Tuesday, May 16, 2017

This is How I Role

Actual picture of my first game box
There are lots of options these days for playing the beloved classic RPG, D&D.  They range from just picking up the starter kit and rolling dice on the dining room table, to running a full multinational, all-electronic, virtual table top, live stream with special effects.  I've spent some time evaluating the plethora options and settled on a setup that gets the tech out of the way, gives me the DM tools I need, and lets everyone have a fun experience.

I enjoy playing D&D. It runs in my geek blood.  I played when I was younger and had a chance to get back into it a few year ago.  I'm an writer, so clearly I love making stuff up, and D&D lets me don my super hero cape, raise my imaginary sword and have an adventure.  I've even written a module on the DMsguild.com. If you like high adventure on an airship with floating islands, pirates, and plot twists, grab a copy for your party.  Okay, shameless plug over.

With my woeful drawing and painting skills, I'm not the kind of DM who enjoys collecting and painting minis and my hand drawn maps were so crude as to break the immersion of the game.  So when I DM, my minis and maps are always electronic and most of the time borrowed.  Hence, I prefer to leverage virtual table top software instead of pen and paper. It also lets me keep all my notes organized and accessible.

I've spent some time refining tools and techniques that help me get a game up and going for a group quickly, with little cost, effort, and lots of fun. It can even be used for a quick spontaneous one-off without tripping over the technology.  So I decided to share the methods to my madness.

My Setup:

DM Console:

I use an old, retired Thinkpad running windows.  It doesn't take much horsepower and those things run forever and you can usually find one on eBay for less than $200. But any laptop, Mac, Linux, or Windows will work.  The lid acts as a nice DM screen, so consider printing up something to tape to the back of the lid to add ambiance or help with the adventure.
Since I have the laptop for my screen, I also use Google Drive to store my notes on the adventure and my list of random names and NPCs for when the players wander into that part of the world I never planned for. That would never happen, right?

Virtual Table Top Software:

I've found the most handy virtual table top for my style is Roll20.net.  For the DM, it has a learning curve, but if you take the time to go through the brief tutorials, it's really powerful.  You can build very nice maps in the software itself with both free and professional art packs from the built-in marketplace.  The market has complete adventures, ready to run, even modules and the Monster Manual from Wizard of the Coast. For spontaneous games, you can even generate a random dungeon from donjon, save, and upload it to your game.  For players, Roll20 is really intuitive, and web based so it's easy to project or pull up on a laptop or tablet.  Generally, I project the map so players don't even need to touch tech.  It keeps the nice dice, paper, pencil feel for the players.

Sharing the Map:

I've used both a projector and a TV to share the maps, generally whatever is available in the play space.  I use a Chromecast so I can put the player map up on anything with an HDMI port. It's hard to beat the $35 price tag.  Additionally, the Chromecast will share the sound from your laptop so the Roll20 juke box app is perfect for setting the adventure's soundscape.

Pencil and Paper:

The rest of the game is done on standard character sheets with lots of dice, snacks, imagination, and fun!

Putting it all Together:

  • I run Roll20 in a Chrome browser for the DM view of the game map.  This lets me see my notes, traps, and what monsters lurk behind the fog of war.  
  • Then I run an incognito chrome window and login to the same Roll20 game, this time as a player. This shows the characters minis and the parts of the map the player is allowed to see.
  • From the player view, chrome window, I activate the broadcast to the chromecast so the players can see the map and hear the mood music.

You can see in the picture below, my cadre of geeklets modeling the setup during actual game play. This configuration keeps the messing around with tech to a minimum for me, doesn't require tech savvy players, and I can run the adventure with just my laptop.

Notice on the TV screen, the inside of the building is blacked out for the players, but the DM can see what evil lurks inside.
Map art credits to Jonathan Roberts for the Archanist's Mill maps. Wonderful artwork.
Nothing too technical here, just some quick tips from my experience running a hybrid tabletop and virtual game.

Hopefully  this was useful and spared you the time I've spent messing around with different tools and setups.  Feel free to share you own tips or tricks for running your sessions in the comments.

Roll initiative!

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