I recently wrote about my return to Dungeons and Dragons, and promised another post where I would share what tools our group is using to facilitate our long-distance games. It’s really critical to make sure that game groups are well organized, or many campaigns will fizzle out due to the amount of work involved. Using the right tools can make this easier, but keep in mind that what works for my group may not work for yours. That being said, this process works very well for us, and should serve as a good starting point for anyone.
Scrolls & Ledgers: Planning the Game
It goes without saying that the most important tools in your planning process are the core rulebooks and an old fashioned whiteboard to map out your storyline and encounter sequence, but there are a number of other tools that are really helpful for organizing your campaign.
When D&D 4E launched, Wizards of the Coast made a concerted effort to provide a digital counterpart for the game with mixed success. Naturally, you get online access to every issue of both Dragon and Dungeon magazine, which are chock-full of adventure ideas, but I’d like to focus on their reference and gameplay tools.
They’re valuable resources, but most are built in Microsoft Silverlight1 and can be quite buggy. As one of my players observed, they feel like they were built quickly in some sort of Microsoft bizdev deal. The first of the tools is a prime example of this.
I’ve seen the Character Builder flat-out fail to handle certain character options correctly, and while you can search by rule source, it’s quite easy to get stuff mixed up, which means you can end up with options for characters and monsters that your DM hasn’t prepared for yet. When it works though, the character creator provides a powerful tool for tracking your character’s progression, and prints off ability cards that do all the math related to character bonuses.
You’ll get your best results with the Character Builder if you stick to classes and options defined in the Player’s Handbooks 1 and 2.
More valuable though, are the Adventure Tools. The first of these is the Monster Manual, which holds every published monster, whether in rulebooks or magazines, as well as convenient tools for customizing and creating your own monsters. I’ve made a few of my own for this campaign, and I imagine that amount will grow as the players get deeper into it. My only complaint about the Monster Manual is that the only way to export your final monster card is either via their proprietary format, or by printing it. It prints as an image as well, so it’s impossible to cut and paste the text into game notes; your best bet is to print as a PDF and keep in a folder to reference or to print it on a piece of paper to do the same. It’s not ideal, but works.
In addition to the Monster Manual, the Adventure Tools module also includes an encounter builder, which allows you set a level and difficulty for your players and it will suggest monster breakdowns for your encounter. My experience with this is that you’re usually better off substituting the suggestions for like monsters for your actual adventure, but it is a really helpful budgeting tool for creating challenging combat sessions for your players.
By far, the most useful tool of the whole set is the Compendium, which consists of a search-able database of every published item, creature, skill, feat, or anything else you care to look for when planning your game. This includes NPCs from published modules. I have this open constantly while planning my games, and serves as a handy quick-reference. When I’m ready to run the game, I’ll copy and paste the stats into my notes for each session.
This tool alone is worth the price of the D&D Insider membership.
While the tools on D&D Insider have proven themselves essential to me as reference materials, but when it comes to planning out the game world and keeping track of all the details of the storyline, Obsidian Portal is king. It’s a personal wiki site specifically designed for tracking tabletop RPG campaigns. Naturally, you could just host your own site with any of a number of free wiki software installations, but where OP shines is that it has been tailored for exactly this use.
Whereas you might be able to hack together a solution on your own2, it would involve a lot of tricky access permissions and a variety of conventions to achieve the same effect as what you get out of the box with OP. Best of all, OP is a free service3. It even offers a simple export of your data if you decide to leave.
Some of the features that make it a compelling service include:
- GM Secrets: Every wiki page has a hidden set of data that only the GM can see when they review the page. The GM can also optionally mark entire pages as GM secret so that no player stumbles upon the data before they are intended to see it.
- Player Secrets: The GM can create player secrets for any given page which only the GM and the selected player(s) can see when they review the page.
- Dedicated item/character page types: You can create dedicated pages for items and characters in the game, which have specialized fields for their specific data, unlike a standard wiki page. OP also catalogs and tracks these pages separately which automatically creates handy Character and Item reference pages for your site.
- Campaign Maps: A GM can upload an image of their campaign map. OP loads it into a Google Maps-style interface where players can pan around and drop placemarks on locations important to the game. This is really handy for “big world” campaigns, as each placemark can be linked to individual wiki pages, which makes it far easier for players to keep all the events of the campaign in their geographical context.
- Campaign Privacy: It’s also possible to make your campaign private so that only you and your players can access it, or limit it just to friends of friends. This was important to me when I was researching, as my players had said on several occasions that they were looking for privacy in our final solution.
- Adventure Log: A blog-like function built into the wiki for writing up the events of each session for players to review. This sounds lame, but is actually a lot of fun to write up after each session. I divide each post from telling the tale of a session, and metagame info such as experience points awarded and treasures found. It’s also handy for sharing player secrets if characters become separated in-game.
It’s not a perfect solution, of course. For example, the base design of the campaign sites is nothing to get excited about, and custom styling requires a paid membership. Taking advantage of styling options means that you need to be pretty familiar with CSS, which is my least favorite thing in the world to troubleshoot. In addition, the wiki syntax itself is a variant of Textile, of which I’m not a fan. This also means that when you want to link to a special character or item page, you end up having to use the less than intuitive
Thankfully, it looks these issues are going away, as their reforging Kickstarter campaign was successful, and will fund the following improvements.
- Visual design improvements
- Better maps
- Campaign file storage
- Custom domain names4
- Natural WYSIWYG editing
I use Obsidian Portal for tracking all of the characters, items, places, and story lines for my campaign, often creating them well in advance of when they will be used. Being able to write the entries in advance allows me to do so leisurely and set them as “GM Secret” until it’s time for me to reveal them to my players.
I mentioned above that the character builder from D&D Insider leaves a bit to be desired. It also requires a paid membership, and honestly I think it’s only worth it if you are a DM. So, my players prepare their character sheets on their own and share them with me via Google Drive. In most cases, the players are using a Google Spreadsheet template for creating and managing their characters with the exception of one Excel holdout, who just drops his file in the shared folder.
I also use a Google Spreadsheet to track the amount of in-game currency the players earn or find, as well as what they spend over the course of the game. This can get quite complex over the course of a campaign, and while they haven’t gone on any extended journeys yet, once they do, I’ll be using it track their rations as well.
In addition, while it’s only a small part of the process, we also use Google Calendar to manage our playing dates. Obsidian Portal also has a calendar function, but we haven’t used it. We all have busy lives and most of us are already using Google for our calendars, so we decided to keep it simple and integrated in our day-to-day lives.
Equippable Items: Playing the Game
All of the above is used for planning the game and tracking important game information in-between sessions. That’s all well and good, but let’s talk about how we actually facilitate the online gameplay. There are two important tools that make all of this possible.
At the core of all of our gameplay is Roll20. The free service provides a virtual tabletop for managing just about any game you can think of to play. It provides tools for putting together your maps, placing tokens to represent monsters and characters, and can even handle a variety of special effects to represent different game mechanics. For players who lose dice5, there is even an integrated dice-roller built into the chat.
It’s insanely useful, and allows for real-time play together via a Google Hangout.6 Occasionally, we have encountered glitches that require us to restart the hangout mid-game, but they are rare and for the most part it’s been quite reliable.
Let’s look a little deeper at some of the features Roll20 provides for the put-upon DM.
The map creation tools are powerful. You can import any image as a background for your map, and also will allow you to layer on any other images you wish to create the right set of obstacles for your grid. It even provides a search function where you can search the internet for available art to import, or even purchase from their marketplace if you are so inclined.
After creating the base map, you can then add monster/player tokens to the gameplay layer (“Token layer”), or even put them in a special GM layer which only you can see. It’s great for hiding traps or stealthed opponents from players until they are meant to be revealed. Switching tokens between layers is as easy as right-clicking the object and choosing a new layer from the menu.
The Roll20 maps also support Fog of War, so that players can only see areas that you have explicitly revealed, and even dynamic lighting. The dynamic lighting feature is only available to paid GM accounts, but allows you to set up pitch-black rooms that are illuminated by torchlight only. You can even create light that only certain characters can see, and Roll20 will dynamically paint the light based on the location of the source token. For additional realism, there is also a dynamic lighting layer to the map creation screen where the GM can draw barriers so that in-game light is obscured by walls and other obstructions that exist in the background art of your map. This is really nice for when you are having players delving through dungeons and want to make sure they have that special dread of what might be hiding in the dark corner across the room.
There are a variety of additional tools that allow you to manage different in-game mechanics. You can explicitly add turns to various tokens on the map and use this to assign initiative order in a pop-up reference for all of the players. In addition, there is an in-game chat that can be used for passing secret messages, or doing dice-rolling within the app itself. The dice roller supports all the standard gaming dice, and even stranger systems such as fate and exploding dice.7
There are other features that allow you to create character abilities and assign them to a Macro bar, and a jukebox function to incorporate mood music. I’m a fan of both in theory, but the former is cumbersome to set up, and the latter has a risk of seriously annoying my players. The journal functions are also look like they would be nice for doing things like creating custom handouts that you can selectively reveal to players during the game, such as a mysterious scroll or secret note, but I haven’t made use of them yet.
You can see a nice overview of the features available in the video embedded below.
This service is hands-down the best thing to happen to tabletop gaming in years. It’s enabled my friends and I to play again, when we thought it would be impossible. It’s an insanely useful tool, and I strongly encourage you to not only use it for your games, but seriously consider doing so as a paid member, so that development on the project stays strong.
Analog Support Device
Of course, playing games isn’t all about ones and zeros, and so your game can’t be completely digital either.
There is one analog support device that is still essential, and that is a good notebook. Google Hangouts mute your microphone when you are typing, so it makes it difficult to take notes on what players are doing during the game, while simultaneously interacting with them to keep the action going. I get around this problem by taking notes longhand in a notebook, which I then transcribe into spreadsheets or wiki entries after the game session is concluded.
This is a good time for tabletop gaming, and it’s exciting that we now have tools that allow players to enjoy games together regardless of their physical locations. It’s been truly rewarding for me, and I hope that you find some combination of the above tools that works for your group.
If you also are playing a RPG or any other tabletop games online, I’d love to hear about your setup. Put it in the comments below, or feel free to email me.
Which means tenuous plugin support. ↩
As I originally considered doing when I started planning the campaign. ↩
Though they do offer premium features such as customized themes for a small fee. ↩
I’m particularly excited about this. ↩
Or players that discover mid-game that their d20 is misshapen, such as in our last game. ↩
They also offer their own real-time video chat solution, but it’s buggy as hell. Do yourself a favor, just run your games via a Google Hangout. ↩
There’s also a card management system baked in, but I haven’t played with that feature yet. ↩