Gaming Remotely: challenges

I’ve been playing a D&D game with my kids for the past few years. We are using MapTool for our Virtual Table Top because it’s free, and it’s also pretty impressive. A lot of the number crunching involved in regular Old School D&D is done by the computer, which is what it’s for. (Note, although I’ll generally say D&D, we’re actually playing 1st Edition Advanced D&D. My time with the Basic Set was very short, and I lost interest during 2nd Edition.)

Things have gone pretty well, and we have two players who live off site who join us through the magic of technology. The biggest problem has been our Internet connection. We live in a rural area, and the only Internet options for us have been traditional satellite Internet (bad latency and even worse customer service, coupled with a pricing structure that would make a robber baron blush) and AT&T DSL.

AT&T is one of those companies that has tried its level best to alienate me for years. I pulled the family off of their cell phone service last year, and we’re just waiting for an opportunity to ditch the DSL line as well. The service is poor to start with, but the signal drops several times per day, and that’s just unacceptable.

When the service drops, we lose connection on our voice chat (using Discord) and our remote players also lose their connection to MapTool, and have to be booted and reconnect (once the connection is back up).

We finally have a chance at something better. I’m testing a Starlink setup. It’s not technically available in our area (we’re on the wait list), but I managed to get a chance, and I’ve been running it for just under a week.

The first thing to love is that it’s so much faster than DSL most of the time. The latency isn’t too much worse, and it’s also been quite stable. There’s just one little problem!

Starlink uses the same setup as cell phones for assigning IP addresses. That means, among other things, that the IP address can change, sometimes frequently. It also means that they don’t support (and probably will never support) port forwarding or NAT.

MapTool runs a local server, and unless your machine is directly connected to the Internet, you need that port forwarded to your players for them to connect to the server. (Okay, technically, you need the port forwarded from somewhere else to the server, but let’s not get too OCD about this.)

Last week was a blind role playing session, because we discovered the problem too late. I almost always forget about the port forwarding because it works transparently most of the time, and every time I’ve changed router setups, I generally have a glitch the first game day because I’ve forgotten to redo the port forwards. With most routers, it’s a fairly trivial thing to do.

This time, I’ve spent most of the week working on this issue, and I finally fixed it this morning. I’ll start with what didn’t work.

  1. localtunnel
    • This is an npm installation that should work easily. In fact, it’s very similar to the solution that eventually did work.
    • Unfortunately, my remote machine (tested using a computer connected via my phone’s hotspot) couldn’t connect to the server.
    • I have a need to use/hate relationship with npm. For whatever reason, I seem to have to continually reinstall applications that use it, including npm. All in all, I’m probably just as happy it didn’t work.
  2. Remote.it
    • Oh, how I wanted to like this solution. It has a nice configuration app, it claims to do everything I need, and it even mentions working with Starlink.
    • Nope. Also, nuh uh. Documentation was sparse, and whether I’m just a bonehead or for some other reason, it didn’t work.
    • If someone can tell me how to make it work, I’d be happy to give it another chance.
  3. Tailscale
    • This is a great concept — zero config VPN. Unfortunately, it achieves this by using Single Sign On from Google or MS, or one of those other evil megacorporations. Nope, I spend a fair amount of my life avoiding the monitoring of those beasts, I don’t want to invite them to our games. I didn’t even look far enough to see what costs, if any, there were.
  4. ZeroTier
    • This one is actually pretty amazing. I might go back to it if I get the proper feedback from my group.
    • ZeroTier is an easy-to-configure VPN setup that supports 25 nodes using their free plan.
    • Unfortunately, it requires installation of client software on every connected machine. For a different application, that would be completely worth it. For gaming, where I’ve already asked the players to install MapTool, it’s not going to work. Plus, we’re hoping to move over to Foundry, which will eliminate the need for my players to install any software except a web browser.
  5. SSH Tunnel
    • Technically, all I need for this one is ssh installed on my machine, which I have, and a server that’s not inside my network, which I also have. (An example is this fine website.)
    • I had an application on the Mac that would help with this, but I couldn’t remember the name, so didn’t look for alternatives. (It turns out to have been SSH Tunnel Manager. Now I feel stupid.)
    • I found an app called jEnTunnel. It’s a little java app with a graphical interface that allows me to easily set up tunnels. I haven’t tried to see if it actually works with MapTool yet, but I will update when I have a chance to do that. Chances are it will be my go-to, since I control the other endpoint.
  6. ngrok
    • This is what I ended up using, and what prompted writing this post.
    • ngrok is a tiny little command-line tool that lets me forward a port very simply.
    • In fact, it allows the creation of config files that give a shortcut to opening several ports simultaneously, which could be very useful indeed.
    • They have a ppa, so I can install (and uninstall) using apt.
    • One downside, the external url and port change every time you run it, so it’s a bit more fiddly than some of the other options.

TL/DR

If you have a similar situation where you need to forward a port out of your firewalled Internet connection, ngrok or an ssh tunnel may be what you’re looking for.

Update!

Further experimentation has revealed a couple of unpleasant truths. The first is that, because my server isn’t a VPS, I don’t actually control it. My hosting provider won’t unblock the ports that I need, so forwarding them does nothing good for me. I may decide to pay for a VPS and host my site(s) there, and then I’ll control the ports, but that’s way in the future.

Secondly, I got a response from Remote.it’s support team. It looks like the only way (short of running a VPS) to make it work for my use is to have my players install the Remote.it software on their computers as well. Then, we can link up and have fun. This puts it soundly in the ZeroTier category, and isn’t acceptable right now.

TL/DR 2: ngrok does what I need, albeit not in a pretty fashion.

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