I got a message through our contact form a week and a bit ago asking for some help from a new reader. Now, as he is a (his words) Yank living in Australia I thought I would take some time and welcome him to our fair shores by writing up some of the stuff that I do to make some of the synergistic energies flow across a number of tools that I use to run my games. I have reviewed a lot of software during my time here at the blog and I have to say that this is not as straight-forward a request as it could, or should be! The reason why is that a lot of this software does not play nicely together and I am really bad at combining my tools – so this post has been somewhat of a learning experience for me.
You may wonder what the software I am talking about is, and though I do not want to go over it all again I will point out that this post is really good at illustrating what I like and this search offers you an overview of all the software we have looked at over the years. It is not an all inclusive set of sources but it is the material that I have used and continue to use when I work on my games. I also have to qualify the fact that I am really bad at using these tools together. As a whole campaign purpose I would use a few of the tools together where I admit, if I were a brilliant GM I would use all of the tools together in a tight, combined and tested manner. I am a good GM at the table but my background tool use is sketchy and heavily influenced by the amount of time I have behind the scenes.
Looking at on-line games as a focus in this post though if it were an in person game then the only thing that I would change is there would be no need for the Virtual Tabletop – maybe. I will talk to that in the section about virtual tabletops below. In all honesty, from start to finish with my electronic tools, if I were that awesome GM that everyone looked up to I would have the following programs on my computer;
- Realm Works by Lone Wolf Development;
- Hero Lab by Lone Wolf Development;
- Syrinscape by Syrin;
- Some kind of audio capture software that will stream the audio from Syrinscape and combine it with your microphone to the output for your VTT*;
- A VTT, my favourite at the moment being Fantasy Grounds by SmiteWorks; and
- An on-line note taking application that has mobile and desktop support like my favourite Evernote by Evernote 🙂
- I have also found a decent summation of note taking apps here on Cloudward that may help.
Where to start?
Evernote or whichever note taking tool that cuts across all your devices is the thing that you will possibly interact with a lot. The reasoning that I have behind this is that I use this tool to capture all of my design ideas and just basic notes of everything in my game. You have to be disciplined in using the one tool or otherwise you are going to end up with 101 different writing tools that do not talk together. For example, when I started using my phone in taking notes a few years back I used the Notes app on the phone. This was all well and good when I had a Mac but when I shifted onto the PC I had to then have my phone with me as there was no auto syncing. Since that time I now have worked out to create a new notebook in Evernote for every module/adventure that I am writing and put my notes into it.
You may be tempted to skip this step and just move on to some of the other tools like Realm Works or the Virtual Tabletop but I strongly suggest you don’t. This should be where all the raw ideas go and then if one of your raw ideas is awful, you do not need to then delete it from an invested tool. Other tools that I use on my iPad like Story Cubes and iMindMap get screen shot and added directly into these books and they become a hodgepodge of ideas that I can use, abuse or flee from. It is great to have all the chaos that fills your mind stored in these sorts of applications. I find that ideas in my larger campaign books may not make it into one adventure but the chaos combined will drive me forward inspired to something different after reviewing it.
This replaces the burred edge notebooks and school books that most GM’s used to carry around with them with snippets of paper and magazines that would fall out like an ash trail before you. I often had such things every time that I would go to a game as a player or a GM that would act as a source of fresh paper for ideas, stat recordings or the character journal!
I am a stickler for NPC’s. I like electronic tools that are thorough and well designed for everything I have. Now as I run Pathfinder a lot my program of choice is Hero Lab. There are free sheets out there and Hero Sheets are a good subscriber service also BUT with the free sheets I have never found a single free one that is not riddled with small calculation errors or omissions and Hero Sheets is still growing and does not have all of the material that I need for my game. That means I bought Hero Lab for $29.99 with the basic Pathfinder set and have easily spent a further $150 on that rule set in extras. The reason being that it is accurate and not very far behind the 8 ball with products that come out. It is expensive, but it gives me what I want.
It may not be Pathfinder that you run and in that circumstance Hero Lab may not be for you, just remember that it does more than just Pathfinder. There is another reason that I like this program and it is all to do with synchronisation with other products in this tool box. Whatever the tool is, make sure it is accurate and that you have the ability to save your NPC’s in a nice central area like Dropbox or a Copy type service so any device you use can gain access to those NPC’s.
These tools really override the need for an indexing card system that I have seen a lot of well-prepared GM’s use in the past. I was always envious of the GM that would pop the lid on his NPC card box and grab the NPC they had carefully prepared earlier. I could never focus for long enough but now that things have been made electronic I often find myself building NPC’s in spare time (yeah, what is that?) when working on an adventure. I always toss a PDF of the characters to my Evernote section too just in case they do not make the cut.
In the past, prior to my introduction to the wonderful world of computer apps and the like, my campaign recording was abysmal. I would record everything but it would be in one of the 12 notebooks I had on hand at the time, or on a borrowed bit of pad paper. Sometimes I would even record this material on pages of my character sheets and then throw the character away! The problem with that is that it was absoultely impossible to access data that I recorded instantly (or ever in some circumstances). I was often shown for the idiot GM when the player would ask for the NPC name of a particular construct of mine and I would ask them who they were talking about.
In comes the beautiful world of the targeted database system that is Realm Works. This system allows me to record everything that I want to about my campaign world and reveal only the bits that I want to with my players. My players have access to the database through a player license and they are able to browse through material that becomes available even when we are not playing the game! That is awesome work.
The bigger plus is that Lone Wolf Development have made this software and so it natively accepts material from Hero Labs as something that ought to be there. This means that my material is easily update-able and quickly included into the database as native as a string of text. There are issues with this system though as Realm Works is NOT a virtual tabletop. That means there is a duplication here of information that can be a bit painful. Say I run one of my modules and the players reveal 7/15’s of a map on the virtual table top, there is no easy way for Realm Works to simply update that. There are solutions for this of course but none of them are perfect.
- If you use Hangouts to run your game you could ignore the need for a virtual tabletop and have a screen shot of the player view for realm works. This means that any map revealing that you do is automatically being recorded there, but if you want to roll dice or look up a character sheet etc. this is going to be a pain.
- The other option, if you are a little bit handy with image manipulation programs is you could take a screen shot of the final stage of the map, crop it and then replace the map in Realm Works with the one that you have just made. This is a bit of extra work however.
I am fairly certain that the hero lab sheets that you save to Realm Works are copied and do not refer back to the original sheets too, which means if one of the NPC’s has wounds etc. you as the GM are going to have to record that stuff into Realm Works for it to be as up to date as possible.
It all sounds a bit problematic, this step, doesn’t it? The thing with it though is that I have never come across a program that is so brilliant in the way it stores all of this stuff. The responses from the players I have used it with are phenomenal too. They use it mainly as an in-between game thing to cover what they have learned, or to refresh themselves if they miss a game. It also greatly helps to build the look and feel of the campaign in their mind’s eye.
One of the problems with myself is that I do not use this tool consistently across all games too. There is a lot of data in my games and as you are working with this tool it taunts you to add even more data to the fold and it can be like a trip down Alice’s Wonderland that you may just never get out of!
Virtual Tabletop (VTT)
There are a plethora of VTT’s out there and if you are going to game online you need one. Essentially they are programs that allow you and your players to roll dice, communicate and look at required materials. I choose Fantasy Grounds because it’s automation with Pathfinder and ability to import characters from Hero Lab is phenomenal and it really reduces the amount of preparation time I need and the automation thankfully speeds ups players turns as they become familiar with the tool.
VTT’s are also being used in place of maps and miniatures in a game in most situations. No longer do you need fourteen cupboards to control your terrain and miniatures when they can all be inside your device. I am moving away from this style of game but a lot of people use it and so they prefer to have the maps all stored away and ready at a button press.
Now, these tools have been designed with the GM in mind for online games but their use is becoming a much more extended thing these days. I know GM’s that use a projector, or a touch based screen flat on the table, that presents the scene to the players in place of miniatures on their table. I really like this addition and as I am soon to be opening a gaming store that caters to players of these games I think I will be investing in technology that allows this to happen.
Suspending the disbelief (Ambience)
Many of you would have read posts of mine where I go the extra mile to make a game a vivid thing for the players, such as the building of my boat. Well, there are other things that can do the same thing with that are programs. One of those things is Syrinscape that we here at RPG Knights love. However, there is one issue with Syrinscape at the moment that makes it hard to use in an online game. The audio channel itself does not transmit to your users so you are either required to have speakers going close to your own microphone or jury-rig your own setup to direct and combine that audio channel with the microphone you use.
I have my own piece of custom bit of software that allows me to retransmit this material online if I want but I am still having to choose either Syrinscape or the Mic so it does not get too much of a run until I sort that problem out. I think this is a great opening for one of you that is a software developer to build a little app that combines sound channels and directs them to your line in feed for transmitting across the inter webz. I could do it but I have NO TIME.
Syrinscape is an awesome thing to use at an actual table and it gets the weekly treatment from me there. I will also be setting up little audio systems that can allow this to happen in the store as there is just nothing else like running a game that has it’s own soundtrack that is tailored just right for the exact scene. Get this program people!
Combining it all
This is a harder thing to do than it sounds. I have mentioned three or four things that if used consistently would absolutely blow your players away. They would think that you are a Roleplaying God of immense proportions as they sit there going over the game history and realising the wonderful subtleties of it all. I have written this piece from the point of view of being that person, but I am far from it.
What tends to happen in my games is I get App overload. Rather than having a balanced preparation time I may spend all my available prep time updating Realm Works and realising far too late that I have forgotten to update the VTT with the required materials or vice versa. Maybe I have not updated Syrinscape in time and do it just before the game to find that all of the sound sets need to be downloaded again. Or I realise too late that someone told me they weren’t going to show and I have nothing prepared so need to go to Evernote and wing something amidst a huge jumble.
In all honesty, you can pay a thousand dollars (more even) for the best software in the world but if you do not learn to use those tools or do not have a balanced approach to the way that you prepare you will be setting yourself up for failure. It is great to find tools that you can use innately and get joy from but to be that person that the players admire and love takes discipline and focus across all of your tools.
I hope this description has given you a bit of insight into what it is like to run an entertaining game and opened your eyes to some of the tools that exist out there for you to do exactly that. There are people that can run a game online with nothing but their minds and a webcam that the players love though. The key is to work equally across what you need and come up with what you need and not put all of your eggs into one basket.
Let me know what you think in the comments and I will expand if I can in other posts. I realise that this is just the tip of the iceberg for questions like this and I enjoy answering them where I can! Keep rolling.