Online games are a lot like old-time radio shows. Clear audio is a must for telling stories. Nice maps and tokens are great, as are all the bells and whistles provided by virtual tabletops (VTT’s). But without clear audio, you can’t have a game. In this article, we’ll look at some options for audio services, hardware choices, recording issues, and dealing with background noise.
There are really two main options: dedicated audio services such as Skype, or the audio that comes with some VTT’s. Both offer audio and chatting options. Often you can chat to individuals privately, which you may need to do if the party splits. Technically, we’ve found that audio that comes with our VTT is often a little less clear than other dedicated services. However, there are a couple of advantages to using the VTT audio service. First, if you are promoting your game through the VTT site, everyone will already be familiar with the setup. Also, if you use Skype or gaming audio apps for other things, you can keep your roleplaying contacts separate from other personal contacts. After you find out which service works for you, it’s probably best to pick one and stick to it so your players know where to find your game each session.
Our group’s experience is that a headset mike is essential. It doesn’t have to be expensive: I’ve GM’ed for years with a ten-dollar headset from a discount store. (Best ten bucks I ever spent!). Some of my players use ones with audio jack plugs, others with USB plugs. For general gaming, there doesn’t seem to be much difference. Wireless options such as Bluetooth are also available.
Using the mike that is built into the computer generally doesn’t work well. Our experience has been that they pick up a too much background noise. This seems to be true for tablets and sometimes cell phones. However, headsets and mikes are available for tablets and cellphones if you wish to use one. That should definitely improve your audio.
Always be aware that you may be recorded during your sessions. Some players may wish to post the session online or as an actual play podcast. What kind of language you and your players use during a game is up to you. Just keep in mind that what you say may not be private forever. If you don’t want something heard, don’t say it (thanks to John M. Ford for the quote).
If you’d like to record a session for a podcast or to post online, it’s common courtesy to ask your fellow gamers first.
DEALING WITH BACKGROUND NOISE
An online rpg session is really a conference call among multiple homes. Given that, expect some background noise (kids, pets, phone calls, and even peeper frogs). Generally this is no big deal and doesn’t interrupt play. The issues come in when the background noise becomes intolerable.
If the background noise from a person’s home consistently and repeatedly impedes play, you’ll have to make a difficult decision. Do you want to work with the player in hopes that it improves, or move on without them? If you choose to work with them, you’ll have to contact them privately. Ask if they can get a headset and/or play in a quieter part of the house. This may not be an easy conversation to have, and as GM you’ll have to use your best judgement on how to approach it.
If you don’t think the situation can be fixed, you may need to tell the player that they won’t be joining your group on a permanent basis. Again, this is a difficult task and it’s hard to avoid hurt feelings. One way to possibly avoid this is by being very upfront with players before they sit in on a game with you. Tell them that you prefer that they use a headset, and also that they are only sitting in for one session. Even if you are looking for a long-term player, still tell them that you only have a slot for one session. It’s only sort of a white lie: you may not have the room for them if they don’t work out. If they do, you can always invite them back. If not, there is less chance of hurt feelings. Think of it as a first date: no guarantee of future companionship should be assumed.
Getting clean audio has both technical and human considerations. Despite the hurdles discussed in this article, things do come together on both fronts more often than not. Then you can focus on the important part of gamemastering, helping everyone have an exciting and engaging experience. When that happens, every other concern fades into the background.
What are your experiences (good and bad) with audio for online games? Do you have any suggestions or concerns that I missed? Tell us below.