Running the Table on the Internet – An interview with The Online Dungeon Master
Lots of gamers are integrating technology into what used to be a pencil and paper hobby. Some choose to lament the proliferation of smart phones, tablets, and laptops migrating towards the gaming table, and some embrace it. With programs such as HeroLab, D&D Insider, the Pathfinder Resource Document, and mobile RPG apps, technology in tabletop RPGs is on the rise. Some are even playing traditional RPGs completely online. Having never tried it, I decided to consult the master: The Online Dungeon Master!
SG: Thanks so much for answering some questions about running a tabletop RPG online. You’ve got a great site that offers a lot of tutorials for MapTool users, as well as a really nice glossary of terms for people just getting in to the hobby. A lot of people have had success playing RPGs online through a number of different tools, though starting out can be a bit daunting. With that in mind:
What advice would you give to an aspiring digital DM who wants to start a game online, but doesn’t know where to begin?
ODM: Come to me for advice! I’d probably invite the DM to sit in on a session that I’m running, to give them a chance to see how an online game can work. I’d also suggest keeping it very simple at first; use a virtual tabletop like MapTool or Gametable or OpenRPG as just a shared battle map and dice roller, while keeping track of hit points and doing the attack math on paper. You can start automating that stuff in MapTool (or whatever program you decide to use) later. Keep it as close to the in-person experience as possible at first.
SG: What applications/services are absolutely essential?
ODM: A virtual tabletop program and an audio chat program. Personally I like MapTool for the former and Skype for the latter – they’re both free, and they’ve worked very well for me. There are other options, of course, and some, like the WotC Virtual Table, incorporate both the tabletop and the chat into a single program.
SG: Have you tried gaming in a Google+ hangout? Skype? If both, is one better than the other?
ODM: I’ve never used Google+ hangouts for gaming, though I’ve heard that other people have had success with it. I’ve used Skype for audio since day one for multiple campaigns and have never had any problems with it. If Skype were crapping out on me, I might consider Google+ hangouts, but I’ve heard good things about Ventrilo and Teamspeak, so I might try those first.
SG: Have you tried Wizards online game table? iTabletop?
ODM: I have tried the Wizards of the Coast Virtual Table when it was first in beta (and have written about it on my blog). I know it has advanced since the days when I tried it, and the ability to import your characters and monsters from the D&D Insider tools is really, really convenient. However, I understand that there’s still no image import capability for either maps or character tokens, which makes it pretty useless for me at the moment. I need to be able to use my own maps, and I want a wide selection of images for monsters and PCs. Assuming that changes in the future, I’ll try it again.
I’ve never used iTabletop, but I have used Gametable and OpenRPG.
SG: How do you deal with rolling dice online? Do you make any hidden DM rolls, or use an online roller for all to see?
ODM: I use MapTool’s built-in dice roller via macros. I’ve created a shared set of buttons that anyone can use to roll a d20 or whatever die they like and share the result with everyone in the chat window. I also have a parallel set of buttons that creates a roll whose result is only visible to the DM. Most of my dice rolling is within macros, though, such as for monster or PC attacks (each attack has its own button that rolls the attack and the damage).
When I first started building these macros for monsters, I made it so the output was only visible to the DM. I asked my players what they preferred, and they all preferred to see the results in the open. So, monster die rolls are all visible in my games. Monster hit point changes are not, however – the messages in my macros like “The goblin takes 12 damage and now has 10 hit points,” are visible only to me.
SG: Do players have to tell you where they want to move, or are they able to control their own characters during an encounter?
ODM: All players have control over their own characters. They move them around, click their own buttons for attacks and hit point changes, etc. I’ll occasionally drag their tokens around as well, such as if a monster pushes them or if I’m moving them to a new map, but typically the players do everything for their characters themselves.
SG: Does it take more time as a DM to prepare for a home game or an online game? Why?
ODM: For me, it’s the same either way – but that’s because I use MapTool to run my home games, too! When I first started DMing offline (I did online first), I decided that I could either buy a bunch of monster minis or I could buy a projector. I went with the projector. This way, I use MapTool to project the map onto the table, and the monsters are all represented by MapTool tokens. I own no monster minis, and it’s been a good decision for me.
On the rare occasions when I’ve prepped a game the traditional way (dry-erase mat, minis), it takes me less explicit prep time before the game because I’m not drawing the maps or building the monsters in advance as I do in MapTool, but more time at the table (both drawing the maps and rolling physical dice and doing math for the monsters). It’s a much better experience for me to do it with MapTool and the projector. Plus, it makes it easy for me to run the same game both online and in-person.
SG: What are the best sites to find potential online players for a game you want to run?
ODM: My own long-running MapTool game started on EN World (the original thread can still be found right here). I’ve gone back to that same well when I’ve needed to recruit new players for my game (though I’ve also had luck just using my own blog for that purpose). The EN World Gamers Seeking Gamers forum has people looking for online games quite frequently; that’s where I’d start. I personally haven’t used any other sites for this purpose so far.
SG: What is the best/worst experiences you’ve had running an online game?
ODM: The worst experience came in the very first session I ran for what became my long-running Friday night group. That thread on EN World led to me running a one-shot Living Forgotten Realms game for eight players, which I knew I didn’t want to keep doing (eight is too many for me). Five of the eight players became long-term folks in my game, but one guy was really annoying. He came across as a know-it-all with a tweaked-out character, and he basically played his girlfriend’s character for her. He made some really inappropriate comments during the session that frankly offended me (things like having his character try some sexually explicit things with a female NPC – not appropriate for a group you’ve just met). Fortunately, that was the first and LAST time I gamed with that particular person.
The best experience has come from my long-running group. We’ve been going for a year and a half now, with no signs of stopping. My players are just such awesome people, and I consider them friends. Three of them have been with the game since the very beginning, and no one has flaked out or anything like that. When I had some personal issues and had to take more than a month off from the game, they were terrifically understanding. All we’ve ever done together was play Dungeons and Dragons, but I still feel like I’ve made great friends.
SG: What is the future of online tabletop gaming? Promising developments?
ODM: That’s a good question. I know that different folks keep bringing out new virtual tabletop programs, and I demoed a few of them at GenCon 2011. Many of them are quite pretty and feature lots of bells and whistles. Honestly, I don’t personally need that, but I know that some folks love it.
I think that the WotC Virtual Table is the one that has the potential to be game changing. WotC has done a good job with Magic Online in creating pick-up games on demand. I think that’s a big part of what they want to accomplish with the Virtual Table; an opportunity to drop in for a game of D&D, even if it’s with strangers, whenever you have a few free hours. Now, I think that would create a very different type of RPG experience that a lot of players might not enjoy, but it has the potential to be a big deal.
SG: Any parting advice or tips you wish you knew when you first started gaming using online tools?
ODM: I wish I had known about MapTool first – it’s an amazing program! But my main advice is to keep in mind that, even if you’re using software to play, this is still a ROLE PLAYING game. You’ve got to role play online every bit as much as you would in-person. Talk in-character. Have monsters make decisions based on putting yourself in their shoes. Bring the world to life. It’s different over Skype, in that you lack eye contact and body language, but it’s worth doing.
SG: Thanks again for your time!
ODM: My pleasure!