That’s a good question. So if I had to boil it down to one thing, I think it would be something I might call “flow”.
Since being forced to move from in-person and at-the-table to on-line, I’ve been frustrated by many of the available tools. I find that most tools break me out of the “flow” of the game. They have too many features or not the right features or they behave in ways I don’t expect. I have to “think like the tool” and then tweak it to do what I want. It takes my focus away from the other people and our shared world / narrative and diminishes the experience.
Many of the existing tools seem optimized for heavy pregame preparation or for downloading pre-created modules. The ability to sketch out the common room of the green dragon inn where a brawl has just broken out between the players and some drunken dwarves seems like an afterthought.
In my experience, it’s more common to “wing it” and/or be completely surprised by the player’s sudden choice to break into the mayor’s house at midnight to abduct him and get some answers. At the table, it means breaking out the markers and drawing a 60 second sketch of where the players are.
Video Game RPG vs Table Top RPG
Many of the on-line table top role playing tools look really awesome. I applaud the work that’s gone into some of these tools - the 3D map makers, fully 3D environments, dynamic lights, gorgeous artwork, animated virtual miniatures, etc…
I can’t help but feel like many of these tools are drifting too close to being video games. I want to imagine the lonely ice castle with spires jutting to into the frosty arctic sky, I don’t necessarily want the computer to render it for me. I might be in the minority, and I can see the appeal of a video-game-like experience, but that’s not what I currently want from my table top role playing experience.
I don’t want to be limited to whatever graphical assets are created in such tools to keep a consistent experience. In my view, one of the strengths of TTRPGs is that they can take you almost anywhere your group’s imagination can dream up.
There are lots of ways to play, so this is likely mostly a matter of taste. If you want high-fidelity 3D graphics or a tool that takes care of automating all of the book keeping and dice rolling for you, GameScape is not for you.
So if I’ve got such fondness and nostalgia for low-fidelity markers on grid paper, why work on a digital tool at all?
Being able to play on-line with friends who are literally half a world away has really been an amazing positive this past year. I wanted to have a shared space that approximated that grid-paper-and-markers plus tokens experience.
There are a few tools that seem to have similar goals, but don’t hit quite the same mark I’m shooting for. There are some things I think GameScape can do better, or at least more aligned with how I want/like to game.
- Focused on drawing and not assets. It should feel natural to sketch a quick ravine, a few trees in a camp site, a simple boat, anything that could come up. Low fidelity encourages speed and the use of imagination. However it shouldn’t be so low fidelity that it keeps you from drawing what you want.
- Better handling of tokens. The main “play” interaction (at least in my experience) is moving tokens / minis around. Having those be first class items with physicality and the UX being subtle and smart to know that that’s likely what you want… (hopefully) creates a subtle illusion of them being physical and “just doing what you want”. The illusion is particularly nice on an iPad where you just move them around with your finger.
- The grid, and grid-snapping tends to be more important in gaming settings so those are more front and center.
- First class support for mobile and tablets. Having a second or third screen, especially a tablet, really can help create the experience of drawing on a piece of paper.
- Fog of war is one place where the analog of paper / grid pad can be improved on by on-line tools without it being overboard.
- Separate GM / player views with information hiding – kind of like a DM screen on steroids
- Keeping it as simple as possible and fast.
I’ll probably revisit this as I refine just what the philosophy of GameScape is, but wanted to get some initial thoughts out for those that are curious.