Have You Tried Gaming Across The Internet?

As part of the open playtesting for our Adventure Competition winners, I’m looking to organise some online gaming and some people to play with. I’ve never tried any of the various tools for sort of gaming so I’ve been asking around on Twitter for some advice.

Free Gaming

Schoonerhelm suggested skipping the specialised tools completely and going for Skype, a shared whiteboard on Scriblink and PDFs or Excel files for character sheets.

Bonemaster suggested GRIP and OpenRPG, two open source tools that work on Windows, Linux and OSX (the later being very important for me).

Bssteph suggested another open source tool, MapTool which also has a load of add-on/complementry tools as well. This is a Java based application so it should work across different platforms. Frdarvin also recommend RPTools.

Not So Free Gaming

Googling around I found some commercial solutions.

Klooge.Werks digital gaming table is available through RPGNow and DriveThruRPG and is another Java application. It costs between $15 and $60 depending on the type of licence you want.

Fantasy Grounds is a Windows only applications and costs either $24 or $40 for the lite or full licences. There also seems to be specific add-ons for different game systems and several adventures available, all for about $10 each.

Screen Monkey seems to be a relatively new online gaming tool and is available for $35. Only GMs need to run the software which requires a Windows PC but players can use anything with a web browser.

What Are Your Experiences?

Have you tried any of these tools or any other tools then please let me now what you think of them? Also, what are the wider problems of GMing or playing over the net? Are there special house rules needed to make these the game go smoothly, such as what to do when someone’s connection dies unexpectedly?

We want organise an online game so any feedback and ideas you can give us would be appreciated. Also if you would like to take part in our online playtest session, just comment below.


  1. I ran a 4e keep on the shadwofell game a while back. I had a lot of fun, but I won’t likely do it again. It’s a LOT more prep time then playing face to face.

    If you do it, I recommend maptool since its awesome and free 🙂 Look into using a framework to make the job easier, theres one for Pathdfinder/3.5 – http://forums.rptools.net/viewforum.php?f=33

  2. We’ve used Gametable to good effect a few times, and enjoyed it. One of the strengths of a system like Gametable or Maptool is that they’re designed not to be obtrusive – they provide just the tools to lay out a map, chat and roll dice, so they don’t get in the way of the gaming itself.

  3. I’ve used MapTool and OpenRPG, both with a fair amount of success. The only trouble with OpenRPG is that if the server goes down (which it does occasionally) you can’t get into the game at all and have to use a different program, which is why we switched to MapTool; it doesn’t seem to have that problem. However, I haven’t actually used any of the mapping tools; we’re running pretty combat-light Labyrinth Lord, so we basically just need a chat room with a dice roller. So I don’t know how easy to use or effective those parts of the program are.

    As far as general advice goes, the two main problems are that you don’t have tone of voice/body language, and the game can be *slow,* particularly if you start rolling a lot of dice. So as the DM, you need to check in with the players a little more, since otherwise it’s hard to tell the difference between players who are thinking about what to do next and players who are getting bored. It’s also not a great format for a game that’s mostly about combat, or any other die-rolling subsystem, and I imagine the problem would be even worse if you needed to prep a battlemap for each fight.

    For me, of course, the problems are drastically outweighed by the benefits. Most particularly, the format really lends itself to immersion. There’s no one else at the table to remind you that the half-ogre isn’t really a half-ogre, and it takes advantage the ability I have from years of reading to totally lose myself in text. But I’m in a game right now where one of the main focuses is a budding romance between my character and a major NPC, which wouldn’t even really be possible in tabletop. Much easier to play out the cute couple stuff when the DM’s not right across the table.

  4. I only play online now – mainly because all my gaming friends have moved. I have used Open RPG and Fantasy Grounds II extensively and dabbled in Maptool.

    FGII is the best of these in my opinion because it has a full character sheet. Without a Character sheet it is up to the GM to record keep for everyone. The problem with FGII is that it is peer to peer and with today’s firewalls it can be hard to set up unless the GM is tech-savvy.

    Open RPG is an older online tool. Not as supported as it once was. It covers all of the bases, chat, map, dice but no character sheet.

    Maptool is not rule specific as it is basically just a chat window beneath a map. The map can be labor intensive to set up but they are the most interactive of any online GM tool (dynamic lighting for one).

    I would say that if you do not want to spend a lot of time and money setting it up go with Open RPG.


  5. I tried playing by chat and it was quite fine as long as all the players could write really really fast on the computer. Skype is probably better way that I’m going to test soon.
    Playing by forum or e-mail is sloooow. Very slow. It could be good for some types of games but for normal playing – no.

  6. I dread it.

    I’ve played about a dozen games over the internet, and just can’t stomach it anymore. I miss the table top, the group of friends, etc.

  7. I run a 3.5 game through the internet using the following free things:

    1) Voxli (web-based voice chat)
    2) Microsoft SharedView (works on XP, Vista, and possibly other things)
    3) Open Office (free!)
    4) Pidgin (or AIM, GChat, Yahoo Chat, or whatever)
    5) the Dice Roller on the Wizards website (enforced only by an honor system)

    I plug the maps into Open Office (either by drawing them out by hand or finding sample ones on the Wizards website), which are then made visible to the group through SharedView. Using Excel instead of its OpenOffice counterpart works just as well, if not even better.

    It can get a bit clunky at times, and once in a while the lack of direct visual interaction with other players can make maintaining your focus difficult, but it’s completely free and works great. We don’t need miniatures, since we can adapt graphics found on the Wizards website or homemade materials. We don’t even really need books, since the 3E/3.5 SRD is also online, and often more thoroughly updated with errata than our hardbacks. Of course, I would recommend tracking down and buying the relevant books, since that’s always more enjoyable

    Admittedly, our setup does have its drawbacks. We can’t read each others’ facial expressions or body language. SharedView behaves as though it uses a lot of RAM (though I’m not sure what the actual system requirement there is). Map-creation in the proper format and typing up of individualized messages for players can create a good deal of extra work for the DM. Dice-rolling can seem really slow, since no one except the rolling player can actually see the dice, and a string of “natural 20s” tends to generate more suspicion than jubilation. Also, I’m pretty sure SharedView requires BootCamp to run on a Mac, but I don’t think that’s been a problem for us so far.

    However, with my group scattered up and down the Eastern Seaboard, the alternative is no game at all, so we suck it up and play on. I’d say my group would probably enjoy an in-person game more, but we still have a lot of fun every week and I would heartily recommend an internet-game to any group.

    (Though I will be checking out these other resources you’ve mentioned, anything to make it easier, right?)

  8. Actually, I didn’t think GRIP is OpenSource. I know it use to be a pay product at least for the GM’s Interface. I think Player’s tool is freeware. It’s been sometime since I used either one of those tools.

  9. Okay, I’ve used both OpenRPG and Skype as well as a digichat before either. I have 2 years of experience playing on digichats, a year’s worth playing on OpenRPG and 3 years playing on Skype. 95% of all my gaming is done online as I work away from home about 75% of the time. While working away from home I utilize internet that isn’t overly reliable, Satellite connections, Cellular modems where cell service isn’t great, and sometimes routers that are overloaded or share weight with a VoIP phone. I’ve worked on both Mac and PC, never Linux. I’m explaining this because I want you to know what sort of playtest conditions I’ve gone through to believe I’m qualified to have a valid standpoint.

    I like online gaming, and a few of my online players who know me in real life have said that my games are actually better over an IM medium because I’m a better writer than I am a speaker. Having said that I do acknowledge that using a text medium has it’s disadvantages, it is slower, and that problem can be compounded when you’re waiting on a post from a player who has a screaming baby, or is inconsiderate enough to be playing WoW while you’re running a combat. Having said that, depending on what medium you use, there are several advantages text-based IM’ing has over even face-to-face gaming.

    Why I endorse Skype over OpenRPG and Digichat is manyfold. First, Skype is easy to use, read and runs quick. OpenRPG is a pain in the ass to run on a Mac. I actually have to go in through the open directory to execute it, and install 2 programs to make it work. Skype is download and go. No faffing about. Digichats are about equal to skype for accessibility in this respect.

    Next, Skype holds chat history FOREVER!!! The value of this cannot be overstated. Can’t remember an NPC name? No problem! Need to revisit a plot touched on 4 games ago? It’s as easy as copy/paste. Want to compile a log of all your game stories to post online for everyone to enjoy? Easy. Missed a game? NO PROBLEM! Skype instantly updates you with the stuff you missed while you were offline once another member of the same room logs on. You don’t need screenshots to remember the hilarious moment in a game, or have proof for your friends that so-and-so did what he did. It’s recorded. The search function makes finding a needle in a history haystack easy as pie too. Digichats don’t do this, and OpenRPG can compile a log but you have to do so at the end of every session and then manage the individual files.
    This also works to your advantage when you have a crappy internet connection, or your power goes out, or you have an annoying family member who needs attention while you’re gaming because the the history taking capabilities mean that you can always catch up on what you missed.

    Next is private messaging, side rooms etc… Skype lets you manage an infinite number of simultaneous chats. This means you can have a main chat room for everyone to RP in. An out of character room where they can share youtube videos and jaw about the day they had, a private discussion with the GM about how they’re going to betray the other PC’s, and a off-side room where a few of the PC’s are doing a side mission. The multitasking is easy to switch through, and very very user friendly. OpenRPG will allow you to have ONE main chat, and side chats with only a single other person. No collaborative side projects, no out of character room. Digichat is also equal to Skype in this respect.

    File Transferring. Skype’s file transferring is unparalleled. I know of none better. It’s free, simple and reliable. It has no limit to file size. Just drop the file you want to share onto the chat window, and you’re golden. Sharing character sheets, PDF rules, character images or whatever is that easy. I’ve dropped connections many times while doing a skype file transfer and once I was back on again it just continued where it left off. NOTHING ELSE DOES THAT that I’ve found.

    Unlimited post size. You can paste entire textbooks, chat histories, prewritten descriptions or whatever in the skype window. No other program will let you do that to my knowledge.

    Post editing. Skype lets you edit and/or remove your posts after you make them for a while. Say you got a description wrong, or reacted to something without knowing all the facts, or just said something downright embarrassing? NO PROBLEM. Skype lets you take it back so that no incriminating evidence remains. (Unless they take a screen shot.) Nothing else does this to my knowledge.

    What skype doesn’t have is an online die roller. OpenRPG does, as do some digichats, and this is a pretty important feature. However there are lots of online die rollers out there only a google search away. I prefer die rollers that have a running log of what was rolled to keep everyone honest, but this isn’t always necessary.

    OpenRPG has features for sharing files, but I fiddled with them for several game sessions and couldn’t figure them out, so as far as I’m concerned they don’t exist. Their history functions are massively inferior… they have a map posting system that I’ve never seen anyone use, so it might be good, I’m not sure. I’ve used Scriblink is nice for creating quick maps that everyone can see and do alterations to, it isn’t ideal, but between creating PDF maps and that I’ve never had need for anything else.

    My experiences with Skype are such that I get seriously frustrated with small things about these other programs. Things like the fact that OpenRPG doesn’t come with chimes loaded in to alert you when a new message comes up. Means that you can’t read a blog or chat with anyone else or do any kind of multitasking while the RP is on. It’s a small thing, but makes a big difference, especially when you’re trying to run a game and watch dinner at the same time. Neither openRPG or digichat can tolerate an unstable connection to any degree and will eject you from the server (sometimes leaving you to stare at an unmoving chat window for 5 minutes, wondering why no one is posting), which really really ticks me off.

    I’ve found that with Skype my players become more in-character than with any other game medium, this is partially because the history capabilities allow them to RP outside of game sessions without interrupting the story I’m trying to tell. It lets them plan and plot together without slowing things down, and it lets their characters become emotionally and romantically involved with other characters as privately as they want without making anyone an uncomfortable spectator. This allows me to touch points in my stories that many gamers can’t because of the constraints of finite playsession time and privacy.

    That’s where I’m coming from when I make my recommendations for what to use in an online medium. My way isn’t for everyone, some people just don’t like the slowness of text, but for me it’s fantastic.

  10. I’m 3 sessions into running my first online game. I run a 4e game using Skype, Maptools and Obsidian Portal. I tried using Ventrilo for voice initially, but it didn’t work well enough, so we switched to Skype, which works great.

    I’m really enjoying it, I have to say. My old gaming group is scattered across the country (Canada, too, so we’re a loooong way from each other). We run a 4-hour session every 3 weeks, and it seems to be working really well.

    Maptools was a bit of a beast to set up and get working. I’m in computer tech support and release testing for my work, and it was still quite a challenge getting everything up and working. Now that it IS up and working, it’s AWESOME. The line of site, fog of war and dice rolling macros keep things whipping along, and we’re having a lot of fun.

    So far, of our 3 sessions, one was introduction and rule-orientation, since only a few of us had played 4e, the second session was 4 hours of straight, in-character roleplaying (I call shenanigans on the people who say you can’t role-play with 4e). The third session was 4 hours of straight combat, which was also pretty great.

    If you have the time and the skills, Maptools is definitely worth checking out – Skype is the way to go for chat, and Obsidian portal lets me keep all my notes and info in one place, as well as posting session summaries, character and campaign info, and various other things.

    The tools and resources are definitely available now to play online. I use pdf’ed character sheets (download Cute PDF writer), keep all my encounters saved as word docs with monsters imported from Monster Builder. DDi is a great tool as well – between the Monster Builder, encounter tools, Compendium and Character Builder, it’s worth every penny to a DM running an online game.

  11. I ran a seven session Burning Wheel game via Skype. No dice rollers, no battle maps – each player rolling their own dice, reporting results. It works.

    If you can’t trust your players, then I think the game’s not worth it.

  12. The main problem I had with playing through chat is the time zone differences between participating players… it’s one of the reasons why I prefer gaming through forums…

  13. I love using MapTools and Skype together. MapTools has the *HUGE* benefit of not actually having to be installed on your machine — there’s a web launch page on the RPTools.net website that works wonderfully. The GM (and/or the game host if that’s not the GM) will probably want a local install so that configuration files and the like are retained, but the web launch works really well for our group. Not to mention that because MT is a Java app, it works great across multiple platforms.

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