Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Whole Online Thing

Do I miss my online campaign?

I must confess, I thought the online campaign was a disaster.  I had two agendas in mind when I started the campaign first on this blog before carrying it on to the other.  The first was to demonstrate my technique as a dungeon master.  The second, to have fun.  I enjoy running games ... I thought I could enjoy it online.

Neither agenda came to fruition.  I do not think this was anyone's 'fault.'  I realized a few months into it that the necessary information could not be made available to the players to act upon primarily because of the limited nature of the back and forth.  With discussion between player and DM being limited to a few sentences exchanged in the period of a day or two, players were being forced to decide the actions of their characters almost entirely in the dark.  Players weren't comfortable with this, and as such either made extremely reluctant, conservative decisions, or tried to 'shake things up' by doing something flagrantly reckless.  It was the methodology of delivery - lack of my voice, lack of my ability to offer reassurance and the lack of easily asked and answered questions that drove the campaigns in the direction they took - or in no direction at all.

In person, people are much more willing to ask twenty questions to get detailed answers, but after three or four questions online people began to apologize for asking too many questions.  My reassurances that this was not a problem did not change the natural reluctance.  When the number of questions can be seen, their presence is noted and it has an inhibiting quality.

At points, the exchanges did become light and comfortable, but once the immediate situation changed, the momentum was lost.  I could not find a solution for sustaining it.

My campaigns are built largely on sustaining a set of sequences that lead to increased tension and frustration.  In my present campaign offline, the party found a burrow hole, which led to a containment chamber for a horrible monster, which turned out to be the pet of a group of humans, who were discovered to be a thieves' guild, who were not quite all killed but from whom clues were learned about something the party was looking for, which has initiated a grand chase across the European continent in an attempt to catch a ship in Hamburg before that ship leaves port.  How the ship figures into the whole matter is an utter mystery, but the party understands that if they don't want to lose the very indefinite thread of the object's acquisition, they MUST catch that ship.  This is how I build adventures.

I was able to do something similar with the death of Jan in the online campaign.  The party catches a coach, meets two people on the coach, gains odd clues about their behavior, are caught up in the events of a fire, which causes the party to be separated.  The sudden knowledge that one of the two strange travellers is a dangerous charlatan, and that the other might be a wanted assassin, leads to a frenzied chase across the country to try to catch the coach in time, ending in a roadside battle that unfortunately does not prevent the death of a trusted friend.  It worked quite well for awhile ... but after the death of the friend, there was no immediate place to take things.  Normally, I might have had time to keep the party interested as they developed other plans, ultimately instigating the two criminals back into their lives ... but overall, online, this would take far too long.  I never was able to keep things going otherwise to retain a positive dramatic track.

Online blogging is just too stale a format.  Players and DM can dismiss a responsibility to post too easily, and it is that dismissal that drags something simple into a dull, boring month-long process.  I don't feel that I was able to demonstrate my skills as a dramatic ringmaster to any degree that could be really understood by readers - or show how those skills, if emulated, could raise the quality of a reader's campaign.

Secondly, it just wasn't any fun.  I was forced to write lengthy descriptions of things that didn't matter, which offline would take a minute or two.  Online, it was ten minutes of careful writing, knowing that every word would be examined and re-examined.  Offline, it is possible to throw out a casual word and not have it taken as gospel.  Online, that's not possible.  I had to carefully write and rewrite so as to not say something that was going to prove incorrect later.  It was dull, difficult and annoying.  Though its something I might do for a novel, or any artwork I appreciated, it seemed like far to much effort for a casual description of an unimportant NPC's behavior.

When things got dull, I began to loathe these descriptions.  I knew they were the thing that was killing the pleasure for me.  With the long, drawn out description of the little keep that would need to be renovated - requiring the description to be intense - I just hit my personal wall.  After that, I didn't want to play any more.  I don't think I quite knew that was the reason ... but it was certainly the breaking point, as I can see the whole picture now.

So no, I don't miss the online campaign.  I haven't felt any strong need to initiate it again.  A couple of months ago I was in a marvelous room, however.  Let me explain it.

This was for my place of work.  The conference table was 8 feet deep and about 15 feet long, in a great oval.  On one side of the table were chairs, and on the other side, three wide-screen TVs.  Each TV featured people sitting at a similar table in different parts of the country.  The size of the TV meant that we were all lifesize, and were all effectively sitting at the table together.  And the whole time of the meeting, I could only think of how this would work for D&D.  I began calculating how much it would cost to build the room, how many rooms throughout Canada and the United States could be built and how much to charge per hour to let D&D players use it.

Because, I will tell you, there are four or five people I would love to play with, if it wasn't the damn hassle of them not living in the same city as me.

So far, I'm not impressed by skype.  Tiny monitors, can't see people's whole bodies, have to muck about with cheap mics and cameras ... not quite perfect, is it?

The future is not coming fast enough for me.


Anthony said...

I've played in an number of online games, either in emails or on a message board, and they are all thoroughly unsatisfying. I don't have too much to offer except that you shouldn't take your failings personally.

One game came close to working, but only for one reason. The DM wanted to play test a module he had written, so many of the motivational hangups were not present and all of the gory details and descriptions were hashed out ahead of time. Even so, the DM pushed the game forward at a break neck speed in order to stress test his dungeon, and the game was more like a choose your own adventure than a proper role playing experience.

Either way, I would say running a module would be one of the few instances where an online game's shortcomings are tolerable. But then again, it is rare for modules themselves to be tolerable...

Carl said...

Did you know that a group of researchers recently demonstrated a contact lens upon which they were able to display a letter?

Think about this for a minute. If these contacts get better, which they will, pretty soon I could appear to be sitting at your game table. How about that?

We will see this in our lifetime.

Skype. Yes, I am also not impressed with it, but it is enough for now. It facilitates a D&D game with remote players.

I think that at the very minimum, you could play D&D through a chat interface, but that would be time-consuming. Voice communication speeds things up a lot, and video improves the experience more. Multi-party video conferencing will be the standard soon (like chat clients are now) and when that happens, remote D&D will be much easier to run.

Anonymous said...

I used to follow your online campaign to get a sense of how you ran your game, but I think I got a better idea of your style by those 2 Youtube audio clips you posted. Did you ever consider voice chats for the online game, or was it not feasable with your players in other time zones?

Alexis said...

That seemed to be a comfort level thing all around, mike. We weren't well acquainted when we began playing. There is also a natural need to keep people on the net at arm's reach.

Ragnorakk said...

Yeah, that was rough. The pace of communication between you & us, and also between the players was terrifically frustrating for me. So far online RPGing has not done much for me. I did appreciate the effort you put forth Alexis, and also that by some of the other players, and did definitely enjoy it when it wasn't bogged down by the nature of the medium

Oddbit said...

I've actually got a reasonable amount of online gaming experience. It pretty much makes up of one third to one half. I've been in at least three times as many games online, many including friends I played with in real life, two consisting entirely of those companions. They fail for exactly those reasons. It's easy to ignore the commitment of posting, each post becomes slower and slower and shorter, combat becomes an agonizing crawl, the turnover rate in players becomes worse than the employees at a downtown McDonalds. For all the benefits that RPOL gives (it's actually a reasonable site) it still doesn't give the level of commitment and communication real life gives. I also played a game with a group of ex-marines over Yahoo Chat. A lovely group, but even the voice and text chat didn't quite provide the visual and carefully sorted information that a real life game gives. A real life game however offered some nice additional capabilities when augmented with yahoo chat.

The best online experience with Roleplaying I ever had was in the game Neverwinter Nights. Online servers run by a player managing DM tools allowed for real time communication, visual arrangement and clear statistic calculations and the like. However, setting up custom modules required a bit more skill than a regular pen and paper game. That and you have to know what you're setting up. It did however have a number of amazing modifications to make beautifully done persistent servers, custom races and rules alterations. Supposedly it's successor improved on some of its capabilities, however I hear there were some problematic technical issues that arose.

I stand by my interest in a projector for such things as DnD. If you can project it on the wall it could make them bigger, the issue would be then their own situation. After the next bout of heavy overtime I think I will consider getting one.

KenHR said...

Post-based online games are not my thing (I participated in your first blog game because I just really wanted to get a glance at how you run things). I have, however, run some successful games using online conferencing software. One of my old group worked for a company developing the software, so we had use of a pro-quality voice/webcam chat system with great whiteboard and text chat features.

It was great, but we all knew one another for years beforehand; internet was resorted to because we'd all gotten separated geographically over time. I'm not sure it would have been such a great experience without that comfort level.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm in the minority here. With rare exception I really enjoyed playing in the online game despite the limitations, right up until Alexis hit the wall.

Of course, I appreciated then and now what the workload was for you, Alexis.

The Rubberduck said...

I also play in online games every once in a while, mostly on above mentioned RPoL. And though most of them do prove unsatisfactory, I have been in a few that I liked really much, though they all ended sooner or later due to RL events. But the knowledge that it can work, and that it works beautifully when it does, makes me come back for more, despite the generally low rate of success.