps, and allowed the players to move their miniatures around.
To supplement ScreenMonkey we also used Ventrilo and, later, Skype for voice-chat. And we used the SSA-X2 PDF character sheets to conveniently swap standardized character sheets.
Which basically sums up what you need for a virtual tabletop:
- Ability to share graphics (preferably with battlemap and miniature support).
- Dice roller.
- Ability to talk to each other.
With that being said, I’d also like:
- Ability to tab and/or splitscreen multiple graphics.
- Integrated private messaging.
- Fog of war. (Customized to individual PCs would be great.)
I know lots of people also like to see integrated mechanical support for their systems of choice (character sheets, initiative trackers, etc.). But I’ve found they’re usually more trouble than they’re worth: I’d rather keep the digital interface clean and simple and let people manage initiative and character sheets and all that the same way they do at the physical table.
PREPPING THE ELECTRONIC TABLE
With that being said, I haven’t done a lot of gaming at electronic tables. Partly this is because I don’t do a lot of gaming with strangers. Partly this is because my gaming schedule is already filled beyond capacity with face-to-face games.
But largely, speaking as a Game Master, it’s because prepping for an electronic table requires a lot more work than prepping for a table game.
Largely, this is because I’ve found that people tend to have very different standards for what they consider “graphically acceptable” on a computer screen. When I scratch out some lines using colored markers on a Chessex battlemat, players at the table tend to simply provide closure and imagine vast halls of cyclopean majesty. When I’ve taken the same players and shown them the same chicken-scratchings on a virtual tabletop, however, it doesn’t seem to work.
(I eventually started using Dundjinni with the Old School map pack. This is the only mapping software I’ve found that lets me crank out polished maps in about the same time it takes me to sketch them out by hand. It’s not glitzy and it still needs to pre-prepped for a digital table, but it’s of a high enough quality that my players stopped getting perceptibly yanked out of the game.)
But this also goes beyond battlemaps: Stuff that can be quickly shown at the gaming table without any effort at all requires special prep for the virtual environment. Something as simple as holding up a bestiary and showing the picture of a monster requires scanning the image and getting it into a format (and location) where it can be displayed to the players. (This is becoming less of a hassle as more and more of my RPG library becomes digital, although I still need to get the picture out of the PDF.)
The net result of all this is not only that prepping is more labor-intensive for a virtual tabletop, but that I also find the virtual tabletop inhibits improvising. If my tabletop players unexpectedly go into a random building, it’s not hard for me to whip up floorplans on the fly. On the digital table, however, there’s just no way for me to pull that off in any sort of smooth or effective way.
In many ways I find this similar to using detailed miniature terrain like DwarvenForge. It’s fabulous. And if I was independently wealthy I would hire somebody to make and customize miniature terrain for my campaigns full-time. But it’s too time-consuming for me to use it on a regular basis.