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.
Oh, now you hit my favorite topic (maps). I’ve got a ton of RPG maps both published and personal, map icons, map tiles and more. I am currently writing a series of map tutorial guides using Photoshop, Illustrator, GIMP, Inkscape and Xara Photo & Graphic Designer 9, with the first book to release soon.
I prefer top-down, though I create isometric maps sometimes. I also do both hand-drawn and photo-realistic maps sometimes creating 3D object content.
I am able to emulate depth effectively using bevels and shadows – even on strictly top-down views. Lots of people use the maps I create and post on my G+ community using their favorite VT apps – roll20, MapTools, etc. I create on average 2 maps per week.
Gameprinter, thanks for the reply. Obviously mapping can be a hobby unto itself. I often feel guilty when I use a map I found online rather than doing it by hand.
But sometimes you have to, real life and all that.
This is actually my first post after reading for a long time. VTT for me is a game changer. I played a lot of tabletop rpgs as a kid, and wanted to play with my own kids now as an old guy. With all the advances in video games, I wanted an approach that was a little less abstract than what we used to do with grid paper and such. I also didn’t want to get into erasable battle mats and figurines as we used to do for 1e back in the day. So I started looking for options and found MapTool. After seeing what it could do it really fired my imagination, and I started gaming a new way at the table with my boys.
What I do is run off a laptop at the table and display images to a second computer monitor that is angled for my kids to see. As I’m working up a scenario to run through, I’ll collect images and maps in a folder and pull them up on the screen when necessary.
As we play Star Frontiers, I’ll usually keep a map of the sector on the screen, or if they are planetside I’ll have a map of the surface. We’ll roleplay through the various scenes and I’ll add images to aid in describing areas, creatures and npcs.
I ran into the “uh oh…a top down map… I pull my pistol out…” issue and have since changed tactics to only use them once we knew combat was about to begin.
Jim, I have a friend who places a tv flat on a table, and uses a VTT for his mapping. Not sure if they put little figures on it, or use tokens.
Sure saves a lot of printer ink. I think it is a neat idea. Another fellow I know a little has a projector on the ceiling and shoots it down onto a white board. Then they can marker it up to their hearts content.
And kudos on Star Frontiers. I only got to play it a little back in the mid-80’s. Would love to play again.
Hi John. How long does it take you to create a custom battlemap using something like Dungeon Painter? I’m dog slow, but assume I’d get faster with practice. Or is stealing and repurposing maps the more practical route?
In the end, it’s all better looking than faint pencil chicken-scratch on grid paper that I used in the 80s. I also worry a bit about mixing grid with a few heavy lines (for speed) with beautiful pre-prepped (or borrowed) maps.
I can whip up a map fairly fast in Dungeon Painter. The image at the top of the article was designed with it. Obviously you can spend HOURS on Dungeon Painter if you like, but for a quick custom map, it can’t be beat. I could whip up a simple dungeon (few rooms, maybe a bit of furniture) in under twenty minutes.
Try donjon too if you want a map with caves. I have also just drawn the old pencil and paper maps and scanned them. Then I can make them completely custom. With a little image work, you can add stone patterns, etc…
There are more maps online than you can ever use in yoru GMing career, and I use them too. But nothing like drawing your own.
And donjon will also give you a randomly stocked dungeon, of you like. While I doubt you would use it as is, it may still suggest some ideas that you wouldn’t have considered on your own.
I have a bunch of free rough draft map tutorials and many map samples on my G+ community for my Map Tutorials Guide project:
Thanks for the link Gamerprinter!