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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.

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 [1], 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.

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.

8 Comments (Open | Close)


#1 Comment By Jen Gagne On April 5, 2016 @ 10:09 am

Heh, and here I thought this was my little trick… I use Roll20, so your experience may vary. I’ve taken this approach either horizontally or vertically to reveal floors of a building, or a map that sprawls off to the lower right.

In case it isn’t obvious from the article, having multiple floors/areas on the same map page makes it a lot easier if enemies or PCs go up/downstairs.

There’s also an added benefit if you use a large map on a smaller page size. (This works in roll20, anyway….) Sure, we have fog of war to make extra areas black, but that approach does give them a certain amount of metagamey information about how much more is to come… Instead, I like setting up the entire map along with NPCs and critters you’ll encounter, then reducing the page size to just the initial area. Write down the dimensions and expand the page size in stages as they play.

That way when they find that secret door, or suddenly realize the small cave is just the foyer of a sprawling dragon’s lair, or realize there are somehow five floors on this four-story building… it’s a surprising reveal OOC as well as IC.

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On April 5, 2016 @ 6:21 pm

Thanks Jen, I use the multiple floors trick also. Though I’ve never tried resizing the entire page. For the most part, my players don’t metagame like that, but it certainly prevents temptation.

#3 Comment By jengagne On April 6, 2016 @ 4:57 am

Disclaimer: Oh, my players are great in that regard… I just like the “oooh a reveal!” aspect.

#4 Comment By Silveressa On April 5, 2016 @ 11:47 am

This technique is also invaluable when the party decides to split up, since many .vtt programs (such as R20) don’t easily allow the splitting of PC’s across multiple maps. (Since only one map can be loaded at a time for all players,)

If you’re using dynamic lighting this can also allow for better consistency with global lighting changes (sun sets, power failures etc.) and speed things up.

#5 Comment By Jen Gagne On April 5, 2016 @ 1:16 pm

Roll20 does let you split people across maps. Just open the page bar, grab their name from the lower-left and drag them to a different page from the rest of the party.

….but, that’s still a pain and you have to switch back and forth… The technique in the article is so much more seamless.

#6 Comment By Silveressa On April 5, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

Lovely, thanks for the tip!

#7 Comment By jengagne On April 5, 2016 @ 2:57 pm

I think it was a new function in the past year or so. There’s always something to learn! Very welcome.

#8 Comment By John Fredericks On April 5, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

Thanks Silveressa too. I don’t like to split a session across multiple maps either. And thanks again to Jen for the roll20 hint. I didn’t know that either.