Virtual Tabletops, The Future, and Me

The first time I every played with a virtual table top was years ago, before there was a Google+ or Hangouts. Back in those days, VTTs, connected with real time texting, and a lot of emphasis was on making the interface pretty.

Not only did I feel disconnected, in a way that was just one step removed from a play by post on a forum, but there were too many bells and whistles for me. I also want to emphasize that is–for me. If I know something can do something, I want to be able to do that thing.

Not too far into the future, I started using Google+ as my primary means of communicating about roleplaying games. Not only was it a great place to find people to discuss games in a way that was far less contentious than RPG forums, all of those RPGs that I wanted to play that didn’t have local interest, had interested people online.

Eventually I got to run several really great sessions of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying online, which also allowed me to play with some friends that I had a harder time gaming with face to face. Eventually some tools were developed for Hangouts that allowed dice, dice results, numbers, and phrases to be displayed on the screen, which was all perfect for running Marvel Heroic. There were some tools tailored for RPGs, but only needed to add in what you were using, and what was used was very simple to implement.

Then, time moved on. Roll 20 became a huge thing with online gaming. This is a great thing for the gaming community. I’m not saying anything negative about the actual platform. There is a lot going on, but it also facilitates a lot of different RPG experiences.

But I’m right back where I started. I knew in the past that I had problems with VTTs and obsessing over options. I decided that I wanted to sit down and get comfortable with the platform. I did this for multiple reasons:

  • Increasingly it seems harder to find gamers that are interested in just a “plain” teleconference RPG experience
  • I don’t like to get too stagnant with anything, weather its learning new game systems or new ways to game
  • I want a wide range of venues available, in case I can’t find interest in the games that I want to try in a given venue
  • I like to game with a wide variety of new gamers–I have a stable Thursday night game, that I love, but I also want to push myself outside of my comfort zone
I spent two hours taking five pages of notes on Roll 20. Then I attempted to replicate what I would do to run my current Thursday night game in Roll 20. I had tons of issues that I didn’t think would be issues from either watching the tutorials or from my notes.
  • I kept having options selected that I couldn’t deselect, which locked out other options
  • I kept getting lost in what layer I was in, moving from GM, to map, to token level, and not being sure about how I got to that place
  • I had problems being able to select my maps once I uploaded them if I wanted to resize them
  • Apparently you can make your freehand drawings into tokens, but I couldn’t make it work
When I first ran into these problems, I was sure that I was terrible at using the interface, and that the problem was me. Then I realize, the problem was me, but it wasn’t with my proficiency with the interface. The problem is, I’m never fully comfortable running games. I know that sounds weird. I love doing it, I’ve done it for a long time, but to paraphrase Doctor Banner, my secret is, I’m never comfortable.
I could do most of what I saw in the tutorials, but if I couldn’t do all of it, or if I couldn’t do something smoothly, it frustrated me. Knowing that I’m always a little on edge when running a game, anything that isn’t going as expected in a game causes a huge cognitive drain on me. It reminded me of why I quit playing Pathfinder.
I have no problem with anyone enjoying Pathfinder. I want people playing games that they enjoy, and I would rather we all feel like we’re  part of one big hobby than breaking into tribes within the hobby. But the problem I started having is that when something I felt needed to happen in Pathfinder didn’t work right for me, the session got more stressful for me than enjoyable. What finally struck me was that the feeling I was getting from playing with Roll 20 was the same feeling I had when, for example, I would forget my miniatures or a battle mat for Pathfinder. Yes, I could borrow a mat from someone, or I could use the little glass beads I kept my my gaming kit to stand in for miniatures–but but it was something unexpected in a complex system, and that stressed me out.
Conceivably, I could get comfortable enough with the interface that it’s not pulling on my cognitive load, but I’m not sure how many stressful sessions I’d have to put myself through before I started to relax. I’m not saying my players would cause that stress, I just know what stresses me out and what I expect to be able to do.
I think online gaming may end up being the future of the hobby. I don’t know how far into the future that is. I do think that if we go that direction, there will be a lot more tailored means of providing that online experience. I just hope I don’t miss out on too much gaming before I can find an online venue that I’m comfortable with.
Also, thanks again, Google, for removing all that troublesome functionality from your Hangouts. 

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