Monday 14 May 2012

Evolution of roleplaying tools

When I first started with roleplaying games 30 years ago a typical adventure would have a simple graph paper view of the place being explored, most often a cave or other underground complex. This guided movement, but combat usually took place mostly in the imagination of the participant. The scale of the map did not really encourage tactical movement and there were few conditions to track.

As games became more tactically oriented it became more important to use miniatures or other tokens to track activity, line of sight and other battlefield considerations. As printed 2D maps were prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to create the most common solution was a dry erase grid.

When insufficient miniatures were available it was common to substitute in other items, with predictably confusing results.

Chainmail Bikini © Shamus Young and Shawn Gaston
Continued after the break

This also had the drawback of things regularly being knocked out of position by clumsy players or dice rolling over the grid. I mostly missed out on this era as I was taking a break from gaming.

When I was invited to join a group a few years ago they were using a mix of printed maps (colour printing had become cheaper) and drawing on a fairly small grid. This necessitated much wiping and redrawing over a long game session, which slowed things down considerably. The size of the grid also limited encounters to a fairly small size, far below the range of most ranged weapons.

The first improvement we brought in were two additional dry erase grids. This allowed the DM to have three prepared maps before the session began and also to put grids side by side to increase the size of the playing field.

However, after a few sessions it became obvious that the game (DnD 4e) was using conditions extensively and that at any given time a character might be for example dazed, slowed and blessed. Various methods to track this on paper or by using coloured rings on miniatures failed to prove reliable and fast. Combat dragged on, mistakes were constantly made and annoyance levels increased. A new approach was clearly needed.

This led us to MapTool, a free and open-source virtual tabletop software. There are several commercial offerings in this space but getting locked into a vendor solution did not appeal and I suspected most of the players would prefer to spend money on books over software. As it turned out the DM was willing to try the new software after I demonstrated it and explained the benefits and offered to bring a projector.

I'll write more about MapTool in future posts, but here is a pair of screenshots that showcase a few features.

Player view

DM view

The top image shows three adventurers entering a small compound, with two still on the stairs as the third rushes into a short corridor to engage enemies. Each adventurer is identified by the coloured health bar over the token that gives an instant view of how much damage they have taken.

The small room is lit up by a torch (carried by a character on the stairs) while the larger room is lit up by the lantern carried by the character in the corridor. She is facing south-east into the room and the directional light from the lantern illuminates a cone in front of her. The light reveals two advancing opponents and some bloodstains on the floor.

The second image shows the GM view, revealing what is hiding in the darkness. Several more opponents are advancing or readying their bows to attack the lantern bearer!

These images illustrate one of the greatest advantages of MapTool - the DM can have a full view of what is going on while concealing the position of enemies, traps and other features that the players have not yet discovered.

Other features include hex support (as well as grid support), light and vision features, health bars and other on-screen visual aids, fog of war and map layers that help in quickly designing and manipulating game elements.

Another outstanding feature is the macro language that is built into the tool and allows easy customisation of MapTool to fit any game system and can greatly speed up combat resolution and assist with tracking conditions, durations etc.

In conclusion the evolution of tools have taken gaming from 'in your head' through pen and paper aids to physical representation to arrive at computer-aided gaming. Of course many players may still be at the earlier phases, perhaps having returned to 'in your head' cinematic narrative gameplay rather than accept being limited by physical or computer representations.

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