The teenage years are wondrous in being the time in which we develop the habits and interests we'll carry with us for the rest of our lives, while being void of the responsibilities that end up keeping us from spending time with those exact same interests. Age brings other things into abundance, but time in particular is an ever dwindling resource, and while friends might remain such, their time is equally sparse as duties and offspring mount against them. Specifically something as truly frivolous as roleplaying games rarely has the ground to become a priority amongst more pressing matters. I count my friends lucky, as I do myself, that finding time for such a trivial pass-time is even something we get to worry about. And rare as they are, our sessions have nevertheless become important to us as a way to simultaneously unwind and socialize, while spinning light-hearted tales of the fantastic and heroic. A guilty indulgence harking back to more innocent times.
Because of those self-same duties, it's something of a puzzle to marshall a game together, and quite a heroic effort to keep it running against the realities of everyone involved. The days of pulling up a chair around a table in your friend's parents' basement are a distant memory, and we find ourselves living lives across three continents and four timezones, from New York to Brasilia, London, Paris and Copenhagen. What makes for a list of great cities to visit, also makes for a scheduling nightmare. Nevertheless, as one of the few still without the weight of children, I have taken it upon myself to carry the burden of preparing the adventures, bringing people together and challenging our heroes with the rising shadow.
This is a journal covering my time as Loremaster in a game of The One Ring, run for a group of good friends, with whom I ventured into the wild country beyond the Misty Mountains. In it I cover my preparation, my thoughts and concerns, and our game as it (hopefully) unfolds into a larger story.
Growing up, the group I played with at the time was into just about everything. I've always been a somewhat traditional gamer; nothing too experimental or strange, with personal favorites being Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, Heavy Gear and Palladium Fantasy, although some of my most successful games as Game Master have been run with systems few people have even heard of. Our style was, as I'm sure is the case with most teenagers, almost completely ad hoc. We played campaigns of course, and some of the older members of the group, which counted anywhere between ten to twenty members at any given time, were probably more disciplined than the younger ones of us with finding published adventures and campaigns to run. But more often than not we would jump right into any of the most often used scenario templates, the details of which were all invented as we went along, hacking and slashing our way through to the end, which most often coincided with most of the people around the table having gone to sleep on nearby couches.
Campaigns they were only in-so-far that they were the continuing adventures of the (largely) same set of characters in the same setting and under the same system. Our understanding of dramaturgy and continued storytelling was non-existant, and as a result everything was in the moment and few meaningful things were carried over from session to session. It was probably in part a natural extension of our lacking narrative acumen, and part a vestige of D&Ds old-fashioned picaresque nature still echoing in the games of at the time. Moreover, the roleplaying community in Denmark at the time, this being the 90s, was bubbling with conventions, and the focus on the individual session was probably enforced by this, causing us to rarely think in continuing story-lines and evolving characters. Regardless, we were too young, and in the end it hardly mattered, because we had fun.
Ever alluring as they are, I tried my hand at several campaigns, most recently in the early 2010s, when for a period our group could muster an impressive four to five players at a time. The first session of what I had planned as a six to seven session long campaign went beyond my wildest expectations, run entirely on the fly as it happened, while the second was back to normal and the third crashed and burned as my idea clashed with some mix between player expectations, the reality of what tabletop roleplaying does best as opposed to what I had deluded myself into wanting to do with it, and that one character/system-flaw that makes it impossible to balance combat so everyone can shine. I've run games into the ground worse in the past, but I had such high expectations for this one, and as a result when it fell flat in that third session, I turned my back and let the campaign die mercifully.
In retrospect, that first session, in which the group played young versions of themselves exploring a natural cave system (for no particular reason, and in which nothing actually happened) reminded me of something important. It's storytelling, stupid! I'm the Ron Swanson of gamers; I dislike most games (and things), and love a precious few intensely. I prefer a good revolver by my side and blade of steel ("This you can trust.") on my back. The idea of diceless roleplaying makes me nervous. Although I used to think I preferred crunchy, simulationist systems, Rolemaster being still a favorite of mine, as my choices of non-D&D systems put the burden of the rules on me, as opposed to shared amongst the group, I'm less crunch-inclined than I used to be. More than that however, today even systems like D&D are just plain scary for an old geezer like me, who grew up with a lot of hand-waving and squinty-eyed judgement calls (followed up with heated discussions about that fairness of some -2 modifier).
Rules slowing down the game or causing unnecessary distractions isn't exactly the problem, although that is certainly also something to keep in mind. Rather it's how the game easily slides into letting the system be what's at the center of the sessions, rather than the characters and their story. The system shouldn't take over, because without the storytelling you might as well play a board game, and the storytelling shouldn't take over, because the system is in many ways what levels the playing field. The system side of roleplaying games is oft-maligned, even though that is often what makes it possible for people to role-play, by being something they are not.
The Right Conditions
As with flora that require shelter, sunlight, nutrition and an eco-system to thrive, a roleplaying game, especially a campaign, requires more than the wanting of one person to make happen. A group of like-minded people, time, a system, a story. All of these things have to be available for a game to come together.
I imagine that I'm not different than any number of other aging gamers, in my lurking on the sidelines, buying and reading systems and supplements that I have little to no hope of ever running, just for the thrill of imagining the potential of it come to life. It's a curse of sorts, to be in love with something always out of reach. I've resolved many times to damn the odds and start a game, but against time zones, the responsibilities of other people's families, and an awakening from the daydream to a life that already has enough other things to keep me busy, it never got anywhere.
Our group, all Danes, is spread between New York (me) to Brasilia, Paris and Cambridge, which makes the only possibility of playing the acceptance of the virtual tabletop. As it happens, it's been like this for quite a while, and our first experience with virtual tabletop roleplaying was all the way back in 2005. At the time one from our group of friends ran D&D using Fantasy Grounds, which I will return to shortly, alongside a voice-only Skype session. While Fantasy Grounds was in its infancy at the time, and suffered from various stability issues, and Skype only allowed for (I believe it was) five concurrent audio connections, it nevertheless worked well enough that it was a more than passable substitute for the traditional table.
I'd go so far as to say that the experience ruined me somewhat, as I've since then looked around for a way to bring the same level of 'finish' to any potential game I might run myself. Because despite the ten intervening years, and the availability of a range of virtual tabletop tools, there are still none that can match that 2005 experience, at least if you're playing anything but D&D. Ambition is probably the foremost vice of game masters everywhere; and that's admittedly the case with me as well. Finding the perfect story, trimming it just so, matching it with a soundtrack and perfecting handouts and timing. Most of which have a relatively little real impact on the end result, in my experience anyway. Which isn't to say that I haven't spent more time preparing the soundtrack and handout parts of the campaign than I have becoming familiar with the rules and the adventures themselves. In fact I'm so good at not focusing on the things I know are important in preparing a game, that I actually started a full-on redesign of Fantasy Grounds for use with The One Ring, just because I didn't like the wood texture in the default ruleset. The faults of an interface designer. More on that in a bit.
As it turns out, the right conditions for a long distance game are simple: 'make time' (and a Google Hangout). Everything else is a luxury, and maybe a welcome one at that, but a luxury nevertheless. The realities of everyone being parked in their bedroom with kids running around in the hallway outside will intrude on that, but that's the lay of the land and it doesn't stop you from gaming.
Mastering the Space-Time Continuum, or How To Play Long-Distance Roleplaying Games
Today Google Hangout solves the immediate issues around gathering the group. It's free, available for every major platform, and works by and large without issue (even if it kicks your CPU into high gear). If your needs are spartan, the entire game could run using only Hangouts. That Google doesn't do more to evolve Hangouts is a crime.
There are however three other issues that need to be solved for many roleplaying games to function. Dice, battle mats and handouts.
Long story short, we've ended up playing on Roll20. I spent quite a bit of time prodding at Fantasy Grounds, which while it's still around and supported, isn't nearly as refined as its age would suggest. My attempts at making it conform to The One Ring's ruleset were a lesson in frustration, and I soon decided to try my efforts on Roll20 instead.
While it's not necessary to play, I've done quite a bit of work to make Roll20 a better place for The One Ring, efforts I'll share soon, but most importantly for myself, I spent an evening reskinning the CSS to bring one of Fantasy Ground's greatest strengths to the less-than-inspiring look of Roll20. It's amazing what a bit of wood texture and a few CSS tweaks can do (and yes, this is all available).
While the general outline of The One Ring's system is seems simple, it's actually surprisingly detailed. For us this has meant quite a bit of onboarding, which can be distracting when you're trying to set a mood and tell a story; however at the same time the mechanics and the system often push for a more interesting story by making things like traveling have impact on the characters, which in turn means it has impact on their future actions and planning.
The One Ring doesn't strictly speaking require grids and battlemats, however it does have various fan-made helpers for keeping track of travel formations and combat stances, which have eased our sessions quite a bit. And with regards to any rule implementation, I'm reaching a point where my macros, API scripts, rollable tables and mook setups have become refined enough that it'll start saving me time, rather than sucking it up (and yes, all of it is, or will be made available).
All of this however, again doesn't amount to much, if the game isn't engaging. And when the session is fun and memorable, it's because the system gets out of the way and facilitiates, rather than making its presence known.
TL;DR: Gaming is fun, it can be done online and the tools are maturing. However, keep in mind what's important.