The Unreal World Gets A Little Less Real


In the best of all possible worlds, every gamer and aspiring gamer out there would have a friendly, well-established, long-standing tabletop or LARP group to call their own and attend once a week or more. For most of us down here on Earth, however, this isn't the case. Summer vacations and work conflicts can break up groups for months at a time, and cross-country moves and lifestyle changes can do so permanently.

In the best of all possible worlds, every gamer and aspiring gamer out there would have a friendly, well-established, long-standing tabletop or LARP group to call their own and attend once a week or more. For most of us down here on Earth, however, this isn't the case. Summer vacations and work conflicts can break up groups for months at a time, and cross-country moves and lifestyle changes can do so permanently. Most gamers will tell you that they've experienced the sudden evaporation of what seemed like a very stable group and the subsequent confusion as everyone rushes to find a replacement and/or longs for a return to "the way it was." Fortunately, in cases such as this the gamers of today have an option which was not readily available to their forebears. I'm speaking, of course, of online gaming.

The idea of bringing tabletop action to the PC is at least as old as the Internet itself. Play-by-email or message-board-based games, where gamers roleplay by trading emails or message board postings, are out there and have a small but devoted following. MUDs, MUSHes, MUCKs, and MOOs have existed for years, giving procrastinating gamers a great way to while away their evenings and weekends killing beasties in a text-based environment while their GPAs plummet in protest. There are as many of these as there are gaming systems under the sun, though more visually pleasing games such as EverCrack, I mean Everquest, and Ultima Online are beginning to replace them. The biggest problem with MU*s, however, is their all-too-frequent focus on combat and killin' stuff and exclusion of real roleplaying. Gamers in search of a more interactive environment have gravitated to games taking place via IRC, chat rooms, or the once-extremely-popular-before-the-bastards-made-you-start-paying-for-it WebRPG software. Online gaming may have begun as a mere supplement to "real" gaming, but now there are plenty of people around the world who play Everquest every day but wouldn't know a d20 if it bit them in the ass. Clearly, online gaming has something that face-to-face gaming does not-but what?

The denizens of GamerChickPlanet, my website's forum, noticed this phenomenon and began to discuss the merits of face-to-face ("flesh") gaming versus online gaming. Eventually, the thread became a survey about which type of gaming the roleplaying community preferred. A slight majority of respondents seemed to prefer online gaming, primarily for reasons I'll go into a bit later. However, I have to dissent. Both have their good points, but in the end, I'll have to say that nothing can ever replace a good old-fashioned tabletop session. Why? Read on.

Online gaming, first of all, has two major pluses going for it. The first is privacy. Thanks to instant-messaging systems such as the "whisper" or "page" commands, players can trade messages with each other or with the GM without anyone else having the slightest idea what is going on. This makes it easier for players to spring fun, nasty little surprises on their fellow gamers. Players who do the same in a game via passing notes or asking for a private conference with the GM have a much more difficult time keeping their evil intentions secret, since everyone sees you doing it and knows something is up. I experienced this firsthand when, while playing in a MOO-based Mage game (about which I'll tell you more later), I was able to secretly cast some Mind effects on an evil fellow member of my cabal and prevent her diabolical plan from succeeding. It was truly a beautiful sight to behold, and never would have worked in a normal tabletop game; the GM and I would have been unable to keep straight faces long enough to fool the player on the receiving end!

The second (and most important) merit of online gaming is its convenience; you can, quite literally, do it from the comfort of your own home. All it takes is a computer, an Internet connection, and the proper (and often free) software. Apart from a few logistical hurdles such as time-zone differences, there are next to no worries about getting everyone in the same place at the same time. Online gaming also makes it a cinch to connect groups of people who would otherwise never be able to game together. The GM of the MOO game I mentioned before, for example, has been able to keep playing with members of his college gaming group despite moving across the country. It also allowed me to finally "meet" a number of GCP regulars and readers of my site who I might never have been able to game with otherwise.

However, the two biggest bonuses of tabletop gaming outweigh even these benefits, in my humble opinion. The first bonus has to do with the technical side of online gaming. Earlier this year, my friend Eustacio and some GCP regulars started a Werewolf: The Apocalypse game via WebRPG and asked me to join. Excited, I made a character, downloaded the program, and successful accessed it on several occasions. But when the first night of the game rolled around, the program quite suddenly refused to work. After many hours of swearing, frustration, and trying everything I could think of to get the program to work, I found out the school's firewall was the problem, which led to many more fruitless hours of trying to find a way around it. Eventually I gave up, resigned to playing only when I had access to a dial-up connection at home. Summer came, and I looked forward to finally getting to play in Eustacio's game...until, once again quite inexplicably, the program quit working again. I gave up on the game again, this time for good. Technical problems such as these were definitely the most prohibitive factor working against my being able to fully enjoy my first experience with online gaming. With tabletop gaming, the biggest technical problems I've ever had were a car breaking down and preventing me from getting to a session on time, or having to walk across campus in a snowstorm.

Secondly, there's the social aspect of a good face-to-face game. One of my top reasons for gaming is the excuse it gives me to spend a few hours with my friends every week, goofing off and having fun. My online Mage group was perhaps unique among online gaming groups in the amount of ambience (virtual furniture and vending machines "selling" everything from Mountain Dew to Doritos to barbequed wenches) and social interaction provided, partially because so many of the players knew one another beforehand. But no matter how many new gadgets we add, the fact remains that my fellow gamers are spread far across the country, sitting at home and typing the same as me. It's still enjoyable, but it's definitely missing that out-of-character fun that I've come to depend on so much.

I don't want to make it sound like I didn't enjoyed my foray into the world of online gaming, because I did. My Mage game was one of the best roleplaying experiences of my life, and it was a sad day when the group went their separate ways at the end of summer. But no matter what, I always got the inexplicable feeling of missing something by gaming while sitting in front of my computer rather than in the midst of a boisterous group of friends who are right there, right then. This tells me that while online gaming may be better than nothing when it comes to keeping a group together, there will never be anything to replace real, honest-to-God human contact-in gaming or in any other area of life.

At least, I'd like to think so.

Gotta agree. Face to face is the way to game. Online is ok, but I much prefer seeing everyone at the table together.

An interesting idea has spun in my head after reading this thread.

In todays environment LAN parties where people hook up there computers at some ones house or other venue and play games with each other are quite common. Roleplaying over the internet is also quite common. But why not roleplay together in a LAN.

This way you have all the bonuses of face to face, and all the bonuses of the internet.

You can sit around, talk out loud, and equally keep secret messages private across a LAN messaging system. All players' character sheets could be kept on the GM's computer, which has shared directories which only the GM and the particular player whose character sheet it is would have access too.

You cuold use dice generation programs if you
wanted, or real dice if you prefer the tactile feeling.

Obviously this only works for those who are already into the computer LAN scene, or capable of transporting their computers (a bunch of people with Laptops connected the G.M.s computer that acts like a server would be ideal though).

Equally, mapping would become a breeze with a good system and if the GM is particularly technically minded diagrams etc could be made up in an electronic form at first and left in peoples shared drive to notice, a quick private message gets zapped across to them and bingo, they have recieved information without anyone else noticing.

Equally in this day and age of bluetooth technology perhaps smaller, more portable communication systems could be developed to send messages between players onto affordable and useable pieces of hardware.

I am all for face to face contact, but I am also all for the advantages the modern technology age is bringing us, so surely there are ways for us to combine the best of both worlds?

Indeed, in some game settings, such as Cyberpunk style worlds, it could even enhance the gameplay. Imagine sitting around a table discussing what your group of corporate agents is doing, while the 'hacker' in the group, usually left out of the real action because they are seperated into a differen't 'cyber' world and constantly have to take time out because they are unaware of whats happening , has to achieve some task on their REAL computer before the team could go forward or while they attempt an elaborate break in.

I don't mean the player would have to have real knowlege of hacking and break into something, more like they would have to do something fun, something that would keep that player entertained. This could be simply beating a certain bot in Quake 3 Arena.

To avoid players using out of game skill instead of the characters skill you simply adjust the game and difficulty of the game to reflect the skill of the player, for example if the hacker was incredibly good in game terms, you would set the game to a game the player was good at in real life and the difficulty to easy. If the hacker was incredibly outclassed you would play a game that the player was only barely familiar with at it's highest difficulty. This also conveniently keeps the player unaware of what else is going on because they are wearing head phones. The GM could act as a spectator if the game was a FPS and that way know how close the player was to finishing the task.

It would probably take some experimentation to get right (and would certainly wouldn't work if the player being the hacker didn't play computer games at all/was totally abysmal at all of them) but timing could be controlled by a time limit on the game and the measure of success could be judged by how close they got to the goal. It certainly could add a level of realtime challenge and excitement to a game.

I think in this day and age of computer gaming and roleplaying that it's about some time some REAL cross over occured, why simply settle to porting standard roleplaying onto the net in a half assed fashion or vice versa when technology levels and common practices have finally reached a stage where they could be combined.

Wow. That is nothing short of a great idea. I don't know that any of my own face-to-face groups would go for it (they're not exactly a computer-oriented bunch of people, in general), but I can see it being very popular for others. Fascinating...

I believe that there is actually a Shadowrun "matrix simulator" program out there somewhere. It allows the ref to design a little section of the matrix, with ICE and everything, which the hacker plays through in a Doom-like manner (I think there's also an option to do a turn-based variation of this, so that the player's twitching ability is less of a factor).

Only one problem with Caliban's idea, the time needed to prepare a game will be considerably more important. On a computer, it gets much harder to do things on the fly, so you have many contingencies ready to use, much more than you normaly would for a table top game. Also, passing notes is easily noticeable. When the Dm isn't talking and one hears the keyboard or sees "DM is typing message" one can easily guess what is happening. But there are merits to this and me and some computer geek friends have been busting our heads trying to make a game like this work (to no avail). The cost in hardware is also quite prohibitive.

Still there is potential there I have to admit.

well up until recently there was this program called Dnd Online.......does anyone know what happened to that????
I mean.. ive spent HOURS trying to find out and the only conclusion i can come to is that WotC has had the program taken down and covered up EVERYTHING that might give any clue to what has happened to it!

If this is not true then why in hell cant i find out where its gone or find any explanation to its sudden dissapearence??? This was an online community consisting of a few hundred people!!!!

what's going on here?? definatly something...