A good friend of mine who lives in the UK and I had recently been discussing the feasibility of roleplaying online via video conferencing. Obviously it can be done, there’s ConstantCon for example that has been running pretty well as far as the session reports would indicate. But my real concern was over the quality of the sessions that could be achieved over video conferencing. Sure, they would never reach the heights of face-to-face roleplaying, but how close could they get?
Last night we played our second session of a weird fantasy session set in inhospitable jungles using Skype and I’m pleased to report that it works pretty well. Thoughts in more detail after the cut.
I’ll admit that this very much relies on the bandwidth of the host’s connection. We were using Skype which worked better when the host was in the UK. The second session, that I hosted, was done so via Australia, notorious for our poor bandwidth. Still, over the 3 hour session there were only a few occasions of video lag and screen freezes. These would be isolated to one player at a time, not to everyone.
This was greatly improved through the use of headphones. This avoided our speakers feeding back into the mics on the laptops and cutting off other players as we spoke (a kind of last spoken best heard technical issue). Obviously Skype recommends the use of headphones so this was entirely an issue of our own making.
While we implicitly trust one another, we all agreed that it would be better if we could see and partake in the highs and lows of one another’s dice results. A bit of digging around on the web and we found the very useful Online Dice Roller which allows you to create chat rooms where each participant can generate results for their character.
Play aids, character sheets, etc
Character sheets were distributed via email to the GM. Easy. As it was only an initial foray into video conference roleplaying, the GM decided not to distribute handouts. Clearly this could be done via the Skype file send function (sending players JPEGs or PDFs of handouts).
We do like to use music in our roleplaying. Currently we are working on a system for incorporating it into video conference games. We did try having the GM play the tracks in the background as he spoke, but this was either too faint or drowned out what he was saying.
The headphones solution (above) does allow players to each hear their own soundtracks over their laptops without disrupting the audio. We’re thinking a solution might be for the GM to determine a small number of suitable tracks (say 4-6) and send out the titles. Each player would then download them from iTunes and load up the music locally on their computers which we’d play as requested.
Overall I’d say that video conferencing-based roleplaying works pretty well. Not a match for the real thing, but much better than we anticipated and certainly the only way players in the UK, Japan and Australia can get a session in. That said I’d like to experiment with Google Video Chat (unlike Skype its free for video conferencing) and see if it has better fidelity than Skype. It might also provide a more useful way of integrating player handouts and the distribution of other materials.