Choosing a Virtual Tabletop (VTT) Solution for My Gaming Group

a pile of multi-coloured and multi-sided dice
Attribution: Image by Ana Carolina Franco from Pixabay

Like just about everyone else in the world, my Pathfinder group and I have had to deal with not being able to meet in person to play because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This necessity forced us to look what options we have to try to continue play online in some way.

The concept of a “Virtual Table Top” or VTT isn’t new but interest in it has definitely increased with all the restrictions on meeting with your friends we are all experiencing. A VTT is a basically an interface that allows you, as a Game Master, to represent everything from a battle mat, to dice rolls and sound effects. This is usually done through a web browser but can also be a stand-alone application. The most popular options are Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. They will literally let you manage everything: character sheets, spell duration, dice-rolling, moving character markers, and playing music/sound effects.

In the end, I felt it was overkill for what we needed. By the time I became comfortable using all their tools, we would lose a lot of time that could be spent more profitably actually playing. Yes, it is possible to start with a subset of the features and build on that. However, there are costs associated with using these products too; I’d end up paying for a product I’m not fully using.

As a core requirement, what I really need is to be able to see my players and hear them. If I could manage to get mood music or sound effects into the session, that would be a bonus. After some consideration, having the battle mat was not so critical. Trying to represent it virtually meant that I’d have to use a fully-featured VTT and would run into that steep learning curve. That’s on top of building all the maps I would need to use from scratch. Playing a good-enough virtual session of Pathfinder is always going to better than waiting to have a “perfect” scenario. Thus, what we really need is a decent video conference application. In the end, I looked at four options: Zoom, Discord, Jitsi, and Google Meet.

Zoom: Security Concerns

Zoom would probably be a good option but we would be limited to a 40-minute session with their free tier, which is far too short. We could have opted for the “Pro” tier at CAD $20.00 per month but, as will be seen, a less expensive option presented itself. Also, I was concerned about the security issues that were uncovered by its widespread use (Edit: As of 2020-05-05, it appears that Zoom may have addressed some of their security issues in a Zoom 5.0 release. Time will tell if this is actually true.) I rather go with another option based on these reasons so I did not look to see if Zoom would support the ability to stream music or sound effects.

Discord: A Possible Option (But Fiddly)

Discord is another option that’s popular with many video gamers. It’s free but requires everyone to sign up for a Discord ID. Once that’s done, I would have to invite everyone to my private “server”. On this server, I would need to set up both a text chat and a video chat “channel” so that it approaches a video conferencing app’s functionality. Also, it requires some fiddling to get it set up for streaming music in that you need to create and then invite a “bot” that would stream the music for you. In my case, I tested the Groovy bot. It works but the free version doesn’t allow for things like volume control. In addition, I was only able to find bots that streamed Spotify as an online service. I use Google Play Music and, since I have most of my playlists already set up on that service, I would prefer to use it instead.

I did a small test with one of my players and the audio and video quality was surprisingly good. The music streaming also worked but the commands to control the Groovy bot don’t always work as I expect. Stopping the Spotify playlist work fine but it was impossible to restart it with the commands I was aware of. I suspect I was misunderstanding how the bot worked. As well, the volume was a bit loud when compared to the speaking voice of my test player. I would have to see what it looked like with a my full group and think about whether or not paying a monthly subscription for the premium bot would be worth it.

Jitsi: An Open-Source Video Conferencing App

Jitsi is intriguing to me as it is an open-source application. It does fulfill the very basic function of providing a video conferencing platform. However, I haven’t spent too much time looking into whether or not I can stream sound from another source within a Jitsi meeting. As of the time of me writing this blog article, the documentation is still incomplete, likely waiting for a volunteer to the project to write it. This is a solution I’ll keep an eye on as my preference is to use open-source software when I can.

Google Meet: My Current Preference

As a solution that meets my criteria and works without extra effort, Google Meet is the front-runner in my opinion. It works with Firefox though using it with Chrome give you more functionality (more on that in a bit). The video and audio quality is pretty good. However, its quality is slightly poorer than my Discord test, although that wasn’t a full test of Discord with the full group. Currently, you are required to have a G Suite subscription to access Google Meet, which costs CAD $7.80 as of writing this for the Basic tier. I have the good fortune of having a player in our group that already has a G Suite subscription and happily volunteered to set up the meetings for our gaming sessions. However, I just found out that Google Meet is now available for personal use without requiring a G Suite subscription. This only improves its position as the video conferencing solution I prefer.

Though Google Meet works well enough on Firefox, my default browser, if you use Chrome you gain the ability to cast video and sound from another tab. I tested this and it works without any extra set-up or configuring on my part. Because I’m basically streaming a tab from Chrome, I can use Google Play Music, Spotify, or any other music streaming service I want. This also allows me to use sound effects from my Battlebards service. The flexibility of streaming any audio I can play from a Chrome tab is great. The only drawback is that my players are then stuck looking at my Chrome tab which isn’t ideal.

Workarounds for Other Requirements

The other, arguably more important, requirement is being able to share files with my players during a session. Often, I want the players to be able to see a portion of a map handout, or some other picture. I would rather do this at the moment when it is relevant, conserving the element of surprise. I didn’t find a direct way to do this on either Zoom or Discord, though I didn’t spend much time looking for this functionality. Google Meet allows you to share files prior to the start of the meeting but not during, which isn’t what I want. In the end I worked around this need by using our Signal group to send everyone files during the game. I have the desktop app installed and so it’s very easy to attach a file to our chat and have it available to all the players. I used this with great success during my last session with my players.

Conclusion: An Example of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)

The journey to get to a virtual tabletop solution that works for my group is one that embraces the philosophy of Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS). Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds can turn your virtual game session into something akin to a video game. However, most of these features are very much in the camp of “nice to have”. The effort required to set up and run a session on one of these platforms is quite large. While it would look absolutely beautiful, it just isn’t necessary to support my game and the fun (I hope) my players are having. A combination of Google Meet and Signal fulfills all the core requirements to deliver my game to my players. Soon, Google Meet will be free for use and I will be able to set up my own video conference meetings. However, even if I didn’t have a player in my group willing and able to provide such a platform, the cost for a month of the basic G Suite subscription is such that it’s less than the cost of snacks for one session for the whole group. With Google Meet and Signal, I cover off my core requirements (simple video conferencing and on-the-fly file sharing), as well as a significant optional requirement (the ability to stream music or sound effects within a meeting). Of note, there is an additional unexpected effect of running a virtual tabletop game…

Conclusion (Part 2): More Role-Playing Game Nights

We are playing more often than we ever have since the implementation of strict social distancing rules and the closing of businesses deemed non-essential. Of course, this isn’t just because we’re now playing online. Many of the activities that my players and I were involved in have either been cancelled or also moved online. Everyone’s schedule has become less congested. Having a virtual tabletop means we can still meet up to play but with the advantage of not having to gather in one place for a face-to-face session. Arrangements don’t have to be made for those players with children or who travel  a distance from home to come play. The next result is that we have played every week like clockwork for the last six weeks. Considering that we were lucky to get together to play every four to six weeks prior to COVID-19, this last run of game sessions has been amazing. Even once the restrictions are lifted, this method of gathering will still be a very viable option to allow us to play when we can’t get together.

Useful Links

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: