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.
In the last post, I talked about the new inline image editor in EpicTable 2 (upcoming) that lets you do some basic edits on images as you’re selecting them. With EpicTable 2, you won’t need to use a separate image editor for common things we all do to prep our images, and you get the benefit of EpicTable’s recommendations about image size, etc. In this preview, I look at cropping.
Check out this video demo of the work in progress.
One of the problems people run into when using a virtual tabletop for the first time is selecting images that are appropriate for a given use. Often people will use maps that are meant to be printed or large, high quality images for character portraits, and this wastes a lot of time and bandwidth, because they’re transferring sometimes huge images that are never going to be viewed at their original size. I always advise people to use smaller images, but it’s kind of a pain–now they have to use an image editor, and while many people are comfortable with that, EpicTable is supposed to be the easy virtual tabletop, right?
In EpicTable 2, I’m making this a lot easier. EpicTable 2 will tell you when you have an image that’s larger than recommended for its type. For instance, a character portrait should be a lot smaller than a map, and map shouldn’t be something you’re going to print out poster-sized. Not only will EpicTable tell you when you’ve got an image that’s not the appropriate size, but it will help you remedy that without resorting to an image editor. In addition, some common image manipulation beyond size, such as rotation, flipping, and cropping can be done right within EpicTable.
Check out this video demo of the work in progress.
Something changed with respect to the networking layer EpicTable relies on–either due to a Windows update or a change at my hosting provider. I’ve released a new version that changes the interaction with the invitation service to adapt to this. You can download 1.3.7 now.
Check it out. It should solve your invitation problem.
While I was releasing a new version, I picked up a one-line change that solves an issue with the background of one of the panels not changing when you change themes.
This is, of course, a free upgrade, and as always, you can just run the setup program to install over your existing EpicTable installation. All your existing games will work as-is with this update.
Sorry for the disruption of service, and thank you to the people who reported it so I could get this fixed.
A little eye candy for you while I work on pulling EpicTable 2.0 together. The new maps in EpicTable 2 support some new features. I’ve spoken to many of you about separating terrain and dungeon dressing from the map background and the token layer. While looking at the issue of map layers more generally, it struck me that there were some interesting effects possible. One such is this battle map of a volcanic cavern with flowing lava and smoke and steam. As cool as this is, I’ve no doubt it will drive some people crazy, so rest assured, I’ll give you a way to turn off animated elements of the map.
About this map
This map started life as one of the maps from the 2013 EpicTable Box Set, a beautiful cavern map created by one of my all-time favorite fantasy cartographers, Christopher West. You can find more of his work at Maps of Mastery. (Watch out, though–a lot of his stuff is for printing, so it’s super-high-resolution. I had to scale it down to some tiny percentage to make it virtual tabletop ready–and it still looks amazing.)
I made some areas of the map transparent, added some flowing lava under it, somewhat slower than the original, and added a layer of dark clouds, rendered mostly transparent and very slow, on top of it for the smoke and steam. Both those videos were from iStockphoto, and um…I’m chalking their cost up to my Marketing department (which is me).
Any of you think you might be able to make use of animated token bases? Check this out:
These are, for the moment, rather non-trivial to create yourself, so I’d probably start with a gallery of them for different conditions that you could apply to a character…like…um…”on fire”? 😉 I don’t know, honestly, that fire is the ideal example. I think maybe flying and confused and entangled might be better examples of indicating character status in this way. But you’ve got to admit the fire looks cool. 😉
How would you guys see using this? Or do you? Right now, I think of it as a proof of concept that may or may not have a concrete use. Before you suggest it–because I know you are about to–the related feature that this enables, which I’m more sure will be useful, is animated spell effects. I’ve been looking at things like (to go all D&D on you for a second) Obscuring Mist and Entangle and a Pleasantly Roiling Darkness. As with all things EpicTable, I’m trying to give you a set of game-system-neutral components that you can use in any game you want, but where I know certain things are going to be useful because they appear commonly in certain games, I’m not above providing some pre-builds for them.
A Little Gratuitous and Unnecessary Background for the Insatiably Curious
EpicTable 2 represents a fairly major technological uplift relative to EpicTable 1. I created the first version of EpicTable when some tech that’s available now just wasn’t around or wasn’t ready. As new devices have entered the market, it’s pushed me to upgrade the technology underlying EpicTable. In some cases, the benefit is just that it handles new scenarios like large screens and high resolution displays better. That’s why I started with chat, by the way–at the time that was written, one had to do horrifying things to render dice and text together, and not only was the code complicated, but it just doesn’t work perfectly with some of your new displays. The additional benefit, though, is that the new tech opens up all kinds of possibilities, and it’s looking like the EpicTable 2 codebase is going to be significantly smaller and simpler. The core is the same–the way a dice roll or a character or a map is modeled is the same underneath–but the way it hits the screen and allows interaction is way, way, simpler.
EpicTable 22.214.171.124 is now available. It’s a quick fix for a mistake I introduced in 1.3.6 (originally released on 12/21 as 126.96.36.199). It addresses one thing and one thing only: an error in loading “count successes” dice rolls into the dice roll editor. If you don’t use this kind of dice roll, there’s no need for you to upgrade. (And in that case, let’s just forget we had this little conversation.) If you’ve not already upgraded to 1.3.6, go ahead. There are other worthwhile things there. As always, it’s a free upgrade, and as always, it’s completely backwards compatible. Just download it and run the installer.
If you’ve been watching EpicTable lately, you might be wondering… There’s been a flurry of dice roll work on 1.3, a new help site, a user guide started… I’m happy to report that I’m feverishly working on EpicTable 2.0. There’s some pretty significant stuff in it, including a lot of enhancements to the chat window that people have requested. The chat stuff is looking really good, and that’s why I took a moment to backport some of the improvements to the dice roll grammar to 1.3.6.
You know what else uses dice rolls? Mini-sheets. These are small, flexible sheets with key stats and rolls. I previewed mini-sheets awhile back, and they’re definitely going to be there.
Also, there are some improvements to how game objects and other resources are managed that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I won’t hold up 2.0 long enough to do everything I’d like to do, but I think that at least these three things are must-haves for the new EpicTable.
Licensing, Backward Compatibility, and Other Stuff Not to Be Afraid Of
In appreciation for your support and encouragement over the years–or over the hours, for some of you 😉 I’m making EpicTable 2.0 a free upgrade. The licensing model will be the same “kitchen table licensing” that EpicTable 1.x uses. That is, no subscription, no need for player licenses. It’s your table. Play your game.
I’m going to do my best to make sure EpicTable 2.0 loads all existing 1.x games. If it doesn’t, I’ll consider it a bug and work to help you. You won’t necessarily be able to take the same game back to 1.x after you’ve loaded it into 2.0. (As of this writing, I do that all the time during development, but it seems like the kind of thing that’s going to bite me someday.) The other thing I know you won’t be able to do is have a mix–some people on 1.x and some people on 2.0 in the same game.
The Road Ahead
As usual. I’m not forecasting a date. I hope to be leaking some previews soon, though. And yeah, there’s going to be a beta. Details to follow.
My goal has always been for EpicTable to be easy enough to use that you don’t need a user guide. That said, perfection is an elusive thing and sometimes there’s a bit of functionality that’s not as obvious as I’d like or someone has a question about how to do something and having something written down would save their having to ask (or not asking and being frustrated).
So, with that preamble, let me introduce the EpicTable User Guide. It’s on the newly refreshed EpicTable Help site. It’s just starting out, but I’m adding to it bit-by-bit, and as I write new features, I’m adding draft documents that I can turn on as they’re released. You guys have been getting by with videos and exploration for too long. The User’s Guide is going to happen.
One thing that’s slowing me down a little… EpicTable 2.0. That’s right, there’s going to be a 2.0, and it’s going to change things a bit. So, if I’m light on screen shots or documentation is lagging in some areas, it could be that there’s some 2.0 documentation cued up. I’ll start leaking info about 2.0 soon.
EpicTable 1.3.6 is now available. As always, it’s a free upgrade, and as always, it’s completely backwards compatible. Just download it and run the installer.
What’s in 1.3.6?
A fix for an issue a user reported that left a player unable to control his own character.
Bugfixes for certain scenarios in the dice roller–fairly subtle stuff like exploding dice paired with dropping the lowest N dice, exploding paired with success counting in certain scenarios, that sort of thing.