Having recently moved most of the way across the US, I am looking for effective ways to continue to game with roleplayers from my previous home. What tools (Skype, mapping applications, etc.) and strategies (techincal: sound, lighting, etc. or game-oriented: rule changes, etc.) have players found helped to ease the strangeness of playing without everyone being at the same table?
All too often overlooked is Google Docs. It's free, instantly accessible without downloading or registration, and it includes multiple platforms for live collaboration between up to 50 people at a time.
- Google Documents work essentially like cloud-hosted Word documents, and are perfect for character sheets, campaign logs, handout-type information, and wiki-like implementations (they can, of course, contain links to other Google Documents and off-site resources).
- Google Spreadsheets are useful for keeping large amounts of similar information available at a glance (PC statistics in particular), and cover most of the commonly-used calculation features of Excel. These could certainly be used as collaboration-friendly character generation aids in point-buy systems, or for figuring out combat bonuses and such on the fly.
- Google Presentations are, naturally, a PowerPoint-like tool, but I haven't given them much of a look, yet. I can imagine using them for graphical handout-type materials, and possibly campaign pitches.
- Google Drawings can be used whiteboard-style to sketch out and move tokens on simple maps, or to share imported images. Of the various Google Docs features, Drawings are probably the tool with the most potential for long-distance gaming. There's a tremendous amount of flexibility here, and its ease of use beats any purpose-built virtual tabletop I've tried.
If you're going to play D&D or another game that might need a battlemat, I've found MapTool to be superb. It works anywhere you have Java, and lets you script stuff for easier calculations.
Others have already pointed out exactly how useful MapTools can be to a gaming group who is nonlocal; I myself used it in the course of running a 3:16 game online and had a great time.
The real key to running something online and having it be effective is the use of voice. While you can use chat rooms and that sort of solution to run games, having experienced both modes of play I absolutely have to support the idea that voice makes things much more powerful. If you just want to run things vocally with some of your friends, the best tool available has to be Skype, no question. It's easy, it's fast, the sound quality is fantastic, and installation is trivial. As an alternative, if you think that you might want to record your sessions -- say as part of an Actual Play podcast or promotion -- you might consider the use of TalkShoe, which is a call-in online podcast/broadcasting service, like Skype is absolutely free, and provides free hosting for the resulting recordings. Your group will probably need to install X-lite or SJphone (both of which are free and provide excellent audio quality), but you get the great advantage of the recording being available for anyone that you want to hear it.
Low complexity characters, Google+, and shared/automated bookkeeping
Due to my functional exile while waiting for my thesis results, I've found myself doing quite a lot of remote, live, gaming. The easy answer is technological: any of the remote telecom tools work quite well, though it's important to decide on voice or video.
I use video (google+) when: there's a physical battlemap I have to see as a player or there is a group I'm playing with (we did Apocalypse World over + hangouts over in the back room). I'll use hangouts with extras if we need a shared notes environment.
I use audio when the group is using an online battlemap (RPG-Bones on wave is my preferred application) or when I'll just be referring to a document all the time anyways (Murderous Ghosts playtest).
It's important to understand how the different positions of the remote player inform the different technologies needed. A laptop at the game table, I've found, serves as a fantastic telepresence object such that the physical group really can include the character as one of them. The acoustics of the targeted room are a problem, but that can be solved with buying a new microphone if necessary.
The most important thing I've found, as a player, is the need for low-complexity characters when playing in a telepresence game and, to a degree, when playing in an online game.
I'm in an epic level D&D game via telepresence and performing quite adequately. However, I designed my character with this requirement in mind: he has no fiddly positioning requirements and is mostly agnostic to targeting concerns. For specific questions, I'll message one of the characters who is waiting for their turn and ask them to count ranges for me. What is not possible is easy designation of specific squares on the battlemap, and so the many powers that require descriptors beyond "I hit X enemies" are not appropriate for telepresence. It also helps that the character has 2 things he does well (divine challenge and hand of radiance) to minimize the difficulties in tracking the situation. Telepresence adds an additional cognitive cost because the audio quality is not in person and it's difficult to get alternative views of the battlemap.
I've played Crucible of the gods as an online game, voice only, and it seemed to work quite acceptably well with arbitrary complexity characters. This requires more research, but the shared battlemap of RPG-Bones on wave takes care of most of the fiddly targetting problems expressed in the earlier paragraph. It is not appropriate, however, as a telepresence option save as a backup battlemap that the player keeps updated to reflect their understanding of the combat.
I've played many games of Apocalypse World online, voice and video, and it worked wonderfully well. As a narrative low-complexity game, the online venue fits it quite acceptably well. Video capabilities provide non-verbal cues and there was really little difficulty with the tools.
When I've played the Murderous Ghosts playtest, I've found that the dominant window on my screen is the playbook. In that case, there's no point in having video (as it won't be watched) and it is important to differentiate these cases from where the non-verbal cues of video are more important.
All character sheets for pure-online games should be available on google documents, dropbox, or game specific tools whenever possible. The reduced cognitive tracking load of used powers and hitpoints as provided by iplay4e is incredibly handy when trying to be present in a remote location and track everything that's going on through a pair of headphones. Docs are useful for pure online games, (as is iplay4e for 4e), and allow players to share information without too much trouble.
All in all, the key aspect of all online games is a reduced complexity due to the increase friction of the online environment. I've quite happily use + hangouts, skype, and google talk for gaming, as well as the various game tooles (iplay4e, docs, dropbox) to manage information.
My group has been playing with a mixture of tabletop meeting and online players for more than 3 years. The group at the table uses an omni-directional microphone over Skype. There is grousing every so often about dropped calls, but it gets the job done.
For battles, we use Gametable. There is a newer version on sourceforge, but the one that's linked from this page seems to work best; the latest sourceforge version has some strange issues
I know a number of people who use G+ Hangouts as a platform for regular long Distance RPG sessions and feedback has been that it works very well, again no additional software downloads required.
That supported by Google Docs and perhaps something like twiddla.com (which also includes a dice roller) for quick shared sketches/layouts etc. and you've got most of the tools you need.
I'm starting a session myself soon with that setup, I'll update this answer once I've tried it.
Update: (Thanks for the reminder Rob!)
This worked pretty well.. specifically what I ended up using was TableTop forge (now defunct and merged into Roll20.Net)
Its pretty useful, and with a little prep lets you share maps even have player tokens - send messages in character and show props on a shared tabletop.
Everyones got to have a decent connection though.. we struggled to have folks connected consistantly without lag.
I usually play over IRC. If voice, such as Skype, isn't a practical option for you then IRC can be a nice alternative. I've found it to be simple, reliable, and to be extremely compatible with slower internet connections. You'll need an IRC client, a list of which can be found on the wikipedia page linked above. You'll also need to connect to an IRC Server.
I usually use the Magicstar IRC Network. It has a built in chat application if for some reason you don't wish to use a separate IRC client. If you happen to use Firefox as your web browser of choice, Chatzilla is a fine IRC client add-on. Most IRC servers I've encountered have various commands you can use to "roll dice" and other useful functionality.
Everything goes slower over IRC because of having to type all your communciation. So voice definitely has a speed advantage. Depending on number of players, complexity of mechanics, and so on, I'd say you generally only get 2/3 to 1/2 as much play during an IRC session as opposed to face to face play.
I've just finished running a campaign that had two players connecting via a Skype connection and we used Google wave, emails and IM to send information.
Maps were normally 'sent' by holding them up to the webcam and the remote players took a screen grab. We then kept the working map close to the webcam and moved chessmen to show where people were so both sides could keep track of where things were. It wasn't a very combat heavy campaign and I used more verbal descriptions to keep people aware of what was going on.
The biggest challenge for me as the GM with Skype players was making sure that people weren't talking over each other as, especially with the lag, this means nobody can hear what's going on.
Skrbl is essentially an online whiteboard, which allows you to share maps and such more simply than holding a drawing up to your webcam.
I've used skype plus a shared dice roller.
Skype allows up to four line voice chat, plus single shared video (screen or webcam), and simultaneous text chat and/or file transfer.
http://www.catchyourhare.com/diceroller/ is an online dice-rolling solution that allows several players to have distinct colored dice, rolled and then they can be sorted. It allows colored dice, and multiple sets of dice at one time. All logged in using the same code see the same dice. Supports d4/d6/d8/d10/d12/d20/dF. Dice can be manually moved about the screen area.
I am in a similar situation, and have found Skype to be sufficient especially with GoogleWave which apparently is going bye bye soon. RPTools (http://rptools.net/) has lots of great tools including MapTool that Clinton mentioned ealier. My friends and I have had some trouble setting it up, but others have had great success. Hope your long-distance playing goes well.
I am a Skype and Maptool user and fan.
Skype for Windows will support up to 25 on a conference call but I have only personal experience with up to 7.
One of our friends plays from the other side of the Atlantic and he has no trouble with Skype or MapTool.
My group is all over the place, so we're entirely virtual. We use Google Docs for all our drawing, Skype or TeamSpeak for our audio, and NetDice (which I made) for our rolling and text chat (usually for whispering to the GM). NetDice is good for keeping everyone honest (all rolls are done server-side), and you can save roll widgets, which I found really helped speed up combat.
Although my party haven't tried to play from different physical locations, we use a board forum to keep track of events, and for a bit of roleplaying with characters who couldn't come to some sessions.
Don't know about skype and mapping, but tried long ago with someones made in python and didn't like the experience...
Everybody else has already mentioned Skype, but we find the instant messaging side of it at least as useful as the voice side. We tend to use the IM side for dice roll results etc so we don't have half a dozen people all shouting numbers at the GM. The GM can also open side-chats on the IM side with individual players for when they discover things/things happen to them that the rest of the party isn't aware of.
We also use DropBox for distributing information, this works for us much better than sending files over Skype. We have one shared folder that we all use, the GM can put information, character sheets etc in there before/after the game, and put info/pictures in there during the game as they are discovered.
One thing I do even for local games is have the players create a free account on myth-weavers.com (a play by post site) I then have them create their characters in their "Sheets" sections. Their characters get stored there and can be made public and then just share the link to the page with the gm or other players that may need to see it.
In remote sessions like the OP is doing, this makes sharing character sheets in a standard format easy. In local sessions forgetting your character sheet becomes a trivial thing as you can just log in and print out a fresh copy. Players just have to remember to update their online copy between sessions with loot, xp and the like. Many of the calculations on the sheet are done for you automatically and supports quite a few different games/editions
Another thing myth weavers can be used for is a place to roll the dice in a manner that will make cheating obvious. You could create a private game there to complement your real game and make rolls in the thread. Any changes to the order of rolls, or removal of rolls imprints a large "DICE HAVE BEEN CHANGED OR REMOVED" warning to the post.