An oft-vaunted advantage of TSR-era D&D is that it lends itself to mildly faster combat than 3.X (in whiuch the interraction of feats and other factors can occasionally slow things down as the participants work out bonuses and other game mechanical effects) and substantially faster than 4E (where the implicit assumptions of the game lends itself to combat encounters turning into fairly involved grid skirmishes).
This was brought home for me in yesterday’s AD&D session, where I decided to run a brief and whimsical mini-adventure since one of the players was absent. (He’s one of these casual gamers who won’t take time out of his honeymoon to sit alone in front of a computer playing D&D online – what a dork!) I was actually able to make the adventure reasonably detailed and complete it within the session and toss in a quick but vicious combat.
To be fair, had I just thrown the players into a fight against 5 minions in 4E it would have been comparably quick. On the other hand, that isn’t how balancing encounters in 4E works. I’m not going to edition-war here and spout off about how running balanced encounters in 4E is the death of roleplaying – if I were running 4E, I’d be going for balanced encounters because I see the fun of 4E as residing in its detailed tactical combat and would feel that if I didn’t implement that in a 4E game I wouldn’t be delivering the best the game has to offer.
But equally, I wouldn’t try to run a one-evening adventure in 4E featuring a balanced combat unless I intended to have very little happening before or after it.
Had another Dungeons & Dragons session over Roll20 which went fairly well; we tried our hand at running an abstract combat without the use of maps or tokens to see how that worked and it seemed to be quite viable, and the party got a chance to talk to some NPCs and plan their next move. However, something did occur to me in the course of play which seems to be a major disadvantage of the Roll20 setup.
We don’t use webcams in our game; Vent, so far as I know, doesn’t support them, and using the built-in chat software provided in Roll20 (which does have webcam support) proved unstable. As far as I can tell, everyone prefers it this way anyway. However, that does mean I lack an important bit of feedback – body language. When, as a GM, I’m talking a lot – as happened this session – and the players are listening silently that usually means one of two things: either everyone is really into the game and hanging on my every word, or they’re bored out of their tiny skulls (usually the latter, because I’ve never known players who were excited and engaged with a game to stay silent for very long). I have no idea which (if either) of these is the case in the most recent session. Usually, you can tell from people’s body language, but of course that isn’t the case here.
It was pointed out that a disadvantage of push-to-talk is that you don’t get so much in the way of acknowledgement noises like “uh-huh” and “hmmm” and so on from the other people in the conversation, which is another important feedback route we are missing. That said, push-to-talk has proved so useful in minimising people talking over each other (and in generally not hearing people breathe or eat) that I’m loathe to dispense with it.
I would like to find a solution to this so I guess I have to look carefully at the Roll20 format and see where real-time feedback can occur instead (obviously post-session feedback does help, but it doesn’t help during the session itself). We’ve not been using Roll20’s integrated chat features very much except for rolling dice; perhaps I should suggest that the players use it to make any little comments or asides they want to make but which they don’t consider significant enough to merit going out over Vent?