The Man from BUFFY

I have been skeptical of role-playing by VoIP in the past. Frustrating excursions into chatroom and email role-playing and dabbling with audio and video conferencing over the internet for other purposes suggested to me that the lack of immediacy and absence of physical cues from other players’ gestures and expressions would hurt the play experience. People talk over each other, can’t read whether someone is engaged or not and sometimes don’t realize that someone’s gone completely away from the keyboard.

But you can’t knock it til you’ve tried it. So when my friend asked around if there were parties interested in trying out a short role-play scenario by Skype, I got in on the action. It was a short encounter between three swinging secret agents in 1960s London and a sort of triple mummy: three faces and three sets of limbs. The system was a light one called The Agency. A short list of skills gets d6 dice pools of various sizes. The higher the roll, the better. All very good and straightforward.

That simplicity of rules worked to the encounter’s advantage, because this kind of role-playing is driven entirely by dialogue in and out of character. One of the things I disliked about playing via Skype was I felt impeded in participating in the conversation. Without those visual cues — which I have not found a webcam to supply adequately in other circumstances — I found it difficult to know when I could contribute without verbally treading on someone else. We fell into a default turn order which helped a bit. Interacting with the GM came in bursts, kind of like a play by post game: you save up your questions and statements for your turn, get them all out of the way and then let the GM move on to the next player.

What I really didn’t care for was being tethered to the computer by the headset cord. There are solutions for that, of course: a wireless headset, a non-headset microphone, things like that. Not being able to get up and move around during an extended session like that, particularly when I practically live at a desk during the day, sucks. If a VoIP game became a regular thing, I’d have to invest in one of those alternative solutions. At no time do you want to go to the kitchen more for a drink of water than when you can’t.

For the moment: speech-oriented role-playing games over VoIP seem cool, after improving in the areas of eliminating the headphone tether and figuring out a better way to participate in the group dialogue without cutting others off. I’m still dubious about ever dealing with a virtual tabletop more ornate than a shared drawing in Google Docs. I spend my whole day staring at a computer screen. I try to keep that out of my personal time as much as possible — which doesn’t always work out, but I can’t see the sense in intentionally committing to that.

Personally, I wouldn’t want a VoIP-based game to become my only source of role-playing because I value getting out of my home and spending time with people in a shared social environment. But I can see using it for short term and one-shot games outside of my regular role-playing fix.

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