Hybrid virtual tabletop / face-to-face D&D using EpicTable

Posted in EpicTable Development on February 17, 2011 at 11:20 pm

EpicBasement SetupSunday afternoon was the first session of my hybrid face-to-face / virtual tabletop D&D game using EpicTable. We’re using beta-2 (EpicTable is still in closed beta, but watch the site for an open beta in coming months). I resisted the urge to run anything in development–instead using only the beta that the rest of the testers have.

My EpicBasement

  • Big screen TV connected to my laptop.
  • Fairly ordinary, moderately priced webcam on top of the TV, which also functioned as the mic. (This worked surprisingly well.)
  • My GM’s table, and a players’ table.
  • Initially, I was recording Skype and the webcam pointing out from the TV towards the players, and I had a second video camera behind the players, pointed at the big screen showing the player view. Finally, I had Camtasia recording my GM’s screen. Aside from setting myself up for an incredible amount of video editing, this proved too much for my aging laptop to handle.

The Game

We were playing D&D 4th Edition, partially out of gamer curiosity and partly because I feel like I need to know more to support that community of gamers. Wow, was I right. Turns out, running D&D for years and years does not suddenly make you able to run D&D 4E smoothly with a quick read of the rules. I don’t think that’s 4E’s fault–I just underestimated the number of times I’d be left saying, lamely, well…in 3.5 it works like so, but in 4E…hmm…I’m not sure….

How EpicTable Fared

From an EpicTable perspective, I have to say, my feelings on the session are mixed. On the one hand, it’s rather humbling to experience some of the shortcomings that the beta has. It’s one thing to know that they’re there and see them while testing. It’s another to experience first-hand how much they impact a game. On the positive side, though, there were really only a handful of issues that were really painful, and all but one was well-known to me. Clearing those up will make a huge difference, and they really are mostly in the missing feature category, not the “something’s broken” category. So, in the end, once I shake off the despondency, this will be a focusing, energizing experience.

Player Screen

I’d planned to drag encounter maps to a big screen TV. Then, I realized that I’d disabled that just before Gen Con because it was a little fiddly to get maps re-docked, should one choose to do so–and I’d never re-enabled it. So, the feature I planned on using wasn’t actually in version of the software I planned on using. Hmm…. While pondering whether I should try a quick change and run a development build, it struck me that what I wanted for my game was more than just maps. I wanted the chat window too, for dice rolls. Fine–that already supports undocking and dragging to another screen. But there’s just one of them. I couldn’t very well put my one and only chat window on the big screen. What if I needed to whisper? What if I needed a secret roll?

I decided I could solve all these problems by running the session the same way I run my tests–I created a new user, named “Player Screen” and ran EpicTable as that user. This was great! It was just like any other player. No GM info leaking out, and as a side benefit, because all clients go through a central server, what I saw in the “Player Screen” EpicTable would be very true to the experience of my players. Perfect! Except…. Except I was running the game on a laptop with 2 GB of RAM. I had two instances of EpicTable (which honestly could do with a memory diet), Skype, a Skype recording add-in (which was boosting Skype’s memory consumption to half a gig and its CPU utilization to 20-30%), Camtasia for recording my screen, and Chrome with tabs open to various 4E sites and Obsidian Portal. My machine just couldn’t keep up. Since we were trying to actually play, not just test, I killed off everything but the GM’s EpicTable and Skype–no second instance of EpicTable, no Skype recording, no Camtasia. This made everything functional again. This experience pointed out that I really need to consider how to run the player’s view in a face-to-face game without consuming a lot of extra memory and without requiring the user to know how to (or whether to) launch EpicTable as another user.

Priorities

This session really drove home a number of priorities for me. I have quite a few changes queued up and ready for beta-3, but I’d really like to put in a couple of those shown here before I release beta-3, because it was so painful playing without them.

  • Gesture support: Really, really need to be able to be able to point at things or make your cursor visible to other participants or something–some way to say things like, “this guy, here” or “over by this rock” and let everyone see what you’re pointing at.
  • Map sync: As GM, I know where I want to focus the action. I need to be able to sync players’ view to mine. It was incredibly painful to say things like, “Zoom out to 40% and scroll to the right.”
  • More accessible horizontal scrolling: Vertical scrolling via mouse wheel is fine. Horizontal scrolling is a bear. You have to keep toggling between the select cursor and the scroll (“pan” to some of you, I guess) cursor. There are already suggestions on the forum for making this better–I just haven’t implemented them yet.
  • EDIT: You can now hold down the spacebar and move the mouse to scroll. — John

  • Large map handling: The maps I was using were larger than I usually use–3000 pixels or more in each direction. They loaded fine but scrolling was sluggish. This is a known issue, but it’s very painful in a live game. I actually cropped the map to make this easier.
  • EDIT: This is better–not perfect, but better. — John

  • Dice cups (i.e., dice rolls you define for 1-click access later) need to be saved across sessions. It’s a known issue that they aren’t. In a real game, that’s a real pain.
  • EDIT: These are saved now. –John

  • Portrait bar needs to sync to all participants. Right now, the GM can use the portrait bar to rearrange characters in initiative order, but that isn’t communicated to the other participants. In a tactical game like D&D, it really needs to be synced.
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