Thursday, May 9, 2013

Less Tools, More Rolls

In a fit of frustration this week, I posted a comment on my Facebook wall saying "If I don't run a game soon, I'm going to __________."  There were some cute comments, some dumb ones, and some folks who just seemed to agree with my comment.  As I march towards the end of my fourth decade of existence, I find myself gaming less and less.  My wife doesn't game, so I need to balance time with her with hours spent gaming.  Many of my players still LARP, which means that for the Spring and Fall entire months go by where we can't find time to play (seriously, I tried to schedule a game for one of my groups and the soonest we could come up with was July).  I do a lot of work with the 501st and Rebel Legions, so that eats up afternoons on the weekend.  I live in New Hampshire now, and most of my players live within the Route 495-128 belts of Massachusetts.  This situation almost entirely eliminates the possibility of running a weeknight game.

Or does it?

Virtually There

It's no secret that people are now only a Skype call or a G+ Hangout away.  Gamers have known a few ways to keep folks at the gaming table, thanks to a few Virtual Tabletop programs out there.  Since 2007 I've been using the powers of the internet to continue gaming with one of my long-time buddies, Alex.  Originally using a web-camera pointed at the game board to track movement, our ability to game with him increased ten-fold with the discovery of Maptools

Not my game, but you get
the idea of how it looks.

Maptools is a solid virtual tabletop program, free to use, with a ton of features if you happen to know a couple computer languages.  It's Java-based, and is community driven and supported, which of itself are two hurdles. 

Movement can be locked to a grid, or free form.  You can apply fogs of was, and reveal it in sections based on a PC-Token's sight lines. If you're not doing anything crazy, or using some obscure game system, the community has probably made a framework for use with the system you're playing in that has all these neat macro buttons like "Damage Taken", "Healing Received", "Status Applied" and the like.  You can input your whole character and the macros will account for damage reduction, and see if wounds are applied.

The map-making feature in Maptools is really where I find this program most helpful.  Like Photoshop, you have layers that you can put different objects on, even a GM-Only layer that won't display on any PC screen.  With the art tools that are out there, I can whip up a pretty decent map in very little time at all.

"I'm helpin'!"
"No, no you're not..."
The biggest problem with Maptools is it's a really finicky program to get up and running.  It's Java-based, and hosted on their side on servers.  They have really odd interaction issues with router and computer firewalls, and while the community has made some helpful guides to troubleshooting why Alex in Georgia can't log into the server, it's not always clear to those of us who didn't take many CS courses in college 15 years ago.  Also, if you want to use a new system and have the lack of CS background, you're not going to be able to just pop in a framework and get all the neat macros for your damage tracking needs.

I like Maptools, but lately Java updates have been messing with the system.  Java 7+ won't let Maptools run at all on some computers, and we're constantly having to roll back to Java 6+ just to play.  But it's been the only game in town for me any my players; at least, until recently.

Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'...

Enter Roll20; the web-based online virtual tabletop for role-players of all sorts!  Different than Maptools, Roll20 uses a web based interface, meaning anyone on any device that can open a web browser can theoretically connect to the tabletop.  I'm not sure I'd ever want to look in on a smartphone, but still.

Roll20 is free-ware, to a point.  They have a subscription service, monthly fees of $5 or $10 will get you more features (like POV lighting and some scripting like Maptools-style Macros) as well as more online storage space for your maps, tokens, and art.  The interface is very clean, I like the functionality of the token interface, and can assign several notations to several tokens.  Little blue dots could mean flying, orange for immobilized, and a big red "X" for dead (or just "down").  I can easily have several pages of maps ready to go, and easily click between them. 

D&D Adventurers slaughter a Behir and her kids. 
Who's the monster now?!
You even have an option for playing sounds and songs through the program via their jukebox.  Big problem though is copyrighted material.  If you want to use your own music (like, say, anything from the Star Wars Soundtracks) you have to upload them to a SoundCloud account.  Their Terms of Service prohibits the broadcast of any copyrighted material over the internet.  So if I did want to use "Heroes of Destiny" or "Duel of Fates" as background audio for a fight, I could get my SoundCloud account banned.  Personally, I think there's a better product out there for what I want to use, be it Syrinscape or another web-based sound system.

There are a few key detractors to Roll20.  First, there's practically zero map-making ability in the program.  I need to at least make a background in some other program like Photoshop or Dundjini, save the map, upload to Roll20, and then I can drop in objects to populate the rooms and scene.  The other issue is the limitations of my art library.  I have over 15 gigs of art on my computer for map making.  The most you can have access to online through Roll20 is 2, and that's if you subscribe at the Mentor level ($10/month).  I can't have all my artwork at my fingertips, so if the PCs do something unexpected and I need an art asset as an object, vehicle, or token, I need to open my library, have it search through my folders, upload to their system, and then I can drop it on the map.  And by doing that, I've reduced my available storage with Roll20 by the size of that art item.  Remember that everything takes up this space; background maps (which are usually 2-12 megs on their own), objects, vehicles, tokens; everything reduces your available storage space.

I have made a discovery that a bunch of my art objects appear to be available as free-use in Roll20s own storage center, so it doesn't eat up my storage as much if I utilize those.


I think if I'm going to be running any sort of weeknight game, it's going to have to be remotely and will likey use Roll20 in the future.  Maptools, while brilliant and awesome to have had for the past few years, pales to the simple user interface of Roll20.  It's too bad I didn't get in on Roll20's kickstarter, else I'd have some neat bells and whistles for my account.  Ah well, I'll cope.  I haven't purchased a subscription yet, because I haven't needed the extra stuff yet.  Once I do start running games, I'll probably at least do the $5/month level.  Not sure I need the benefits of the $10 level.  But we'll see.

Anything that can get me gaming more often is a good thing. 


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