Scenario: you have a gaming group, but someone has moved away. The whole point of EpicTable is to let you play regardless of where everyone lives, so it’s great for getting the gaming group back together or preventing it from splitting up in the first place. Most of my games in recent years have been entirely online–that is, no one is face-to-face. However, my current group is one like those I know some of you have: most people face-to-face and one remote. We’ve had a couple false starts at this over the years, honestly, and I’ve always felt bad about that. EpicTable was working great for me in my all-remote games, but the hybrid games weren’t working, for a bunch of reasons unrelated to EpicTable. This time, though, I think we’ve finally got the right formula. In this post, I’m going to share what was wrong and why it’s working this time. At the end of the post, I’ll list all the gear I’m currently using.
Interaction is the Key
I know, that sounds really obvious, but that’s what we were missing all along with the hybrid games. Interaction in my all face-to-face games was great, interaction in my all-remote games was great too, but interaction in the hybrid games was…bad. In retrospect, I was failing for three reasons: poor sound, poor/no video, and separate physical and virtual tabletops.
Better Video: Dedicated Player View
In my failed attempts, I sat at the head of the table with my laptop, and I had a webcam pointed out at the group so the remote person could see the other players and the physical tabletop. One problem was that I didn’t have a great webcam, so the remote person’s view wasn’t great. Webcams have gotten a lot better over the last several years, which has sort of solved that problem. Another problem was that I didn’t have a dedicated display of the remote person. I had him in a Google Hangout on my laptop, or sometimes I’d drag the Hangout window to the screen where I was displaying EpicTable maps and handouts, but…that was the screen where I was displaying maps and handouts, so most of the time the remote player’s video was hidden.
Now, I have the remote player on a tablet dedicated to running Google Hangout. That’s all it does–it’s running the Hangout, so it’s displaying the remote player full-screen, so it seems like he’s at the table. In fact, he’s “sitting” opposite of me, at the other end of the table, so he can see me, the table, and the other players. And we can see him. The difference this makes is really significant. We used to almost forget the remote player was there (sorry, Ed), but now, he’s right there at the table with us.
In earlier attempts, the sound was just awful. On my well-prepared days, I’d have an external mic and speakers, but they weren’t great. Sometimes I’d use the webcam mic. It was a bit of a disaster. Nothing takes the remote player out of the game faster–or makes the local game drag–than when the remote player can’t hear well and can’t be heard. The fix for this was embarrassingly simple: I bought a decent bluetooth conference speaker/mic and put it in the middle of the table. Like the webcam, this is an example of tech getting better and more affordable, but it was also made possible by our abandoning the use of the physical table for maps, because that freed up the middle of the table for a mic rather than the mic being on the laptop.
Eliminating the Physical Gaming Surface
This one might be the hardest sell for your group. We love our dice and minis and battlemats. In earlier, failed attempts at the hybrid game, I was trying to preserve the face-to-face experience unaltered and just add the virtual experience for the remote person. One time I tried using a physical battlemat and minis at the table and reproducing all the action on an EpicTable map for the remote player. That had me overloaded, and I couldn’t run either side of the game as well as I wanted to. Another time, I tried using a touchscreen in the middle of the table, so all maps were EpicTable maps, and we didn’t use minis, but we still had the feel of the map on the table. That worked out better, but there were minor logistical issues: as the GM, it’s harder to see the map on the screen lying on the table unless you stand up all the time, which makes running the game harder. It also takes up the middle of the table–where everyone’s speech is aimed, so you can’t easily put the mic there. Also, with a screen on the table, everyone’s paranoid about drinks and snacks, and there’s no room for books and character sheets, etc.
In this latest round, we’ve completely stopped using the physical tabletop for maps. We still roll dice on that table, but otherwise, it’s solely the realm of drinks and snacks and books and character sheets. The maps and handouts are on a 32″ screen on a tripod at the end of the table. That’s big enough that I can see the maps from where I’m running the game at the other end of the table, and all the players can see, but it’s not so large that the tripod sags under its weight. Plus, the tripod and 32″ screen are pretty portable for if I want to take this setup on the road.
I thought that leaving minis behind and moving the map from the center of the table would be issues, but they really haven’t been. The gains in better interactivity and GM sanity have offset the downsides.
Finally! A viable face-to-face / remote game.
It’s hard to stress enough how important these changes have been. I feel like we have a really good hybrid game for the first time.
Setup and Gear
Here are the full details of my setup and gear. I’ll provide links at the end of the post. I’m not trying to sell anyone anything–I’m just telling you what’s working for me. I’m sure there are plenty of other variants out there. Feel free to post your own setups to the forum.
My Location as GM
I’m at one end of the table, running EpicTable on a laptop. I have the 32″ screen plugged in via HDMI cable and have my display extended to that one, so I can drag windows from my laptop screen to the bigger screen that the players can see.
The Local Players’ Screen
This is the 32″ screen that is connected to my laptop. It sits at the opposite end of the table from me (so I can see what’s there as well as the players can). What do I drag over there? Usually, the chat window (so the local players can see the remote player’s dice rolls), a tabletop where I have pics of several NPCs and locations, the EpicTable portrait bar, and the player view of whatever map we’re on.
Virtual Ed: The Remote Player at the Table
I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 1 Tablet on a tablet stand as the dedicated display of our remote player, Ed. It has our Google Hangouts window fullscreen, so we all have a view of our remote player. Why a Surface Pro? Mostly, just because I had one lying around, but also because I needed something with a USB connector for my webcam and Bluetooth for my conference speaker/mic. Any tablet that can do that and run Google Hangouts will work. It might be nicer to have a larger display of the remote player–depending on your remote player. For Ed, that Surface Pro is just fine. 😉 Actually, if I could get a larger tablet, or maybe a laptop with external monitor, at the right price point, I’d be tempted to upgrade the remote player display–especially if we started having multiple remote players. Note that this device isn’t running EpicTable–just Google Hangout. It exists only to bring our remote player into the game.
A Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 is positioned near the tablet, looking out at the tabletop, the other players, and me. With current webcam tech, you can affordably give the remote player a view of all that and it’s good enough that they can see the non-verbal cues around the table and participate way better than in the past.
The audio for the remote player is a Jabra Speak 510 Wireless Bluetooth Speaker sitting in the middle of the table. It’s connected to the tablet running Google Hangouts. This has improved our audio immeasurably, which as made a huge difference to the game.
Odds and Ends
Voice and Video
We use Google Hangouts for voice and video. Everyone has their favorite conferencing app (which is why EpicTable just stays out of the way on this front).
Who’s running EpicTable?
At our table, only I run EpicTable locally, and then our remote player runs it. The players in the room view whatever I share with them via the big monitor. While it’s possible for the players at the physical table to join the EpicTable session, there’s really no point unless they want to use features like EpicTable’s dice roller or whispers in chat. (And of course everyone prefers to roll their physical dice.)
How do we handle dice rolls?
I drag the chat window over to the big screen, so players can see the remote player’s dice rolls. I do mine through EpicTable as well, mostly just because the remote player likes seeing them. Everyone else just rolls physical dice and calls out results.
Sound Effects and Music
I’m currently using Syrinscape for music and sound effects in my RPG. There’s tons of content available, and it’s a really well put-together app. I use a dedicated wireless bluetooth speaker (OontZ Angle 3 Portable Bluetooth Speaker) for this and have it near enough to the conference mic that the remote player can hear everything the people at the table can, without any need to setup virtual audio cabling or anything like that. It’s low-tech, but it works.
I use a 25′ HDMI cable to run from my laptop, under the table, to the big screen opposite me. I use a power squid with 15′ cord to plug everything in.
EpicTable – This is what brings it all together.
LG 32MA68HY-P 32-Inch IPS Monitor (connected to the GM laptop)
Gator Frameworks GFW-AV-LCD-1 Standard Tripod LCD/LED Stand
Note: There’s one that’s a bit more expensive that comes with a piston to assist in raising and lowering the screen: GFW-AV-LCD-2
Microsoft Surface Pro 1 Tablet (connected to Google Hangout)
Lamicall Tablet Stand
Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 (connected to Google Hangout via the tablet)
Jabra Speak 510 Wireless Bluetooth Speaker / Mic (connected to Google Hangout via the tablet)
OontZ Angle 3 Portable Bluetooth Speaker (for sound effects and music, connected to the GM laptop)
Gator Cases Padded Nylon Carry Tote Bag for Transporting LCD Screens, Monitors and TVs Between 27″ – 32″ (G-LCD-TOTE-MD)
AmazonBasics High-Speed HDMI Cable, 25 Feet
Accell PowerSquid Outlet Multiplier – Grounded Extension Cord Power Strip – 5 Outlets, 15-Foot Cord, ETL Listed
What have I left out? How does your situation differ from mine? Drop me a line via firstname.lastname@example.org or on the forum and let me know how I can help.