Issue 2: "What makes an Online Campaign so Different?"
Last Issue, I looked at the question of honesty when it comes to running a campaign on the Internet. This issue I want to explore the problem of the main differences between "table top" gaming and using the Internet.
The first major choice when you use the Internet is whether you are going to use a chat room style environment or are you are going to use a series of Emails.
If you choose to use a chat room environment then you are closest to the regular table top environment. You arrange ahead of time for everyone to be at their computer terminals and online all at the same time. Then everyone talks to each other by typing out what they are going to say. This sounds easy but it really is not that easy.
You first have to negotiate a time with everyone. When you have a group of people spread from Britain to Australia it is not that easy to find a common time that is not four in the morning for one person. The second problem is finding a stable room to chat in. I found that ICQ was particularly bad for the problem of people suddenly dropping off link or the chat window crashing forcing everyone to spend ten minutes getting back together. These kinds of interruptions if they happen once or twice in a game session are survivable. More then twice and they can kill the mood of the game.
Another problem with chat rooms is that everything people say requires room on the screen. When you are together in a home, you can have a couple of people quietly chatting about something and not cause problems. When you are in a chat room, you may find extra conversations suddenly scrolling an important piece of information past your eyes before you can respond to it.
I have found it is best to try and organize two or three rooms when doing online gaming. The first is for the main game. The second is for the players to chat among themselves. The third is for sending messages to a particular player. When sending private messages you may choose to use a service like ICQ instead.
Another challenge is that not every player is a touch typist which means is can take some people longer than others to write out a complicated thought. Not a major problem for a player but touch typing is a vital skill as a GM because you will be doing quite a bit of typing to keep up with four to six players individual questions and needs. This leads to the problem that people get very upset when they type in a chat room and do not get an immediate response. If you have been trying to handle one person's question before dealing with the next person then you may find that you get "prodded" several times while the next person demands that their question be acknowledged. You may also be "prodded" if you write a long set of sentences. Your players will wonder why they have not seen the latest statement from you in, say two minutes.
Many of the problems of a chat room are alleviated by using an Email campaign ( I also include billboard campaigns in this category ) but many different problems are created. The first requirement is that you have to be more detailed in your descriptions. You get one or two chances to give players the information that they need to act upon a situation. The second thing is that you normally have to be more structured in the lay out of the campaign and limit the player's choices of action to a few possibilities. If you do not then you will spend weeks trying to resolve one encounter. The good thing is that you are not on a strict timetable but you still must be prompt and respond to messages. Email campaigns move at a greatly reduced pace to other campaigns; so, it is important to focus on only a few key scenes.
I have found it best to divide a post into sections, usually with a dotted line. I then give instructions for each section of the Email. This allows me to cover more ground in one Email then would be possible if I only did one sub scene per Email. The slower base in an Email campaign can lead some people to become rapidly bored with the campaign. The advantage of the Email campaign is that you can write more in-depth responses to a situation and develop a character more fully. I find it best to think of each Email I send as a chapter in a story. This goes for the GM as well as the players. People used to one line responses or descriptions should avoid an Email campaign.
Having discussed the two major methods of running a campaign on the Internet, it is important to decide what types of games work well in each of the styles.
I find that it is good to use chat method campaigns for games where there is high action. Usually a basic hack and slash style campaign where the emphasis is on fighting. The Chat campaign works very well but, be warned, it will take usually two to three times as long to finish a fight using a chat base as opposed to the same fight done in table top. The extra time goes to typing out results and waiting on the lag between the members of the group. Large numbers of creatures and people in a fight should be avoided. Keep the number of opponents usually to five or under or you will be doing plenty of paper work. It is often a very good idea to make one really big opponent instead of half a dozen or more small opponents. You will speed up the number of dice rolls you need to make and still have a great fight if you make the monster truly interesting. The single monster will feel like more of a prize when it is defeated then half a dozen small thugs that the character's can slaughter in their sleep. It is best to plan your chat gathering around one major fight with some additional role-playing that will get the players advancing towards their goal. Good games that fit this style are AD&D, Traveler, and GURPs.
I find that it is good to use Email campaigns for games where there is less action and more storytelling. Games where there is less an emphasis on fights then there is on meeting and talking to people. Email campaigns are perfect for those games that have normally plenty of down time between stories. Good examples of this type are Pendragon and Ars Magica. Normally, these games result in a large amount of time spent handling other business while adventures only occur once a season or once a year. The down time can be handled very well with an Email being written by the player when it does not take up regular campaign time. These types of games additionally have usually only a few encounters where the focus is given to each event as being an important opportunity for character development. Body counts are not as important in an Email campaign; instead, solid storytelling of all the participants is the preferred coinage.
Good Email campaigns take time to develop as they are a slower pace. I find it takes usually two to three weeks, with twice weekly posts, to complete an adventure which usually involves one to two fights and three to four scenes. For an Email campaign it is best if the combat system is more abstract then detailed. Fighting a single detailed battle ( broken into combat rounds ) with daily posting can take two to three weeks to complete. Posting twice a week could take several months to complete this style of fight.
It is also possible to use a combination of the two methods. I generally prefer to use at least some Email elements in a standard chat campaign. It is much faster to mail a copy of a map that you have made up of a situation to every player then to describe the same area in a chat room. It is also better that if players decide to go on a shopping spree that they Email you with the list. This is far faster than spending time typing it into a chat room and then having to copy the information to another file. It is also a good idea to mail out lists of treasure to the players. Players can even do some role-playing that would take more time then in a direct Chat style environment or that they prefer the other players to be unaware of their character's actions. The focus of such a usage of Email or BB is to reduce the record keeping of the adventure within the chat room. This will reduce the amount of extra clutter you would spend time on within the chat room.
Summarizing the best and worse differences of running a campaign on the Internet are as follows
Overall, doing RPG's on the Internet can be plenty of fun but you need to take the time to be prepared. Expect delays. It also provides another good way for people to fit role-playing into increasingly busy schedules or do not have a good local group they belong to. Just do not expect it to be the same as the table top gaming you are used to playing.