Behind the Screen – Chapter 8: Technological Intrusion

Just a short note here at the start; I only just realised my last article was my 150th article here on ATGN. Granted, that is over a significant period of time, but still, an achievement of sorts. Anyway, that’s my little hurrah! For now, I’ll get back to the point of the article.

 

687474703a2f2f70726f70726f66732d63646e2e73332e616d617a6f6e6177732e636f6d2f696d616765732f514d2f757365725f696d616765732f313732353638322f313531343735393136372e676966Technology and role playing, how well does that go together? I touched on this in a previous article, Tools of the Trade, but I didn’t go into much depth about it. In this article, I will explore the use of technological devices at the gaming table and how they can integrate into a successful game. Then I will move onto the rise of programs designed to allow people to role play with each other over the internet, for those who want to play a tabletop game in a traditional sense but can’t for whatever reason. If I have time, or feel inclined, I’ll throw a few paragraphs in about some certain computer games that allow an experience similar to that of a traditional role playing game.

 

When I am involved in role playing, I like a distraction-free environment, as I’m sure we all do in that situation. So when at the table (or whatever place we are sitting), I’ll impose a ban on most technology, like phones and tablets. There is little worse (to me) than asking a player what they want to do in a given situation, only to be answered with something like “Huh? Sorry, wasn’t listening” after I spent several minutes setting the scene, because they were too busy mucking about on Facebook. Distractions and going off topic are inevitable, but I do try to minimize them where I can.

However, there are times in which I will allow these devices at the table, when they actually add something to the game, rather than detract from it. A tablet can be used to replace almost everything a player uses when role playing. Some of the things a tablet can replace or add to a gaming experience are:

  • A tablet can take the place of a character sheet. There are editable PDFs for a lot of games these days, or you can make your own if you have the right program and know-how (I’ve looked into it, and while time consuming, it isn’t hard to make a basic one, the auto-calculating ones are beyond me though). There are also apps that can do the same thing in varying degrees.
  • As I’ve stated before, I love dice, I wish to have all the dice and I don’t know why someone would choose not to use dice given the opportunity, but some do. Some choose to use dice rolling programs. They have their place, I suppose, and are useful for people who don’t own any dice or if you don’t have a specific type of die.
  • With PDFs of role playing books becoming more prolific, people using these digital books are on the rise. Tablets are the obvious medium in which to view these, though laptops and phones work just as well (if not better). With role playing books being heavily illustrated, complex and often long and large, they are generally quite large in file size, and can sometimes take a long time to load, especially on less powerful devices (such as my tablet), so using books can be quicker.
  • With a sufficiently sized tablet and a stylus, one also has a scratch pad handy, good for note taking and small diagrams. Also, just a notepad app is a good option for recording random information that might be needed during the game.

But that’s just only as a player. A GM could have even more uses, such as supplying music, displaying maps or images to help the players understand what they see or looking up needed information.

Why not both?

Why not both?

 

As we can plainly see, technology and electronic devices can have a part at the table, but as long as they are used responsibly and not for distracting things like social media or games.

While I’ve focused mainly on tablets thus far, laptops are just as viable an option. But laptops come with their own set of problems. You are likely to need external power, as they chew through battery life significantly quicker, and take up a lot more space on the tabletop. They can also get in the way if there is a grid map on the centre of the table. I used a netbook for a while, one of those half size laptops that came out years ago. It was good because it was small, and so took up little space on the tabletop while providing all the normal functions of a laptop. Unfortunately, it died and since they don’t make ’em like that any more, I can’t replace it. You can get those tablets with the removable keyboards that are meant to be just as good as a laptop, but generally the cost of those is ridiculously high.

 

As time moves on, so our lives and situations change. I left at least two gaming groups behind me when I left New Zealand, and others have drifted away over the years due to various commitments and changes. For whatever reason, people may not be able to attend regular sessions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play at all.

Technology has improved a lot since then, and has enabled players to be able to communicate with each other over distance, and with a little extra chicanery, can even play games with each other. This can be achieved an a variety of different ways:

Video/voice chat – A simple affair, having an open connection where everyone can see and/or hear everyone else. The GM may have to do all the rolls for all the players, to keep things on the level. Even though we don’t like to think about it, we do sometimes play with those whose moral tenor may be less than our own. However, those with less than excellent internet will be at a great disadvantage, whether through choppy voice or video, delays or very low quality. The most known program for this is Skype, and while I dislike this program greatly for my own reasons, a lot of people like it. I’ve heard good things about the video conferencing available through Google+ Hangouts. I understand that Hangouts was a flop and is barely used, but pretty much everyone has a Google account, so free conferencing is a bonus.

Google+ Hangouts can support up to 25 people in a video conference, all for free.

Google+ Hangouts can support up to 25 people in a video conference, all for free.

Text based chat – Essentially the same as the previous entry, but obviously just using text. The benefit is text takes up significantly less bandwidth, so can work on slow connections, and not everyone has a microphone and/or camera, but everyone has text. The downside is so much is lost. The banter between players and GM, the out of character talk, the playing around, the voices, the laughter, essentially all social interaction cannot be passed through text like it can between people in the same room. A certain level can be passed through if the people involved are extremely verbose, but that will slow things down with long posts and read times. In opposite to the aforementioned live chat, I’ve seen role playing games done through forum posts or similar. Each person writes up their turn and posts it in order. This can work well (enough) for mainly story based role playing, something with little to no rules or random element (such as dice rolling).

Specifically designed programs – These are a fairly new addition to the line up, at least as dedicated platforms. The difference between these and previously mentioned programs are that these will have something to assist in playing the game, whether it be in the form of a dice roller, interactive maps, character sheets rules books or whatever.

Fantasy Grounds

Fantasy Grounds

An example of this is the program called Fantasy Grounds. From the videos I’ve seen on their website, it is a program that can cover essentially everything you would do on the table. It is officially licensed by several large games, including Dungeons & Dragons (3.5, 4E and 5E), Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Numeria and more. It offers a great range of features to everyone, and one person can be the GM, so has access to more things that the players wouldn’t see, as it is on the table top. All rolls, whether it be skill or combat or whatever else, can be done within the program. There is access to random tables for things like loot. From my point of view, there are two glaring problems. One, there is no in-built video or voice chat of any kind. That sort of defeats the purpose really. Role playing is meant to be a social activity, but this program effectively removes that component, unless you fire up more software. I think the social element is more important than the rules element, but I know not everyone thinks that way. The other problem is the price. Because of the official licences, a basic package will cost $40 US, with extra books costing anywhere from $5 to $50. You can get an ultimate package for a whopping $150 US. Alternately, you can subscribe, paying a monthly cost, $4 being the standard lot or $10 a month for the ultimate subscription. These subscriptions are not a payment plan for the outright versions, you only have access to the licences as long as you pay the monthly cost. And this is per person, meaning each person you want to play in your group will need to purchase their own version.

Roll20.net is a website that offers similar functions to the aforementioned Fantasy Grounds, but obviously isn’t a stand alone program. It offers community made character sheets for a variety of different games, a dice roller, visualiser (for maps and such), support for many different game systems (the site lists any version of D&D, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds and FATE, and will apparently work with boardgames too) and can support running the game through Google+ Hangouts, so you can take advantage of the video and voice chat. There are also iPad and Android complementary apps. The best thing about all this? It’s all absolutely free. What you miss out on is the rules. Where Fantasy Grounds has rules for a bunch of games, Roll20.net doesn’t, you will need to supply your own.

There are a slew of other programs that would fit into this category, but I don’t have the time to look into all of them. There are a few free ones (Fabletop, MapTool) but most you have to pay for these days (Battlegrounds: RPG Edition, EpicTable). If you really want to explore this style of role playing, some serious research would be in order before spending any money. There may be demos available, I know Fantasy Grounds offer one.

 

Traditional vs technological role playing is something for which opinion will probably swing heavily one way or the other, dependant on the person who is experiencing it. As I previously mentioned, I believe the social aspect of a role playing game is completely necessary, more than the rules, more than the story even (HERESY). You can play a game with little or no rules, and a rubbish story, but people will still enjoy themselves because they are with friends, experiencing something together. But that isn’t always possible, and with the internet, video/voice chat and a good group to play with, something like the traditional game can be achieved.

I just thought of something in favour of the technology method (such as video chat), and that is you don’t have to worry about THAT GUY who nicks all the drinks and snacks and never brings his own.

 

I want to hear from people who role play in a non-traditional sense. I’ve participated in role playing chat rooms and forum based RP over the years, and it all ended up badly for me, not being able to compare to the traditional games I was playing at the same time. So tell me your stories of how you role play in a non-traditional method, so we can all learn from it.

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