Through the Aether

Today I’d like to take a few moments to review some online gaming utilities I’ve had the opportunity to take advantage of. Keep in mind that, whatever I might say below, any game is better than no game. So each of these tools provides a huge service to gamers whose friends are prohibitively far away.

ROLL20: This online virtual tabletop has been in continuous development for at least the last two years, which means that features are constantly being added and improved. At its core it provides a shared drawing space, video/voice/text chat, and a dice-rolling mechanic. These features are all sorely needed, and the fact that this app incorporates video chat is especially important. From a GM’s perspective, it requires a bit of forethought to lay out your maps and tokens before the game starts, so if you’re like me and tend to rush your prep in the twenty minutes before a session you’re probably going to have to address that before Roll20 becomes really useful. As a player, I found that the ‘hot mic’ nature of the app’s voice chat was distracting, especially when some of the players were in the same room as each other. For both sides, the lack of character record support meant at least some of our attention had to go elsewhere. On the whole I would recommend using Roll20, but I would also recommend that players and GMs alike take some time beforehand to familiarize themselves with its functions so they can get the most out of it.

Myth Weavers: This site is primarily a gaming forum for play-by-post RPGs, but I include it because it has an extensive library of character record sheets that you can use to keep your party up to date. The forums also have incorporated a great deal of functionality specific to RPGs, including a dice roller mechanic and macros to reference entries on your character sheet. The biggest downside of the site is actually fundamental to play-by-post games: Gameplay moves glacially slowly, especially if you’re the sort of GM/player who has to roll for everything. There are shortcuts to speed this up a little, but games still move much slower than they would in person. Still, if you’re willing to put up with the lag and downtime in your game and you’re certain you want to play by post, I strongly recommend Myth Weavers for its support of that play style.

Obsidian Portal: To be perfectly frank, I saved my favorite for last. With its recent “Reforged” redesign, this site lets you set up everything you need for campaign records. Each campaign has access to its own forum, a wiki for reference material, character pages (which can incorporate full character sheets if you want), maps, item records, a journal that any player can post to, and a calendar to schedule sessions. It does not, however, support actual play. There’s no tabletop, no chat, no hangout. And your characters are somewhat at the mercy of the contributors who have created character sheets for the site; if you don’t like their style, you’re stuck making your own or copying everything out by hand. Those are small hurdles though, and I still use Obsidian Portal for every campaign I’ve run and played in, both online and off.

I’ll leave you with one final recommendation: Keep it SIMPLE. I’ve recently had a GM who, hoping that familiarity with each tool would make life easier, ended up using four different utilities to run a session. He’s a good GM, and the session was still fun, but switching between screens was ultimately very distracting and I left feeling like I could have had more fun if we had simplified. Roll20 lets you do almost everything on one site. Do that! If it’s important that everyone (or even just the player and the GM) have access to a player’s sheet, there are many ways to do that, but consolidating functions as much as possible keeps your players’ attention in one place, which in the end benefits everyone and builds healthy gaming.

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