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Skype At The Game Table: A Primer

Posted By Phil Vecchione On June 25, 2010 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

For many of us older gamers, we have gamed with various groups during our gaming careers, and have moved from one location to another. We would love to game again with some of our friends who are now hundreds of miles away. With the birth of the Internet, we have clamored for a solution that would allow us to connect with those friends. Many different solutions have come (and some gone). Today we are going to talk about one of the more mainstream solutions…Skype.

I have for the past year had one of the players in my games join our game remotely using Skype. I was pretty familiar with it, before he joined, having used it for a few years, for video calls with my parents, to let them see their grandchildren. Despite my comfort using it with family, when I was first asked about including the player via Skype, I was still nervous. A year later, and I can say that I am pleased with the results of using Skype. What follows is my own personal experiences with the software. Your own experiences may vary depending on your hardware, Internet connection, etc.

Skype In a Nutshell

While most people are familiar with Skype, let’s run down some facts:

  • Started in 2003
  • A Voice Over Internet application delivering voice and video over an Internet connection
  • Available for Windows, Mac, Linux (beta), iPhone, iPad (Voice only), Android, Blackberry
  • Free for Skype-to-Skype calling
  • Free Voice and Video Calling
  • Conference calling (audio currently, but video is coming…)
You can find out more at skype.com.

Getting Started

Skype is pretty easy to get set up, you are going to need a few items to get this going.  So lets start with the equipment:

  • Computer– you are going to need a computer that you can install Skype onto, and to hook up the other equipment.  This computer can either be a desktop machine, or a laptop.
  • Skype software– Head out to skype.com and download the version of Skype for your computer.  Follow the instructions to get it set up.
  • Microphone and Speaker– at the very least, Skype requires that you have a microphone to transmit your voice, and a speaker to hear the people on the other side.  Some people have built in microphones, otherwise you will need to purchase a microphone, or headset and microphone.
  • Webcam (optional)– Skype can do 1-to-1 video calling if you have a webcam on both sides of the connection. Some computers and laptops have a webcam built in, or you can plug in an external camera.
  • Speakerphone (optional)– There are USB speakerphones that can be used with Skype.  They do a great job of picking up conversations around a table, where a single mic or webcam mic may not be able to get full coverage around the table.
  • Tripod (optional)– Depending on the webcam you use, you may want to put the camera up on tripod for a better angle at the table.

While you can do an audio-only Skype call, I am going to talk to you about video calling, since you will most likely want your remote player to be able to see the action at the table, and for your players to be able to see the remote player. In using the video calling there are two things to consider:

First, who’s computer will Skype be setup on? For my group, one of the players brings his laptop, and is the Skype host, so that my laptop is freed up for GMing (where I keep my notes and PDF’s of rules). You can run the Skype session on your GMing laptop, but your players will not be able to see the remote player’s video, unless you have a second monitor to put them on (which I have done, and it works pretty well).

The next thing you need to consider is where to put the camera. Your remote player should be able to see the GM the majority of the time, since the GM will be narrating the game, but may also need to see the other players, parts of the table, etc. In my game, one of the players controls the camera, moving it around as the game is played, focusing on different players as the spotlight shifts.

Skype In Your Game

Once connected, the remote player is typically able to jump right in and join in the fun, but it is not exactly like having the player at the table. A remote player requires some special handling to make their experience an enjoyable one. I provide the following advice from personal experience.

Etiquette

  • Start the call 15 minutes before you start playing– there are a few reasons for this. The first is that you have some time to work out any technical issues in getting the connection started, video going, camera placement, etc. Also, it gives the remote player a chance to talk to everyone at the table, and take part in the social aspects of the group, before play begins.
  • Check on sound and video quality– from time to time, check with the remote player that they can hear you, that they are able to follow the story etc. Don’t assume that once everything is running that it will be fine for the duration of the game. You may need to move your camera, or re-position a microphone.
  • Look at the remote player– when you address the remote player in game, look at the camera, and prompt them by saying their name, before you start talking. This helps to get their attention, since they may miss non-verbal queues, even over video.
  • Show your rolls– it’s up to the GM to enforce how much they want the remote player to show their dice, but you should establish some ground rules for how this works with your player. I like all criticals to be shown to me, but the majority of other rolls I let the player just tell me. If you are uncomfortable with that, there are online dice rollers.
  • Props– if you have props or handouts for your players, make sure you have a way for the remote player to see them as well. In some cases you can show the object to the camera, or you can email pictures directly to the player.

Things that Work

  • Narrative games and scenes– Skype audio quality is quite good, and with the right equipment can really make the person feel like they are in the room. For games that have a lot of narration, NPC interactions, etc, the remote player will not have any issues being engaged.
  • One on One conversations– Skype does a great job of direct communication from one player to another. Try to keep communication direct and clear.  Avoid sidebars (see below).

Things that are clunky

  • Battlemats and minis– if your game uses a battlemat, mini’s, counters, etc, the remote player is at a slight disadvantage; not being able to look at the map on their own. I have in my games, angled the camera to show the battlemat and let the player announce their moves over Skype. As an alternative you can  try an online tabletop product like MapTool from RPtools, but those can make your session prep longer.
  • Mood lighting and background music– Webcams don’t function well in low light, and microphones pick up background music. So if your games rely on these elements, they can be difficulties for your remote player, and you may have to do without them.
  • Sidebars– as mentioned before, too much side chatter and cross-talking can make it hard for the remote player to hear, try to keep the noise down, by keeping the group focused on the play at the table, and asking them not to speak out of turn.

Reach Out And Touch A Gamer

Every GM has a friend that they would love to game with once again. Skype can make it happen. While it is not the perfect gaming platform, it can bring your long lost gamer back to the table. My own experiences with Skype have been very positive and while there was a bit of a learning curve, the platform is stable and performs well.

Are you using Skype for gaming? What has been your experience? What things have you learned? If you have not used Skype yet, do you think it will work for you?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Skype At The Game Table: A Primer"

#1 Comment By ironfort On June 25, 2010 @ 5:19 am

We have been doing this for about four years now. We have two (sometimes three) remote players. I now have three webcams and use Yawcam to upload 10 sec snaps to our website. One Webcam points to the board, one to myself and the last to the other players in the room.

I have started to record the audio and create movies of our sessions but these are much to big to upload.

One of the big problems, I find is that side chat and cross talking in the local players can make it impossible for the remote players. We have no found a good solution to this yet. There is a lag when Skype switches on the audio from the remote player and this sometimes means that if local players talk to much you never hear them and they get frustrated. I am looking for a solution for this.

regards
dave

#2 Comment By Latmorril On June 25, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

My group has been using Skype for about four years now as well and it has worked fairly well for us overall. There are four remote players and one or two local. We use audio only and use MapTool as our digital gaming table.

Our table etiquette has developed over time and now the game and social interaction runs quite smoothly. We use initiative for our speaking order (now handled visually in MapTool 1.3), with the GM allowed to jump in. Of course, this can break down, especially if it is a beer and pretzels session, so best if the GM or a designated player can keep on top of “who has the conch”. The players and I use the text chat feature in Skype to handle some of the cross table talk and for GM/player messages, and of course for players to goof off! The slower tempo of the game was a challenge at first though we have long since gotten used to it, especially since we have improved the pace through our table etiquette and encounter fewer technical hang-ups.

A speakerphone is a good consideration, we would use one for myself and the local players if we weren’t a group on a tight budget. I have used my iPhone set to speaker for a couple of sessions and it worked ok though we did have to raise our voices which can be uncomfortable over a longer session.

For background music/sound effects, I am curious, has anyone used the Donaut plug-in for Skype? I was tempted to give it a try but have not out of concern that with one more thing to manage I wouldn’t be able to give my local players at the table with me the attention they deserve.

#3 Comment By E-l337 On June 25, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

I’ve been using Skype since… well, probably since it came out, really. However, the idea to start using it as a part of our online games didn’t really start to take root until several months ago, when we introduced some new blood into the group.

I’ve been gaming over the internet for about seven years or so now, and I have to say that using Skype is a great thing. I can’t speak for the experience at the actual table itself, but as for my group in general over the internet, we’ve found that it is a great way to drastically reduce chatter in the chat logs, and gives us a way to mess around and talk all we want *outside* of the game itself.

I highly recommend using Skype for game-related purposes. It’s just an awesome platform to use, and it really doesn’t cost you anything, so long as you don’t need to upgrade a computer to run it or anything.

#4 Comment By DocRyder On June 25, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

Currently, I’ve been running my game with two remote players. One recently dropped out for other reasons. We use AIM/iChat and GameTable for table management, but lag and session crashes have forced us to eliminate video. We’re still working out some snags, but all in all, it’s a great option.

#5 Comment By itliaf On June 27, 2010 @ 11:35 am

I was a player/DM in a Skype game (myself and one other guy Skyped in, four players met in person) for over a year, and came out of it with a list of things to do to keep from cheesing off your players.
1. Do play at the same location every session. We switched locations regularly (a holdover from when all the players lived in the same town), and that meant switching primary PCs and mic setups as well. This led to two sub issues
a. Do establish guidelines for dealing with tech difficulties (i.e. Kevin handles all tech issues and he does it off mic whenever possible) We had players bringing their own laptops to the table to follow the action on maptool. If one of the players was having tech issues, (seemingly a weekly occurrence) we never really got the knack for resolving the tech issues without everyone in the group putting in their two cents about what was going wrong.
b. Do make sure you have backup plan for tech failures. One of our gaming locations was dependent on a certain player showing up and remembering to bring his wireless mouse with him, as the main skype box was too far from the gaming table for a wired mouse. If no wireless mouse was available our alternative was for the DM to stand up and walk across the room to move minis on the map once or twice/round.
2. (more of a maptool tip) Remember to speak out loud about what is going on whatever map you are running on. Don’t just assume because you found the perfect jpg to represent an area. You need to do more to set the scene verbally than “okay so you’re in this cave and there are the Yuan-ti, roll initiative”

#6 Comment By OnlineDM On June 27, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

The game that I’ve been DMing and talking about on my blog for the past few months is an online D&D 4e game that uses Skype for audio and various programs (settling on MapTool now) for the battlemat. I host the game on my laptop, which I actually take out of the room where I usually use it because my wife plays from her computer in that room and it’s best if we each have Skype on our own computers so that everyone can hear. My wife hosts the Skype call (her computer is wired into the router whereas mine is wireless, so at least the audio will be reliable) and I host the MapTool/GameTable/OpenRPG session. Our players are a couple who log in together from a single computer. It’s worked great so far!

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On June 29, 2010 @ 2:17 am

One of my friends was eager to continue to participate in the campaign after he went cross country, but we never worked through the issues to actually make it work. I’m glad to hear that it sounds possible to do well.

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