ConTessa's International Tabletop Weekend
All hail the OnCon or Online Convention! ConTessa was originally meant to be a set of conventions strictly held online, and we were just that until Gen Con came knocking, and Google+ became less than spectacular at handling online events. As a result, we didn't run a single online event in 2016, something we want to correct in 2017. Lots of you have written in asking when we'll returning to the world of online gaming, and the answer is... right now!
Signing Up to Play a Game
Events will show up on our Facebook group as they are created, containing all the pertinent information in the 'details' about when the game will be, what kind of app you'll be using to connect to one another, and what (if anything) you'll need to do ahead of time. To sign up for an event, indicate you're 'going'. The GM will coordinate from there within the individual event.
As a reminder, while we have qualifications for who can run a game for ConTessa, anyone at all can play in a game.
It's wise to do a technical run-through of whatever app you're using before game time just to make sure your microphone and/or camera are working correctly, and your system can handle the software being run. This can save you frustrations at game time.
If you've never played online before, scroll down past our GM information, and you'll find a list of widely-used programs for gaming online!
Adding Your Game as a GM
Anyone who meets our qualifications is welcome to run a game with us over the weekend of April 28th through April 30th! Even if you've never run games online before, all you'll need is a good connection to the internet, a video camera, and a microphone of some sort. Most laptops these days, and some desktops already come with these things. You can also often connect over your phone, but I don't recommend it... many phone apps are a little too unstable for the GM.
There are many video conferencing and virtual tabletop options available for handling the communications of the game. Each has different functionality and price points, so if you've never done this before you can take a look below at a list of the tools we see people use most commonly to run games online with an explanation of their features. No choice is 100% perfect, and no choice is 100% terrible, so it's really up to what you like the most and what suits your needs as a GM.
If you already have a platform you're familiar with and prefer, I strongly suggest using that. Unlike in our previous conventions, we're not going to lock you down to just running games through Hangouts. We will, however, be using Facebook groups to organize the game and facilitate a listing of the events as they're added (we'll have them up on this website to, just in a slower fashion).
To add your game to the weekend, do the following:
- Join the 'Friends of ConTessa' group on Facebook.
- From the 'Friends of ConTessa' group page, go to the top where you'd write a post, and hit 'More' for more options. Select 'Create Event'.
In the window that pops up, fill out the details of your event:
- Event Name: This should be the system you're running and a brief and catchy title for your game. (ex. AD&D: The Rise of Tiamat).
- Location: In the 'location' field, put the platform you'll be running the game on. It'll try to find a location for that, but you can scroll down to an option that will let you just use what you put in there (Roll20, Discord, etc..). If this doesn't work or is too confusing, leave it blank.
- Start Time + End Time: The start and end of your game. It should run sometime between April 28th and 30th, but the exact details of when are up to your availability:
- Description: Here, put the rest of the details about your game. Include: Description (about a paragraph), Platform (Hangouts, Roll20, etc...), System & Edition, Min/Max # of Players, Experience Required, and Ages Appropriate For.
- Make sure the 'Invite all members of Friends of ConTessa' checkbox is checked.
- Click 'Create'.
If you've created events on Facebook, you should already be familiar with how the event is set up. If not, take a look once yours gets set up! All of your information will be available, along with a spot for you and your players to discuss all the details as you prepare for the day.
How do you even run or play online?
There are a variety of services you can use to run your game online.
Only Audio and/or Video (no gameplay aids): These options are best if you don't have a lot of things you need to show players, or you don't need to constantly show them something like a map or regular handouts. Many games run via 'theater of the mind' and don't need a whole lot of the extras.
- Discord (audio): Relatively new on the scene, Discord is a hybrid voice and chat app made predominately for video gaming, though it's been used by quite a few people for online tabletop gaming as well. It has no screen sharing capability, but you can upload documents to the chat, so there's a way to share pictures and the like even without video. Discord's often used in addition to something else, like Roll20, but can also be used alone for games that don't need a lot of complex imagery. Feel free to use the ConTessa Discord server. We have an assortment of rooms for private games, and since it's a shared server, players and GMs can connect well before game time and find alternates in the event someone can't make it.
- Google Hangouts (audio/video): Google is in the midst of separating out all their messaging services, including hangouts, so your experience with hangouts may vary wildly. If you count on the 'old' hangouts interface that allows for the use of add-ons such as DiceStream, be forewarned that those will go away on April 25th. Straight up hangouts are still available, however, and work just fine for video conferencing. Just be aware the only app you'll be able to use is screen sharing, which can definitely be handy for showing maps and other media.
- Skype (audio or audio/video): Many people who don't use Hangouts get about the same experience with Skype. Skype has access to both group audio and group audio/video options. Skype also has access to screen sharing, so you can use that to show handouts to the players the same way you can with Google Hangouts.
- Appear.In (audio/video): Appear.in is relatively new to the videoconferencing world, but boasts some neat features. Instead of inviting people to your room via their email address, you get a unique link to your room you can keep using over and over again. There's no extra downloads or registration required by those involved, and it's got a pretty neat video interface that allows you to move all the little boxes with the video in it around in different configurations. It's also got a really nice screen sharing module. The only downfall is that I've heard of performance degradation in rooms larger than about 4-5 people unless you upgrade to the paid version. We've been using the free version for several months to do our staff meetings and haven't had any problems, though.
VTTs (Virtual Tabletops): VTTs are programs specifically made to tackle the unique needs of online tabletop gaming. They often have everything from character sheets to electronic dice to battle maps to handouts all available in one interface.
- Roll20: This browser-based VTT was popular on Google+ because of its past integrations with hangouts, but those are going away entirely come April 25th, and don't work so well, now. Instead, they're working on improving built-in WebRTC-based video and audio options. It hasn't been working well, though, so we recommend running Roll20 in one browser window while running all your audio and video through hangouts, skype, or discord. There's a pretty steep learning curve involved, but once you get past that, the options are virtually endless.
The free version should work just fine for most people, you just have to be okay with ads, and you have a limited amount of space you can use for uploading assets (100mb). Jumping to the paid versions gets rid of the ads, gives you more space, and unlocks some fun options like dynamic lighting, F/X tools, custom scripts, and pro token sets.
Be warned, however! Roll20 has a ssssttteeeeeppppp learning curve and can take a lot of time to set up. If you've got the time to do it, though, it can be a pretty fun process, and you can get a lot out of it.
Roll20 has character sheets, a grid for a map or handouts, multiple methods of keeping track of things like initiative order, and the ability to make multiple 'pages' for different parts of the game. It also has a Marketplace where you can purchase community-created maps, tiles, tokens, modules, and addons.
- Fantasy Grounds: Boasted as being "the most supported virtual tabletop available, with more official licenses than any other virtual tabletop around", Fantasy Grounds has a very polished interface and is packed full of features. It automates a ton of the work for you, and has a marketplace with support for many adventures and rulesets, so you can get up and running quickly.
It's biggest downside, at least to me, is that there's no native version for Macs. The Mac version of the software uses Wine, which I've always found to be a bit buggy and unstable.
I can't give a detailed comparison to Roll20 because I've never used the program, but Jeannette gave us all the details last year, so that should give you a fuller picture of what Fantasy Grounds has to offer.
As far as pricing goes, they have a slightly confusing subscription program or the opportunity to purchase a lifetime license. A lifetime license is obviously the better way to go here, since subscriptions don't count towards buying a lifetime license, and continue even if you've paid more than a license would cost. It's a bit pricier than Roll20 out of the gate, but it's a wash if you end up using Fantasy Grounds for longer than a year.
Overall, I've heard Roll20 described as the VTT you want to use if you want to do a lot of customization, and Fantasy Grounds is the one you want when you want something polished, easy, and quick to get into. I recommend trying them both out (there's free or demo versions of each) and deciding which one works the best for you. Marketplace purchase for each can be expensive (many WotC products are just as expensive as their hardcover books), but they're also not entirely necessary.
Don't worry if all this is new to you! Jump in and ask questions, we've got a lot of helpful staff members, players, and GMs around to make sure there are no surprises.