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So you want to try a tabletop game online?

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So you want to play a table top game, but your job has you on the road a lot, or maybe your group all grew up can't meet every Saturday to continue the campaign. So you start thinking about using an online tabletop to keep things going. There's a number of different options that you can try in order to make this work, and it might be tough trying to figure out which one is the best choice for your game. You'll need two things to make this work: a way to show the encounters to the players so that they can keep track of the action and some method of communicating in character dialog.

The simplest solution would be to just use Skype. It provides you the ability to send audio and video between your players. This can be made to work, but its not without its problems. Basically you setup the battlemat and miniatures up on your table like always, point the video camera at them and play like you normally do except talking into the microphone. The first hurdle you'll come to is one of cost, the free version of Skype only allows you to video chat with a single person; which means that if you have two remote players you're out of luck. You'll also need to buy a webcam as well, there's tons of options you can go through for that and the price can be quite a bit. Then you have to figure out how to position the webcam so that it accurately shows everything to your players. This can be very tricky, the players won't be able to move their perspective around so if you use 3D terrain you have to make sure none of their view will be obscured. Which almost forces you to use a top down view and flat terrain, you can't let characters move underneath stairs or scaffolding otherwise they'll be hidden from the camera. Next you'll need consistent lighting, as shadows and glare can obscure the mini's as well.

Lets say you've bought your Skype account and have a web cam and can get a good feed to the users. What you end up with is one person in control of the miniatures and the rest of the players need to move their characters through him. This wouldn't be so bad if the characters moved in straight lines, but they don't. Characters need to go around traps and avoid attacks of opportunity, so each step needs described carefully. There's still the matter of rolling dice, most mature players can be trusted to not lie about their rolls, but you've got no way of telling if they are fudging the numbers a bit. Realistically the die rolls are likely the least of your concerns with making this whole setup work.

The final straw for the Skype only setup is communication in general. You're basically playing through a conference call, which means table talk pauses the game. Its not like sitting around the kitchen table where you can tune out one player else while listening to someone else, if two people are talking at once you can't make sense of what either are saying. So you have to constantly stop the side discussions while in character actions and dialog are being described. This tends to ruin the social aspect of the game.

Basically what I'm saying is that this method is very difficult to make work. If what you have is that the DM and all but one of the players can gather around the table, this is an option. The single remote user can play through the webcam without much difficulty. Once you have a second remote player this is going to start breaking down and you'll need to get a virtual tabletop (VTT).

You'll probably want to look into the free VTT's first. Things like OpenRPG and MapTools. There are others out there but those are the two I'm most familiar with, so my commentary is based on games through those. Basically any chat room that allows you to share images and drawings with the rest of the players could be made to work, but these tools are meant for gaming and have a load of features to make RPG's easier. There are a number of VTT's that aren't free that might be worth using as well; like d20Pro and Fantasy Grounds. I suggest the free ones because you've never done this before, there's no way to know if the limitations of the trial version will make the game unplayable or if its just that your group or game doesn't play well on a VTT. Once you've determined that your game can be played online, then by all means take a good look at all the options out there. When you're just seeing if this will work at all I don't see any reason to wast money buying software.

You'll still most likely want to get some voice software as well. Not everyone is a skilled typist, and using only text will slow the game down quite a bit. You'll still have the problem where multiple people can't all talk at once, but now you have the chat room to fall back on. Setting up a division between what goes in the chat versus what is said via voice can really alleviate this problem. Whatever you put in the chat you can probably save for later; so if its the in character discussion you can review it to make notes or send it to someone that missed the game so they know what the group did. Giving the in character discussion via voice will probably be quicker if your group is verbose, but you need to be sure everyone is taking turns when speaking.

Skype still works, but other voice software is valid as well; things like TeamSpeak and Ventrilo. Skype is a good free choice, but there is a limit on how many folks you can conference with in the free version. TeamSpeak and Ventrilo possibly mean renting a server or creating one of your own, this may not be free and might add quite a bit to the internet bandwidth necessary. One other significant difference between them is that Skype broadcasts everything the microphone picks up, where TeamSpeak and Ventrilo allow you to configure push to talk buttons (it only broadcasts when that button is pressed). This is only significant if one of your players is in a noisy place. Lets say they recently had a baby and can't leave the house every Friday for the game, the crying baby taking up your voice channel might be a problem. Having the push to talk button prevents it from overwhelming the channel.

You've got your software picked out, now what? You've spent a good chunk of money buying dungeon tiles and painting miniatures, and they aren't compatible with the VTT. You'll have to find some images to use in their place. I talked briefly about how to edit images for use in VTT's in a previous post; regardless of which VTT you use that doesn't change, so I'm not going to repeat all of that. I will say that some VTT's have different requirements for where the images are though. For example OpenRPG requires that all images be accessible online while MapTool will be able to share them from one player's hard drive. You'll just need to be sure that the images are stored in a place where the VTT can make use of them.

For the maps and terrain you can scan in any dungeon tiles or printed maps that you use in your game. Alternatively you can get a program like Dundjinni to make them in. There's a number of other online options for map images, like RPG Map Share, that you can make use of as well. You just need to resize the images so that they correctly fit in the grid your VTT uses. Both OpenRPG and MapTool allow you to resize images to get them to match your grid, so you shouldn't need to adjust the image file to make it work.

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