Last night I had the fortune to participate in a dndnext playtest held via the Internet. It was pretty keen, the game, and I’ll doubtless have things to report later to the People in Charge of these things, but right now, I don’t want to talk about the dungeons or dragons… I want to talk about the “Via the Internet” portion of the equation.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three different applications for gaming via video chat, you see…,, and the Google+-based Tabletop Forge. And that’s ignoring, say, talking via Skype and sharing information on a Google Docs page if necessary. We are high on options right now, which is good! We’re also going to see at least one of these three crash and burn, dwindle and die, or straight pull a Friendster and reimagine itself from the core up because the market may well be glutting itself. Can’t say which it will be, but I can talk about these services a bit and figure out which one I want to throw my weight behind. Starting with:

A few pre-review caveats: Roll20 is in one of those “open betas” that are so popular these days. Theoretically, it’s in a state of flux, and may change at any time. Practically, I’m of the mind that “open beta” is an abused term… if you are open and advertised, then your product should be polished and taken as-is. Take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

Second caveat: my group used the inherent Roll20 video interface powered by TokBox. This is an important caveat which I’ll get to in a moment.

Roll20’s biggest strength lies in its core embracing of the gaming power-imbalance: there is a GM, and there are players, and the GM has all the power, and the players have whatever she deigns to give them. It’s a traditional dynamic–indeed, right from the URL it’s clear that, whatever protestations of “system agnostic” there might be, we’re starting with a d20 system as a base.

This makes it a particularly powerful toolset to be a GM with; you’ve got the ability to manipulate everything, create and dispel fog of war, pass notes through the game interface to some or all of the players, whisper to some players, roll in secret or in public as you wish, and track and manipulate initiative order at will. In some ways it’s a more useful toolset than even in-person gaming, because you have a greater capacity to be secret, thanks to whispering in the chat box, and you can use the handouts to give players copies of notes and maps that you, in real life, might not want to shell out twenty bucks at Kinko’s to copy. Great for verisimilitude, great for control over your players.

But of course, therein lies the first and biggest rub: you as the GM are there to control your players. You CANNOT avoid it. If you’re inexperienced with GMing or if you haven’t familiarized yourself pretty well with the system, you’re going to be causing a lot of slowdown, especially because navigating the user interface is in many ways non-intuitive (a problem I’ll talk about in more detail down the line). Lots of problems can be remedied by preparation, and the game does a mighty fine job of letting you prepare “pages” with backgrounds, tokens, and important elements loaded in ready to use (think of them as sets that you either pre-build or build while playing, to re-use later), but there’s only so much you can do with that on short notice.

The other problem, of course, is that many games don’t have a GM/player power imbalance, at least not the sort that Dungeons and Dragons has. I can’t imagine Roll20 being useful for even something like FATE, which gives players a moderate amount of control over the world. Players can’t crate tokens, they can’t move most tokens, they can’t load maps or change pages or even score something up on the jukebox. Certainly, they could just tell the GM what they want her to do and let her import that into the world, but it feels troublesome to me… it doesn’t deny players their input, but it does put an additional step into the process, and I worry that it make make players disinclined to flex their narrative weight. There is one workaround: everyone has access to the drawing tools, and so everyone can add bits to a blank canvas; but that doesn’t mitigate the power disparity: the GM has lovely illustrated tokens and maps, and the players get to draw in with crayon. Keen.

Even if FATE isn’t your bag, and you really are after that old-school tabletop experience, there are other niggling concerns. The TokBox interface was nice enough, and I liked the ability to resize and rename myself, but it also didn’t work very well; there were 2-3 seconds of lag for most speakers, and the GM’s camera froze early in the game and never righted itself, a problem I’ve never seen on Hangouts or Skype. Might have been a singular event, but cursory research indicates that other folks have that problem: our next game will try it with the Hangout interface, and we’ll see if that’s a step up.

Beyond that, there are a number of UI issues which are a bit maddening; they don’t ruin the game, but they slow things way the heck down and, honestly, they feel a bit silly to me (speaking, I must admit, from my priviledged position as a user, not a programmer). Why do we need to visit the pages tab to change the settings of the current page?  Why can’t other players see the ruler? Why not have some built-in die rolling macros? Why not have an eraser with the drawing tools?  Why oh why does it not recognize that 1d20 and d20 are the same thing? Better yet, if I’m rolling in the text box, why do I have to type “/roll” first? That might make sense in a text-based conversation, where the GM must tell people what to roll, but not here… in terms of button presses, wouldn’t it be more efficient to always assume that math typed into the text chat is meant to be performed? A built-in calculator, unless the numbers are demarcated in some way? Why are there options to give a token an aura that’s round or square, but not hexagonal (despite there being a hex grid option)? Why is the ruler for square grid based off of 4E’s Pythagorean theorem-violating speedy-diagonal rules, and why doesn’t it snap to hexagonal grids, and why aren’t their more options for it on the whole?

Any one of those is a minor issue… a quibble, even. Even as a group, they aren’t dealbreakers, but they add up. Of course, this is a beta, there’s a big badge proclaiming as much on the front page, but still, the service feels, at the moment, a bit underdone. Maybe when I come back in a month or two, the rough edges will be filed down and everything will have a fresh lick of paint… but at the moment, it feels like a work in progress, which is turning me off as a potential user, when I have other options.  It’s frustrating, because what it gets right, it gets really right… I don’t want to undersell the importance of the GM/player dichotomy, because this handles it very well. And there are other touches that hint at an underlying brilliance, from the ease by which anyone can point and click to make a little indicative circle the other players can see, color-coded to each player, to the way highlighting a name on the initiative list also highlights its token, to the built-in jukebox, which I cannot undersell as a brilliant idea, and lets you play multiple sounds at once, setting volumes individually, so the “crowd” sound doesn’t overwhelm the battle music… there’s so much good here, peeking up from the surface, that I really want to come back in a few months and see what this could turn into.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite ideal… my attitude as a user should be “oh man, I want to use this product immediately, or within the week at least.” I might forget to come back in two months, I might be swayed by something else, I might join a cult and give up gaming. Anything’s possible.

Bottom line: needs polish, and even then it’s only suitable for a certain sort of game… whether that’s a positive or negative factor depends largely on how much you’re into that sort of game.




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