Online, virtual tabletops (VTT’s) now allow more people to game than ever before.  Regardless of geography, or work and family commitments, it’s possible for almost everyone to find a game that fits their needs.  This article is the first in a series examining different aspects of being an online GM.  Even if you don’t play online, hopefully you can find some food for thought here.

Let’s first look at traditional, top-down maps.  These are the gridded maps we’ve all loved for decades.  Online VTT’s allow you to upload large, detailed maps without the expense of printing.  A GM can often pre-load the map, expand it to a convenient size, black out the areas that they don’t want players to see, and even hide NPC’s and monsters on a “GM-only” hidden layer.

You can find more maps than you’ll ever need online, or you can generate your own using any graphics program.  Two online map makers that I use are:


The first generates random dungeons, and the second allows you to draw your own.  Top-down maps for VTT’s have some advantages and concerns that we should look at.


  • Top down maps are often gridded for tactical combat.  Also, some VTT’s have a measuring tool to help you quickly gauge distances.
  • They encourage player choice.  PC’s can wander wherever they like in a dungeon, town, or alien world.  You can add details on the fly by dropping in an image of a statue or treasure chest. Or draw right on the map using the VTT’s drawing tools.  (That’s something you would not want to do to a paper map.)
  • They are a familiar touchstone.  For a first game with folks who are new to online play, I would definitely suggest using a small, top-down map.  Whether it’s a five-room dungeon, a crashed spaceship, or a small wilderness area, it will be a familiar play environment for players.  VTT’s also allow you to black out areas of the map that you don’t want players to see initially.
  • They can be used for play-by-post games.  Some VTT’s allow both players and GM’s to log in anytime.  Players can move their tokens on a pre-loaded map, roll dice, and type information in the chat box.  The GM can then log in at his or her convenience and respond to the player’s actions.  In this way, play can proceed, even during dry spells.  It provides a nice visual element to play-by-post games.


      • Top-down maps can sometimes make it difficult to visualize situations in three dimensions.  In a face-to-face game, terrain pieces, books, or boxes can easily represent cliffs or buildings.  However, online, you are limited to two dimensions.  You may wish to experiment with isometric maps, or draw your own as shown to the right.
      • A top-down, gridded map can sometimes suggest to players that a particular encounter requires combat.  If you switch between different types of images, putting up a grid can cause some players to unsheath their swords or draw their blasters rather than exploring other roleplaying options.  While this isn’t a big problem for most players, it may bear some consideration depending on your group.




Going Mapless

Often tabletop games are played by having the DM sketch the map on paper or a grid sheet during play.  VTT’s usually have freehand drawing tools to help you do this as well.  A small graphics tablet makes things easier, but in a pinch you can use the mouse.  This “on-the-fly” mapping has at least a couple of advantages.

      • The GM can control the pacing of the session.  Need to get players to the “final room” on time?  Simply draw it in earlier than you planned.  They’ll never know, and you can end with a final, memorable encounter.
      • The players can’t go “off-map.”  As long as you are comfortable improvising, there is no “off-map.”  Even if you use pre-loaded maps, you’ll need to do this from time to time.  Players love to wander.

Next time we’ll discuss other types of images you may want to use.  We’ll look at background images, area maps, and player handouts.  Until then, let us know what your thoughts are on this column below.