Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Looking at VTTs in 2024

 I just realized I already blew my commitment to blog twice a week this year in the first month! In my defense work has been a real bear with my time, but still.....oh well!

I've been looking at various VTTs lately with an eye toward one which is not so onerous and unpleasant to use. I've come to the conclusion that a big chunk of the problem with the VTT environment, at least when using it for gaming, is that the dialogue and conversations are forced into a mono-channel and it is inevitable that people will accidentally walk over one another. The person with the softest voice or the worst microphone will get steam rolled. The person who is quickest to dominate a conversation always has an advantage, one even greater than at a live table. The need to corral and wrangle becomes paramout for the GM.....something I find very tiring these days. It's tough, too, because if several players are all excited and trying to talk, it means they are quite engaged with the scenario and having a good time; but to me as a GM it has now turned into noise that is all incoming at the same volume and nigh impossible to parse out properly, leading to irritation and confusion.

I know how to handle this sort of thing at a live game table....but VTTs are a different bag of cats. To that end, I've been looking at a few different VTTs to see if any out there are more friendly to the dynamics of everyone sitting in one channel trying to talk, and (spoilers) the truth is not really, its a fundamental component of the state of video conferencing these days. Your only hope is that the players you have are well versed in web etiquette, a skill I think best learned from using web events for work and other more cordial environments.

That said, I have noticed some interesting things in studying certain VTTs in this quest. Here's my observations so far:

Roll20 has made huge strides

For better or worse, Roll20 is making a concerted effort to improve its platform, and the overall effect is making it (imo) the easiest and quickest way to get a game going with the least overall effort. Some of my favoritism toward Roll20 comes from having used it consistently for 4 years now, but the truth is, when I try another platform and it doesn't offer some fundamental feature that Roll20 has built in, that other platform stands out as inadequate as a result.

PlayRole.com has some problems

I found PlayRole last year and thought it was pretty neat, especially the way it focused on indie RPGs and unlocked tons of stuff I had already purchased from Exalted Funeral for me. Experiments with it proved successful, but when I finally decided to run a full campaign in January some unexpected setbacks hit. They lost the license for their provider service that let participants use audio, video and file sharing. That was possible to work around, though, as players could still log in to use Discord on the side for voice. I didn't have any file sharing issues so not sure what that was about, but I did run into an unexpected problem, which is how PlayRole handles dice rolls. It will show you a dice roll, but provides no context. I thought it might be due to the custom character sheet I was using, but I tried some other official sheets to other games to see how they works, and it was the same every time. As a result, when I called for rolls from multiple players it could get a tad tedious tracking things and parsing it out. The PC format also proved a bit cumbersome with heavy scrolling. We had a good time, but that was despite the UI and not because of it. This is a shame....I was really excited with my use of it last year but the reality shines home once you try the VTT with a more complex system (and admittedly, Mothership is not that complex).

Alchemy is out there

I don't know much about this yet, but I do know if I try anything with it I will experiment with Mork Borg first. It looks really neat, and it does interesting things making the UI add to immersion with fonts and style. However, in messing around with the free Mork Borg it was a bit unclear to me exactly how a game would shake out of the approach Alchemy is using, which is a bit concerning. 

Shard Tabletop dominates 5E based gaming

I haven't run a game there yet, but I've spent close to a year as a player in a 5E game using Kobold Press books in Shard Tabletop, and I am seriously impressed with how it handles the experience. It has a couple minor issues (such as no easy way to see your PC sheet in one viewing) but that is made up for by convenient tabs to go where you need to quickly. The player experience is great, but I haven't yet committed to running anything so can't speak on that side of things....yet. I predict that Kobold Press will make this the gaming VTT for Tales of the Valiant, and if so then I will give it a fair shot once that game is out. Meanwhile, the only downside to Shard is that while it can import stuff for use from standard D&D 5E, its a bit opaque to me as to how its done, at least partially because I don't do D&D Beyond, I guess? 

Foundry is still out there

I really want to figure Foundry out, but I also really wish Foundry didn't require me to have to "figure it out," and I don't know what to do about that. I've managed to create a campaign on it and populate some zones, but it has weird scaling issues and I then can't really figure out where to go from there....it feels to me like Foundry is a good choice for gamers who are also more technically minded and maybe come from pursuits and careers that lend to the kind of approach this platform demands, such as programming or engineering or something; but I just want something that "works" and I can't quite figure out how to do that with Foundry (or can't find the time investment I need to go through loads of arcane tutorials that may already be out of date, take your pick).

So yeah....for now, for me at least, Roll20 is still top dog. But I am keen on trying Shard Tabletop down the road when it hopefully gets full Tales of the Valiant support. We'll see! And I am very interested in trying to figure out how Alchemy is supposed to work. I keep popping back in to Foundry, too. Maybe one day it will surprise me with an overall improvement on the user experience. 

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