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Reuniting the Band: Voices In My Head

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When I ran our early demos to kick the tires on Fantasy Grounds the structure of the demo version was different than it is today. Back then it was actually a different version than the paid software. With the demo you could only have 2 connections to the GM, and you could only run D&D 3.5. Since my wife was the only person in the group besides myself who had any experience with 3.5, she signed on each time to help the other player deal with the new rules, and as she gained experience with FG she also helped guide the other folks in using the software.

When we did these sessions we had a phone call going with the other player, and this was enormously helpful, both to get the initial setup complete, and during the actual game play. That prompted us to give some thought to how we could have an audio connection for our full-fledged game. Our cell plan back then had limited minutes, and our land line charged extra for conference calls, so we were looking for another option.

None of us had used any voice-over-IP (VOIP) software before, though I was aware it existed, so it was time for a crash course. I had some local friends who played an online video game, and I knew they had a chat channel for that, so I asked them about it. They had tried several, and recommended Ventrilo. Looking over the specs, I saw that you could set up a server and run it for free for a small group, so the price was right. I decided to give it a try.

One of my players was willing to help me play around with it, so we set aside some time one evening to do a test-drive. We decided to have him run the Ventrilo server so that it didn’t compromise the GM’s bandwidth. Setting it up didn’t turn out to be too hard. We did have to set up port forwarding on his system, just as we did with my system for FG, but by now we had some experience with that, and neither of our ISP’s were doing anything strange, so it was pretty straightforward.

The “testing” (chattering with an old friend for an hour or two) did teach us a few lessons. First, we found that we were better off using the push-to-talk mode than the voice-activated mode. Using it with Vent in voice-activated mode was quite frustrating: only about half of the things I said got through. Push-to-talk mode worked much better.

Secondly, we learned about the lag time between saying something and anyone else hearing it. This was painfully apparent on our end, because my wife and I were each connected to the chat via our own computer, but we were sitting in the same room. The resulting “echo effect” was quite annoying. We decided that since she had a laptop and I had a desktop, my wife would play from another room. That also ensured that she couldn’t see my screen, which was important too.

The third lesson was that we would want headsets rather than using speakers and a fixed microphone. Whenever I moved my head around to look at a reference book I would become very quiet. Someone would complain, so I would increase the gain to get the volume back to normal. Then I would face the screen again and become VERY LOUD. I should have realized this, since I had been on a student radio show back in high school, but in my defense I will note that it had been quite a long time ago, and I had forgotten just how critical microphone placement could be. A headset solved the problem nicely.

The final lesson two lessons were learned later, but I’ll include them here to keep all the VOIP discussion in one place. Once we got the whole gang on the same chat channel, we had terrible lag. This turned out to be because we were using a codec that used a very high sampling rate, and therefore used a lot of data. The person who sets up the server selects the codec, and it’s similar in concept to using different sampling rates when ripping an MP3 file - the higher the rate the better the quality, but the bigger the resulting file will be. When we had six people connected, we were trying to pass data faster than my buddy’s upload speed could handle. We had to experiment with several codecs before we found a good compromise that gave acceptable lag but didn’t make us all sound like Cylons. If we had understood the importance of codec choice to begin with we would have played around with it before we were in the middle of a game, and we wouldn’t have lost a session to technobabble.

The final lesson came when the guy running the Ventrilo server got a new computer. His new security software thought that Ventrilo was The Most Dangerous Thing Ever, and wouldn’t let it run. While he and I worked on that via the FG chat window (and eventually a phone call) everyone else had to twiddle their thumbs. But another player used the time wisely: he downloaded a copy of the server version of Ventrilo too, installed it, and set it up. Now we had a backup. Everyone switched to his server, confirmed it worked, and continued to game. Eventually we did get the security problem worked out with the original host, and from then on, when problems arose, we could just switch hosts and fix the broken server later.

Overall we have found that having voice chat is really helpful in re-creating the tabletop atmosphere in a virtual setting. I can definitely see a case for running a text-chat only game, but since we were coming from a physical tabletop where talking was the norm, it made sense to use a VOIP solution. In addition to the in-game utility, it’s helpful to have two channels of communication available when someone is having technical difficulties. If they have a problem with voice, they can report it in the FG chat, and if they have a problem with FG they can report it with voice.

More recently, one of the forum members here has generously provided a voice server for FG groups to use for free, using software called Teamspeak, so for folks starting out that’s probably a much easier solution. There are quite a few programs to do VOIP, and for all I know some of them may be better than Ventrilo. Honestly, once we found something that worked we just went with it, and since then we’ve taken the “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” approach.

That’s about all I have to say about voice chat. Next time around I’ll talk about converting materials from a pen-and-paper campaign to a digital one.

Thanks for reading!

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  1. ddavison's Avatar
    Hello Phystus, thanks for sharing your experience.
  2. Nylanfs's Avatar
    Yes I agree, I'm also interested to here how your game experiences have changed between the early versions and now.
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