30 December 2011

Field testing Google hangouts and Twiddla

I have just completed a two hour run through of the Tomb of Sigyfel with my ad hoc group of players. The module was well-suited for delivering both a discrete packet of hack'n'slash fun and for showing me what I need to do better as a DM.

The two players controlled a party of six. We used the linked-to google spreadsheet as character sheets. Initially I had intended this just for me, but it was expedient to share the doc with the whole group.  In the future, I will make the spreadsheet a little more organized.

I brought up a free twiddla session that served as our virtual tabletop.  I sketched out in rough schema a town (Little Flanders) that requested the help of our heroes to cleanse the evil Tomb. That bit of additional setup, I believe, worked well.  Also, I plan to use Little Flanders again.

I found some of the twiddla UI confusing.  It was easily enough to use grid-based drawing tools, but I couldn't switch to the free-form pen when I wanted to.  I would have also liked a "virtual laser pointer" to indicate where I was looking sometimes.

The google hangout video chat worked well enough with 4 sessions.  I didn't notice any significant lag.  So, good on Google.

If you are  keeping track, there are at least 3 windows open on each person's desktop: the chat window, the spreadsheet and the twiddla.  This is probably one too many for users with a single screen (I have a very large monitor, so it wasn't a problem).

I would dearly like to see google add basic whiteboarding to hangouts or even be able to share some google doc embedded in the chat frame.

Despite my AWESOME dice cam, we ended up using the dice rolling feature of twiddla for combat.  It was the most transparant.

So did these tools make pencil and paper RPG work over tele-presence?  I believe the answer is yes, but with a few caveats:

  • The DM has to be really, really organized
  • The sessions need to be short-ish (1-2 hours)
  • The DM must be sure to engage all the players regularly

To the first point, I wish I had the common saving throws and combat tables out in front of me at all times.  I begin to see the value in the DM screen (don't think Goblinoid Games sells them).  I clearly have forgotten some of the basic mechanics of the game, but I think I got the gist of it for the players who were rusty too.

Because teleconferences invite participants to nod off, the DM really needs to drive the agenda forward.  That is not the same as "railroading" the players, but it does mean that you don't want 15 minutes to go by without the players making a move.

Attention spans can be shorter in teleconferences than in real life.  Don't expect a 12 hour hangout to be productive.  Instead, shoot for about 2-3 hours (and plan on a little break in there).   Maybe it's just me, but even doing stuff I like with people I like over a tele-presence conduit really sucks the joy out of life.

However, keeping the session short-ish keeps the spirit of the thing well enough.  It helps that we finished the module in the allotted time.  If you can break up your adventure in "acts" that can be finished in 2-3 hours, you may have better success.

I really do enjoy the B/X D&D system.  This is the first pnp module I have completed since the 70s.  It's got just enough rules for me.  Any more and I might was well be programming.

A lot of Grognards will tell you that you don't need a lot of heavy scripting to build drama into your adventuring. Now, I see what they mean.  Combat, and the capriciousness of it, builds the drama quite nicely.

Player's map of the tomb at the end.

Update: Google hangouts with extras has whiteboarding and document sharing.  However, it is currently in beta.