Between the fifth and sixth sessions of the NWN online campaign (being reported in the Game In Progress section), Bruce sent me an article expounding on lag in online and PnP games. For whatever reason, I never received it. Bruce re-sent the article, which follows below.

When Scorpia told me she would accept my invitation to play her first online DMed RPG in my campaign, she admitted that she was concerned because she didn’t have a very good internet connection. Her connection wasn’t very stable and was prone to lag.

I assured her she’d still be able to play and have fun. I personally used to host 4 and 5 player Neverwinter Night sessions using a 56k Modem and rarely had excessive problems. Most people were shocked that they had played the whole night on a 56k connection with only the occasional drop out.

I think Scorpia has had fun, based on her feedback and comments, but it’s clear that lag is particularly an issue for her. Especially if this lag causes a crash. Who could blame her? Having disruptions like this breaks the immersive feel of the story and quickly throws you out of character. It can be jarring. It’s not unlike trying to watch a movie with 4 kids running around and forcing frequent pauses. (Something I personally know much about.)

To make matters worse, we had a particularly high amount of technical issues in the first two sessions. The first two sessions probably only had about a total of 20 minutes of actual game play apiece due to these issues. The first session was really just a storm on Scorpia’s end forcing us to end. The second session turned out to be all related to an IP change (first time ever) on my server.

One person even made a comment that “This type of talk makes me nostalgic for the days of just playing around a table with some friends. No crashing computers, no laggy network connections, no wonky programs – just a bunch a really unhealthy food. No rebooting necessary.”

Now this comment got me thinking. Is Neverwinter Nights really “inferior” to pen and paper in this aspect because you have to deal with problems like this? This is certainly a possibility, since these are two different mediums. For example, a movie is often “superior” at action compare to a book. But I doubt too many people would claim this makes movies “superior” overall. The two mediums are just different.

However, the more I thought about this, the more I thought that this is not an area where the two mediums are substantially different. Certainly pen and paper does not have to worry about “network lag” or “rebooting.” No arguments there. But does pen and paper experience equivalent problems? I would contend that it does.

When I’m playing pen and paper, it’s pretty common — very common in fact — have to have everyone “take a break” (i.e. Lag) for a moment while we catch a kid and put them back in bed, someone grabs more pizza, to argue over rules, or because the phone rings.

Actually, if I were to do an honest comparison between my pen and paper group and my Neverwinter Nights group (even Scorpia’s NWN sessions with all the problems we’ve had) I’d have to say that the amount of “lag” in my pen and paper group is quite a bit worse. With my group, it’s considerably worse in fact.

I should point out, however, that it’s less noticeable with pen and paper. It’s “expected” to some degree. Also I find pen and paper much less immersive an experience (your mileage may vary) so it’s also less noticeable. One of the main reasons to do pen and paper is to socialize, so usually PnP lag is immediately filled in with socializing.

One of the things I like about NWN is that the lag is usually just network lag… really not that prevalent by comparison – at least not in my experience. On the other hand, I know I am not alone on this because I remember an article on the internet where a writer mentioned that his wife called PnP role playing “a lot of work for 20 minutes of fun.” Her point was valid. “Lag” in RPGs is actually a huge part of the over all experience that we’ve come to expect. You either get good at handling it or you give up on RPGs all together.

Does pen and paper have something equivalent to a canceled session because the IP was wrong? Certainly. Pen and paper has canceled sessions all the time. Actually, if I were to compare the number of canceled session for my weekly game with Scorpia (let’s count this as two even though we played a little bit for both of the first two sessions) to the number of canceled sessions during the same time for my “weekly” PnP campaign (we’ve only held two) I’d say NWN wins again.

In fact, I’d contend that this is in fact exactly one of NWNs main strengths; the much easier accessibility of players due to the fact that they don’t have to drive anywhere to play. And let’s not forget that we’re talking about people across vastly different timezones here! Being able to play from home seems to really cut down on canceled sessions.

Now I don’t know how the rest of your play groups go compared to mine, but I’m willing to bet that an honest evaluation would at least show that the discrepancy of “lag” and “cancellation” issues isn’t nearly as different between NWN and PnP as you may have perceived at first.

So with this in mind, I would suggest that lag should be seen as part of the game experience. Yes, it’s disruptive, but it will never go away for NWN or for PnP. There is literally no alternative to it with current technology, even if you’re off a 56k modem. The truth is that it’s an expected part of the experience for me, so I naturally handle it by slowing down the game until the person can get back on.

For example, Scorpia dropped out several times at the beginning of last session. I did a quick OOC comment to everyone else and said “I’m going to slow down the conversation a bit until Scorpia comes back.” Everyone consented. We then had a fairly lengthy conversation between the party and Rebecca (the NPC Cleric) where she told, at length, about her background. If Scorpia hadn’t dropped out, that conversation would have been much shorter. But I’m willing to bet that no one felt cheated as it was all still entertaining and even somewhat useful.

Scorpia wasn’t cheated either as the part of the game she missed wasn’t a “normal” part of the game. (Hurray for live DMs!) In truth, Scorpia has never missed any part of the story due to lag as of yet. Even John the Paladin showing up an hour late due to daylight saving time changes missed very little of the story. (Scorpia’s lag helped this quite a bit. ;) )

If you were to go back and look at my original article in the Escapist that started all of this, I think you’d see that what I’m saying now is really the same thing I was saying then. This is a new medium. It’s got its own challenges and differences. Its own strengths and weaknesses. Don’t try to compare it straight across to it’s predecessor. Instead, learn to work within the framework it offers and you’ll quickly find that there are many things you can do in this medium that couldn’t be done in PnP. Play to those strengths.