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A Newbie’s Guide to Going High-Tech

Written by Nicholas - Published on March 30, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

Picture by Martin Kingsley

I like to set goals for myself. This is especially true when I’m running a tabletop game. When I run a new campaign, adventure or even sometimes single fights, I have a new goal in mind. It might be to create a more interesting cast of NPCs, put a particular shy player into the spotlight, make better use of terrain and traps or learn a set of rules I don’t have a firm grasp on. With my current DM burning out and all of my players peering excitedly at the new PHB2 classes, it became clear that it was time for me to take up my DM hat and start a new campaign. A new campaign means a new goal, to bring my game out of the stone age and use technology to streamline the way I run.


I can’t draw a straight line with two rulers and ten tries, this meant hand mapping has always been right out for me. If I was forced to draw an overland map by my players it would be all simple shapes with labels and shaky lines connecting them. Then I heard about Campaign Cartographer 3. Those of you who read our RPG Maestro newsletter saw the same review I did. It was intriguing. I was excited by the prospect of being able to easily create visually interesting maps so I purchased the program. Make no mistake, it is not easy. I launched the program and was immediately lost and overwhelmed, I may have curled up in the fetal position. Fortunately, there is a lot of help available. I found the most useful to be Joseph Sweeney’s series of video tutorials. I watched those and within a few hours I made a fairly simple regional map but one I was satisfied with. I look forward to tackling more advanced maps in the future, inspired by the beautiful things made by people smarter than I am.

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For combat maps I used to use the official dungeon tiles, but I’ve been unhappy with that. They look great but I’ve found that they constrain my thinking to the kinds of locales I can represent with them. Additionally, if my view of an area is slightly different than what is on the tile I need to waste time trying to point out the difference or just accept their version. For now, I am switching to an erasable battlemat that I just draw on. I am also looking at another ProFantasy product Dungeon Designer or investing money in some 3D terrain like the kind they offer at Dwarven Forge. I’d love some commenter input on this! What do you use for your battle maps?

Planning and World Building

In the past this has largely been a mental exercise. I would make notes about the encounters I was planning and have a hazy idea of a storyline and locations in my head. For my new campaign I have decided to join the entire rest of the gaming community and jump on Obsidian Portal. For those, like myself until recently, who are scampering around prehistoric jungle, clubbing their food and eating it raw, allow me to introduce you to fire. Obsidian Portal is a wiki site designed specifically for tabletop gamers. It is very simple to use, allows you to log your adventures, easily create pages for all of your worlds important people, locations and features and upload your maps to the wiki. Perhaps most importantly, every page of the wiki has a secret area that only the DM can see. You can write public information about a NPC on the page and then make notes about what the players don’t know in the secret area, for example. For my part, I have written up my entire first adventure in the secret DM area. Not only does that allow me to keep my thoughts organized and easily available but I can link names and locations to their specific entry to remind me of their detailed information if I need it.


Previously, I ran combat probably the most inefficient way possible. Traps and monsters with their health written on index cards that bookmark the page their entry is on. During combat I would be flipping pages all over every time something got attacked or was attacking. If I had a custom monster I would write out all of its stats on paper. Once again, Obsidian Portal comes to the rescue, this time with the help of our own Yax and his Dungeon Mastering tools! I input my monsters into the tools and it gave me back a code to put in my Obsidian Portal wiki. Now I have the stat blocks only for the monsters I need and all in one place, right next to all of my session notes. I have also traded in my index cards for this handy little encounter worksheet.

I hope everyone finds at least one thing here to help them out. This experiment is drastically going to cut down on what I bring to the table. My goal is to run without having to open any books. I’ll update you all on how it is going on my twitter.

Do you have experience with these tools? Some tricks and programs that you use to streamline things? Let us hear it in the comments!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



24 Responses to “A Newbie’s Guide to Going High-Tech”
  1. Dragonmahn says:

    I like to alternate between dungeon tiles and a battlemat although i perter the battlemat.

  2. Justin says:

    For 3D terrain, I can’t recommend Fat Dragon Games enough. Their 3D paper terrain is easy to assemble and brings a lot of depth to the gaming table. I have an entire chest filled with terrain pieces. It’s even better if you can get your players to help out.

  3. Mike says:

    Google maps can be a great [overland] mapping too as well:

  4. Nicholas says:

    @Justin: Wow, that’s super interesting! I had never thought of doing 3D paper terrain before. Their graveyard set would have been perfect for my session yesterday. I’m all thumbs so I couldn’t put it together myself but I’m sure I could snag some of my players into it.

  5. Nicholas says:

    @Mike: Very cool, I do still need an overland map for my game.

    You guys spoil me!

  6. Mike says:

    here is my tip. i use the d&d tiles, i have large pecies of cardboard and build out several encounters in advance. i use painters tape wihc 95% of the time does not damage the tiles. but recently i have also started using over head projector sheets to draw on the additonal detail needed. the cool thing is the sheets show the normal tile through, and is totaly reusable with whiteboard markers

  7. MAK says:

    The most versatile tool I’ve found is Excel – I do full-calculation 4E character sheets, 4E encounter planning, and all mapping on pure Excel. Just size the cells so that the print out has a grid of desired dimensions – an instant battlemat. I use a sheet that prints out two A3-sized (11 x 17″ to the metrically challenged) sheets which I tape together for an almost poster-sized combat area. The detail level is then up to how much effort I want to spend form nostalgic 8-bit computer game-like maps to almost at par with commercial mapping SW results. For more sophisticated maps, nothing more than a few freehand shapes and downloaded textures go a long way.

    I haven’t tried doing overland maps, but as our campaign world is (geographically at least) the Real World, I’ve really never needed to draw my own overland maps…

  8. Exelon says:

    I’m actually giving the MapTool from http://www.rptools.net/ a try. It’s freeware and there are tutorials too.
    Unfortunatly you have to collect textures, objects etc. yourself, but that’s the price for not having to pay money.

    After a short time I got used to it and my maps are growing faster now.
    If you own a netbook or notebook and there is a beamer or tv with vga in at your normal gaming place it’s kicking ass. You can use the second monitor as a battlemap everyone can see by using your notebook as a server and client.
    This allows you to act on your notebook as a GM and your players will see what you allow them to see on the big screen.

  9. Ben says:

    Another good mapping tool is Autorealm which happens to be free software (GNUed at that)


    I’ve had user on the MUD I admin on use t to submit maps for our website, and it is a nice little program.

  10. Wimwick says:

    My group uses MapTools for our mapping. We either all have our laptops up and running or we project the map onto the wall. I’ve scanned the dungeon tiles and just drop them into Maptools for instant maps. When I have a little bit more time I use Dundjinni to create maps. I’m interested in checking out Campaign Cartographer as I’ve seen some very nice maps crated with it.

  11. Exelon says:

    I’m using MapTools too, running it on my netbook and my tv (server and client on netbook, showing the client on the tv).

    I used MapTools to create my maps and found it hard to get some nice wall or door images. Is the only way to create some really nice maps Dundjinni or Campaign Cartographer? Or is there any other freeware I can use to?

  12. TMan says:

    I would caution you against buying Dwarven Forge stuff. While it’s absolutely beautiful, I find I never use mine, _ever_ (my gaming group got together and invested in a bunch of sets a few years back).

    It’s impossible to pre-stage your rooms and such without giving away the whole floorplan. It takes up a lot of space on the shelf. Sorting through it to find what you want take a lot of time. While the walls give the game a neat immersive feel, they also make it pretty tough to maneuver multiple miniatures in confined spaces. WotC’s dungeon tiles are cheap at $10 a set ( I buy two of each one) and much easier to store. I also like printable PDF terrain (look for SkeletonKey Games on RPGNow or WorldWorksGames.com) to build specific stuff. I’m playing with printing whole dungeons in advance and then slapping them down on foamboard in sections to just drop on the table quickly.

    I need to learn how to use the copy of Dunjini I bought a while back. And find a good set of tutorials for ObsidianPortal – I have to admit I’m a bit intimidated by it.


  13. Nicholas says:

    @TMan: Thanks for the advice about Dwarven Forge, I’m finding it hard to justify the cost anyway. Back to saving for Gen Con!

    Obsidian Portal isn’t that scary. I had no wiki editing experience but I watched the video on the main page and dove right in, so far it has been very simple.

  14. Nicholas says:

    @TMan: Thanks for the advice about Dwarven Forge, I’m finding it hard to justify the cost anyway. I have to save for Gen Con!

    Obsidian Portal isn’t that scary. I have no wiki editing experience but I just watched the video on the main page and jumped in. So far it has been very simple.

  15. JL Cobutn says:

    If you’re the crafty sort and wand Dwarven Forge 3D maps then Hirst Arts [ http://www.hirstarts.com/index.html ] is wonderful. Its still a big investment compared to paper printouts and the official tiles but if you do it right you can use pieces over and over again. I’ve seen people with tables that are open in the center and about 4″ deep so that the map could be set up and most of it covered with a sheet. Looking down at the figures made it a bit easier to move them around I’m sure. Lay a pane of glass or plexi over it at the end of a session and everything is set to go next game night. Of course, these are thoughts for the ambitious bunch.

    For programs and all I use AutoRealm too. And I snag free maps wherever I can and if I need to make changes I just use tracing paper to copy and lay it down on a battle mat or under a transparency sheet with a grid printed on it to get the grid back.

  16. Mike says:

    do you have an editable copy of the encounter worksheet.? i absolutely love it and want to add it right into my campaign adventure files. would love to just add names, THP, and combat notes ahead of time. would also love to remove some of the items to add another possible list or two

  17. kshade says:

    I use PCgen (pcgen.sf.net) for quickly building characters as DM and player. It works with a couple of RPG systems including D&D 3.5 and it’s free. For looking up rules quickly I use http://www.d20srd.org.

    I’m not using my laptop at the table, though. Not only because we only have a couch table for playing but also because I feel like having everything printed out on paper is quicker, less distracting and doesn’t kill immersion. I usually make a sheet with encounter and room information for the evening and it works pretty well and having boxes for counting monster hit points on them speeds up combat noticeable.

  18. MageMirin says:

    I like using transparencies. You can put them on your battlemat (don’t use the wrong tape or the next time you write directly on your battlemat it won’t come off) and then you can just remove the sheet when you move to the next part of the dungeon, no time consuming and messy erasing. Also makes it easy if you have to go back to someplace you’ve already mapped before.

  19. Delf says:

    Have to agree with TMan about Dwarven Forge. One guy in our group bought a set. We only got to use it once because I run a lot of wilderness stuff. The one set is enough to make, like, 2 small rooms and a corridor, so we were constantly shifting pieces from cleared rooms to make new ones. The stuff’s beautiful and it was a cool experience to see my character “walking” down a corridor, but not really worth the cost.
    I like a battlemat and a big box of Crayola markers.

  20. Dragon_D1 says:

    I found a great editable Abobe Acrobat character sheet for 3.5ed here http://www.ssa-x2.com. The site also has some other tools that are helpful, and the guy who came up with these sheets is working on one for 4ed

  21. Bobko says:

    For battle mapping and combat management, Battlegrounds RPG has a pretty loyal following. http://www.battlegroundsgames.com/ They have a free demo you you can download and try . In addition to creating maps with the built in tools, you can import maps made in other programs like Campaign Cartographer and Dundjinni, and it has a cool “Fog of War” feature for revealing areas of the map progressively based on light sources as the characters move through.

  22. wtfd00d says:

    I’ve been using this program called Virtual Combat Cards (VCC) in combat encounters. It tracks most of the details of health, Initiative sequence, effects and conditions. It’s pretty much the electronic version of the encounter worksheet that was posted above. I highly recommend trying it.

  23. wtfd00d says:

    Whoops forgot to add the link: http://www.exnebula.org/en/vcc

  24. KronikAlkoholik says:

    I must reccomend Masterplan. It’s a program to plan your adventure/campaign by points. Each point can include a encounter, map or other things and you can add tiles to it to create dungeon floor plans. You can also add information like monsters or traps and the program can help you manage things in combat like iniative, HP and such.

    Very much a all in one program.


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