During our play session this week, we took the opportunity to finally try something we’ve wanted to do since we had most of the old gaming group fall away back in September. One of these gamers had scheduling issues — he works in Los Alamos on the days we usually have open to game. He lives in Santa Fe. We play in Albuquerque. If he were to leave for the game after work, he would have 93 miles during rush hour traffic to get here. It’s a two hour run at the best of times, and another 45 minutes to an hour to get home.

In other words, not doable.

We’d thought about trying to link this player and the one who GTT (Gone To Texas, for you non-history fans) to the group through the internet. During test runs in September, we’d found Facetime was the most stable platform, but couldn’t handle more than two callers; Skype could do multiple callers, if one of you popped for the ability, and was generally stable if not as much so as Facetime; and we tried Google Hangout, which could handle multiple callers and was mostly stable, but got increasingly twitchy over time.

Since we were only bringing one person in on the video call, and only one of us had Facetime, we went with Skype. The result was much better than I’d hoped for. We got the call-in about 1900 hours and game ran until 2230 hours. The call audio quality was good, although we’ve decided it would be a good idea to rig the iPad we were using into its bluetooth speakers next time. Video quality was patchy — good for the first hour or so, but it steadily degraded until the remote player had to kill his video feed for about 45 minutes. During a break, he called back in and the video was good again.

He has a few issues receiving video from us at first, but it cleared up after we hung up and recalled at the start of the session. He had a few problems tracking the crosstalk on the table at one point, but otherwise was able to feel part of the action and not terribly disconnected.

Here were the observations:

1) Positioning is very important. Depending on the webcam, laptop, or in this case, an iPad, you want to find a place where the camera can see the entire group and can adequately pick up the conversations.

Just as important is the GM’s position. I was seated to one side of the table — iPad at one end, players arrayed in front of me of to the opposite side of the iPad, and occasionally I would lose track of what the video caller or the player opposite of him was doing/saying. Better to position yourself so the players and teleconferenced person are in front of you; be at the head of the table, if using one, with the teleconferenced player at the other end of the room, so you can see everyone. this cuts down on the chance that you favor one side of the room or the other. I managed to avoid ignoring the video caller over the rest of the people in the room but I had to keep it in mind throughout the night.

2) Venue. Try to avoid big. empty rooms with lots of hard objects. This bounces the sound more, and the echo effect can make it difficult for the video caller. You want something big enough to allow the camera to pick up all the players, but small enough not to jigger with the audio.

3) Equipment: Screen size: we were running the conference on an iPad — an 11″ screen. It was good enough we could see the player just fine in the space we were working with. A bigger room, or more myopic players might like something larger. A good microphone and speaker are important when doing a conference call with a room full of players. I mentioned the bluetooth speaker to get past the reflected noise of the host’s kitchen and the generally crappy speaker of the iPad2 and later. If you have a TV and can connect the device running the video conference, the speakers and video should be more than enough to the purpose.

4) Coordination. As with tabletop gaming, coordination can be a real issue. This gets worse the more time zones you throw between the two sides of a call. This has prevented me from setting up a game with another gamer in Korea — 14 or 15 hours is a lot of time to work around; you’re in different days, much less times of day. Even a call home to Scotland is  six hours offset. Keep this in mind, even for something like a single timezone. An hour in the evening can mean starting too early for someone, or ending a touch to late for another.

Overall, our experience was very positive, with two of the players and myself expressing the wish to continue with Skyping the player in, and the others being positive about the experience in general, but not so enthusiastic. They’re also not part of the group from last year, so that’s probably a reason.

Video conferencing is a great way to retain players who have moved away or for some reason can’t make the haul to game. Depending on the number you need to conference in will decide what service you want, but if it’s just a single player Facetime (if they have a Mac) and Skype seem to be the most stable. Google Hangout is great for multiple players, but our last test showed it to be twitchy. They may have improved it since them, and it included a plug-in dice roller, so there you go. Just attend to the tips above, and you should be able to bring in long lost friends or busy players.