I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I have all manner of empathy for Street Samurai. That’s because my gaming habit has recently gone virtual.

Way back in Recruiting I mentioned that your faithful Handbook of Heroes writer/illustrator team had moved cross country. It’s been a couple of months now, and we’ve settled in nicely. The boxes are (mostly) unpacked, the minis collection is (somewhat) sorted, and we’ve stopped getting lost on the way to our new FLGS. But despite the many miles between our new lair and our old gaming group, we didn’t want to give up on our long-running campaigns. And that meant coming to terms with Roll20.

I’m sure that some of you guys manage online play like it ain’t no thang, but I’ve got gremlins in the worst way. Devices malfunction inexplicably in my hands. Software constantly crashes whenever I use it, components become unusually fragile at my touch, and WIFI links suffer faltering connections and odd interference. And if you recognize any of the above as plagiarized straight from the Shadowrun rule book, it’s because we’re living in a dystopian cyberpunk future and those lines were written about me. At least, that’s how I feel after trying to run a session online.

Hyperbole aside, my most recent session saw a crash on Google Hangouts, excruciating lag on Roll20 itself, randomly muted player mics, and a fully broken audio connection for our poor bard. We wound up quitting early when we realized we were playing a text-based game through Roll20’s chat window. And sure, I know that upgraded tech and a bit of practice can get us around these hurdles, but even that’s not the biggest issue.

The ogre fighter in my group said it best when he called online play the Diet Mountain Dew of gaming. There’s just something about the face-to-face interaction, the ease of in-person RP, that can’t be replicated with a headset. I think it’s the same reason that Sir Ian McKellen lamented all that greenscreen work in The Hobbit films: “I act with other people, I don’t act on my own.” For me, turning a profoundly social activity into a glorified Skype call robs the experience of its fundamental character. You lose body language. You lose eye contact. You can’t riff off of other people when you’re constantly saying, “Sorry. I couldn’t hear that. Someone else was talking. Say it again please.”

To be fair, you do get a lot of cool functionality online. There’s that sweet fog of war feature, the potential for discreet note-passing through chat windows, and all the cool audio tricks you can shake a soundboard at. For some people, that’s enough of an upside to make it worthwhile. And hey, I’ll be the first to say it’s better than quitting my favorite campaigns altogether. But if I’m being honest, I always detect a hint of that unpleasant Diet Dew aftertaste whenever log off at the end of an online session.

What about the rest of you guys? Have you run into any tech troubles in your own games? Do you enjoy or (is it even possible?) actually prefer online play? Let’s hear all about the best and worst of your virtual tabletop experiences down in the comments!


ARE YOU AN IMPATIENT GAMER? If so, you should check out the “Henchman” reward level over on The Handbook of Heroes Patreon. For just one buck a month, you can get each and every Handbook of Heroes comic a day earlier than the rest of your party members. That’s bragging rights right there!