Firing Squad with John Lammers of Epic Table

March 2014’s RPG Blog Carnival is focusing on Virtual TableTops and Online Gaming. I invited VTT creators to chat with me briefly about the state of VTTs, and what’s the future of online RPGs.

This evening I sat down for a brief chat with +John Lammers, creator of Epic Table, and we spoke for just shy of an hour.

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming
Ballistic):

Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad. Today we are
joined by John Lammers, the primary content creator for the virtual tabletop
EpicTable. John , thanks for joining me this evening.
John Lammers (EpicTable
Creator):

Yeah, thanks for having me.
Doug: Great. This is part of a
bit of a continuing series of interviews regarding virtual tabletops and online
gaming for the Role-Playing Game Blog Association March Blog Carnival (and that
needs a much shorter name) which is involved, oddly enough, in virtual
tabletops and online gaming. I wanted to start by asking you a couple of
questions, since this is a interview it would not make sense for me to just
talk. So what led you to develop a new virtual tabletop?

John: Well actually it started
back when my friends and I were having a reunion game. It was a face to face
group that I had gamed with for many years and we’d all kind of drifted apart
and gone to live in different states.
And
this was a while ago, so at the time I wasn’t aware of other virtual tabletops
out there, there may have been some. I became aware of them shortly after I had
started the effort, but really I was just looking for a way to play. We had
tried playing over Skype and we just didn’t really have the toolset that we
needed.
So
I started to develop EpicTable and I started to see some of the other virtual
tabletops pop up. There were just things I wanted to do differently. Things I
wanted to focus on with EpicTable that weren’t really the focus of things I was
seeing out there in the market place.
Doug: So with that in mind, so sort
of two questions. One sort of personal and one more directed at your
development efforts. What led you to say…are you a software developer, did you
become a software developer or is that something you’ve been doing?
John: I had been a software
developer for years, that’s what I do professionally. I had always worked on
little side projects and things like that. It was the kind of thing where any
project, I would get going on for a weekend or two, and then it would dawn on
me “Gee, I can’t really do something like this in my spare time.” It’s not
something that just takes a couple of weekends.
So
I had all these series of failed personal projects due to lack of time, because
I had a day job that I liked. Then one day I was missing around with the
EpicTable idea and I found that I had been playing World of Warcraft at the
time, and I was like “I have proof that I have time to do something else” [both
laugh].
So
I canceled my World of Warcraft account and started EpicTable.
Doug: Nothing says “I have time
like either X-Com: Enemy Unknown” or one of the innumerable MMOs out there.
So,
quick: EpicTable, how did you come up with the name?
John: So EpicTable started out as
this horribly named thing “VXP Roleplay” which was, like, “Virtual Experience
Roleplay” and it was almost embarrassed to say when I talked to my friends
about it.
So
I was looking for something that was better, so I had started to look along the
lines of terminology from the games that I was playing and right about that
time, I think that the 3.5 set was coming out with their Epic Rulebook. And I
was like “Yeah, that kind of works.”
Doug: Okay. Going right into the
game part of it. So, in general, what are the best and worst features of a VTT.
So
if you’re designing a virtual tabletop, what are the things you want to avoid?
What are the things you want to provide?
John: It’s hard to say in a way
because the VTTs that are out there, they all have different focuses, and
obviously there are things that I see as important, and things that I’ve
consciously stayed away from.
It
doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something you must stay away from, or
something that isn’t good for some of the people out there.
My
favorite example is rules automation. EpicTable doesn’t do rules automation.
There
are dice rolls that you can define and there is a dice-roll builder, but that’s
about as far as it goes. It doesn’t try to automate the rules for you, and
depending on who you are that’s a strength or weakness.
To
me it’s a strength, because I play a lot of different games, and even the games
that are really mainstream like Pathfinder or D&D we use a lot of
houserules, my players are kind of always going off the rules [Doug chuckles].
Doug: What rails? Surely there
aren’t “rails” in a roleplaying game. [joking]
John: I had found I had started
out wanting to do rules-automation in experimenting on this thing called co-GM.
It was all based on rules automation.
What
I found was it was just…I didn’t have a lot of time to prep. When I wasn’t
prepped, or even if I had prepped, and my players went and did something else,
the rules-automation kept getting in my way.
I
need to stat up this thing, and I can’t quite do that on the fly because I
haven’t quite had the time to develop a custom feat for this thing that I want
to use, or can’t get him in the tool without defining some minimum set of
things. It made it just really hard to wing it.
So
one of the core values of EpicTable is that its completely prepless. You can do
stuff ahead of time, but the presumption is your going to be pulling things in
dynamically, and you’re going to be
the guy running the rules. So it’s not trying to replace the GM, it’s trying to
replace the table and the stuff off
on the table.
Doug: Right. I think it’s funny,
because I was just looking off to my second monitor.
I
was looking for a 90-some-odd message thread that I had. I am trying to start
my own game and that shouldn’t necessarily be hard, but you got to set the
ground rules. I’ve got some core players that are going to join me.
I
have written some rules: in Pyramid magazine and I have a grappling book out.
So
okay I want to play this game. My god, I just spent the last five years
rewriting GURPS in various ways. So which of this huge list, well not huge –
Sean Punch has a huge list of contributions. A small list, a handful.
But
almost everything I’ve written has been rules. Here’s a grappling rule. Here’s
a rule for breaking swords. Here’s a new rule for aiming differently. Here’s a
different rule for doing dodging. I did a whole rewrite of a fatigue system.
And I was like “Wow, I have so many of these I’m no longer playing the game as
written and I really need to do less.”
So
I’ve started eliminating some of my own stuff. Not because any one of them is a
bad idea, but all of them together….Dear God in heaven. [John laughs].
That’s
not necessarily a story about me, it’s more like okay let’s say someone wanted
to come up with GURPS rules support, or Pathfinder support: Say I don’t like the
way that Dexterity is only to ranged weapons. I want Dexterity to apply to all
hits and I want Strength to apply to all damage.
Now
you have coding to do so I hope you are a scripter, or it’s easy or the
developer, yourself in this case, anticipated your rules needs.
John: I’m a developer, and I don’t want to spend my time doing
that kind of stuff. And my group is almost always playing off the books to some
extent. There is always some custom weirdness going on.
Doug: Right. In a way I suppose,
if I understand it at all, the less rules-support you build into a virtual
tabletop the better you support the Old School Renaissance.
John: Yeah, I think that that’s
true to a certain extent. Basically, if you can do it at the table, you can do
it in the virtual environment, if it’s one that has that philosophy.
Doug: So tell me a little bit
about your mission statement mentally (or if you ever wrote it down. . . I
don’t care). What was your mission statement was for EpicTable. Just tell me
what you were trying to do, tell me what you were trying to do with your
tabletop experience on the computer. You probably had a list of features you
really wanted to have. So what drove you?
John: Basically I wanted to be
the Apple of virtual tabletops, or the iPad of virtual tabletops.
I
wanted something that anybody could use, that was polished and easy.
So
there are a lot of things in EpicTable that aren’t features because they’re not
ready to be exposed to people yet. Occassionally, I get asked about chat logs.
All the text chat is actually saved in a log, but it’s not ready for
publication to the user. It’s not a done feature and one of the core values of
EpicTable is it is not a hacker’s platform. It’s not a DIY kind of thing. It’s
a finished tool. That means that that feature’s not available yet, it will be
at some point, but it’s not yet.
But
what you get in return for that reticence to release stuff, it’s really core to
me that you never write XML, you never write scripts, and have to place files
in certain directories; that kind of thing.
Someone
should be able to sit down with this who’s not a developer and doesn’t want to
be a developer, and doesn’t want to spend a lot of time learning the tool and
just work with it.
Doug: Sounds like you’ve written
it for the over 40 set.
John: [John laughs]Yeah, maybe.
Doug: I’m being self-referential.
I’m 42 years old. I have a kid. My time is incredibly limited and a lot of it
is spent on transpacific conference calls for work. So, when I’m going to do
gaming I want to sit down, I want to boot something up, I want it to work, I
want it to not mess with it. If I pull in a map, great. I want to go “Click,
click, click, here is a bunch of characters or whatever, and rock it.”
Because
I don’t have time for the rest of it.
John: Right. I just didn’t want
any conversations like “How do I configure my router?” “Oh, what’s a router” or
“Take these files and put them here and restart.” That kind of stuff.
I
wanted to make sure that wasn’t part of the experience.
That
was part of it, and initially, fog of war was a huge thing for me . . . I
thought. I thought fog of war was going to be a huge huge deal and I spent a
lot of time back in 2006 writing this Ray Trace based fog of war and part of my
mission was: part one was to be the iPod of VTTs, but part two was and have the
best fog of war out there.
But
what I found in the course of developing fog of war was two things. There were
a lot of things I had to have before fog of war to make the environment really
useable.
And
part two was in the course of doing it, I didn’t really want fog of war in the
same way  that I thought I did.
I
thought that I wanted something kind of hyper realistic and what I found was
doing that put a certain tax on the machine itself in terms of horsepower, but
it also took a lot of my time. I had to prep the maps.
At
one point I remember I spent a lot of time trying to optimize the process for
marking up a map, and even planned a series of videos where I was going to have
a timer in the corner, and show how quick it was to mark up a given map.
Doug: So you realized you’d
become your own worst enemy.
John: Yeah, it dawned on me that
this wasn’t what I wanted to do as a guy running a game, and so that’s where
just most recently in EpicTable 1.2 I released my sort of revamped concept of
fog of war that’s based around this concept of zones.
It’s
really really ultra-simple, almost embarrassingly so. You basically just draw
zones on the map and hide and reveal them.
So
in some ways it almost harkens back to the way you used to throw a piece of
construction paper over part of the map at your table or throw a cloth over
part of the map at the table.
It
has the advantage of the zones sticking in place and you can flip them on and
off like a light switch. The nice thing is that when my players do the
inevitable off the wall thing like blast a hole through the wall I don’t have
to worry that they just screwed up my lighting model – I just draw a zone that
represents the area that they blasted.
Doug: I’ll give you an
opportunity to walk you through the features of EpicTable.
I
went to your website and walked through the quick tutorial, and to your credit,
I think you accurately described (at least what’s on the website), you click,
you click and it’s very visually straightforward piece in a user experience it
looks like.
A
couple of more…I did get a question, actually, from one of the people watching
sent a question to ask about cross platform support.
Is
this something that’s straightforward to run on different platforms or PC only
or how does it work?
John: It’s Windows only. Which is
a question I get all the time at GenCon. The cheat answer is that you can run
it on Parallels. One of my guys in my gaming group is a Mac-guy, swears it runs
better on Parallels than it does Windows. Which I think is…[laughs] I think
that’s a Mac thing.
It’s
Windows only, there is no way around it. But the guys that are used to dealing
with Windows-only on Mac tend to just run it under Parallels.
Doug: Parallels is a specific emulator
then?
John: Parallels is a like a
virtual machine for the Mac.
Doug: Okay. I’m a GURPS guy and I
was wondering if it were possible for you to do 3d6 roll under in a fairly
straight manner. I want to do this in a visual way: Can share your screen and
walk us through the program and maybe let’s do a attack defense structure. Is
that something that’s quick and easy?
John: Sure. Yeah. Let me switch
over. I think this is what you want? [shares screen]. A few things about this
so if you just want a real quick 3d6 you can click on the d6 down here at the
bottom and hit 3. You get the 3d6, sorry, I hit a 2d6 there too. Fat-fingered
it.
You
can get a quick roll that way, but if you are looking for something more
interesting though, there is this dice-rolls tab and we can really quickly
build the dice roll. So if I want 3d6 I just hit that 3 times and I can name
these things so if I want this to be…
Doug: Kind of like “attack roll”
or something.
John: I can do that.
I
can do things like say that I want to reroll ones I just throw that in there.
Say that I want to explode on 6s I can do that. With no scripting and very
little effort I can put together a roll like that.
Doug: Is it possible to do a roll
against a target, or I guess in Dungeons and Dragons, it would be roll against
X greater than whatever… or really it’s the greater than whatever rules that
you don’t want to code?
John: Exactly. It’s…yeah. I don’t
do “hit determination” the closest thing to that is some games do “success
counting” so I can throw like…what is it. Mouseguard? Burning Wheel?
Doug: Shadowrun.
John: So you can do that kind of
thing where you do success counting and it’ll do the eval for that kind of
thing for you.
Doug: Okay. What about characters
and stuff? Is that something that…or is this literally the character sheet is
something you’d put on the table top and therefore the game doesn’t really
drive to that?
John: I can show what the
characters look like today.
So
the basic info that you need within this environment. His map size, the name,
you can have a separate map token and portrait. So behind here you got the
portrait bar. A lot of times what I’ll do in a role-play heavy game is I’ll
have a sort of face up portrait, and then top down map token.
 And then you have notes here you can, like in
a old school game, in that kind of thing. Keep track of your stats here that
sort of thing.
Doug: So it’s basically a word
processor, sort of an online version of a wiki.
John: Yeah. And then you can come
in here, so maybe I create myself a tab for gear, and a tab for stats and that
kind of stuff.
So
you get sort of a quick easy, ability to manage your character here within the
environment.
Doug: Okay, you got your tabs,
you got . . . every time I talk you lose the screen. [both laugh] Every time I
talk you lose the screen and I’m looking at myself.
So
you got tabs that you can create on the fly. Can you import pictures into those
tabs if you wanted to?
John: You can. One thing I’ve
cautioned people about, and I guess a feature-in-waiting here, that when you do
inline pictures I found this out the hard way, RTF (Rich-Text Format) doesn’t
compress pictures, so these end up being enormous.
So
for small things – if I want to throw in…not that small…throw in a little pic
like that, that kind of stuff is fine.
What
I found was someone right off the bat backed up one of these tabs with a full
8×11 character sheet – which is a awesome idea, but it’s just that that blows
up to a enormous size in a RTF file.
What
I plan to do is to strip the images out, and manage them myself, rather than
let RTF manage them.
In
the meantime I went in and put some things in here to help you out. If you select
a huge image it’ll warn you “Hey, this is a huge image, this may be a problem
for you, if you have a lot of players.” At a certain point it’ll say “You can’t
pull in an image that large it’ll wreck your game.”
Doug: So you just alluded to the
player thing. Every player has to have a copy of this running on their PC?
John: They do, the deal is,
though, they don’t have to have a license.
So it’s what I’ve been calling “Kitchen Table Licensing.”
If
you own the table it’s yours, other people can come over, sit down, play. They
don’t have to bring their own table with them. You don’t have to tell me who
they are. You don’t have to buy a certain number of players’ licenses or swap
them out or anything like that. It covers your whole group.
It
makes things a lot easier. It avoids the whole conversation of “Hey, do we all
want to chip in and get a bunch of licenses?” or get some license pack or
something.
Doug: So really if I purchased
the EpicTable, downloaded it onto my computer, and I got five players I can
invite them to the game somehow?
John: Yup. Essentially…
Doug: Could you invite me to this
game? You’ve got a game running there you could send me a email or something?
John: Yeah. You go to this invite
button, and it generates a passphrase that I then mail you. There is a
copy/close thing, it’ll copy the passphrase and I can put it into the G+ window
or mail it to you or whatever and then from your end you just do “Accept
invitation,” paste in that phrase, and from then on that’s the only time that
handshake is done.
It’s
in my list, it’s in your list, and you don’t have to bother with that.
Doug: But you have to have a copy
of the game, and I have to have a copy of the game, and the networking, so to
speak, is just odne by invite?
John: Yep. All the networking in
EpicTable, all the communication goes through the cloud, so no one is the
client. You might host the game, but it’s in the sense of “host a party,”
you’re not running the server. The servers are all central, that way everyone
only has outbound connections, and the beauty of that is that you don’t have
firewall issues, router issues, that kind of stuff.
Doug: Cool. And once you buy it
do you just download free upgrades…some programs are pay by the month, some are
kind of buy it once and you’re done. So if you buy EpicTable v1.0, EpicTable
v2.0…how does that work for this one?
John: So it’s you buy it and you
own EpicTable v1.0, someday there’ll be EpicTable v2.0 when I feel like there
is enough new content to warrant that and EpicTable v2.0 will be an upgrade that
 existing owners of EpicTable v1.0 will
have some sort of deal.
Doug: So speaking of EpicTable
v2.0, which gets into a couple of questions on the present and future of
virtual tabletops and playing online, what sort of upgrades would you say would
merit a version two. What is it that you got in your mind, your works, or your
vision that says “At this point, this is EpicTable v2.0” It’s cool enough that
it’s new. It merits a new version.
John: Yeah, the kinds of things
I’ve been thinking about…the heuristic that I’ve been using for the line
between one and two:
Things
that are EpicTable v1.0 are things that make the current feature set better. So
fog of war was something that was part of the initial EpicTable vision for quite
some time. Fog of War had to be a v1.XX feature.
Some
of the things I’m doing surrounding the…I have this feature coming up called
“Cloud Caching” where I’m going to be taking some of the load off of the host’s
machine, with respect to image distribution. EpicTable doesn’t pass out things
head of time, everything is on the fly, it’s cached, but it means – especially
if you’re the GM – it means you’re introducing a lot of images, sometimes big
ones. Everyone’s hitting your machine, and it’s kind of a drag if you’ve got a
slow connection.
So
there is this feature coming up called “cloud caching” where I’ll automatically
take care of posting that up through Amazon S3 or something, so that you don’t
have that drag on your machine for distributing those resources.
That’s
a example of making EpicTable better. That’s v1.XX kind of stuff.
v2.XX
features are making EpicTable different
or broadening what EpicTable is, so for instance, you saw that in EpicTable
v1.0 a way to simply manage characters.
EpicTable
v2.0…and dice rolls are…you have a very capable builder, but you have no
ability to bring in character variables.
So
EpicTable v2.0, one of the things on the slate is allowing you to build dice
rolls that incorporate live character data and to manage that live character
data, probably both through a fairly general and simple EpicTable character
data manager.
But
also I’ve been talking to the guys at HeroLab about some sort of integration
there, so if you’re using HeroLab anyway, then why not manage your characters there and yet have all the dice rolls
appear here.
Doug: Would it be an impossible
or IP-illegal task to say: you have a user-fillable character sheet, like a
PDF, you can bring it in or…? If you have something with names and spaces and
spaces associated with the names, it may not be pretty, but you can access that
data.
John: Yes. I think that that’s
totally reasonable.
You
know the . . . one of the philosophies with EpicTable is “you can use what you
have.”
For
instance if you’re a Pathfinder AP subscriber, it’s easy to pull in your map
images, your character portraits, that kind of stuff. It’s easy to get them
shared with your players, and naturally though the users need to think about
what constitutes fair use and that kind of thing.
In
keeping with the sort of ease of use kind of thing, what I would envision is
maybe you pull in a PDF of the character sheet and tell EpicTable where are the
fields. Then it takes it from there.
Doug: Right. I want to bring up
one screenshot from your website, if you don’t mind. Here, I believe, we have
the fog of war delineation of hallways and rooms. Can you see that okay?
John: Yeah.
Doug: Okay, great.
The
question I’m going to ask you, and I’m 
going to ask this of everybody, and this is the hard part for me, in
terms of time management.
Let’s
say I have a picture or whatever and I want to bring it in and I want to use.
This
box delineation you’ve done here has some clear advantages in time. Do you ever think it would be
possible to pull in an image and ask it to find the open spaces, so it does
this kind of thing for you.
John: I think that that is a
possibility, to tell you the truth that is one of the things I was looking at
when I had the Ray Trace approach, is that I was looking for tell EpicTable
where are the walls. Or at least where are not the walls, so I had these tools
for doing kind of a flood-fill kind of approach to let you designate walls and
things.
It
is not real trivial to do that. It gets time consuming for both of us. I’m not
sure whether that’s a route I would go.
It’s
cardinally worth considering. Let me flip over to my map a second, which is
interestingly the same map that you were showing.
If
you look at these are pretty clearly defined. This was done on the Campaign
Cartographer, my both was next to the ProFantasy guys that do Campaign
Cartographer one year at GenCon.
We
had a little bit about how they represented walls in their world, and it was
remarkably close to my internal format for designating walls back when I was
doing the Ray Trace thing. Clearly there is some opportunity there.
I
don’t know – I’d have to think about what do those mean, what’s the EpicTable thing to do with that
information. Is it automatically define the zones. Is it to do something else
with it?
It
had dawned on me that you know that the zones in EpicTable. Let me show you one
of these really quick since you’re looking at my screen anyways.
If
I flip over and enable fog, it looks like that. If I go to the fog layer, these
zones are like this. I can delete some of these just to show you how easy they
are to deal with. Let me turn this guy on.
Doug: How are you doing that?
You’re just clicking?
John: I can either right click
and select it from this menu, or I can control right click. Toggles it on and
off. I can resize this, everything.
Let
me get rid of some stuff. Hide the chat. Hide the dice tray, and give us some
more room. And I can even zoom out so I can see more of the map.
While
the characters are here talking about whether they should listen at the door, I
can drag in a new zone and flip it on. So it’s real quick to do. Which makes me
think twice about anything that’s real automatic. The one thing I have thought
about. Are you familiar with the game Tanhouser?
Doug: No I’m not.
John: Tanhouser is a Fantasy
Flight boardgame, and it has this really cool mechanic that is for handling
line of sight that really was the inspiration for zones.
They
color the board different colors and if you’re on the same color as someone
else, then you two have line of sight, you can shoot each other.
There
are overlapping things. So if I go down here and grab this, notice it stops at
the door. If it didn’t, if it came all the way up here, then you’ve got this
notation of if this guys standing here…
Doug: … he can see everything in
that box.
John: He should be able to see
everything in this box, but also in this box, and everything in this box. Once
you start to think about these zones as potentially line of sight zones, then
it’s not a stretch to say “What if we want to limit his ability to see by the
radius of the light source he’s carrying with him.” Then it becomes another
level of complexity here . . .
Doug: That would just be a zone
that moves with the token.
John: Yeah. Exactly. Suddenly you
have lighting added to this model in a way that’s very in-keeping with the rest
of the simple no-prep philosophy, but I think would work pretty well. You know,
so that’s another thing that I’ll be experimenting with.
Doug: What I would look at doing
(in terms of my “copious” software experience) because I really do like the
zone model that you have there is if I brought in a map what I would probably
ask to do is to see what rectangles, ovals, and certain size shapes…First, I’m
going to look all over for rectangles, and you set these up, then I’ll look all
over for pattern matching ovals. So this one on the center here would turn into
a oval, everything else would have squares.
Maybe
it would even say, “Okay, I’m going to highlight everywhere where two zones
intersect and I’m going to ask you if there is a door or space at each one.”
And then you say “Yes, yes, no, no.” you do a Boolean thing and then boom,
instant map from an EpicTable perspective.
John: And I like that sort of
machine-augmented-human approach, where you’re not trying to make the machine
autonomous. Make it perfect. You’re trying to take some of the load off the
human.
Doug: Exactly.
So
instead of putting every box in, making me
do every box, there is some obvious box-like shapes. I’m not going to try and
find the table and the shield and the items and say “Oh! Do you think this is a
small dagger?” No. I just want the
big outline.
Maybe
what you can do is if you’re bringing in something for example like fractal
terrains. A hex-crawl map. Maybe it’ll do…that one you could probably do by color, but that’s the kind of thing. You
have Campaign Cartographer, you have Fractal Terrains you can import in a
certain format. You’re not going to say “Anything Fractal Terrains can do, I
can handle.” But if you export it in this
way, I can help.
John: Yeah.
Doug: Cool!
John: I think that kind of stuff
is pretty cool.
Doug: And that sounds like
version two stuff, maybe version three [chuckles].
John: Certainly. There are other
things that to me…there is the HeroLab integration that I want to look at. I
want to look at some sort of conflict management.
I
say conflict management instead of initiative tracker, because a lot of the
games that I play, initiative isn’t really a thing.
Like
for instance, if you’re playing Primetime Adventures, you don’t really
have…it’s not a thing. But you still have this notion of wanting to designate
who’s in the conflict, who’s not, what side they’re on.
So
I’ve been thinking about conflict from a general perspective and how do you let
somebody…so EpicTable is not just maps. You have tabletops too.
So
how do you let someone throw up a tabletop and designate it as an encounter
workspace and visually move stuff around. These guys are in this faction, those
guys are in that faction. Deal cards out on the table – EpicTable doesn’t
support cards yet, but that’s certainly a v2.0 thing.
Doug: That would be interesting,
because then you could almost structure out . . . the game master of the game I
played in only briefly because I had sound problems.
I
couldn’t get my sound to work with Hangouts and Roll20. I was having a problem,
as it turns out it’s a conflict between Skype, Hangouts, and multiple windows.
If I have Roll20 in one and a Hangout in the other, my computer just freaks
out.
So
that was a problem and I wound up having to not play.
What
he would do is have this cool social construct thing. You got the king who has
these goals, this faction who has these goals, it was almost like a mind-map,
if you’re familiar with those.
And
you could move people along the mind-map, and that’s a conflict space that has
almost nothing to do with dice, doesn’t have to do with armor class, it
definitely has something to do with
GURPS reaction rolls and Social Engineering by William Stoddard.
But
it’s not hit, defend, parry, damage, grapple, throw, bite, whatever. I had Jazz
Hands going on there, I have to stop that [John laughs].
There
was a very much different kind of thing, a facilitated roleplaying discussion.
John: Right. That’s…if I show for
a second, the EpicTable, just Tabletop. Here is a tabletop, here is the kind of
thing I’ve been thinking.
You
can do things like dragging index cards around on here, so I’ve got a example
where I do a Fiasco set up, with index cards and dice and things like that.
I’m
thinking a conflict manager that’s based around this kind of thing, and then if
I pop the dice tray back in here a second, you can throw dice on the tabletop
as well and roll them here.
For
games like Dogs in the Vineyard, where it does have a tabletop mechanic for
conflict resolution, where you are bidding essentially. Pushing dice forward
against your opponent and that kind of thing. I think you could add cards to
this and you give GM an ability to set up a pretty interesting conflict area.
And a way to manage conflict for a lot of different kinds of games.
That
said I get asked every single year GenCon about initiative trackers. So yeah, I
think part of whatever live character data solution I think there has to be a
initiative tracker at that point. There are too many people interested in it.
While
I’m thinking of that, I want to be thinking about it in more general terms. The
ability to handle different games is really important to me personally because
I play a lot of different kinds of games.
But
I think it helps for things …the Hero system folks visit me every year at GenCon and their
initiative is different, right? They may appear at several places in
initiative, it’s not just my guy first or third, he might be first and third.
So
the ability to have some more general space where you can manage the conflict
in a way that doesn’t presume that everything is happening in a grid is
important.
Doug: Right. That’s neat.
One
of the things that GURPS does do right now, is there is a advantage called
Altered Time Rate that allows you to take multiple maneuvers on your turn. And
a maneuver is a 1-second action declaration.
What
it doesn’t do is space the maneuvers out. Because…you go in descending order of
Basic Speed, fastest to slowest. And if you have altered time rate, then when
it’s your turn you go twice and you can do some pretty cool things.
But
what you don’t do is go at your Basic Speed slot of 7 and 3.5, where you take a
turn and then you can do it again at 3.5, which is what Hero does, or it did
when I played it. It’s gone through a couple of editions since I played it in 1988.
That’s
pretty neat.
Let
me ask you a couple of questions and then I’ll give you the floor for the
famous parting shot. I always give my guests that last word so they can close
on the topic of their choice.
What
do you think of the importance, if any, of video? Obviously we’re talking on
video and social gaming is a social medium and I think that the face-to-face
interaction, even if it’s digital face-to-face is important. Is that something
you’re thinking about or is it “Run Hangouts offline.”
John: I think for me at least for
the foreseeable future it’s always going to be run Hangouts or Skype.
I
don’t want to try to compete with those, because first of all those are pretty
established environments. In my games, we’ve been using both. We’ll have Google
Hangouts or Skype and we’ll also have EpicTable.
And
the interesting thing that I’ve found, is it really depends a lot on the group,
as to how much time they spend with video vs. how much time they spend with the
tabletop.
The
one game that I was in where we were using video a lot and we were using
EpicTable a lot, it was kind of nice because I’m in another game where we were
using Hangouts and we weren’t using EpicTable. When you have this ability to do
drawings and stuff like that in Hangout, but when you do the video is gone.
Just
like when I was flipping to screenshare, my video was gone.
I
really like having them both there. The video is kind of omnipresent and then
you have your tabletop surface that’s separate, and so far I’m not seeing a
problem with that model, except for it would be really nice if some of the G+
folks would not have to install a separate thing. Even though that separate
thing has some advantages, I think it’s that initial hurdle of “Oh, gee, it’s a
separate thing I have to install” which can be a stopping point for somebody.
Doug: Which begs the question, do
you ever foresee a time if you’re going to ask Google to integrate EpicTable as
a app?
I
can do that with Roll20, I can just go to the left side of my window, and click
on it and boom, here is Roll20 and Hangouts. Is that something that…is that
exclusivity there or is that something you can do.
John: No they don’t. It’s
something that I’ve been looking at, and experimenting with different ways of
bringing EpicTable functionality into G+.
Doug: Right. The next question
is: Do you ever foresee multiple window or monitor support to avoid that
problem, so you have your index cards or your dice pools on the right hand
monitor and your map and characters on the left or multiple windows or anything
like that?
John: It’s actually supposed to
be in v1.2 and fellout to basically to get fog of war out there, but in v1.3
which is setting on my machine upstairs, you can drag these tabs off the sheet
and drag them to another monitor which is great for the guys who use it for the
face-to-face games where they want the player view off on the big monitor and
keep the GM view on their own laptop or whatever.
Doug: That’s a great segue into
the last couple of questions I think. You got online gaming, you’re playing
with someone in Australia, Hong Kong, and Minneapolis and those crazy guys in
New York City or whatever. You’ve also got facilitated face-to-face gaming and
it sounds like EpicTable is useful for both.
John: Yeah. A couple of EpicTable
customers at least use it exclusively for face-to-face games. One has a
projector-based set up and another has a big screen and they run it that way,
right now because you can’t tear these tabs off, what they are doing is running
a separate instance. They run one instance for the basically headless player,
and another instance that is their GM box.
But
yeah, it’s nice way to basically share handouts especially. I used to always
print out handouts on a inkjet so I could throw them out on the table and say
“Haha! This is the thing you see.” It’s really nice not to have do that [laughs] the night before the game. And instead
just have the images sitting there and throw them up as handouts or throw them
on the tabletop.
Doug: Sure. Sort of last thing,
and then the parting shot for you. So what’s the future of virtual tabletops
and tabletop role-playing. Project five or ten years into the future and tell
me what you see.
John: Wow. [sighs]
You
know, increasingly, I think that the notion of being able to play when you are
not necessarily face-to-face is going to be a durable one. It’s almost the only
way I play anymore, and it’s not that I don’t like to play face-to-face, but
finding the time is really difficult.
Even
with some people that are local to me I end up playing online more than I do
face-to-face, but especially as I’ve gotten into the indie game community.
There are a lot of games that I just don’t have anyone around here to play
with, so online gaming has been really important and I think will continue to
be really important.
I
think the augmented realty kind of stuff, or augmented physical gaming will
continue to be important.
What
I do think will change is over the
next five years, is that there will be a lot more variability in terms of
devices. I think that the big, big LED displays are getting cheaper, so you’ll
see more people that can afford to have a game on a big screen, or even lay a
big screen down on a tabletop.
Doug: A true virtual tabletop!
John: I think there will be a lot
more hybrid games, where you might have the big screen, but you’ll have your
character sheet in a tablet.
I
think that’s going to be a challenge for me with EpicTable because it is
Windows-based, what is the future for EpicTable, given that I believe that the
future is lots of different kinds of devices and the game isn’t in on one PC,
but is spread out across a number of devices. Different parts of the game run
on different devices. What does that mean?
Does
it mean that it’s all HTML5 and Java script?
I
kind of hope not, because I’m not that guy today, so there is a lot of ramp up
for me to put it into that kind of environment. That’s a possibility.
There
is also the Windows Surface devices and Windows 8 devices that are not
Microsoft that are actually in a lot of cases pretty nice.
So
I don’t know. I’m not sure that the future is Microsoft, but I’m sure that the
future is heterogeneous devices and some online component.
Doug: You kind of had this thing.
This is a metronome, not a phone. You bring up your little dice thingy and you
shake it and throw it at the screen and three six-sided dice roll across the
screen because it knows where you are[John laughs]. You got that kinematic
thing going on.
I
want to think you for your time, but I also want to give you the last word. So
what do you want to leave anyone who watches this with?
John: Wow.
I
think mainly if there is one thing, it would be that if you haven’t tried
online gaming, find a way to.
What
I found – in particular the indie game community – there is a lot of really,
really interesting stuff going on there. It’s a very inclusive community. Lot
of very cool people.
It
can be kind of intimidating, to think about going out and getting involved in
games you’re not familiar with, people you’re not familiar with, but it’s
really a worthwhile thing.
I
think the one thing the online gaming really opens up is: certainly use it to
get your game back together. Game again, if you haven’t been gaming because of
geography, but also think about some of these games that maybe you’re group at
home doesn’t play.
There
are people out there that do play them, and there is a lot of cool stuff out
there to try, that really virtual tabletops open up a great avenue for
broadening your gaming experience.
Doug: Alright. Thank you for your
time and I’m glad you came onboard the Firing Squad for the March Blog
Carnival.
John: Thanks for having me, it
was a lot of fun.
Doug: Absolutely.

2 thoughts on “Firing Squad with John Lammers of Epic Table

  1. ok, gotta ask… whats with the sweater… you have worn it for your last 4 interviews and 5 of the interviews total. did you do all these interviews on the same day or do you just LOVE that sweater?

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