Friday, June 13, 2014

Rambling: Roleplaying in the Digital Age

Image from "Full Metal Panic"
Over the last couple of years I've been playing - on and off - in a couple of different "old school" RPGs ran over the internet, using alternatively Skype or Google Hangouts. And as one wound to a hiatus late last year, I put my hand up to try running one myself, because I like running games, and had a game background from many years back I wanted to go back to and thought would suit. After nearly a year of sessions (fortnightly in theory, less so in practice) I had to pull the plug on this week for a number of reasons, most of which were just running out of time to write the damn thing week-to-week. But it was a very different experience from normal tabletop roleplaying, so I thought it would be worth sharing some thoughts on it.

First off the game itself was called "Gun Metal Knights" and was conceived as a high-tempo action game modelled after Japanese Mecha-anime. I ran it several years back as a table-top game, set in Tokyo, and it worked pretty well. One of the biggest problems I had with it was systems; over three campaigns it had three different systems and this new version - set in Europe, around the Large Hadron Collider - was migrating over the FATE, which seemed ideal. As an action game, combat would play a large part so I needed to stat everything up, mechs and all, part of a heavy workload that would eventually bite me on the backside. If anyone is really, really interested, the wiki for the game can be found here. I really need to find an easy way to archive it.

But really we're interested in the "Online experience" and here I learned a few things that make it different from playing around someones kitchen table:

  • The player dynamic is very different and it affects how sessions flow. Normally, if you're focussed on one character, there is a sense that other players can amuse themselves for a bit; usually chatting (in or out of character) in the background. In a lot of games, this is where players find characters, plan on the side, or just consult on rules and so on, but online everyone is talking into the same channel and thisn't possible. It can potentially lead to players being sidelined for a while, especially what is going on "front of house" isn't terribly interesting to them. One solution would be to have a much more fluid relationship between players and NPCs, letting them stand for some scenes, an idea that probably reaches its peak in GM-free games like Fiasco. 
  • Similarly, its harder to get a feel of how the game is running. As you might expect from someone who blogs and podcasts and writes, I'm the usual mix of wanting to be heard and deep-seated insecurity, and I've always tried to adapt games to the cues I get from my players, often changing directions to follow up where the traction is. Over a Hangout all you're seeing is the head and shoulders, and there is not way to tell if that intent look on someones face is them concentrating on the game or catching up on their porn collection. It makes it hard to judge engagement (other than people coming back) and which elements are working and which aren't. 
  • Action is harder. Or at least, your tools for description are fewer. I've always been one to pull out  a bit of paper and scribble locations on it, but it wasn't till later in the games fun that we started to use a couple of the online tools like Twiddla that work as an online whiteboard. Seriously, this was awesome. 
  • Technical Problems can abound! We had this a few times, as mics, cameras, computers and internet connections all let players down. Its frustrating and kills mood and pace when it happens. I'm not sure there is a solution, but if you're every trying this, be warned! 
  • Not all games will fit the environment. I'm still undecided as to whether GMK struggled with the online format or not. It certainly struggled with the loss of pace from missed sessions and a fortnightly schedule, but I think you do need a game that keeps players together and on the same dramatic page. Conspiracy games, or games that split the party up a lot, are likely to struggle in my opinion. 
  • Convenience and Timekeeping. Actually a real positive. You don't have travel time to factor in and you don't have to worry that people are itching to go because they have a long drive back. We had a player drop into a session whilst on holiday, which was awesome.
  • Digital Resources:  I've already mentioned the wiki, which is a great way of organizing information for players and keeping track of stats for everyone to see. We also used shared spreadsheets, the Whiteboard app, and the ability just to link out to rules, pages and images is brilliant, and as everyone is in front of a computer, instantly available to everyone. 
That list may look more negative than positive, but the point isn't that its an inferior experience, more that it comes with its own challenges. If (when!) I run online again I suspect the game setup will be different to take a lot of this in account, and ultimately, like any game, it's the players that make the experience worthwhile not the place you play the game in or even what the game itself actually is. I had a great time running GMK, and regret not being able to finish it, but sometime Real Life (tm) just gets in the way.