Gaming in a Virtual World

I hope one day folks will be able to read this article and reflect – “yeah, that’s right – we were in the middle of a pandemic back then.”

Like probably every one of my “gaming generation”, I was introduced to gaming via face-to-face, physically present gaming. It was the early 1980s, and my next-door neighbor had received the D&D Basic Set for Christmas. I thought it was the coolest thing ever when he introduced it to me on a snow day. Playing a game virtually back then would have been quite the challenge. There were “play by mail” games advertised in Dragon Magazine of the time. But my gaming was all physical. Our first D&D club was in the public library of our home town (where we were frequently exhorted to keep it down). I was probably a horrible DM. But I was learning, just like everyone else in the group. It was a blast.

By high school, my gaming slowed down, and it nearly stopped during college. After moving to Massachusetts in the mid-1990s, it picked up again. And technology began playing a much more significant role. We were able to use email to schedule games, publish session summaries, etc. I’d also, by this point, become quite exposed to the social media of the time – Usenet channels, email lists, and similar platforms. I remember being incredibly fond of the 1990s Star Frontiers mailing list run out of an Iowa State domain. I still recognize a few of the folks now and then in RPG product credits and on social media sites. Message boards became quite popular – sometimes on their own, sometimes as part of a website. I was incredibly active in the boards back in the late 1990s and early 2000s – and I’m still in touch with a number of people from those boards. Believe it or not, those boards still exist, amazingly.

As people began moving away, having families, etc., I began advertising for games on various message boards. – While there were some busts there, I also made some great friends – people I’ve now known for years, become friends with, been to their weddings, etc. As life became more complicated for me, my group went to a hybrid virtual group and eventually to an entirely virtual one. I definitely miss having people hanging out in the house, but with two little kids, it became far too challenging. Amazingly, those two little kids are now 15 and 18, with the younger one joining us for gaming.

The earlier efforts at virtual gaming were tough. We made use of one or more cheap webcams in the game room, and when combat broke out, we’d focus one of the cameras on the battlemap. We were playing a lot of d20-based games at the time – D&D 3.5 and Star Wars being biggies. At this point, webcams weren’t standard on every laptop, and we made use of Skype for our gaming. I seem to recall splurging for a premium Skype account to be able to incorporate video chat. We experimented with early virtual tabletops – I recall using Maptool on occasion – but we usually made do with the camera solution.

As time went on, we began adjusting the technology we used. We were big users of Fantasy Grounds and Google Hangouts for a while. I liked Fantasy Grounds quite a bit and would still gladly use it – the officially supported games are superb. I’ve gravitated more towards MacOS and cloud-based solutions and have been a Roll20 user for quite some time now – I’ve even made a few contributions to it on GitHub. I do tend to make use of Discord now for my gaming chats and video calls.

On the social aspect, I definitely mourn the loss of Google+ – while it never came close to being a Facebook or Twitter competitor, it was a superb place for gaming discussions.

With my kids older, gaming face to face began to become a possibility again. At a previous employer, people would sometimes play Pathfinder after work or D&D 5e. I joined a startup in early 2020, and there were a lot of gaming discussions on Slack – I’d been giving some thought to joining a D&D 5e game or running a Call of Cthulhu game. Alas, Covid-19 sent most of us all working from home. As part of trying to keep the team together, we were doing a variety of virtual activities, and I was going to run some Call of Cthulhu online (and write about it here). That never came to be as come early April, half of us (including me), lost our jobs, as we were intimately tied to the restaurant industry. I thankfully found a new job quickly, interviewing and coming onboard virtually. I suspect all that time gaming virtually helped me with that. And amusingly, my Cthulhu and D&D references in my most recent jobs tend not to go over everyone’s head.

Covid-19 is awful. Clearly, the worst part of it is the illness itself, having claimed over 650,000 lives as of this writing and nearly 17 million having been infected with it, many suffering greatly. The isolation required to manage it is brutal as well. Many have lost their jobs, businesses have failed, and it gets darn lonely. I miss taking the commuter rail to Boston. But I’m grateful that the technology we have in 2020 helps bridge some of the distances between us.

~ Daniel Stack

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13 Comments Add yours

  1. Great Post, and I kinda enjoy VTTs it’s allows gaming without pants

    Liked by 2 people

    1. modoc31 says:

      Gaming without pants is a wonderful thing unless you’re recording it. The world of VTTs has really exploded over the last five years. Heck, last night I learned that a new VTT hit the market in May that I was unaware of, The Foundry.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My eyes are up here…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh and the foundry does sound awesome

        Liked by 1 person

      3. modoc31 says:

        I’m still looking into it, while it seems pretty slick, I suspect it has some limitations I wouldn’t want to me mess with. I like Fantasy Grounds integrations with supported systems, but the lack of audio support does suck.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. modoc31 says:

        I watched that video last night. That’s what piqued my interest, but it seems you have to host your Foundry server somewhere or have a way for your players to connect to it if it’s not hosted somewhere. I like the SRD support for popular systems, but SRD support is typically not complete, all-inclusive, rules for a system. Protected IP material is removed from SRDs. That’s why purchasing the integrated books for Fantasy Grounds or Roll20 is appealing to many GMs.

        When I can get some more time to do a proper evaluation of the Foundry, I’ll let you know what I think.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Daniel Stack says:

        Eek look at all this conversation. 🙂

        I generally try to wear pants while gaming and on other video conference calls. I was really glad I did when I had a job interview and a dog behind me acted up and I had to get up while on camera.

        I’ve never checked out the Foundry – I’ll need to give it a peek.

        I miss back when Roll20 had Google Hangouts integration. I was able to put invites to games right in my private Google+ groups.


  2. misternizz says:

    I totally sympathize with your motivations for remote play. I was an avid D&D Player in the 80s and 90s and as I got more responsibilities (children, career..) I kind of dropped out of it and got into miniatures more, because that actually generated fewer demands on my time. Recently I’ve returned to roleplaying during the COVID epidemic using Roll20 and Discord for audio. As Roll20 handles the tactical piece and Discord the audio interplay, it really does feel ALMOST like being there. Nothing beats being there in person, but it’s not a bad outlet for socializing. I play Empire of the Petal Throne Monday nights and MERP on the occasional Sunday, and I’m having a blast. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Daniel Stack says:

      Yeah, remote gaming definitely came to me out of necessity. I do miss hangout out with people, sharing pizza and beer, etc. But it’s nice to have a way to socialize.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kyle Maxwell says:

    With or without a VTT, online tabletop (including just plain video chat) is pretty much all the socialization I get these days as well. It’s my lifeline to something resembling sanity.


    1. modoc31 says:

      It’s a mighty fine way to keep sane, even when we’re not in a pandemic. Glad you found a way to stay connected with people near and far.

      Liked by 1 person

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