Play by VOIP (PbV) is a great way to game with a geographically dispersed group, from the comfort in your home. If the logistics of meeting and playing for a few hours are too hard to get working, or you can't find local people to play the game you want to play (or master), then PbV is a really convenient way to play with people over the internet. I have been running a weekly game of The One Ring for a month now: every Tuesday from 20:00 until 22:00, we meet online and play together. I've got players at the other side of the country (which isn't too impressive with a country like the Netherlands, but it's still too far for a weekly two-hour game), and in another country -- and we're all having lots of fun. For two of my players, it's the only chance they have to play.
But there are also some drawbacks. Obviously network issues can throw a spanner in the works: without internet connectivity, nothing works. And since people play in their homes, you get the distractions at home as well. I've had games interrupted by crying children or spouses who want to ask some pressing questions. You have to allow for that.
I really like roleplaying games for the social aspect: coming together with a group of friends to tell interesting stories together. I don't play games that have tactical movements and need battlemaps. Keep these biases in mind when reading this -- your needs might not align perfectly with mine. This is all based on my own experience and needs, and your milage may vary!
This 'guide' is aimed at gamemasters, who want to set up a game for PbV.
[The guide]What everybody will need (no exceptions!):
- A computer;
- A reliable broadband internet connection;
- A webcam;
- A headset (headphones and microphone);
- A room that is relatively private and well-lit;
- A Google account.
The absolute best way to play a PbV game is through Google Hangouts (https://www.google.com/hangouts/). Download the software from that page -- I have had best results with Firefox under Windows 7, but your results may vary. I really like the Hangout way of group video conferencing: you can see people's faces, and the video feed with the person talking is shown in full-size. It is also possible to 'livecast' a Hangout, or record a Hangout and put it on YouTube.
It is possible to use Hangouts with your laptop's built-in speakers and microphone, but there are two problems with this. First, the echo. The algorithm for removing echo is pretty good, but if there is any noise at the other side, the sound will get mixed back in, and the ensuing echo is really annoying. Second, the quality of the built-in microphones is often very bad, making it almost impossible to hear what the other is saying. You don't need an expensive 'gaming' headset to play, but a headset with a built-in microphone is a minimum to have everyone hear everyone else. Bad sound quality will negatively affect your participation in the game -- unless you really like being asked to repeat yourself.
You also will need to play in a well-lit room, so that others can actually see your face when you're playing! And if you play in a high-traffic area in your house, others will see your pets and household members walk on by in the background. That can be disruptive or unwanted -- use common sense here. The mic and the webcam can be disabled without leaving the Hangout, see below.
Sometimes the GM needs to be a bit of a moderator: only one person can be talking at any one time. Be prepared for this, and prepare your players: spontaneous interruptions are not a problem and can be funny at the table, but in a Hangout, it prevents people from hearing eachother!
During your first Hangout (which might be the session to install the Hangout Toolbox, below), take a moment to configure your Hangout. If you move the mouse towards the top of the screen, an option-menu appears. Use the button with the cog to set up your Hangout -- for instance, which speakers (your headset) and which microphone (the one on your headset) to use. This menu also has buttons for muting your microphone or disabling your webcam feed. That's very useful when you need a quick toilet-break or anything else happens that might interfere with the game and you don't want to disturb the others. (I also always disable the mic and webcam when I'm waiting for my players to log in on our Hangout -- I like to keep unintentional domestic scenes off the internet, especially when the Hangout will be recorded!)
A Hangout may have 'plugins' and 'extensions' enabled. These add features to your Hangout, like a dice roller. You will need to download these and enable them in your Hangout. Once someone uses the plugin in a Hangout, all participants will have the option to download and use the plugin -- so as the GM, you need to set up your Hangout with the right plugins, and your players will get them served to them on a silver platter!
The first plugin to get is the Hangout Toolbox (http://hangouttoolbox.com/). This allows you to set the 'lower third' of your video feed -- perfect for naming characters, but it also has individual volume control for each participant. It's is hugely useful, and you can't really do a good Hangout without it. There's a good tutorial on how to use the Hangout Toolbox for gaming over at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqgHINAF3QM .
When you're ready, click on 'Get it now!' to start a new Hangout. You will need to authorise the plugin being downloaded and used. Go on, play around for a bit with it!
The second plugin to get is Dicestream (http://haskonomicon.com/dicestream/). This is a full-featured diceroller that supports a lot of different dice types. There's a good tutorial on how to use Dicestream over at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GApR2O5ktH4 . Like with the Hangout Toolbox, you can acquire this plugin by clicking on the button, which will start a Hangout and automatically download the plugin.
Experiment with it for a bit. If you're using a system that tracks 'points' (like Fate's Fate Points), you can use the counter. Otherwise, simply disable it -- it's mildly distracting to see a black '1' floating at the top-right corner. Also take a look at the Settings tab. I always uncheck 'Clear Dice Selection After Roll', to preserve my dice selection, because I make a lot of the same dice rolls. I always check 'Clear Dice Before New Roll', so that a new roll will replace the dice already rolled.
This is all you need to start playing most games! You can now schedule a meeting through Google Calendar and attach a Hangout session to it. (Tip: If you put the meeting in the future, the Hangout link will remain active until that time. That means everybody can bookmark the URL and simply go there when it's time to play.) I would recommend that you schedule a first session to debug all the technical issues that will pop up, so that everybody is set up correctly before play actually begins.
However, if you work with a lot of handouts or (detailed) maps, you might want to use a 'virtual tabletop' for that. I chose Roll20 (http://roll20.net/) -- not because of a thorough feature comparison, but because it's free and integrates with Hangouts. Setting up Roll20 for your game is beyond the scope of this guide, but there's an excellent series of tutorial videos at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLxYefyArg-d1wRWRpTfQMW0cmh32mQTbx . There is also a ton of system-specific documentation (including macros and character sheets!) which is enumerated at the Roll20 Wiki (https://wiki.roll20.net/Category:Guides).
If you're going to use Roll20, make sure your players create an account there and join your campaign. When you view the details of your campaign, there's a link to launch the campaign in a Google Hangout. That's the link you want to use and give to your players for the Hangout. This will download the Roll20 Plugin within the Hangout.
The thing with Roll20 is that it takes the attention away from the other players: instead of looking at eachother, you're looking at a shared tabletop. I only use it when I have a handout or map to show to the players: I explicitly ask them to switch to Roll20 when there's something new to see there. If you (and all of your players) are using multi-monitor setups, this is less of an issue: you can have the Hangout on one screen and Roll20 in another.
I also never use the diceroller in Roll20 for the same reason, even though the combination of character sheets and macros make it really easy to use. I want my players to roll in Dicestream, so we get to see their faces when they roll a critical success! To me, that's a major part of enjoying playing with others.
Good luck, and have fun! If you have any corrections, suggestions or other comments, please leave them below so that others may benefit!