Play By Webcam

I recently began running my current campaign by webcam. In looking online, it was difficult to find many resources related to tabletop gaming via webcam, so I figured I would post my experiences with it for individuals who may be looking for the same. Hopefully this helps those who may come across it.

For the past year or so, my gaming groups have fortunately been within easy driving distance of one another. On nights we played my Shadowrun campaign, all the players simply drove over or took public transportation to my house for game. We could all sit around the same table and play in the traditional way RPG groups do.

A few months ago, however, I was offered a new job and moved a little over two hours south. Making the four-hour round trip up every weekend we wanted to play quickly ceased to be an option. In order to let me continue running my campaign as frequently as I liked as well as join my other groups as a player, we experimented with and invested in playing by webcam.

Currently, we are setup using Skype to video chat. I have a webcam (specifically a Logitech HD Webcam C510) setup on my desktop computer in my home office. My former roommate (we still use the same house we played in before I left) sets up his laptop at the end of the table with a webcam positioned above and behind it enough to give me a decent view of the entire table.

We chose to use Skype for several reasons. Most notably, it is free to make video call between users. Additionally, Skype allows me to switch between video from my webcam and displaying my desktop. This gives me the ability to display pictures for NPC’s, maps, items, etc. during the game.

It is worth noting that certain elements of our play style do lend themselves to play by webcam. One major point is that our groups currently do not use miniatures or battle maps. Combat is generally kept fairly loose and abstract with players choosing targets and the GM generally keeping straight approximately where people are on the battle field.

Additionally, our group is fairly content to sit still at a table throughout game play without getting up and walking around or acting out while they roleplay. On the whole, our play style is fairly laid back with not much emphasis on details and accommodating to the occasional slow bits or breaks for off topic conversation.

In the case of our current Shadowrun campaign, I have printed paper logs that I distribute at the end of a mission for the players to mark down the results of the mission. Often, I may also have other print outs I wish to give the players a hard copy of such as a letter or news paper page of some event or data they pick up along the way.

Since I am not there to hold onto the papers, I send them to my roommate who prints them out prior to game and then hands them out at the appropriate time. He could easily look at the logs or other items and get an idea of where the mission is headed and what to expect before we play, but this comes down to an issue of trust. I trust that he will print the documents, set them aside and only look at them when I call for them in-game.

Finally, cheating is a non-issues with our group. I trust my players (and in games where I am a player, the GM trusts me) to be honest with our rolls. Certainly, if the group wanted to, they could fudge dice rolls with little chance of being caught which may be an issue with some groups. For those groups there are online dice rolling programs the GM could use to publicly show die rolls for both sides. In my case, I trust my players not to and our game is of a casual enough nature that it wouldn’t break things even if they did.

While playing by webcam will never beat sitting at the table with a group of friends; it does offer a compelling alternative to not playing at all. Being able to see as well as hear all of the players at the table is far more immersive and easier to swallow than trying to play by text or voice chat only.

There are technical limitations and hurdles that had to be surmounted as well. Fortunately, I’m fairly tech savvy and my roommate is an IT Professional. Obviously, two computers with webcams and solid internet speeds were required. In my case, a standard desktop computer and webcam suffice nicely. On the other hand, a laptop connected to a solid wireless network make setup and repositioning of the camera easy.

Most webcams are built to support a single individual sitting less than a few feet away in average room lighting conditions. Such a webcam works just fine for my end of the setup, however, it breaks down somewhat on the group’s end, loosing much of the detail and exacerbating issues caused by poor lighting. As a longterm solution, I may look into purchasing a quality conference webcam such as a Logitech QuickCam Orbit or similar entry level device used for small bussiness video calls.

For sound, my regular devices again suffice. Headphones for audio would work just fine for those who may have others in the home they don’t wish to disturb, though I use my computer speakers to allow myself mobility if I need to move to a shelf to grab a game book. I also use a standard gaming quality directional mic to transmit. Since Skype compresses the audio on the way out anyway, there is no reason to invest in a high fidelity audio solution unless that’s something you already have on hand for other purposes.

On the group’s end, they have plugged in a small set of speakers into the laptop  to get the volume loud and clear enough for everyone at the table to hear. Audio has proved finicky as you have to use an omnidirectional mic to pick up everyone at the table at once. That also means you pick up any background noise (someone opening a cupboard or the fridge, unwrapping a burger, moving glasses), idle chatter and pertinent conversation equally.

Unlike when you are physically present, you cannot filter the background noise or irrelevant conversation and focus only on the individual you are speaking to. Another issue is the range of the mic, with players at the distant ends of the table being hard to pick up unless they lean in or speak loudly. Currently we are using a fairly cheap mic we had lying around and, longterm, it may be worthwhile to invest in a microphone intended for a conference setup which could filter out some background noise and potentially daisy chain multiple small mics that could be distributed around the table for better coverage.

Currently, our setup works pretty well. When running games, my players can hear and understand me clearly enough that I can describe scenes, NPCs and hold conversations with them. Occasionally hearing them is an issue during times of off topic background chatter and based on player positioning relative to the mic, though those instances are easily remedied by asking the group to be quiet for a minute and repositioning the player or microphone. I miss out on some of the group discussion when cross chatter is high, which is always nice to hear as it gives you an idea of what the players are thinking, but the important information about what actually happens gets across.

Looking ahead, there are a few pitfalls I can see that we will have to contend with.

First is further player dispersion. We have at least one other player that is currently touring colleges for his graduate program and will likely be traveling out-of-state for school. To keep him playing with us, we are considering setting him up with a webcam, mic and Skype as well. This is a simple enough solution in itself, though any of the above described difficulties will be amplified by adding more remote users. Currently, though I am coming in remotely, we are still in the same time zone which makes scheduling easy. Depending on where the player travels, we may have to also adjust our scheduling to accommodate different time zones.

Second are campaigns with heavy use of miniatures. Following the current Shadowrun campaign, I am planning at least a short campaign in D&D 4th Ed. As a remote player controlling only one character, I can see the setup working alright with another player moving the mini around for you. Attention will have to be made to make sure the camera is positioned (or someone can move it about as needed) to let the player see the battlemap.

As a remote GM, however, the problem becomes a little more complex. Not only do you need to clearly see the entire battlemap but also may need to move a number of different minis in an intelligent way. Telling someone in the group that Kobold 1 needs to move two squares left, one square up, one square diagonal and then one square left over half a dozen Kobolds each turn could quickly get tedious and confusing.

To remedy this situation, I am considering using a GM proxy for battles. On games where I would be running the session, I would have an individual attend game specifically for purposes of running the monsters during combat. Storytelling, NPC interaction, plot design, encounter design, etc would all still be run by myself while the proxy would handle the detail oriented crunch of combat. Ideally they would receive an email from me prior to game letting them know what creatures will be used and their stats. The proxy would also be useful for drawing out battlemaps when necessary.

Ultimately, this has proven to be a successful “experiment” and is drastically preferable to not playing at all or only infrequently with my current groups. There are some frustrations that could still use some smoothing out and some potential complications coming up, but nothing that I don’t think our group can’t work out.

– Geoff


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