Google+ Hangouts are a way to do group conference calls online. They can be just voice, or mix the use of video and voice.
Roll20 is a Virtual Table Top (VTT). It works in your web browser, so it can work on a computer, laptop, tablet, or even a phone. From my experience, I prefer a larger screen. The display has an area that is the “table-top”. It can hold fancy maps of terrain, buildings, dungeons, etc, or just a grid to keep track of marching order or positions of objects, players, and monsters. Roll20 has integration with Google+ Hangouts. You accept the invitation to the G+ Hangout and sign in when it starts. You also sign into Roll20 when it is time. I signed into Roll20 early, so I don’t know if joining the hangout would take me to Roll20 or not.
I have seen YouTube videos of past Google+ Hangouts, and have had invitations to them before, but never had the time to get involved in one. It does not require the use of video. That it only useful if you want to see the other players. If you don’t have a webcam or don’t want to be on video, you just need a microphone so others can hear you, and decent speakers so you can hear them. A headset with a microphone would work, as it appears some other players were using. The nice things about using G+ Hangouts is that it showed who was speaking, either by the video of the speaker going to the center of the screen, or showing the picture displayed by those not using video. Having the hangout window open covers part of the screen. It is not required for it to be open, but I found it helpful to have a window just big enough open to see who was speaking. That made it more like a face-to-face session. If you have two monitors, it would work better to have it on one screen and the VTT on the other.
I have a Roll20 account, it is free to use, but for a fee, you can get some more bells and whistles. Those are not necessary to run or join a game. I have the basic, free account. I have gone through the Roll20 tutorial about how to do things. You can display different maps, with a grid. You can use tokens for players, monsters, and items. There is a library of free tokens and maps, and you can upload your own. For a fee, you can get specialized tokens and maps that give you more options. It also features a dice roller that just says what dice was rolled, pus any modifiers and gives the result. It has an option to show 3-D dice that roll across the VTT, but it is slow and slows down the game. To roll, you either have to type a command in the chat window, or set up a macro with frequently used rolls. For example, “/r d20” rolls a d20. As a GM, you can have multiple Roll20 campaigns/games, and as a player, you can participate in multiple games. There are multiple layers that can be displayed and the GM can see things on the GM only layer
The game I participated was Vault of Time hosted by the founder of the Friday Night D&D: Next Google+ Community. As the name says, it is Friday night. The game was slated to start at 9:00 PM. To play, you roll up a 10th level character using the D&D Next beta play test rules. I had signed up to the D&D Next beta at Wizards of the Coast, so I had the latest rules. D&D Next is D&D 5.0 and is slated for release this summer. This was the more challenging part of the whole thing. I rolled up a character using real dice, then I had to read through a PDF on character creations, then classes, then races, then equipment. I started about 6:30 PM and was “done” with my character about 8:30. I am old school, so I know how to roll up a character and get started in short order. D&D Next can be played that way, but it has been influence by all version s of D&D. I have played D&D Basic and 1st Edition, and had minor exposure to 2nd edition. I have no exposure to D&D 3.0, 3.5, or 4.0. As I understand it, the later versions of D&D, i.e. 3.0 and later, have all the feats, skills, and abilities that are not part of D&D or AD&D. I did not have time to read and understand what choices to make for feats, etc. so I had as close to an AD&D dwarven fighter as imaginable.
Playing the game.
I signed in to Roll20 early and there were only two other players. One invited me to play poker. Roll20 can simulate a deck of cards for situations that require use of cards. The actual game session started about ten minutes late. The GM had been sick last week and cancelled last week’s session. For this week, he had not had time to get maps, etc. uploaded to Roll20, so we just used a grid over a graphic of a stone floor. We have tokens with the names of each player to show marching order, etc. The VTT has a whiteboard type feature, so the GM could draw the rooms and doors we encountered. This game is just a group of players who get together and play through the same dungeon, and my character was just there, no explanation, etc. (I don’t have a problem with this, as the idea was for me to learn and have fun.) The regulars in this game may have started at tenth level, but had over 100 hit points, I only had 71. They were like 20th level or something. The all male group of players were in the 30 to 50 age range, give or take. There were several wizards in the group, and they had all kinds of spells going all over the place. My understanding is that you can play D&D Next with a subset of the rules to be closer to D&D/AD&D, or have all the bells and whistles and make a first level character that is a demi-god. I definitely see why later versions of D&D have been described as emulating video games like WOW or LOTRO. As a basic fighter, my character was only good for taking up space, moving, and fighting. I ended up being the only character in the session to take a hit, and lost 16 hit points, but was healed at the end of the damage inducing encounter of 15 hit points.
I deferred to other players a lot as I was there to learn how this online role playing format worked. I found a group of guys that reminded me a lot of other groups of gamers I have played with over the years. There was a lot of non play related banter, and meta-gaming. The players spent a lot of time trying to decide what to do in some situations, sort of like my ex and I got into when we were trying to decide what restaurant to go to. I kept expecting the DM to have a random encounter come and give us trouble for dawdling. There were no random encounters. We could have done a lot more exploration of the dungeon/caverns we were in, but were caught up in lots of back and forth over what should have been quick decisions. There was no elected leader, and the DM did not enforce order or keep us focused on the game. There was very little role playing of people speaking as their characters. That’s ok, I can play either way. I did try to roll play my dwarf in a way to move things along.
Our first obstacle was a slow moving underground stream about five feet deep and twenty feet wide. We spent 20 or so minutes trying to decide/figure out what to do. The next obstacle was a magic archway with an ominous inscription that could be interpreted as something good or bad. No one wanted to go through it, but we spent 20+ minutes with the wizards arguing about how to dispel a permanent magic item they had no clue what it did. Finally, we went the other way and the next ominous sign only delayed us for about five minutes. We went to a room with a brass door and opened it to find a room with two doors on the north, east, and west walls, total 6 doors. We started working out way around the room and two rooms had two wights we easily slew in two or three rounds, two more rooms had four juju zombies that took a little longer. The DM said that he levelled up the zombies so they would challenge us. I was hit in the second of those rooms. The next to last door had a passage. We decided to check out the other room and it had a wight. We slew the wight and ended the session about 1:30 PM. The DM said we each got 28,775 experience points. That is enough to put me to 11th level. The DM said he did not divide the XP. In earlier rooms we did find a +1 sword and a ring of levitation and one pair of wights was guarding a potion of flying. Not dripping with magic or treasure, but XP wise seemed pretty easy. What is odd is that I needed less than 28,000 XP to go from 10th level to 11th level. All classes use the same experience point advancement chart. The DM rolled actual dice and was on video, so we saw him look down to roll. It reminded me of DMs rolling their dice behind the screen.
I had fun learning about the online role playing tools and playing and laughing with a group of gamers. D&D Next is not my thing, at least not all the feats, etc. The players tell the DM what they can or can’t do and what they need to roll to do things. I think the DM should set the parameters. There are so many options for a simple fighter, that it felt like I was playing a spellcaster in AD&D. A fighter should not be so difficult to create or play, but that’s because I learned how over 30 years ago.
As for the tools of online roleplaying I like what I see. Google+ is just the means of gathering together, and Roll20 is the table where we gather round. Roll20 is flexible enough to allow just a blank grid to show marching order, terrain/dungeon, objects, and monsters. You don’t need miniatures or a fancy map to play, but if you want fancy, you can do it. For the harried DM who is short of preparation time, I can see the value of using it to show basic positions and for rolling dice.
I have an AD&D/OSRIC game I plan to participate in on Wednesday to see how another DM does it.
I will do a few more sessions to get familiar with things before I dip my toes in the water to run my own game(s).
Here is a picture of what we saw when fighting the wight in the last room before play ceased.I forgot to mention that one of the wizards created a zombie from the remains of one of the juju zombies. No one seemed to have an issue with that, so alignment did not make a big difference in this game.
[EDIT] I forgot to mention sound. Roll20 has a feature to allow you to play background music and sounds. There is a collection of royalty free music, and you can upload your own. There are also other music/sounds available if you join their fee plan.
During our play another player was playing music. I don’t have a problem with music during play if it complements what is going on. I found that in the environment of a Google+ Hangout it was distracting from play. It was not my kind of music, I’m not sure what it was, and to me, did not fit. Also it was louder than it should have been at times. A way to put it in the background would have helped.
The other issue was on my end. I live across the street from the house next to the train tracks going through town. We have about five or six streets from one end of town to the other that cross the tracks. The Federal law requires the horn to be blown at each crossing. I am used to it and tune it out, so I was then conscious of it and muted the sound when there was a train. I will have to use a microphone that I can limit what it picks up so I don’t blast out the others and have to mute my microphone to avoid interfering with play. This is a drawback to running a game of my own.