Recently I had a long-standing player move to “away,” and he asked for the opportunity to play remotely. Historically my experiences with remote AD&D have been negative. Every so often someone has had kids to take care of, or some other commitment causing them to desire to play remotely. We’ve tried it on and off. Our ability to communicate is impaired, or whatever the reason is for their being remote gets in the way of their playing remote. They wander off for a drink, and we can’t tell where they went, or if a connection dropped. Unsurprisingly the potential to play remotely also increases the desire to play remotely, leading to more requests to play remotely, so we mostly abandoned it.
Remote play also takes time. Time the GM has to spend preparing for any idiosyncrasies of remote play. Time to set up whatever the technology is. Time to handle issues with said technology that arise. A fair amount of time that’s just clarifying what’s going on for the remote player. Not a fan.
I wanted to not lose this long-term friend, and decided if I was going to try, I needed to not go halfway — I’d have to give remote tabletop a serious try. I dragged out laptops and cameras, spending time arranging the room and camera for optimal viewing. I spent a lot of time reviewing voice and video sharing options. After a lot of tinkering, we settled on Discord for voice, and Skype for video. Session 1 was simply two cameras, one on the group, and the other on our shared whiteboard, both connected via Skype from different laptops. A chunk of the evening was spend resolving problems associated with that overall setup. It was painful, but it worked. Not well enough.
The remote player still didn’t have a camera. One thing I feel important is the group being able to see the remote player, and the remote player being able to see the group. I realize a lot of groups play with VTTs without that, but my desire is to maintain that local tabletop. It provides more of a local presence, as well as another vector to determine issues.
I’d also started investigating the various Virtual Table Tops (VTTs). VTTs are primarily designed for 100% remote play, expecting all the data to be in tool. In this case, we have only one player remote. I needed a solution that would permit interaction without requiring everyone to be on the tool. Every player playing remotely, or staring at individual screens, loses the feel I want with AD&D.
By the second session I’d reviewed a LOT of VTTs. While I looked at many more, the top three are Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and MapTool. I can’t stand the interface of Roll20, and Fantasy Grounds looked like a lot more power and complexity than I wanted to throw at the issue. Along the way I found a 1E extension for Fantasy Grounds. After settling on MapTool, I found the same person had developed a 1E extension for MapTool!
MapTool runs as a server, which would mean running MapTool locally, punching holes in my firewall(s), and make that connection dependent on my local network (already taxed with multiple Skype sessions). Instead, I decided to create an Amazon Web Services instance. Free for the first 750 hours, and surprisingly easy to set up. I could connect from my laptop as GM, a separate laptop could connect as the local players, and the remote player could connect directly to AWS.
One problem with VTTs is needing tokens on the board. Most of the VTTs don’t come with tokens, and I hadn’t figured out a good source. Using the Order of The Stick (OOTS) A Monster for Every Season (AMFES), I’d created a few tokens for the map using MapTool’s sister product, Tokentool.
For Session 2, Discord ended up being a complete failure, and we fell back on Voice over Skype. Yeah, don’t do that. That was terrible. We used MapTool. On my standard GM laptop I had the GM view, and a separate 47″ TV with a separate laptop for the PC View. I’d recently discovered the Fog of War and Line of Sight and Lighting functionality, and attempted to use that when I didn’t quite understand it yet. Using the AWS, I discovered management differences when the GM isn’t directly using the server system. For combat we rolled dice as usual. I managed to use the ad hoc mapping to draw maps when the party enters caverns, but the combination of my experience with the tool, and the complexity with the caverns meant that experience was mediocre at best.
By Session 3 we’d spent some time with Discord, changed over to Push To Talk, and disabled most of the post-processing functions to increase performance. We’d also tested Discord in advance to make sure we could get that working quickly, and overall we didn’t have Voice problems.
By then I’d also spent … a while … tinkering with MapTool. I had a slew of tokens from OOTS via TokenTool. I’d spent time with the standard and ad hoc mapping. I had a much better understanding of lighting, Fog of War and Line of Sight. One of my players had suggested that the VTT could be a DM supplement as well as a player supplement, potentially offsetting the work of maintenance with a value-add of a partial DM Assistant. The group was about to engage in a large combat, and I’d integrated all the monsters and line-of-sight into the map. With the add-on by Celestian, I had stats and whatnot for monsters, and had (mostly) figured out how to assign stats to tokens so that MapTool could handle the DM side of combat. I had hopes of using the round tracker as well as the combat calculations. I knew of some THAC0 problems, but had figured out how to work around them.
I’d already struggled my way through all sorts of MapTool configurations. The tokens now display a health bar. I could (mostly) multi-attack with a monster. I’d entered rudimentary PC stats, and monsters displayed core player information (AC, Size) when moused-over. The system now calculated critical hits the same way we calculated them (requiring a 20 and a second “hit” to count”).
In the end, Session 3 was … less horrible. More problems with Skype along the way, and I mostly tossed the “whiteboard” camera session. It didn’t take me long to throw out the Line of Sight and round tracking as well, as they simply weren’t working well or I didn’t understand them. There were hiccups like invalid monster stats (and other associated combat-specific math), and players having to manage where the MapTool screen was focused. The process for combat I hadn’t practiced in advance, and that slowed me down a bit. The interfaces for combat were also more detail than I needed. State of effects didn’t decrement how I expected. However, the system handled the tracking of monster HP and monster attacks. Visualization and how far things could move were handled by MapTool. We managed to finish everything though with no major crisis, and at least not that much slower than usual.
Since then, I’ve corrected (I hope) the problems in the monster stats. I’ve changed the core code to do THAC0 the 1E way instead of the 2e way so I don’t have to adjust for every monster. I’ve removed one of the screens I had to click through for combat. If something takes damage that would take them below -10, the system automatically adjusts the damage (less math for those regenerating trolls). I changed some options defaults to the values I want, so less adjustment each time I do something. Given our group has all monsters attack at the same time (identical initiative) I can also ignore the initiative function. I have round-tracking figured out (so I can enter a spell duration, and the tool will both track it, and indicate the state on a PC token). I have attacks figured out so that a monster can attack a specific PC instead of a more generic attack. I have also figured out how to shift the player view from the GM tool so I don’t have to explain where I’m talking about, or take control of the player MapTool laptop.
I don’t think I have much left to do before Session 4. I’m going to adjust the camera, laptop, and voice layout so the remote player’s view is also where the voice and their display is, so everyone is looking the right way when communicating. I have to figure out a few performance issues before I can resolve the issue with the top-down session with the actual fallback whiteboard.
Now that I have a more solid grasp of the MapTool features, I should probably go back and review Fantasy Grounds. Celestian said he’d switched because the programming language was better, and the quality of his work is incredible.
We’ll take a few more sessions to evaluate the overall viability of MapTool. I think I’ve passed the point I can make substantive session-by-session improvements. As a GM tool, can it save me more time than it costs me? Seems unlikely, but I think I can get that to be a close comparison at least. Can we make the session comparable (or at least acceptable) to the players? Remains to be seen.