Monday, 4 February 2013

Something Old, Something New...

As I've previously described, I'm starting up a new semi-regular game in a format I've never tried before: online play, using a virtual tabletop program called Roll20.

This is an exciting opportunity for me, because it allows me to gather together a group of players that I haven't gamed with in almost twenty years. Like most of us, they have been scattered across the country by the passage of time and the acquisition of careers and families. Some of them probably haven't been able to sit down for a regular gaming group in a long, long time.

Back in the day, I ran them through a Villains & Vigilantes campaign that they were hugely, fanatically dedicated to. (V&V used to be my go-to supers game all through high school and university, basically until the first edition of Mutants & Masterminds came along and surpassed it in every way.) We played it for years, on and off, and when the guys weren't playing, they were doing other creative things -- writing stories, creating artwork, even making action figures -- to keep the game in the forefront of their minds.

Remember that this was a long time ago, and although there probably wasn't a lot of deep roleplaying going on in this game (they were playing the standard character concept in V&V, which was "yourself - but with super powers!") it gave me a glimpse of what a gaming group with truly passionate, dedicated players looked like. Together, we followed the adventures of those characters from a convenience store robbery in small town Ontario to the far side of the galaxy.

This is my first time at bat using the Roll20 platform, and we've had some technical issues to manage as I learn the system and what it expects of GMs and players. Although the site does a good job of giving you a feel for game play with their instructional videos, sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to figure out how you're expected to set things up. I had initially planned to manage my bad guys on file cards, simply plugging whatever rolls I needed into the chat interface as we played - but it seems the system prefers that I work with fully-statted out bad guys inside the system. Once you figure that out, you can copy and alter existing pages to quickly bolster out your cast of bad guys, but I literally didn't figure it out until we were online doing some playtesting.

The audio/video chat feature on the site itself also seems to drop out unexpectedly, but it seems to function well alongside Google+ Hangouts, which can run in the background to manage audio chat. (The Google+ Hangouts also seems to have much less lag time than the Roll20 A/V chat.)

Note that although the site is glitchy sometimes, it's still in Beta testing and so far is free to use. I'm not complaining about it - far from it, this seems a huge boon to gamers everywhere - just telling you my experiences. Like early editions of tabletop games, it's got issues but lots of promise.

I was lucky enough to find a recommendation from someone who used the site to acquire a free tool called Token Tool which helps you easily produce virtual game tokens for use on the site. Useful, as the selection of Old West tokens on the site is limited. Now I have hundreds of gunfighters and banditos and buffalo hunters at my disposal with the touch of a button.

Of course, most of the virtual tabletop setup is designed to give you tools for tactical combat on your screen -- the better to explore your dungeons and battle your dragons, squire. I admit that this has little appeal for me, but I'm interested to see what else I can use it for in terms of presenting dramatic scenes. The first adventure I've produced for it is a straight-up Western bounty hunter game called Blood Money that has the players hunting down the members of a notorious gang of bank robbers. I've used a variety of scenes for the players to game through, including a title page which can also serve as a "transition" card, an overland map we can move the players through, and various close-up tactical maps focused around the various gang members. I hope that I've set it up in such a way that the players can approach the scenes with a variety of strategies and succeed. They could go in shooting, or sneak their way through, or try to coast through on charm.

The game system I'm using the first time out is Savage Worlds, which is reasonably crunchy but should feel relatively straightforward to the players - especially since Roll20 does most of the work for us. It works well enough, but I'm thinking that in future I'm going to use systems that only require rolls on the player side of things -- less work for me that way, and it gives me more time to concentrate on what the players are doing. ICONS (or some hack of same) seems a natural fit for a reunion of our long-ago superhero characters, when we get to that (it was agreed that would be a long-term project as we got more comfortable with the system). The next thing is supposed to be a Ghostbusters game powered by FATE CORE. Assuming we could sustain the massive size of it, we could use this medium to play through the massive Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign for Call of Cthulhu.

Questions I'm most interested in at this point are whether the electronic / virtual tabletop can be leveraged for playing deep, character-driven stories in the HTHD style, and how that might be achieved...

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