Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A New (Virtual) Tabletop

While face-to-face gaming is, by far, the best way to play, it isn't practical when when the players live 400 miles away. That's why we play online.  Once we agreed to play, I decided to search for a software platform to enable us.  I made a brief list of requirements:

  • It must be free for players.  While I don't mind paying as the GM, I'm not going to make my players pay for the "pleasure" of sitting around my table.
  • It must support players using Windows.
  • The player interface must run on older computers.
  • It must be easy for the players to install.
  • It must be scriptable to allow me to program custom dice rolls as I play games that use different dice techniques than is standard in most RPGs (such as the sum of the lowest y dice of x dice thrown).
  • Optionally, but ideally, the GM interface should support Mac. 

My first choice was GRiP, as I played with it before.  It was a great system and it supported scripted online character sheets. With it I could, for example, program it in such a way that a player could just click on his strength and GRiP would automatically make a saving roll for that stat! As a benefit, I had previous played in the developer's Traveller campaign. in the end, however, I ruled it out.  I couldn't (at the time) find a current download link, and I had long since lost my registration code.

I briefly considered OpenRPG, another virtual tabletop platform that I had used before.  I ruled it out, though, because at the time it would have imposed a heavy installation burden on my players. Not only do you have to install the program itself, but you have to first install Python, and then the Python bindings for the wx toolkit. While I'm a techie and wouldn't mind that, I felt it was too much for my very non-techie friends.

The search eventually lead me to ScreenMonkey. ScreenMonkey seemed almost ideal.  It supported programming custom commands. Players use a standard web-browser to connect, so there's no special client or installation concerns. And it offered a free trial. The only "problem" is that the GM program is windows only.  I had recently installed a Windows partition on my Mac, though (in order to play the Star Trek Online MMORPG), so it wasn't a show-stopper.

I installed the trial, and had Pete see if he could connect.  Everything went without a hitch, and we were set!  We scheduled the first game and went off to prepare. Meanwhile, I installed some security software and bought a new wireless router. then when game night came, no one could connect.  Oh no!  I troubleshot for hours, but to no avail.  the only thing I could figure was that the connection was being blocked, either by the firewall and/or by the router.

I eventually gave up and settled on good old-fashioned IRC. I selected the sorcery.net network because not only were they both gamer friendly and bot-friendly, but they also had a web-based IRC client that would allow Pete to log in without installing any special software.  I downloaded rbot and wrote some custom scripts to support T&T's "DARO" saving rolls and spite damage rules. that's how we've been playing ever since.

Just last week when we sat down to play, rbot wouldn't launch.  It looks like some dependency somewhere got changed, and that broke the whole thing.  This distracted me during the game as I was multi-tasking the whole time, trying to fix the bot at the same time I was running the game.

Coincidentally, there was recently a firmware update to my router, so I decided to try ScreenMonkey again. Much to my pleasure, it worked!  So I wrote a quick DARO script to get a hang of its scripting language (VBScript), and it looks like we have a new winner!

I've heard that both Skype and Google Hangouts have APIs that will allow me to add dice rolling.  I think that might be my next project, as voice gaming should play faster than text based gaming.


  1. Perhaps you could give EpicTable a try? It just launched at GenCon 2012. It is Windows only at the moment (and for the foreseeable future), but it is easy to install and run (especially for non-techies - and I was running it just fine on a 6-year-old PC). It includes a "kitchen-table" license so that only the GM needs to purchase it. There is a fairly robust custom dice application (build out your dice sets/pools ahead of time). I've known and gamed with the developer for 27 years, and we've been using EpicTable bi-weekly for a few years (for anything from Pathfinder to Fiasco to DCC RPG to Spirit of the Century). And there's a free trial, so you can try before you buy. www.epictable.com (Just a quick note: I've helped brainstorm ideas/features and test/troubleshoot and write some marketing pieces, but I have no financial stake in EpicTable. Actually, even though I was offered a free copy, I recenly bought the Collector's Edition just to show my support.)

  2. Thanks for the tip, Scot! Tonight is gaming night, but I'll give it a look-see this weekend!

    I also see that there's a new version of GRiP in the works. I might give that a try, too!