Running an online game requires you to juggle a number of things at once. You have to run the game as usual AND you have to manage the technical side of things through your virtual tabletop (VTT). Anything you can prepare beforehand will help lighten that load during play. This article will present one format for organizing your maps and background images: the comic strip format. Like a comic, the scenes of your adventure are laid out left to right in their most likely order. An example is shown that uses a mixture of background images and tactical maps.
Before going any farther, (and before someone cries “RAILROAD!!!”) let’s state that players can skip panels or go back to previous locations. The purpose of the layout is to help the GM be organized, not to stifle player choice. Sometimes players even go “off map” and we’ll discuss that later as well.
Let’s first look at how to create the map, and then at some in-game considerations.
TECHNOLOGICAL FIDDLY BITS
Once you’ve planned the rough outline of your session. Collect your background images and maps. Open them in your favorite image manipulation program. I use paint.net, which is free, easy to use, and supports layers (think of each layer as a separate overhead slide, and pass the brontosaurus ribs already). Before you start combining them, make each image the same height. I use 800 pixels in order to keep file sizes manageable. Be sure the main image is nice and wide (say 4000 to 5000 pixels) and paste each of your images onto a separate layer. You can slide them around until you’re satisfied with the order. You’ll probably need to crop the image on the right to get rid of empty space.
To save the file, first save it in your program’s native format. That will preserve the layer structure in case you want to come back and make changes. Then save it as a “jpg” file. If your program allows, drop the image quality down to about 90%. This will help keep the file size manageable.
After you upload it to your virtual tabletop (VTT), turn on the fog of war if you like. I generally place the NPC tokens below the map. They can be positioned below the scene in which they will appear, and then slide them up when needed.
IN GAME CONSIDERATIONS AND CONCERNS
This is my exclusive format for arranging my regular games at present. However, there are a few concerns. First, it can sometimes be clunky to slide the characters tokens back and forth between multiple panels. However, this may be just a quirk of my particular VTT.
Second, sometimes you will want to use a larger map, such as for a dungeon-type encounter area. This may require you to allow that part of the comic strip to extend below the others. It’s not a huge problem, but you do have to be sure your map area is sized correctly. You can also run into issues of file size if you have too many large areas.
Last, the comic strip format can be linear in format. It requires some flexibility on the GM’s part to allow for different choices. Sometimes you’ll have to quickly hunt up another image or draw a sketch below your map if they go in a different direction.
The comic-strip format works well for organizing a session. Other options might be a block of images like a trading card sheet, or even a flow chart of images. Have you ever used something similar? Do you have an alternative arrangement or system that really works for you? Let us know below.