Saturday, April 23, 2016

Started a new D&D campaign

So, on Thursday, I started a new D&D campaign, adapting the Curse of Strahd adventure I've reviewed previously. I've taken liberties with some of the elements (for instance, writing a new intro) to adapt to my personal style, as well as make things flow more smoothly. It's the first time in years that I've run a full adventure over a non-text based medium, for all that I talk about how excellent it is to play D&D over the internet. As a result, many of my skills are incredibly rusty, but hopefully I'll get back into the swing of things.

However, I'd like to take a moment to talk about some of the technical and logistics problems that I encountered while setting this up and running it, not to bemoan their existence, but rather to address possible fixes, as well as marvel at how we finally did get this together.

First, some background: I don't have a lot of friends that play D&D who have a lot of free time anymore. As I am a relatively old man by Youtube standards (and getting ever older), most of my old players have moved on, and I've had to pick new ones up. And thus I have long turned to online solutions to set games up. I've been running a long running series of campaigns over IRC with a fairly steady core of players, but unfortunately about half of them won't do video chat or even voice chat, despite the various advantages thereof. So for years I've been running games either wholly over IRC, or occasionally through forums. Neither is conducive for getting much done.

Forums, by their nature, take a long time to play over. Their main strength: allowing people of vastly different schedules to interact, is also their main weakness. I could estimate maybe  1 or 2 rounds of posts a day in the fastest of the forum games I've played in, and many times somewhat slower, which means that your average combat could take a week or so to finish. If you have any miscommunication, or if someone asks for clarification on something, then it can easily kill a day just passing information back and forth to sort things out. Furthermore, this slow pace means that you're likely to lose members, either through disinterest or life events that can pop up over the sometimes months that it takes to run even one minor adventure.

With IRC and similar chat programs, interaction is theoretically only limited by reading and typing speed, but in practice it is much slower. People tend to AFK or not pay attention to the screen as much as they would be in a face to face game. If they are a slower typist with a lot to say, it can take a few minutes to type in something that could've been stated in seconds verbally. Because everyone who thinks ahead can have access to logs, sometimes players will rely more on logs of the chat than notes, and thus whenever they need to refer to some sort of specific mention, they might be paging back through MBs of text files, rather than just a page or two of relevant information. Further, you still have to rely on some sort of virtual tabletop if you want to share maps. It makes for a sometimes awkwardly slow play session.

So when I decided to run a campaign over video chat, I was quite excited. Here was a chance to finally get some D&D over the internet without having to wait for a day between posts, or for someone to decide to come back to the keyboard after an unannounced absence. Unfortunately, scheduling reared its ugly head, and thus it took me over a year and some change to actually get a D&D group together.

I pulled a few players in from my IRC based D&D/Pathfinder group, those who were willing to at least try video chat. The other two I drew from another chat channel I mod in, and whom I knew had video capability from past experience. And thus we set a day and actually managed to get everyone to show up for a game. The first game is always a real accomplishment.

Unfortunately, one of our players was sick when the day finally came. An unexpected roadblock, to be sure, but he was a real trooper. He agreed to play regardless of being ill, but did ask about not using his webcam so as not to look terrible. I readily agreed, so long as the audio worked fine. It did, and thus we were down one player's smiling face from the very beginning.

Then two of our players ran into technical and logistics problems. They are signing on from the same residence, but their place is currently undergoing  remodeling, so they only had the one room to work from. Compounding this issue was the fact that one of them was on a laptop with no working webcam, so we were down another face. Fortunately the mic worked just fine. Unfortunately, the other player in the same room was using a built in mic rather than a headset mic or other directional mic. Thus, the problem of Echoing. It was horrible, Godawful really, but about halfway through the play session, we figured that we could just turn the mic off on one of them, and let the other broadcast both voices. With the lack of visual feedback, this meant that sometimes we kind of lost a voice, but it wasn't enough to present a real issue.

Just as we got started with play, the internet connection on the two sharing a mic and cam began to bomb. But by then we were ready to start, and I really, really didn't want to put the game off anymore. After a year plus of trying to get some sort of 5th edition game together, I was desperate. So we went ahead even with all the problems we were having. I was intending to get some overlays done, and drop the appropriate areas into it, but I didn't get them done in time, so everything you see in terms of overlay and graphics is done in post. And of course, the 'buzz' is back, because I ended up recording in OBS, which made for difficulties in cleaning up the audio.

Speaking of audio, the echo caused by the two players in the same room was only one issue. Roll20 tended to break up audio a lot when multiple people talk, and there doesn't appear to be anything that can be done to fix that, so in the future, we'll have to try to keep crosstalk to a minimum, or use another audio solution. The video seems just fine for now.

Also, because of my hectic week prior to this, I didn't get to refresh my memory with the actual Ravenloft content that I was likely to use, above and beyond the new intro I'd written. I hadn't initially expected to get to it, because I had grown so used to the pace that IRC and forum games run at that it didn't occur to me we'd actually get that far. I suppose that it's a testament both to how much faster the video/audio method is over plain text, as well as how focused our group was.

Of course, we have solutions incoming for almost all of the problems we encountered. First and foremost are things I can do on my end: better time management so that I can have time to prepare, taking my time with narrations to set a better mood, recording my own audio separately so I can clean the 'buzz'. The ill player should be up and running again next week in terms of a camera, and supposedly the player with no webcam now has one, and should be able to get it working.

For audio, I'm going to try to get one of those two players to get a headset, which should also cut down on their echo and crosstalk. Failing that, I'll have one of them mute their mic again, as I did in this particular session, which seemed to fix things. I'll also have my own audio recorded separately, and at the end of the day the only real problem (besides the variable mic qualities) will be the cut offs and dropouts during crosstalk. A few applications to use instead of's a/v service have been recommended to me, so I'll be trying those out in the future.

All in all, I'm rather pleased with how this session went. It'll be at least a week before I'll know the group's schedules to try to pick another day, but I'm optimistic that this will be a good, ongoing thing. And in the meantime, it's helping me identify problems and correct them, so perhaps I can run another campaign besides this one, if people are interested.

At the very least, it feels damn good to be in the DM's seat again. This feels so much closer to the tabletop setting than the IRC and forum games I've been relying on thus far.

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