Monday, January 16, 2012

Google Hangouts with Extras for RPG

Friday night I played Warrior, Rogue, and Mage from Stargazer Games. game with my longtime online gamers I met through MapTool. As always, we had a great time.

Matt Jackson - cartographer, book cover designer, and the master of 20,000 rules-light games - wanted to try a Google Hangout with Extras for maps, character sheets, and handouts. I'm a longtime MapTool fan and serve on the staff so I suspect I'm more than a little biased.

MapTool does all of those functions very well and was custom designed with gamers in mind. Still, I tried to go in with an open mind. I suspect the two glasses of wine I had beforehand helped. What follows are the Good, the Bad, and the Frustrating about Google Hangouts for RPGs.

The Good.

This is a web application and so needs no client software or special plug-ins to play. As long as you have a Google+ account you have access. I suppose some would consider forcing you to use Google+ is an overall minus but I suspect those people are still trying to figure out a way to get Facebook usable for RPGs.

Google Hangouts with Extras has great integration with Google Docs. You can store documents, spreadsheets, pdfs, etc. in Google docs and share them during the game. You can share only with certain members or open an entire folder up for the group to use.

Google Sketchpad integration is nice as well. Sketchpad is an drawing/image sharing program that lets everyone in the Hangout draw or drop images onto a common canvas. This was the way we shared maps and moved our tokens around the maps.

You can open both Sketchpad and Docs in a separate tab or window if you need multiple items open at once.

The new Hangouts has full text, voice, and video chat capabilities. You don't need a third party product. The picture and voice quality were both good. The text chat comes in handy for sharing AFKs and BRBs as well as typing out quips versus saying them.

The Bad

There is no built in die roller. I hear there are online sites that let players share dice rolls but I haven't found a good one yet. During the game we rolled actual dice and shared the result via the voice chat. While I trust the guys I game with, others may not be so lucky. Isn't it time all text chat programs came with built in die rollers? Let's start an occupy Google campaign (via hangouts) until we get it.

The Sketchpad functionality is fairly limited. It does OK and is good for getting a point across but it really isn't built for gaming. The objects you place on the screen don't have a way of annotating ownership. Sketchpad only tells you who has the object selected. One of the major problems is that the map is an object just like the tokens. So anyone can grab and move it around. Adding layers to Sketchpad would go a long way to making it more usable for Gaming. Player tokens could go on one layer and background objects on another. Let's start an occupy Google campaign (via hangouts) until we get it.

The Frustrating
  • It's not MapTool, a product designed for gaming. It's a presentation/discussion tool. I spent a lot of extra clicks doing what comes easy in MapTool.
  • There wasn't an easy way to zoom around the map.
  • The accidental map movement drove me nuts when people selected the map rather than their token.
  • Images could not be named and had no owner. It was hard telling who was who and what they were doing.
  • You quickly run out of screen real estate for viewing different documents and images.

A Google Hangout is what it is: a method of sharing documents with chat and whiteboard built in. You can make due if you don't expect a lot from it. I hope they someday publish an API for Hangouts that VTTs connect into so you can let VTTs do what they do well and Hangouts do what they do well.

Still, if your mapping needs aren't large and you do more storytelling than combat, Hangouts may be the right gaming tool for you.


  1. I've seen MapTools mentioned many times. Other than diving directly into the fray, are there times inerested parties can connect to a demo? Not bashing on the tool, I'd just like to see it fully in action.

  2. I would be glad to give you a demo. I'll contact you via your web site.

  3. I also tried Google Hangouts with some of my guys and we were quite suprised about what's possible with it. The quality of the sound, the switching to the one who speaks into the main window and the possibility to use all the docs and spreadsheets you need to share with all or certain players.
    The sketchpad function did the job good, not bad but also not great. But it worked. I just put a little link from the blog of the GM who also did his first online RPG appearance here:
    It's in german, so don't be surprised.^^
    I think Hangout works great for Roleplaying games that aren't based on miniature use. I'm going to start a game with Barbarians of Lemuria. A really great and underestimated Sword & Sorcery RPG. And it doesn't need miniatures for combat, so it should work great with Hangouts, because of the cam option. That's what I'm missing when I'm using MapTool and Teamspeak during my online games. I can't see my players and their reaction to certain situations. Now with Hangouts they can fully express themselves with gestures and facial expressions, like on the real gaming table.
    To come to an common end I'm missing a dice tool in Hangouts too.

  4. It seems like it would be hard to give up a game-specific interface for a generic one...

    I recently started using MapTool, and it seems quite good for its purpose so far - although hex maps are a bit awkward at times (specifically with buggy player movement, stuck-on-visibility-lines, and snap-to-grid). If you happen to know a way around any of those issues, let me know ;)

    Still, with only a few hours' work, I was able to have a shuffling deck of cards and visual exploding dice and some workable, interactive maps. Not having those types of things seems like a real step backwards. Are integrated webcams really so important to the virtual gaming experience?

    1. Mr Blue,
      The Troll has been my GM many times in the past with MapTool and we never used the hex map, or any grid at all. You can turn off the snap to grid and just move normally. MapTool will measure for you! You can search for the Maptool specific blogs.

    2. Interesting! I hadn't thought to try free-form movement. I will certainly give that a shot - should work well.