I have really been swamped lately and not by the things I should be swamped with like work, career development, and family (although the lack of sleep is beginning to cause brain damage me thinks) but by prepping for a new campaign in a new system. I pulled the chute on my Revenge of the Giants game and am gearing up to run the Kingmaker adventure path for the Pathfinder rpg. For those of you keeping score at home we have DM’ing my 4th edition home game, DM’ing Pathfinder bi-weekly over skype, and playing in a bi-weekly 4th edition Dark Sun game over skype. So you know…not nearly enough gaming but you gotta take what you can get I guess. I know what you’re thinking, why the hell are you running both the D&D’s at the same time? The answer: pure masochism.
With the demise of my Revenge of the Giants game I thought I might give a brief review of my experience with Wizards of the Coast’s virtual tabletop (VTT). Keep in mind that the VTT is still in beta and my thoughts are filtered through that lens and not what the end product will likely be. Overall, I really like what I see in the VTT despite its beta limitations and the fact that some of those limitations pushed me to drop my campaign. What I found awesome about the VTT is the built in community and the ability to play “pick-up” D&D at the drop of a hat. On more than one occasion after the kids where in bed and mustering enough energy to do more than mindlessly watch images flicker across the TV screen, I was able to jump on and play in a one-shot or delve.
The way the VTT is set up now allows for a pretty flawless sync with the character builder and monster builder, as the files are translated into mini-character sheets and stat blocks on the right side of the screen complete with integrated macros. When I run on maptools I tend to be a little more old school in that while my players have macros for their characters I handle monsters, initiative, and damage manually with dice, pen and paper. I find that, for me, this is quicker than using a framework and having to point and click the shit out of everything.
The biggest drawbacks of the VTT at this time center on the voice chat and mapping capabilities. I don’t know what the deal is with the voice chat but it is definitely not like using skype. There is often a lot of interference, static, and weird sounds ringing through your headset. So much so that in all the games I have played in you have to set your microphone to off and have it linked to a key to open, almost like an intercom system. This makes for a bit of an unsettling experience, as it is sort of like playing D&D in an airlock. You have complete silence punctuated by crackling and overly loud or quiet voices popping in an out. I found that this contributed to a lot less role-playing (in the case of the giants game pretty much none) and little chatter and bullshitting. I found that this made the interaction a little awkward and stunted, so hopefully they will clean this up a bit before the official release.
Overall, I liked the mapping function as it reminded me of pymapper. The only issue for me was the relative dearth of tiles to use in creating maps. I ended up having to use the drawing mechanic to make a lot of the maps for my game, which is never a good thing as I have a hard enough time drawing a straight line with a ruler let alone using a computer. It also added significantly to my prep time. At this point there is no function that would allow you to just upload a map like in maptools. This for sure is due to the VTT being in beta and will likely change in the future, hopefully with access to the entire dungeon tile sets or even being able to upload maps from existing modules (edit-I just checked back and they have added more tiles, it looks like most of the tiles from the 3 master dungeon tile sets).
I can really see the potential in the VTT but I am left wondering how they will integrate this with their other digital offerings in terms of pricing and access. For example will this just be a part of the regular DDI subscription or will it cost extra? It would be hard for me to find a reason to pay extra for the VTT, particularly when there are excellent free alternatives available. I can also see them going for a micro-transaction system where access to the VTT comes with your subscription but you have to pay to unlock certain features and contents like modules or map packs. I think I am going to stick with running my games off of maptools for now until the beta shakes out a little more. I find that using skype allows for more contact with the people I am playing with out of session which in turn fosters familiarity and camaraderie that makes for a more consistent and entertaining game.