RPG Blog Carnival (March 2014): Online RPGs

This months RPG Blog Carnival topic is focused upon online gaming and having literally just finished playing in one such game (as part of the online convention Jackercon III) I felt it was a rather fitting time to discuss the topic. What I’m not quite sure of is where to start so instead I’d rather start with my conclusion:

Online gaming is great but it requires a significant shift in your expectations.

I’ve been running and playing in online games for 2-3 years using Skype and Google Plus Hangouts, initially so the face to face group I was a part of could keep playing after people (including myself) started moving away but later to play in games organised solely online. In just that short period I’ve seen the format improve dramatically. The biggest change has been the connections themselves which have improved substantially to the extent that multiple person video calls spread over the entire globe are not only feasible but are reliable. Second has been the actual gaming tools available, developing from simple chat clients to Roll20, a full virtual tabletop that integrates with G+ hangouts. While I rarely use battlemaps or counters for games the combination of a powerful dice roller and virtual white board provides most of the features I need and I’ve been able to successfully keep gaming with my old group despite us now being spread across the UK.

Online gaming is, however, more than just a way to keep in touch with friends. Through the Happyjacks Podcast community I’ve been able to join games involving people I’m unlikely to ever meet. It was through one of these games that I first got to experience Legend of the Five Rings, a system that now ranks amongst one of my favourites. That game, which is still ongoing, has included players from as far West as Alaska and as East as Turkey and kept me going during a period in which it was rare for me to play in traditional offline games. More recently the Happyjacks community has delved into organising the online convention Jackercon, the third of which is happening as I type.

While I’ve come to enjoy online gaming I’ve had to learn to significantly alter my expectations for a number of reasons. The first of these is that while connections have improved lag and dropouts continue to be an issue which has derailed a number of sessions. Secondly you need to learn to accommodate the fact that only a single person can talk at a time. When you’re in person the cues for when to talk are clearer and it’s possible for multiple people to talk at once, both within a single conversation and as separate ones. When you’ve got lag, small videos and are listening on headphones that just isn’t possible and dramatically impacts upon the game. The biggest issue I’ve observed is that it’s even easier for a single person to dominate the game and as a result GMs need to spend longer checking what each player thinks, going from one to another in order to ensure nobody is left out.

The final issue I’ve found isn’t actually a limitation of the technology but of perceptions. When it comes to online game players are far more likely to forget, flake out or just not pay attention. From a GMs perspective it can be infuriating and it often feels like you’re the only person interested in the game. This is an issue that I’ve encountered in offline games but the combination of the frequency it occurs with online games and fact that it leaves you just sat on your own in front of a computer makes it feel far worse when its an online game.

So to go back to the conclusion I started with online gaming is great, its improving rapidly and at this point has become a staple part of my gaming habit. Like anything it’s not perfect but without it the RPG community would feel, and probably be, much smaller than it does at present.

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