Gaming has come a long way from the time when I started. Having grown up in a very rural area it was quite difficult finding a reliable group, much less one where we had a convenient location to play. Persistence paid off though and through many of my school years I had a group to play with despite the logistics.
Even today I still live in a rural area. I have a major city within thirty minutes, which helps, but it does mean hosting the game at my house is a rare opportunity. The difference between my youth and today (besides better modes of transportation) is that the opportunities for gaming online option exists.
Here at The Iron Tavern I have covered Play-by-Post gaming through a series of advice posts for a successful PbP game. This is still a great option for those that have scheduling issues. But as we all know, PbP gaming is slow, bordering on tedious. Luckily today we have even more options for online gaming.
Virtual Table Tops
Virtual Table Tops is certainly one of the game changers. Providing the ability for connected users to view a battle mat, move tokens and in many cases resolve combat via a series of clicks. Built in chat, frameworks for enhanced system support are features of many of them making gaming via the Internet much easier.
I’ve toyed with many of the VTTs out there and have played actual games on both TTopRPG and MapTool. Others such as Fantasy Grounds are nice VTTs as well, but I tend towards the free VTTs when possible as I find it lowers the cost of entry. Among the freely available ones I prefer MapTool for several reasons.
MapTool works on both Windows systems and Mac systems, which is a tremendous, plus for it. MapTool can be as easy or as complex as you want it. If you want easy, it can act as just a battle mat to move tokens on. Or you can use a framework for the system of your choice and use vision blocking and fog of war for a complete experience.
I have also used TTopRPG in actual gaming situations. It only runs on Windows but is pretty easy to get up and running. The macro system is simple, but easy to get the hang out. The lack of support for the Mac is the biggest thing that keeps me from investing my time into this VTT.
There are several ways to handle voice chat over the Internet these days. The more popular options include Skype or Ventrilo. There are pros and cons to each. I like Ventrilo because it seems to consume fewer system resources. Skype seems more familiar to people. I have played with both. Despite my preference for Ventrilo, I have probably played more games over Skype.
Wizards of the Coast has a VTT in beta that has voice chat built in. I have heard good things about it, but I have not used it to comment on the quality of its voice chat. While I prefer a modular approach, there could be some advantage to having the voice chat built in to the VTT itself.
Some people prefer video for when they play. I tend towards just audio, though that is largely due to bandwidth constraints on my end than anything else. Skype has a video chat option, but you have to pay to do video conferencing with it.
Enter Google Plus with its Google Hangouts feature. This enables group video chat for up to ten people I believe if your bandwidth will support it.
Other Battlemat options
Some find the VTT option a little overwhelming or they do not want to deal with troubleshooting connections to the person hosting the server.
One that I hear mentioned frequently is Twiddla. Twiddla is a free online whiteboard that does have some interesting features. I played with adding an image to the whiteboard and adding some tokens and it seemed to work well. The advantage to this approach is that people connect to a shared whiteboard instance and do not need to connect to a server running VTT software at someone’s house. It makes for a lightweight solution.
Another option is to share Google Drawing document, which also allows you to place tokens on an image (i.e. of a map) in the Google Drawing document and allow people to move them as representations of their character.
Bringing it Together
As you can see there are a lot of pieces to gaming online. Using the applications mentioned above you can combine them in several different ways. You can go with a full on VTT and Skype with just voice. You can go with a VTT and Google Hangouts with video chat. Or you can go all Google Hangouts and maybe just share a Google Drawing or use Twiddla to meet your needs. There are a lot of choices out there now to meet your online gaming needs.
One other factor that comes to bear on your decision of what tool to use is your game system of choice. If you tend towards the more complex systems that lend themselves to the use of battlemats then a full on VTT might be the best option for you.
If you use a more rules light game where combat is less reliant on a battlemat, then simply using a Google Hangout with only voice or video might serve your need.
In any case, gamers today have much better opportunities to game today than we did just a couple of years ago. You are no longer limited to gaming with people within driving radius of you, but you have the whole world to find gamers to game with!