AD&D: What Roll20 Lacks

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?


3 thoughts on “AD&D: What Roll20 Lacks

  1. The abstract sections worked for me as well as the mapped ones, and makes for a bit more freedom and less work for you, so that seems good.

    You’re dead right about the feedback issue, though. The combination of losing verbal and non-verbal feedback is pretty major, and even as a player I felt like quite often it was hard to read the general mood, or even to be sure that people are still online (which of course isn’t an issue in P&P).

    I think there’s a couple of things going on there. One is that I think PTTing just to grunt slightly or say “mmm…”, or whatever tone of response you have, tends to feel a bit excessive, and because you’ve actually got to make a specific effort to do it people are inclined not to. Apart from anything else I reckon maybe it feels a bit egotistical to broadcast your slightest response, which I don’t think is particularly accurate, I mean we do it in normal conversation. Also, those tend to be fairly instinctive responses, so if you’ve got to reach over and PTT first then it loses the spontaneity.

    The other thing is, I think there’s a bit of a conflict between trying not to interrupt or talk over people, and wanting to give feedback, and politeness is winning out. Especially when you’re giving descriptions and so on, interrupting to not really say anything feels a bit rude; and over Vent it’s easier for a little remark to get misheard or cut off, or lag, and then confuse everyone for a few minutes while things get straightened out. So people are perhaps tending only to PTT when they’ve got something more substantial to say.

    An extra complication is this session I was messing with audio options to try and get rid of the static, which didn’t help. Next time I’m just going to set everything up on the laptop and probably lurk in the sitting room, and that way hopefully there’ll be less distraction.

    I reckon using chat for general chatter without interrupting the flow might be the way to go, because while you could just ask people to be more gung-ho about PTTing I think there’s still plenty of good reasons to be conservative with it. Chat is good for things like emoting too. Actually that’s going to be a reversal of our NWN setup with IC text and OOC Vent…

    1. I agree with PTTing simply to go “uh-huh” or laugh or whatever seeming egotistical – I feel exactly the same way, and I think it’s for more or less the same reasons you identify: a combination of the fact that you have to make an actual effort to broadcast that stuff whereas in actual conversation you don’t because a lot of those responses are spontaneous not-really-consciously-decided stuff, and also people wanting to avoid clogging up the voice channel and not talk over each other.

      I also agree that people are trying to be polite and not clutter the voice channel but I do think there are very, very good reasons for doing that. People talking over each other in the voice channel in this format is a massive problem and I think we all want to avoid it, but at the same time in the absence of being able to see body language or hear people’s acknowledgements of what you’re saying it’s actually vastly easier to talk over someone because a) you can’t judge when someone is about to talk and b) when you are talking you can’t judge whether someone’s trying to interject.

      I think the advantage of having general chatter via text and substantial stuff/RPing via voice is this: in the format we’ve been running with the voice stuff simply *demands your attention* more than text chat stuff does. I can concentrate on voice stuff and keep half an eye on the chat, I can’t concentrate on the chat and keep half an ear on the voice if you see what I mean.

      I think the reversal makes sense because in NWN a) we haven’t had to tell Dan “I hit the ogre” because we just click on the ogre to attack it and b) it’s felt natural to put IC dialogue in text because Vent doesn’t affect anything in-game whereas the text chat is an in-game feature, if you see what I mean. It’s been different in Roll20 not least because the tabletop format is based entirely on GM/player dialogue, and it’s actually far faster and more efficient to do that dialogue via voice than via text chat. The upshot of that, though, is that a) I have to pay attention to everything people say via voice because it might require my feedback and b) people are aware that the more they talk on Vent, the more they might be getting in the way of someone else taking an action, which is another factor dissuading people from PTTing to say something which isn’t substantive.

      1. Pretty much. Plus, voice is emphemeral so it does need constant attention, whereas if someone isn’t looking at chat at that exact moment it doesn’t matter.

        I just found the medium-reversal thing interesting, and I reckon your analysis is spot on. In NWN, crucially, the GM doesn’t have to do much general narrating, and mostly responds to player actions, because the engine shows you more or less what you see and what’s going on, and handles most of the mechanics. In that context it makes sense to use chat for in-character interaction, which everyone can see clearly, avoids over-talking crucial bits and so on, and to leave Vent open for OOC. In Roll20 though, a much higher proportion of discussion is description or mechanical stuff, and it makes sense to reserve the most convenient channel for in-game stuff which comes conveniently in turns, and then not disrupt it with too much OOC.

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