Friday, May 29, 2009

Last Night's Online Game

I had three players for last night's online Labyrinth Lord game.

The problems:

I was nervous. One of my players was having only his second RPG experience ever (after a disastrous first attempt), and the other two players just know me from my blog. I kind of felt like my entire reputation as a blogger and writer was at stake... if I gave bad game, surely the one guy would swear off gaming forever and the others would spread the word around that I'm just all talk... yikes! The pressure!

This wasn't a campaign sandbox kind of thing where players were making a decision of where to go. We were playing a specific adventure, and I could have started things differently. I could have laid out the intro, given rumors, let everyone buy additional equipment based off of that, and then started the game at the first point of decision-making (Zeke's!). But doing that doesn't feel right, so they went through the motions of dithering around town, "deciding" to go up the mountain, and going through the beginning of the trip. Different circumstances demand different approaches. I don't mind presenting a situation that causes the players to delay while they discuss what to do, but in this case I caused the game to start slower than it needed to. And considering the front end of the adventure proper is just "creepy atmospheric locations to explore," it's not like things go into high gear, so the unnecessary lag at the beginning was made worse.

It is very odd to be talking to people I can't see. I've done it plenty in other contexts (I did telephone surveys and customer service for too many years), but this was awkward. Tied in to the above point, it's really hard to tell, without seeing people, if they are thinking and planning and concerned about the situation, or just bored out of their minds. I wasn't running what I think is considered a typical fantasy adventure (no combat in the four hours we played) so trying to gauge where their heads were at was important.

A lot of my refereeing tricks didn't work with this method. When I run games, I am usually standing up, and when describing locations I use gestures and body language to communicate sizes, distances, spatial relationships of objects, not to mention facial expressions and mannerisms of NPCs. I was still doing all that even though nobody could see me. The players didn't see me limp around like Zeke or do my Popeye impression scrunching half my face, nor did they see me spread my arms wide when describing the gigantic book they found at one point. Adjusting my style to the medium used is something I need to do if this kind of gaming is to become a habit for me.

I was also not letting completely loose verbally as it was a 2am-6am game and Maria was sleeping in the next room (or trying to... see below) and I was trying to be half-considerate. I suppose this is partially a good thing because when they got to the screaming faces, it would have really been obnoxious for me to just howl uncontrollably into people's ears (assuming they had headphones on).

Poor Maria. Not only does she put up with the apartment full of maniacs every Sunday, she bakes for us (one of the players last night asked, "Where are our scones?"), and just suffers not having her apartment to herself in general. Last night, she got home at 10pm from a full day's work... and at 2am had me in the next room blabbing on and on for hours. I set this up quick because I'm in such a hurry to get Death Frost Doom out the door, but perhaps that was a bit presumptuous. No reason to be in such a hurry. Future online gaming efforts shall only be done when Maria is at work. Luckily her shifts change often so the next overnight shift is never far away.

The good stuff:

Lots of valuable notes were taken. Playtesting is vital when planning to release something, even for background and "fluff" elements. What makes sense when writing often comes out a bit odd when real people are experiencing that situation. Death Frost Doom is intended to be a cohesive adventure location, not merely a resource for disparate ideas. It has to all make sense together, and all of the above-ground locations were newly written and had not been used in actual play before last night. I know in the rush to have something out I feel the temptation to cheat and skimp on such things under the rationalization that, "Well, all the real fighty encounter type things have already been seen in play!" I'm glad I showed a bit of patience, and dare I say professionalism, in doing this right and playing everything before releasing it because even though all of the big things seem to be fine, many small details will change due to actual play.

The technology worked very well. The Skype conference was free and I was able to hear everyone very clearly. It probably helped that it was the first time in five years that I'd gamed with people without accents (or as the Europeans would say, people with American accents). Skype gave us no problems other than a few seconds of distorted noise, and one guy got dropped once, and that was fixed in a minute or so. The Dragonsfoot chat room worked quite well, even though the die roller takes a few tries to get used to (especially since this wasn't a particularly heavy die-rolling session so nobody really got into the groove of using it). The Scriblink whiteboard worked well enough (even though my scribblings looked like they were done by a five year old) since I'd alerted everyone that this wasn't a mapping-intensive adventure where clues and deductions were to be had through exact and correct mapping. It was cool that anyone could draw on the same surface so people could ask about positioning when they were in oddly-shaped rooms or rooms with lots of different stuff in them.

I had feared that having four disembodied voices together might cause confusion, but it was no problem at all. Everyone seemed to recognize when it was me talking, and a few set conventions such as declaring actions in third person ("Zoltar will open the door..." instead of "I open the door...") made it easy to determine who was speaking.

Most importantly, despite my performance anxiety, it seems that everyone enjoyed themselves and experienced the adventure in the spirit it was written. The players were a bit cautious (... well how would you act if gaming with the Green Devil Face guy?), but I liked that because it showed at least a basic caring and respect for the in-game narrative. We didn't finish the adventure, but the guys all seemed eager to continue at a future time so that's probably the best indicator that it didn't all royally suck. :)


This is a viable method for gaming, but there might be only so far down this road I'm willing to go. I wouldn't want to play a game entirely in a chat room (nevermind play-by-post), because speaking is much quicker than typing, and if you robbed me of my vocal inflections (and NPC voice acting!) I might be completely lost running a game! I don't know whether I'd want to set up webcams either, because I'm not sure how that would affect the smooth voice broadcasting, and as was pointed out, I would then have to wear pants (how did he know?). It's easy enough to not pick my nose or scratch my balls in front of actual people, but I fear I'd absentmindedly display all sorts of unpleasant behavior if there's a webcam there.

Poor Maria. From the day I met her I thought she was way out of my league (and I'm amazed I got a second date after spending our first date discussing the Carcosa controversy with her) and I just continue to foist an escalating amount of strangeness onto her. This morning after I woke up she was telling me that during the bits she was able to sleep (oops), she was dreaming about the game I was running. She says in her dream she came out and watched me running the game. In the dream version, we all did have webcams so she could see the players. She said they looked bizarre. Not just a little, but a lot. Inhuman, "alien," with claws instead of hands and things of that nature. "I didn't remember Matt looking that strange in the other pictures you've shown me," was a bit of in-dream dialogue.

Alrighty then.

Next online game is 7pm Eastern time Thursday, June 4. I still want to limit it to six players, and of course the people that played last night get automatic spots if they so choose. We will continue where we left off (after the death of half the party from a yellow mold trap in the dungeon, they retreated to town so it's a natural pickup point for new people) and it should be a quick trip back to the dungeon.


  1. For the sake of being exact, I don't remember Maria baking us scones, those were of your own doing.
    And I believe that the whole world except US, not only Europe, considers that you guys have an American accent.

  2. All I've ever made for you guys are those rolls with the blue food coloring. Everything else has been Maria's work.

  3. Your online game sounded like fun. I've been really happy with Skype for gaming with my old group (4 sessions down so far) though I have to second all your comments on the limitations. Still, it IS gaming and that is a good thing! Maybe I will be able to make your game since I will be back home in the US (finally) after a long exile without real Internet access!

  4. I was definitely getting a lot of good horror movie vibes from this adventure, which I thought tied in nicely with your 'D&D is a horror game' post a little while back. None of the typical D&D beasties showing up only added to that sense of impending doom.

  5. I do effectively all my gaming over skype these days but very little of it is actually over the VoiP. The reason for this is that I don't really have a set office and my work connections are rarely reliable enough to do VoIP. The text chat client is extremely good, if you want I can be in touch and show you some of my methods, one of the advantages to text gaming with Skype is the scheduling can be looser and I can often play casually over the course of a whole day while working around people's schedules.

  6. Speaking as one of the players last night, I thought it worked pretty well. I had a blast, and at no point did boredom set in. Jim's descriptions are good, and our main NPC encounter was great. You could never achieve Zeek's brilliance with out the voice option. Though, I must say it took some restraint from not wanting to beat the old man with the book on the return trip down the mountain. For me, this is also as far I would like to take a virtual gaming session. Play by Post and chat games do not hold my attention, and take way too long. One advantage to being disembodied voices was we remained focused, which can sometimes be difficult face to face around a table. Also, with just voices, you pay really good attention to detail, and mapping takes on a new sense of urgency (which is a good thing).

    Thanks again, Jim, and will look forward to next Thursday. Please also thank Maria for her patience, and assure her I do not have claw hands.


  7. Damn, I wish I would have signed up for that game. That would have been awesome. If I would have known you were a little nervous I could have thrown in a few quips.

    Until your arms came through my monitor to throttle me.

  8. I can't imagine not doing it physically in front of people. I too like to stand up during most of a session, and make use of movement of arms and body language for things. Yeah, I would be kind of afraid to use just my voice. But just like a regular game, I'm sure a sixer of decent ale would quell the stomach-bunnies.

  9. Stomach-bunnies! AHAHAHAHAHA! The image I am getting of James all nervous with stomach-bunnies is too much.

    Aaaaaaah! The scoooooooooones!


  10. Good to hear it went well. I have tried once to use Skype as well, and that I couldn't see the reactions on the faces of my players really threw me off.

    When we play tested Talislanta 4th ed. it was all done in a chatroom, and it worked fairly well. It's gaming, but with a new set of challenges.

  11. I have a face to face group, and had a Skype group (technically we are still together although we haven't met up in awhile). The advantages and disadvantages of both are intriguing. I think online gaming with a client like Skype is the future of niche permutations of the game. When I started the Skype game, it was very difficult to get 4 adults together once a week in the same room for gaming. With Skype, you have the entire world to choose from. The disadvantages are no minis (I love minis), the maps blow if rendered on a whiteboard program (many of the online gaming programs do a much better job, but I don't like to use these), and as James said if the DM is prone to "acting out" that can be lost in the medium.

    However, with the advances that are sure to come, I'm assured of having a regular gaming group for the rest of my life as long as I have an internet connection...even if we retire and take to the roads of America in a RV or something!

  12. Nice! Glad to hear that everything worked well enough for you guys to have fun. On-line gaming voice-chat gaming can certainly be tricky at times.

    My only real experience in playing this way is in a current 2nd ed AD&D game, played via DDO's (the D&D MMO) built in voice chat utility. The players and DM are all "guildies" in the MMO, and we wanted to play some PnP, via the interwebbbz, so that's the common method we had to do so. We've only had a couple/few sessions though, spread out over months. It's been a blast though when we have been able to get together. I should post on the exp, and maybe I will soon.

    At any rate, back to your game here: So glad to hear it came together for ya and went well.

    I was so jealous of ya'll for the first session. I wanted badly to sign up, but it was Prom Night for me...ha! Before you call the authorities on me, please understand that my wife is a HS teacher and we chaperone the event every year. It is hilarious and fun. Anyway I knew I couldn't it last session due to that conflict, but I hope to make this next one here, this Thursday.

    In case I get a slot in the game and can make it, I just rolled up 3 characters following you original post on char gen.

    One question though: we can swap 2 stats, once right? Is this in place of the -2/+1 adjustments for prime req bumping? I presume so, but just checking.

    Great stuff here, per usual Jim. Keep it up, bro.

  13. Well, I can most certainly make it for this coming Thursday's session, that is if a slot is available.

    Just had to check with the work schedule and such, which I did. It's all good on this end, so please put me on "the list."

  14. >>One question though: we can swap 2 stats, once right? Is this in place of the -2/+1 adjustments for prime req bumping? I presume so, but just checking.

    Yes, that replaces the -2/+1 thing.