For the past month and a half since the last post, Appify has been furiously comparing different server-side technologies for Live Gaming, including what kind of database to use, what language to code in, and what frameworks to use. For the technically inclined RPGers, or those who just want to see that we’re still working and haven’t disappeared, here are the directions we’re taking on the new stack:

Database: MongoDB

Using the usual, relational database (SQL) or using a document-oriented database (MongoDB) is the big question here. SQL is by far the most popular database choice, but MongoDB has wide enough support to be compatible with most frameworks. Relational databases are great when bits of data need to be combined and manipulated in many different ways, with one row a data being independent from others. Document-oriented DBs excel at scalability of complex or dynamically structured sets of data.

SQL would be a good match if characters in Live Gaming were a list of a fixed number of attributes with a single value each. However, we’ve designed stats in Live Gaming not only to include the value of the stat itself, but links to other stats affected by it, help text, dice-rolling information, and character statuses that are currently affecting the stat. In SQL, this would mean that each stat in an RPG would have its own table, which would make assembling characters a longer, less efficient process… Live Gaming would require several functions to look for the user and get a list of characters, then look at the character to get a list of stats, and then apply values of each column in of a stat to create help text, dice rolls, etc. In contrast, a document-oriented DB like MongoDB could just hand the browser one (albeit long) document of stats and their attributes in a more ready-to-use format.

Also, MongoDB has another advantage over SQL: it would allow Appify to handle everything in JavaScript. Since documents are stored in JSON (JavaScript Object Notation), saved characters wouldn’t have to be translated from format to another in the app. The JSON for the character could be passed directly to the browser to be translated into a visual interface in JavaScript.

Language: JavaScript

PHP was never in the running. We’re looking to create a rest API on the server, so that game rules, stories, and characters stored in the database could be used in a number of different applications. This kind of architecture would be difficult in PHP, which is designed more for the display of pages than for the manipulation of data.

We didn’t consider Python for very long, either. It’s a great language, but didn’t have many compelling tools built for it. The Django framework is great for handling forms, but the character sheet is not a simple form. We might prefer to code in Python over Ruby, in fact… but Ruby has Rails.

Ruby has been a major contender, largely because of Ruby on Rails. The Ruby on Rails framework makes things like user authentication and authorization really, really easy to set up. While SQL is the default of Rails, it supports MongoDB, and we even considered using SQL to sign in users and create a session with a certain permission level, and then use MongoDB for creating, editing, and retrieving characters, stories, and game sessions.

However, JavaScript wins out largely because its simplicity and scalability. One language, one database, one world. It makes life simple, especially since we want to store data in JSON.

Framework: Node (with Express.js)

Node is a hugely popular library for server-side JavaScript with wide support. Express.js is probably the widest-used framework. We looked a few others: Meteor.js is not a good fit for developing a REST API, Derby doesn’t have much support, and Tower.js… well, a handleful. Express.js is a very simple, starter framework to skip a few steps in the architecture creation, but gives programmers a lot of flexibility afterwards. It’s a good fit for creating lean code, custom-tailored to our needs.

We hope to get a minimum viable product of the Character Generator out in within a few months, contact us if you want to be one of our testers!

After a month of advertising and pitching Live Gaming, we made it into Salt Valley Tally’s top five winners. Our friends & followers have congratulated us and asked us the obvious questions:

You won $5K, what’s next?

Winning the Salt Valley Tally competition means $5,000 for Appify to develop Live Gaming. Since Live Gaming is an ambitious idea, ultimately involving 3 integrated apps and a supporting community, we’re not going to build the whole app on $5,000. What we do hope to get out is a MVP of the character generator outlined in a previous post. Character generation remains one of the biggest pain points in RPGs: it’s a lot harder to get a group together when the first two hours, minimum, is going to be taken up by character creation. Hopefully, with this app, even new players can dive into the game, create characters quickly and easily on their own, and come ready for the game. Furthermore, since the app includes help text and auto die-rollers, players won’t have to flip through books to look up their next roll or find the description of a skill—which will free game masters to focus on the story and the non-player characters.

Once we have an alpha Character Generator for Live Gaming, the next step would be raising funds for further development (continued dev on the Character Generator, as well as the Story Creator and Game Session). We had many suggestions from friends that we create a Kickstarter campaign, and we’ll probably plan to raise money at a time when we can go to conventions and show off our demos.

What RPGs will Live Gaming support?

Ultimately, we hope to get support from all of the major publishers, and adapt some of their content to app form. However, it’s difficult to get the attention of Wizards of the Coast (D&D), Whitewolf (World of Darkness), Steve Jackson Games (GURPS), Paizo (Pathfinder), or Palladium (Rifts) without a working product. We will likely release the alpha Character Generator with a custom, new-to-the-world roleplaying game (Legendary) and one or two adaptations of open source roleplaying games.

If there are games that you want to make sure Live Gaming supports, feel free to comment below.

In pitching Live Gaming to tons of different students with different backgrounds, we’ve experimented with different ways of describing what RPGs are, what we like about them, and how we’re trying to make that experience better. Most people have heard of Dungeons & Dragons, and our usual pitch is along the lines of Dungeons & Dragons updated: the game is a creative, in-person experience (with option for video chat later), but the rules are handled by an app instead of books and dice.

However, this last exciting week of the competition, we’ve also tried a different tactic for people not so familiar with D&D or other tabletop RPGs. We ask them if they’ve seen an improv show or played improv games. We mention how the players can do whatever they imagine, with a moderator to keep things running smoothly. What Live Gaming does is video-gamify that improv experience: the players’ characters now have stats, skills, powers, items that help define what they can do in the story. If you look at it this way, RPGs are really like tactical improv, or improv with strategic elements. In addition to the pure, entertaining creative element of telling a story, players need to consider how likely they are to succeed at a given action. If they fail a skill check or other roll, that then supports the improv experience by requiring players to consider new options and tactics.

Without an app, this would be a lot of work to put on a moderator. Game masters normally:

1) Take on the role of an improv moderator, describing and developing the scenario
2) Take on the role of an improv player, by narrating the actions and dialogue of characters in the game
3) Take the additional role of overseeing game mechanics, teaching players what to roll, keeping track of points and other parts of the game

That’s a lot to handle all at once—being an improv moderator by itself or being an improv player can be handleful; being both while also covering complicated rule sets and game mechanics is a lot to ask of one individual.

With Live Gaming, game masters don’t have to worry as much about the third role, letting player’s apps provide game instructions and handle rolls automatically. The story teller app and the game session will build on that dynamic and make more of the rules available (or executable) for the game master at the click of a button. Game masters still take on the responsibilities of both improv moderator and player, which is impressive, but at least their job is easier and players can have a little more structure without having to lean on the GM as heavily.

I’m sure many long-time RPGers have come across curious references to the evilness of roleplaying games, how they lead to witchcraft and cults. These right-right-right wing attacks are easily to dismiss; they come from the groups that accuse Harry Potter of the same. Magic is not real to any of the RPG players I’ve ever met. The RPGers I’ve played with aren’t escaping terrible lives to live in a fantasy life, as the media generally portrays them (for example, The Dungeon Masters documentary). I’m sure a few of these latter exist; but for the majority roleplaying is engaging because it’s real in ways popular media doesn’t pick up.

  • Roleplaying games are real because you are face-to-face, interacting with real people. In the US, we spend a lot of time watching fictional characters on the TV screen or the Silver Screen, or vicariously enjoying the victories of athletes we’ll never meet; arguably many people are already living in fantasy worlds. Many sources estimate that the average American watches 4 hours of TV a day (aside: I ran into a man last week that said RPGers waste too much time on their hobby… I don’t know many who spend 28 hours a week at it). That’s essentially 4 hours a day spent either with fictional people or the next closest thing. At least, outside of virtual tabletops, roleplaying games are spent interacting with people from your actual life.

    That’s more than can be said for a lot of pastimes these days, and it’s one reason why Live Gaming does not aim to be primarily a virtual tabletop. At Appify we understand that many people want the ability to play online, and we’ll deliver. But our focus is on making the game easier so that players can enjoy interacting rather than consulting charts.

  • Roleplaying games are real because there’s a start and a finish to the fantasy. RPGers are frequently accused of not being able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, but I wonder if this is the pot calling the kettle black. Judging by the amount of TV watching mentioned above, many people escape their lives and live through others on the TV screen (or in books) without giving it a second thought. RPGers, at least, are very cognizant of the transition into the fantasy world. There’s a start and a finish to the game session. Perhaps there are an extreme few in a perpetual state of LARPing, but for the most part, I’d say that RPGers are more aware of when they’re entering a fantasy world than the average individual.

  • Roleplaying games are real because you are creating and not just consuming. In TV and even in books, people passively consume the plots and characters of someone else’s imagination. I prefer books to TV, because the reader’s imagination has to engage a little more, but neither really engages me as much as creating my own plot or character. The characters in the RPG aren’t real because they’re my alter-ego. I’m Alec, and I’m pretty happy about that. The character I play in an RPG session, or the plots I create as a storyteller, are real to me because I made them. They don’t represent or replace my identity; but they do represent my creativity rather than some passive affection for the figment of someone else’s imagination.

I enjoy movies, TV, and books as much as the next person (although, admittedly I’d rather play sports than watch someone else get paid to play them). However, I think the realness—the socialness, the creativity—of roleplaying games has a lot to offer. It brings people together, engages the mind, and it’s just not nearly as creepy as living vicariously through the Twilight saga…

Character creation is one of the biggest deterrents for new players; even many experienced players feel that character creation is the first step in simplifying RPGs and improving game play. Here’s an example: Alec loves Whitewolf’s storyteller system—an experienced Whitewolfer can create a full-fledged new character in 10 minutes. However, in introducing people to Whitewolf’s Mage, he’s found that no amount of instruction or personal assistance helps a brand new RPGer create a character in under 2 hours. Some of this time is spent navigating the huge amount of choice involved in creating a character for the first time; some is spent in sheer page flipping. At Appify, we feel we can help add structure to character creation and eliminate page flipping. Here are a few of the features of Live Gaming Character Creation:

Web-based convenience

Because Live Gaming is web-based, all information saved on the website (or in mobile device apps) can be accessed from any internet-capable device. No more losing characters, bring your mobile device as a character sheet and die roller in one!

Character creation wizard

A structured, automated, step-by-step process could help a great many tabletop roleplaying games. Only displaying one step of character creation at a time helps reduce the cognitive load and mentally-staggering array of choices. At a basic level, the player will go through pages dedicated to one facet of character creation: choosing classes, attributes, skills, items. The player will roll or assign points for the stats, while tool tips and help dialogues will provide immediate information about the stats and how they will be used. Secondary stats (such as health or speed in many systems) will be automatically calculated based on the player’s choices.

Later versions of the character creation wizard will support narrative character creation for tabletop RPGs. Instead of having to adjust abstract numbers, players can answer questions about the character’s past or personality that will calculate the character for them. Not only will this make character creation mechanically easier, the character creation will help define and solidify a character’s narrative concept. Narrative character creation will start building the character with a story, not numbers.

Character templates

Appify has received requests for character templates as part of the app. This way, new players and experienced players alike can jump into the story immediately. Because the character sheets include tool-tips, help dialogues, and rolls at the click of a button, even new players can quickly get a feel for what their character is capable of and how to play the RPG.

Version two of the character templates would be ‘fuzzy’ templates. A template could, instead of including exact numbers, include a basic character with some randomization. This way, even ‘template’ characters could be unique.

In-context help

Players don’t only get instructions while creating a character, they can get descriptions of stats and related rules by clicking an attribute, skill, power, or item. Clicking a character’s stealth skill gives a description of the skill, as well as common rolls or rules associated with the skill.

Built in die-roller and ‘score’ tracker

Attributes, skills, and powers can present a default roll (with the option to include modifiers) by clicking or tapping them. The die-roller would include built-in instructions, removing the need to consult charts or book descriptions.

The character sheet also keeps track of points: experience points, hit points, mana points, etc. Each of these come with instructions such as how to use experience points, or how fast hit points recover, again removing the need to consult tables.

* * *

Given the features above, we hope the Live Gaming Character Creation app will have all the basics a player needs to create a character and play without spending hours, or even minutes page flipping: no need for books, sheets, or dice. Of course, you can keep all or any of those traditional tangibles, and just use LGCC to speed play when desired.

If you’re interested in LGCC, vote for it to win $5,000 in the Salt Valley Tally app competition. Votes require email verification, but Salt Valley Talley will not spam you.

Have questions or want to request additional features? Please comment below.

Live Gaming is by no means the first virtual tabletop; but it doesn’t exactly aim to be only a ‘virtual’ tabletop. VTs’ main goal is to reproduce the experience of RPGs online.  They run from the simple (and system agnostic), like Roll20, to heavily system-based, like Fantasy Grounds.  Live Gaming is different because it aims to make roleplaying more streamlined: both easier and quicker.

The difference between VTs like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds and Live Gaming boils down to the need to flip through RPG books—or not.  In a rules agnostic VT, they allow you to roll online, but they don’t help learn what you should be rolling, or speed character creation.  Even rules-based systems provide character sheets, but not necessarily the knowledge to fill them out.  Players still have to figure out how to roll, and then manually apply the results to their character sheets.

In a way, Live Gaming takes more after something like Hero Labs, an application that aims to use computer programming to handle rules and make character creation easier.  Except, we want to take the concept further in Live Gaming.  Instead of just tabs to take players through character creation, we want to create wizards, with step-by-step instructions, and tool tips, and other aids.  We want the program not only to validate the character, but to be able to roll dice with the click of a skill.

Then, we’ll apply our same philosophy of streamlining RPGs to creating stories, and gaming sessions. A story creation wizard that takes game masters through creating characters, locations, items, and more.  A gaming session that can pull characters and stories seamlessly together combining the helpful tooltips and rolling at a click.  The gaming experience will run smoothly, without requiring players to stop and look up rules and charts.

Live Gaming, a web app to support tabletop gaming, is in development. The project sprung out of the difficulty that many new players have with RPGs: the rules are so complicated that just creating a character can take hours. Even experienced RPGers frequently have to interrupt play to flip through books and look up a rule or a chart.  Many, many people have expressed interest in an app that can handle the rules and speed playing; some, however, have pointed out that players can avoid complications simply by using a ‘rules light’ system.  Rules light systems are a great choice for people who are creative, focused on story telling more than rules, and need little structure.  However, Appify and many of the RPGers we talk to still feel that there is a place for more developed systems, despite their additional rules and complications.

Avoiding complication with rules light systems

One way that people deal with the complex rules is simply to avoid them by playing ‘rules light’ systems.  In rules light systems, a player character may be summed up in as few as 4-6 stats, with many non-player characters summed up by a single attribute.  Fewer charts, fewer rolls, fewer game mechanics to memorize or look up.  This way, play focuses a lot more on how a player describes what they do than on rolling dice.

Rules light can mean little supportive structure for new RPGers

Rules light systems have their own challenges.  In a system with a comprehensive set of attributes, skills, and equipment, a player knows exactly what skills are at their disposal. Simply by looking at a character sheet, players can get an idea of what a character’s options are and what the character can do best. When characters are defined very broadly with only a few stats, new players may have a hard time understand when a skill applies.  For example, Gary has a character with Private Investigator +2.  Does that plus to apply to interrogation, observation, firearms?  Does it over lap with Ex-cop +1?  When interrogation, observation, and firearms are all independent skills, a character’s abilities are much clearer.  When characters only have a few, non-comprehensive stats, new players may also simply forget that they can take actions or use skills not listed.

Rules light and simulation

Many experienced players, even those who dislike looking up charts, may have reasons to prefer normal RPGs to rules light systems. A well-developed system can create a fun simulation of the game world. For example, simulating magical or super powers can be more fun in a fleshed out system—the additional rules add flavor and limitations to how powers are used, creating a sort of physics that makes the game world more real (for some players).  For example, does casting a spell cost mana or physically tire the wizard?  Does it have a higher chance of backfiring the more a wizard deviates from reality?  Does it require memorizing spells in advance?  Each of those would require a system of support that would make a game more complicated, but each also tangibly changes the meaning of what magic is and how it works in the world.

In the same vein, more developed RPGs with all their stats and rules also help to differentiate characters.  The player doesn’t just narrate their actions differently; differences are expressed in what kinds of rolls they make and their chances for success.  For example, one system might have one attack roll that reflects both the chance to hit and damage: any success beyond that required to hit is damage.  In this kind of system, a heavy, inaccurate bruiser and dextrous lightweight may narrate their actions differently (“I throw a haymaker” or “I do a flying jump kick”), but their die roll may be the same, and they might do the same damage.  In a system with 2 rolls (1 to hit, 1 for damage), not only would the players describe their characters differently, but those differences are actually simulated in the game.  The bruiser might not succeed very often on the hit roll, but will do a lot of damage when he does; the small, dextrous martial artist may hit frequently for low damage.  One die roll is simpler and ‘lighter’, but the additional roll can make for a more interesting simulation of the game world, where differences between characters have more impact.

Live Gaming and the best of both worlds

We don’t feel like rules light systems by themselves are better or worse than the more typical RPG like Dungeons & Dragons.  Rules light is simpler, faster, and more narrative but less structured and weaker at simulation.  Appify simply noticed that an web app might help typical RPGs attain the best both worlds.  When an app handles the rules and rolls (or at the very least, delivers the relevant rules at the touch of a button instead of several minutes of page turning), an RPG can have the ease and speed of a rules light system, while providing a structured environment for new players (almost like a video game), and simulate a complex and compelling world in which characters have meaningful differences.