Online, virtual tabletops (VTT’s) now allow more people to game than ever before. Â Regardless of geography, or work and family commitments, it’s possible for almost everyone to find a game that fits their needs. Â This article is the first in a series examining different aspects of being an online GM. Â 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. Â These are the gridded maps we’ve all loved for decades. Â Online VTT’s allow you to upload large, detailed maps without the expense of printing. Â 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. Â Two online map makers that I use are:
The first generates random dungeons, and the second allows you to draw your own. Â 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. Â Also, some VTT’s have a measuring tool to help you quickly gauge distances.
- They encourage player choice. Â PC’s can wander wherever they like in a dungeon, town, or alien world. Â 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. Â (That’s something you would not want to do to a paper map.)
- They are a familiar touchstone. Â For a first game with folks who are new to online play, I would definitely suggest using a small, top-down map. Â Whether it’s a five-room dungeon, a crashed spaceship, or a small wilderness area, it will be a familiar play environment for players. Â 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. Â Some VTT’s allow both players and GM’s to log in anytime. Â Players can move their tokens on a pre-loaded map, roll dice, and type information in the chat box. Â The GM can then log in at his or her convenience and respond to the player’s actions. Â In this way, play can proceed, even during dry spells. Â 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. Â In a face-to-face game, terrain pieces, books, or boxes can easily represent cliffs or buildings. Â However, online, you are limited to two dimensions. Â 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. Â 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. Â While this isn’t a big problem for most players, it may bear some consideration depending on your group.
Often tabletop games are played by having the DM sketch the map on paper or a grid sheet during play. Â VTT’s usually have freehand drawing tools to help you do this as well. Â A small graphics tablet makes things easier, but in a pinch you can use the mouse. Â This “on-the-fly” mapping has at least a couple of advantages.
- The GM can control the pacing of the session. Â Need to get players to the “final room” on time? Â Simply draw it in earlier than you planned. Â They’ll never know, and you can end with a final, memorable encounter.
- The players can’t go “off-map.” Â As long as you are comfortable improvising, there is no “off-map.” Â Even if you use pre-loaded maps, you’ll need to do this from time to time. Â Players love to wander.
Next time we’ll discuss other types of images you may want to use. Â We’ll look at background images, area maps, and player handouts. Â Until then, let us know what your thoughts are on this column below.