Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Five Ways Roll20 Is a PITA

Roll20, and virtual tabletops in general, to me are the best thing ever to happen to tabletop gaming. It makes gaming more flexible and less dependent on time, location, and having to clean the house before everyone shows up (not that that stopped some people I've gamed with, but still). For people with busy schedules, who can carve out a couple hours a week after the kids go to bed (like myself), it's the only way we'll ever get to game.

But, there's some warts that I've uncovered using Roll20.

5. Really, I Work In IT

So far, nearly every session has run into some kind of technical error. Mostly on my side, which is sad because I'm a certified PC technician and a fucking MCSE. Finding developers who aren't great on the hardware side isn't hard, and from the network issues, sound issues, and random random crashes I've had you'd think I was one of them.

It's embarrassing for me, frustrating on all sides, and eats into play time. Last night I think we got about an hour of actual play in.

This was me after I was actually able to get everything working

4. Where Is That Setting Again? 

Beyond the purely technical issues, getting used to having an extra layer of abstraction to deal with makes things awkward at times. Have you ever covered up everything on your dining room table and wondered where all of the maps, tokens, miniatures, etc. went? I think probably not. Yet last night, we went through most of the session with the players seeing only a black screen instead of the pretty background I made and the custom cards that were being doled out. Turns out I had Fog of War enabled. Also, tying back to #5, some of my audio issues have had to do with my son - who uses the PC to play games and do his homework - changing the audio settings.


3. It's Not Me, It's You

Then there was the "Can you hear me? I can hear you" clusterfuck that turned out to possibly be something on the Roll20 end. Of course, that was after fighting through my own audio settings issues. Once those were resolved, my players could hear me, I could hear all of the Roll20 blips and bloops, but I couldn't hear my players' audio. I didn't know that the problem was on the Roll20 end - again, because I had worked through my own issues so I went upstairs to get my laptop - from a dark bedroom where my partner and her daughter, who was sleeping in there because she had been scared by something on TV earlier, were. That's pretty much like walking in a mine field, especially if your night vision is as bad as mine. After successfully avoiding waking a little girl in screaming terror, I set up the laptop only to have the same audio issue, which resolved itself a few minutes later.


2. If You Just Look Right Here

The issues with the background having Fog of War enabled highlighted one of the other minor disadvantages of a VTT. When you're running a meatspace game, you can flip the book around the show the players a picture, or a particular block of text, or hand out some kind of prop. In theory, you can do the same thing in a VTT - and it's one of the things I get really excited about because I'm able to exercise my journeyman level graphics skills. But it doesn't quite replace being able to dig out some props and pass them around.

Like hats. Especially jaunty hats. We did find party hats for Hangouts though....

1. It's All Just A Setup

Which gets us down to the number one thing: setup. There's a lot of setup that has to be done with Roll20. I guess you don't necessarily have to, but the ability to have all these cool widgets at your fingertips is kind of the point. You have to set up character journals, templates, have some graphics on hand, get familiar with the tools, all kinds of things. There's figuring out how to handle all of the options for the tokens and how to leverage the built-in capabilities like macros. There's the API, which I don't have to use, but I'm paying for the service now so I want to. No sooner did I get the character Abilities and Attributes set up, and Roll20 implements character sheets. Which are such a crazy obvious thing to have, so damn if I don't want to use them too. They only require some HTML/CSS hacking to get a customized one set up, so that meant that I needed to find a nice, free HTML editor. Another tool to learn. They also require rethinking the way the Abilities and Attributes were set up in the first place, which means more setup. None of these things take a lot of brain power with tabletop games, at least not the way I run them.

Props to one of the IT guys at my work for that quote

A lot of it comes with the territory - it's a tool, and in order to use it there's a learning curve. But like many technological tools, it's dependent on even more technological tools to use effectively. Luckily I'm a stick-with-it kind of guy, and I recognize that with only four sessions or so under my belt that it's going to be rough. Even luckier, my players seem to be pretty understanding (and forgiving), so once we get the rough spots ironed out I anticipate it to be an enjoyable experience.

I also feel like I should amend this to note that some of the things I mention are inherent to online playing period, and not just Roll20. It just so happens that Roll20 is my platform of choice because so far it's worked out better than the others that I have tried. Online roleplaying has been around for a long time and a lot of these issues are part and parcel of the experience over the exact tool being used.