Gareth-Michael Skarka asked about roleplaying via Skype in a recent comment, and though he received some info from my fellow players in the Lady Blackbird game, which was conducted via Skype, I told him I’d write a post about it from the point of view of a newbie to the medium, given this was my first time playing that way.
In general, I am very happy having Skype as a new tool in my gaming box. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t replace face-to-face, in-person gaming, but it is far more engaging than play-by-post/-email, both of which I have done in the past few years and had mixed results with.
Pros of Skype Gaming
Opportunities – By this I mean that Skype gives you the opportunity to play with people that otherwise you may rarely, if ever, get to play with at all. Yes, we can gather at Origins or Gen Con once a year, perhaps, but schedules at big cons tend to be so loaded that there’s no guarantee you and three, four, five other people will manage to make it to a table for a game. Or maybe you’re looking for a new game opportunity beyond the group you already have, but your availability in terms of driving to a place may be limited, in which case, with Skype, you can find a new group that can better fit into your availability. Or the perpetual problem for many, not being able to find a game group in their area. With Skype, “your area” gets a lot bigger.
Voice Interaction – You may not see the other players, but hearing them makes a huge difference in how engaged you get with the game. Yes, we’re lacking the visual cues, but audio cues come across fairly well, so it is easier to know how a player means a statement to be understood. The fact that I play via Skype using headphones means my fellow players’ voices are right in my ear, which is a bit weird but truly works wonders for immersion.
Text-Based Chatter – Skype allows you to have a text conversation between the players independent of the conference call. We have used this as a way to convey important information, such as links or passwords to the dice-rolling website we use, picture references and yes, even off-topic chatter. The great thing is that this happens aside from the in-game audio conversation, so while a character may be having a scene, the others can quickly exchange a few lines. You always gotta keep it in check so it doesn’t affect the game, but it solves the In-Character/Out-of-Character dilemma much better than any other option, including face-to-face gaming.
Geography-Independence – Our Lady Blackbird group had me in Miami Beach, FL, Rich and Arnold in Jacksonville, FL, Mick in Louisville, KY and Chuck in… actually, I’ve no idea where Chuck was. Which is exactly the point: no matter where we were physically, we could be in the game. We gamed while I was in Puerto Rico during the summer, we gamed when some of the others were off visiting family; heck, we gamed when some of us had no Internet access and we called them on the phone (myself included at one time). Brilliant.
Cons of Skype Gaming
Disconnection – As much as voice can help people engage with one another better than text, at the end of the day the lack of a physical component means there is an amount of disconnection between the players. What I have seen this most affect is attendance; it is so easy to cancel or bow out of a Skype game that it should be illegal. I’m guilty of this myself, having had a few game nights during the last year when I was simply not in the mood/up to gaming; I just emailed or Twittered or maybe hopped onto Skype long enough to let them know that I wasn’t going to make it. I don’t know I would have been so flippant with a face-to-face crowd (extreme circumstances aside).
Technical Dependency – If your computer and/or software is not working right, kiss your Skype game session good night. This can be anything from slow computers, shoddy Internet connection, headset malfunctions, crappy sound quality, etc. Now, this can be mitigated somewhat by bypassing the computer and including someone into the game conference call via a cellphone or land line, though know this costs money per minute (not a lot, but you’ll need to have credit in your account), but this alternative, while great to get the game going, it removed the player on the phone from some of the pros, especially the text chatter that links up the rest of the group. The other most common issue in this area would be the bad reception you can get sometimes, anything from static on someone’s line (worst if it’s in the main conference call account), delay/lag, or electronic warbles. Some you can fix, others you simply have to play through or give in.
Cacophony – Without visual cues to let others know when you want to talk, it happens that sometimes you get interruptions over interruptions over interruptions as people try to get a word in, or strange pools of silence as everyone waits for someone to say something. The text chat can help alleviate this by signaling the rest that you want to speak, but just be prepared for people talking over each other at times. I have found that with Skype gaming, there’s a lot more instances of calling people by name to signal who one is talking to/whose answer is expected than there would be in a face-to-face game.
Not A Complete Package – Skype can only give you the connection between people, but you still have to figure out how to handle dice rolling, combat, visual enhancements, etc. This isn’t a huge drawback, as paired with the simple dice roller at Catch Your Hare (which we used for Lady Blackbird) or MapTool (which we used for [the short-lived game of] Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, and which the guys have used for Primetime Adventures in the past) you’re pretty much golden.
Even with the cons, I’ll take Skype gaming over no gaming any day. It certainly allows for the kind of immersive, get-in-your-character’s-skin kind of play I like due to being able to hear my fellow gamers (as a long-time podcast listener, I know full well the rapport that can be created by listening to someone), and trust me, we had moments when we all forgot we were gaming via headsets miles apart from each other and simply flowed with the game’s story in enviable fashion, something I never experienced in the other two text-based forms of remote gaming, via post or via email.
Know that Skype also supports video conferencing, which could go even further towards creating a much more connected gaming experience. It isn’t a feature I have used and I’m sure it comes with its own set of technical issues to deal with, but it’s an option to keep in mind (in Voice of the Revolution #38, at 22:01, Brennan and Ryan talk about Skype gaming and Brennan comments about playing over Skype with video).
Give Skype gaming a try for sure.