Tools for a DM

So my cousin asked me to run a DnD campaign for him. My friends and I have tried many times to start DnD campaigns and other than 2 campaigns many years ago, we’ve never been successful in getting them to last more than a few sessions.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d talk briefly about the tools I used as a DM. I guess every group is different, but I really do like the set up we have now. Largely this has spawned from a requirement of getting together regularly (without actually getting together) and having sessions run FAST. I have to admit we haven’t been entirely successful at either of these things.

Which DnD?

Firstly, and most importantly – which flavour of DnD? The community is fractured, and Wizards of the Coast know this and hope to reconcile everyone with DnD Next. I’ve tried some of the beta, but for my money our group works better with Pathfinder. I won’t say much more about the various editions right now, but let’s just say I like Pathfinder because of its clear rules, and flexible system. That is: It’s playing a game (something I obviously enjoy) with the rigidly-defined ruleset that outlines the world, but with the flexibility to do anything you want within that ruleset. I’m not big on the laissez faire ODnD or 2E and 3.0/3.5 had a number of poorly balanced and overly complex components. Pathfinder (cough “DnD 3.75” cough)

Playing Online

Look, even if we weren’t playing online, I’d still demand everyone use a laptop. We started out with pen, paper, a clear sheet of plastic and miniatures. We all loved the minis and dice. The mat was a necessary evil. Having said that, since switching to a VTT (Virtual Table Top) I couldn’t go back. We lose the visceral feel of dice and minis, but gain so much more. Not least of which is the ability to play online.

The first major hurdle when playing online is communication. At the time VTTs were focused on text-based chat. IRC and instant messengers were catching on quickly, and people started to realise they really could play online… but we more-or-less skipped that. We were early into VOIP (Voice Over IP) programs like TeamSpeak for computer games anyway, and this far more preferable than text chat. So that’s a must. Mic, and VOIP program.


I’ve been pushing my group to use video chat now – it is 2013 after all. I’ve been able to put my foot down and get people on Google hangouts. It works well in many ways – it’s easy to see when someone gets up and walks away and won’t hear what’s happening. I can use my hands and facial expressions in my descriptions. I can see if someone is confused or distracted from what’s happening (I remember clearly my cousin holding his head in his hands as he tried to puzzle out what to do about a Otyugh.)

Having said that, video chat hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Not everyone had a camera – although most now do. Google Hangouts is probably the best video chat out there, but has many problems. It auto-mutes when it detects typing, which is sometimes great, and other times exactly what you don’t want. Despite being a “just works” solution, several people were having trouble getting it to go smoothly. Also the improvement from text to voice was much more significant than voice to video. I still think it is a worthwhile addition, but if your group refuses to move on from voice it’s not the end of the world. It is a game-breaker, though, if they refuse to move on from text.


VTTs started to spring up around the turn of the century as people and companies began to realise that you really could get a lot of value out of using them and playing online. The ability to drop quality tokens on to quality maps, and track everything on a shared online space has to be experienced. It’s why I can never go through the effort of minis and mat again. VTTs are just more convenient and higher quality.

Unfortunately, no-one has taken this niche and slam-dunked it yet. Which is a great shame. I think WotC and Paizo, in particular, are missing a huge opportunity here. I might do a specific blog post about it later, but I would have been really excited about DnD Next if they announced it was going to be tightly welded to a VTT. Imagine being able to download their new product’s rules straight into a VTT that does all the number crunching for you. Imagine all your campaigns kept in the cloud. Imagine downloading high-quality professionally designed campaigns with all maps and tokens already configured. Unfortunately WotC has failed at this twice now, and Paizo has made some tentative steps with their own VTT, but it looks like it is aiming low and not going anywhere.

Roll20 has had a massive spike in interest lately, due to good marketing (via a kickstarter campaign mostly.) It looks like a serviceable little VTT, but I don’t agree with it’s direction. I believe in almost the exact opposite of it’s direction. It’s done everything it can to strip out all the number crunching that a computer excels at, and combined things that could easily be achieved through other tools already.

The VTT any connoisseur will use is MapTool.

Alas it has some hurdles that need to be cleared. It is built on aging technology – Java 6, with only a thick client as an option (you can LAUNCH from the website, but it just downloads and starts it in a window.) When you’re trying to get 5 people all going at once, oh god… let’s just say I always set aside the first session of any campaign to not only finalise characters, but also troubleshoot Maptool. Installation, configuration, connectivity… Don’t get me wrong, for MOST people, it will work fine. There is always going to be at least one person in your group, though, who has a funny Java installation, or some setting on their computer, or some firewall issue, or any number of other rare problems.

Once you get connected then it is far from the most intuitive tool. I mean, as a shared map space it’s simple enough but there are some really powerful things you can do with Maptool. To work them out it is absolutely a requirement to have one person working in IT. That person will most likely have to be the DM, and it is preferable if that person has a programming background. I’m not saying this to tell you to steer clear of Maptool. I’m saying to get the absolute most out of it – which my group does and recommends – you need to know how to handle a computer.

Why is it so powerful? Well it is possible (albeit it requires spending hours digging around on the forums) to download a set of macros that are so powerful you can make your computer do all the heavy lifting. Well, 90% of it anyway. Attack with a button? Check. Timed statuses? Check. Spell casting – including spellcraft checks to ID, save rolls for everyone hit, auto-application of status, links to the rules of the spell as it is cast – Check. Line of sight dynamically calculated? Check. Light sources and vision automatically and dynamically calculated? Check. Bleeding/dying in a button click. Check.

I could go on, and on. As a DM just being able to tear through a large group of monsters by pressing the “Mass attack” button, or even to fly through them one at a time by clicking “attack, confirm, miss. Next.” is such a boon. Being able to track statuses – such as buffs – is so handy. All the more so because ones that are simple statistic modifiers (+1 attack for example) can be automatically accounted for, and automatically expire. Did you ever play “hunt the buff” when you used pen and paper? You know – you’d roll and work out you were just 1 or 2 points from a hit. So you and the DM would start to wrack your brains to see if you forgot any buffs. “Did you count the +1 from bless? How about flanking? Higher ground? Bull’s strength? Oh! There you go. Ok then, you hit.”

Unfortunately, with a massive series of community-created macros which are built on a community-built VTT… there are inevitably problems with those tools too. Every time I change versions (which itself can be quite the trick) previously broken functionality becomes fixed and previously-working functionality breaks. About 50% of the time I discover, through much research, that you can fix the problems by changing some esoteric setting. I wish it was simple, I really do, but it’s not.

Character Sheets

I’m used to an autocalculating sheet too. I’ve been through many, though. Back in the 3.5 days I found one to download. Fill out the right fields, pick things from drop-downs, and hey-presto, everything calculated. Cross-class, synergy, to-hit, AC, money (weight from money) – you name it. Once we started using this bad boy… holy cow did we find some places where we were doing it wrong. I couldn’t see myself going back, so when we changed to Pathfinder and couldn’t use the spreadsheet any more (which had a number of bugs which I had personally fixed… and taught myself some very advanced Excel as a result) I started to use The Only Sheet.

Eh. Look. It works. It was just never as intuitive as the original spreadsheet and this is almost entirely because the designer is trying to make a living off it. So he’s using Microsoft Excel to do some very advanced scripting and programming and also trying to protect that background work so it can’t be stolen. So you end up needing MS Office, download the sheet, pay a subscription for the sheet, work out how to use the sheet, and if you find a problem with it… hope the developer fixes it for you. It’s all very clunky. I’m frankly amazed it works at all (but, I swear, it does if you decide to dive into it.)

Once again – where is Paizo or WotC for this? If a VTT is too complex, surely they could build an online character sheet that correctly and automatically calculates your end-numbers? The community can do amazing things, but again no-one has really nailed this one yet.

Our solution: Google Drive. There is a decent character sheet here, but it only the barest of the bare. All you do, though, is make a copy of that, share it with your players and when they fill it out you can have all of their character sheets sitting on your Google Drive. You can open them all (and make changes as you see fit) and they can only see their own (and makes changes as they see fit.) You can roll-back if you need to to any point in time, and you can see what they’re in real-time. If it was a bit more automagical, and powerful, it would be perfect. As it is, it does the job. I just hope we don’t make a serious mistakes we discover 5 levels later!

And How’s It Working Out?

So with Google Hangouts on one screen, Maptools on the other, the character sheets opened in Google Drive and all the campaign materials open in Adobe Acrobat – I have everything I need at my fingertips (albeit with alt-tabbing required.) I spend most of my time staring at Maptools and Hangouts though.

It works, but it’s not perfect. It’s frankly way harder than it needs to be. And it call all be solved by a good VTT from Paizo. Built in video chat would be a plus, but Google Hangouts will do – what really needs to happen is a Maptool-killer app that has it all… or alternatively RPTools needs to quickly birth the next version of Maptool. They’ve put a feature-freeze on Maptool – which previously iterated quite quickly – but as far as I’m aware they haven’t even started work on the next major version yet. It could be killer, but as a community-driven, open-source project, I don’t have any hopes of seeing it before 2015. I’d expect someone to swoop in and steal the limelight, but I’m not seeing any promising contenders to be honest. Sigh.

And, to be honest, one of the main reasons for doing all this is so we can get people together quickly and easily. Short, sharp sessions. I’m not sure it’s working out. Getting people together is as hard as it has ever been, and preparing for a session that you can fly through in 2hrs takes 2 days of prep (I might be a bit anal about it I suppose.) Still, it’s not a rate I think I’ll be able to sustain. It’s a shame, and I’ll keep pushing on for a while yet – myself and my players have invested quite a lot into this campaign and I’d like to see it go somewhere – but I’m seeing some writing on the wall, I think.

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