It seems to be a given these days that whenever an RPG session is planned, at least one player can’t make it. It’s a bit of a pain at the best of times, but many groups seem to cope. Others have turned to using technology to allow other players to participate, no matter the distance. Video Conferencing (VC) is a powerful collaboration tool often used in academic or other collaborative environments. Running a VC RPG session can be a bit of a challenge but it doesn’t have to be, provided you make a few allowances. Although VoIP and other tools are also involved in many cases, we’ll stick with calling it VC RPG.
I did a degree in AV Technology back in the 90s. Technology has moved on and evolved significantly since! The ‘net was still largely unused at that time – most people had access through dial-up modems at the time. The speeds and technology available weren’t really up to spec. Until the broadband “revolution”, the technologies required were way too expensive.
Nowadays it’s a lot easier to run a VC RPG. All you need is a broadband connection, webcam, and microphone. You also need to consider whether you want to run it completely over a VC, or combine it with an actual “live” session with other players. When one or more players are remote it requires a little shift in the way a game runs.
Equipment you’ll need
Unless you can afford a device such as a Polycom HDX professional VC unit, you’ll need a webcam, microphone and computer. At work I’ve used the Logitech [amazon asin=B002CNKVES&text=Webcam Pro 9000] and[amazon asin=B003R1P8WY&text=Logitech C310]. The C310 is superior, as it uses auto-focus and actually doesn’t work too bad for the cheap cost – plus it is also High Definition (HD). The microphone quality will usually be pretty poor: if you are the only participant you might get away with it. I’ve also heard to that the X-Box Kinect can also be used although I can’t comment on how effective it is. You may not even need a video link, but it is recommended.
Where you might skimp on video quality, good audio is essential. If you are hosting a VC with multiple participants you should probably look at something like the [amazon asin=B000QCJ2EW&text=CM11b microphone] or [amazon asin=B004FLIT6C&text=Jabra Speak 410 USB]. These are pretty cheap and should pick up what the group is saying. If you’ve got some serious cash, the Duet Executive from OneVideo is a bit expensive but the audio quality is excellent.
Below are links to some of the equipment I’ve just mentioned.
[amazon asin=B000QCJ2EW&template=iframe image&chan=default] [amazon asin=B0039JSFD8&template=iframe image&chan=default] [amazon asin=B002CNKVES&template=iframe image&chan=default] [amazon asin=B003R1P8WY&template=iframe image&chan=default] [amazon asin=B004FLIT6C&template=iframe image&chan=default]
Running the VC RPG
At work, we use the JANET Access Grid software – this uses a piece of software called IOCOM VisiMeet. This works as a single collaboration tool that also allows multiple cameras, desktop sharing, etc. It’s likely that it’s too expensive for home users, but it might be worth considering if you got money to burn.
However, by far the best solution is Skype. It is designed for multiple participants and has a proven record. Microsoft’s acquisition and their recent faux pas with their WSUS update service, may tarnish that reputation somewhat though! The best tools for running the actual game itself is MapTools from rptools.net. It may need a bit of technical know-how (requiring ports opened on a firewall) and uses Java. It can be a powerful tool, and also allows scripting as well.
No matter what you’re using, the actual set-up can make all the difference. If you are the only participant it does not really matter. If there are others you may want to consider the following guidelines.
- Try and find a location that does not have sudden loud noises like doors slamming, sirens etc. These can drown out what people are saying. The human ear can filter out audio, most mikes can’t.
- Make sure that your players understand that they shouldn’t talk over each other, or carry on other conversations – microphones pick up everything.
- If you can, cover the gaming table with soft cloth (like a tablecloth). It will muffle the sounds of clattering dice and shuffling papers during a VC RPG.
- Run a VC RPG in a small room rather than a large hall. You can minimise echo with some soft furnishings like cushions or sofas. A carpeted room is better than a laminate or concrete floor.
- Place the microphone in a central location – closer to the GM than the players.
- Make sure that anyone remote from the session gets a chance to speak, and make sure the GM speaks clearly to the room during a VC RPG, not just a single player.
- Check that the audio is working and set it up before the VC RPG starts (both spoken and heard at both ends).
- Make sure that the camera covers the entire room and that all the group can be seen. This might need some furniture rearrangement!
- It is easier to understand people when they face you. Try and avoid people having their back to the camera.
- Point the camera away from light sources or windows. With most cameras, white balance will be affected by strong sources of light. It can a lead a “flare” effect and the group may appear to be in darkness.
- Make sure the room is well-lit. Remember: avoid pointing the camera directly at light sources.
- Ensure the auto-focus doesn’t continually reset – a lot of movement will set it off and readjust so again keep the camera pointed away from windows or areas with a lot of passing traffic or people.
- Make sure that any trailing cables are squared away for safety. It also stops the camera from tipping over.
- Check that the camera works and set it up before the VC RPG starts.
In summary: running a VC RPG for this first time isn’t easy. It will get easier though. If you give yourself enough setup time and invest in a bit of effort initially, a VC RPG will run well.