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Mapping Tutorial Using Free GameTable Mapping Software

Patrick Crusiau

Mapping Game Sessions Real-Time

If you wish to play via Internet, or use a computer monitor as your battlemap, there are virtual game table applications available, among which I recommend GameTable. It is user-friendly and intuitive, it is free, and it is freeware you can modify and distribute. It is, moreover, a Java program, usable with any computer or operating system.

Scan any map, or sketch your own, then place small images used as tokens, and you will never have to clutter your table again with unpainted lead figures.

Although intended for Internet play, I mostly use GameTable as a normal gaming board, with the players moving their figures on the screen during normal face-to-face game sessions.

In this case, I use an external screen and I run two instances of GameTable on my computer: one on my laptop, behind my gamemaster screen, and the other on the external monitor, facing the players. It would also be possible to use a video projector for those who have such an apparatus

The program enables me to carry out all the actions and modifications I want to make on the map, and to make them appear for the players only when I decide. The tactical phase becomes much easier to master and much more fluid. The gain in speed is also appreciable. The preparation of the scenarios is also largely facilitated.

I use reduced images of my paper figure as tokens, but any drawing or picture can be inserted in a frame and used (see below).

GameTable Preparation

From a user standpoint, GameTable contains three types of elements: the “underlays”, which are pieces of maps on which the characters shall move, the “pogs”, which are the tokens representing the characters, and the saves (.grm files) to save the placement of the underlays and of the pogs.

In the examples below, if you want to use the elements provided, all you have to do is to drag the contents of [Link No Longer Available] (underlays, pogs and .grm file) into your GameTable folder, and accept when your computer asks if you want to replace the existing elements ("Attention, save your elements you wish to keep before accepting; if not, they will be lost.").

Preparing your own scenario maps for tactical phases (combat, exploration...) you intend to play on GameTable is simple.

First, prepare the map's parts (underlays) you intend to use as terrain for the action and place them in the underlays folder. Prepare the elements you intend to use as tokens (pogs) and place them in the pogs folder.

Then, open GameTable. Place underlays as you wish to obtain the terrain you have in mind. Setup the tokens (pogs) you want to be deployed before play (some underlays and pogs can be deployed hidden on a "private" map, if you prefer). Then, save this configuration, which will create a backup file (.grm) that you can name as you want. You can save different configurations with different names made from the same elements.

It is not even obligatory to save before closing. The program executes an autosaving (autosave.grm) when closing. The difference between an autosave file and a named file is the autosave file opens at the launching of the program. So, they are better suited for configurations you want to transmit to someone else. Moreover, if you used the “private” map (which makes it possible to prepare modifications that are not apparent for the players), the system will save the structure of this "private" map in a file (autosavepvt.grm).

In short, to transmit a complete setup map (a scenario), it is necessary to transmit:

  • the pogs folder (just as it is without modifying its structure)
  • the underlays folder (just as it is without modifying its structure)
  • an autosave.grm file (or another name)
  • maybe an autosavepvt.grm file

People receiving those elements have only to slip them in their GameTable folder and launch the program to use them.

There are many ways to use GameTable, from sketching an improvised map in the course of play to using superbly textured maps. I propose to have a look at it together.

Simple map and drawing tools

GameTable makes it possible to play without any preparation, in the same way it would be possible to sketch some features on a bit of paper representing a terrain and to use unspecified objects (coins, buttons, dices...) as tokens in face-to-face games.

All you have to use for that are the drawing tools provided by the program. They are simple and make it possible to draw any structure instantly. Add some generic tokens and you improvise any battlemat in a few seconds.

Don't worry overmuch about the graphic quality of the result. GameTable, as any virtual table program, must remain a practical tool, facilitating the work of the gamemaster. The goal is to make the game sessions (on table or by the net) easier to manage, not to design a second rate Baldur's Gate approximate visual clone to the detriment of the fluidity of the interactions between participants.

Sketched map and stick characters

It is not difficult to make the display a little better visually, even without any talent for drawing. If you drew your plan on graph paper, just scan your sketch and change its dimensions to 64 pixels per square or hex (with GIMP for example, which is free, or perhaps with Photoshop). The map here was drawn on 1/2cm squared paper using 1cm for a GameTable square, which is quite enough for a detailed map sketch.
You can also scan any map, even schematics and change its proportions to be on the same scale as the figures (don't worry too much about exact proportions, the idea is that a GameTable square (64 pixels) is the space that looks correct for one figure to stand on).

It is not the artistic quality of your maps and figures that are important, but facilitating the task of the gamemaster who is already burdened by the running of the story and interactions with players.

For the characters' representation, some stick drawings, scanned and re-sized, are enough to personalize them.

In the example here, I just printed circles of 1cm of diameter to which I added a body of more or less 1cm and legs of 1cm too. Quickly done and within anybody's drawing capacity. You can even colorize them (on paper or with GIMP).

If you wish to test this kind of stuff, you can download the elements represented above (N.B.: the heroes are visible at the opening of the program, but NPCs are placed on the “private” map of the gamemaster; to see them, it is necessary to go to >Map >Edit Private Map; and they have to be selected with the publication tool to make them appear for the other players).

Scenario (simplistic) for GameTable: “The night of the pistoleros” [Link No Longer Available]. Our heroes are ready to enter the den of Miguelito Tasteless to free a prisoner. The infamous Tasteless (and his mentor) have developed a substance whose emanations transform those who breathe it into greenish monsters. (Usable with your favorite system.)

If you want ideas on how to make good stick drawings (and if you want a good laugh), have a look at the comic strip “the Order of the Stick”, entirely made with characters drawn in this style.

As you can see it on the screenshot, I used the possibility given by GameTable to attach a label to a figure. A label with the name, but also, if you wish a label with some game stats of the figure. As the contents of this label can be modified quickly, it is particularly effective to keep track of NPC hit points, for example.

Elaborate maps and drawn tokens

Of course, it is possible to make much more attractive or realistic diplays. As with all VT programs, the final look depends only of what you put into the program, not the program itself.

But that comes at a price. A price in spent time, if you make your own maps or your own figures, or, even if you have to seek and download them on the net. And a price in money if you get them from an online shop. The result can be worth the trouble for certain scenes you can prepare beforehand. It would be an error, though, if it makes you shift your focus from the story to the tactical maps. Every gamemaster knows it is a mistake to channel or railrod your players to his "best encounter." It is the same mistake to railroad them to your "best map." No display, however eye-catching, shall ever replace a good adventure.

The decision to invest time on preparation must be taken after asking oneself: does this presentation or this way of playing bring something to the story in terms of atmosphere or clarity, or is it a waste of time that makes the storytelling more cumbersome? In the second case, one should not hesitate to do without the improved presentation.

When I think a more evocative display brings something to the storytelling (as in the illustration on the left), I use textured tiles that allow me to assemble the map as I wish it to look. They are generally products published in .pdf that I must transform in .png and scale at 64 pixels per square (a few minutes with Photoshop or GIMP). You can find those tiles for any periods or settings at RPGnow. I particularly love those of Skeleton Key (like the sewers at the top of this page).

For the figures, I use tokens made from reductions of my paper figures. They are available in the form of tokens and for those who would like to use them as paper figures.

It is possible to take your favourite comic strips and turn them into figures, or use pictures of lead figures (there is a great number of them available on the Internet in the online catalogues of the figures manufacturers).

Using multi level maps in GameTable

GameTable has (not by design) an interesting characteristic. If several underlays are stacked one on the other, the last one which is being moved goes to the top and covers the others.

It is possible to use this characteristic to our advantage to stack underlays and thereby pass from one level to the other during the game.

First of all, to be clear, it is not because two structures are located one above the other that it is necessary to use this system. Indeed, in the majority of cases, for example that of two underground levels, there is little chance to have interactions happening between the two levels. Consequently, it is more practical to place the two levels at different places without superimposing them.

On the other hand, you can, for example, imagine a street battle where the combatants move from one level to another, and it must be possible to check the lines of sight from one building to another, or towards the streets. In the same way, in the event of boarding between pirate vessels, it must be possible to move from one bridge to another and from one ship to another, while preserving the relative position of the combatants. And in this type of situation, there is no other possibility to obtain a practical representation except by staking the structures in their relative positions.

All that is needed is to make transparent cuttings in the various levels of the buildings to be able to reach through the stack to the level you want to make visible. Just grab and move slightly the level you want to see above.

An illustration being clearer than a long speech, here is the representation of three superimposed levels cut out in the way described above:


Portraits tokens

Many people use round tokens illustrated with the portrait of the character when playing RPGs on a table. If this type of representation works for you, it is easy to make those tokens to use them in Gametable. Just take any illustration (and here, Internet should enable you to find all you can imagine), insert it within a pretty round frame (it is not essential, but it is prettier) and reduce it (to 64 pixels for a character occupying one square, 128 pixels for a 2 square monster, and so on).

If you prefer, there is a small utility called TokenTool that makes it possible to carry out the creation of a token-portrait in a fast and quasi automated way. It is easy to use and it is possible to obtain a huge collection of tokens without having to master Gimp or Photoshop. You will also find, at the same URL, Maptool, a virtual table (like GameTable), more complete but less easy to use and intuitive than GameTable.

Trevor Croft, the creator of Maptool, made a mini application allowing you to launch GameTable with increased memory on Macintosh (the users of Windows can modify the available memory in the GameTable .bat file). He authorized me to place it here for those wanting to use it.

Combinations

It is important to keep in mind that ultimately, nobody really cares about the aspect of the final result.

A virtual table program is a tool to tell a roleplaying story, not an end in itself. Depending on the time you have to prepare the game session, on the graphic elements available to you (maps provided with the scenario, existing tokens to represent the characters) and of the interest of each scene, nothing prevents you from combining various types of elements to represent the action. And, you can prepare beforehand sophisticated maps for the important moments in the scenario, and use what you have available for the rest of the story.

Lastly, there remains a quite practical use for GameTable. Insofar as the surface of GameTable is unlimited, nothing prevents you from placing in advance (preferably on your private map), far from where you will play, some elements intended to be shown later to the players (handouts, photographs...). Just place them in the pogs folder and deploy them on the map. To go to their placement, click on their name in the list of the “pogs in play”.

Gametable for wargame campaigns

Even if Gametable was made to enable you to play roleplaying games via Internet, nothing prevents you to use it for your wargames. It is possible to play online the skirmish wargames, including historical games (with Fire & Steel rules, for example) or fantasy or science fiction games (Warhammer 40K).

If each player has the rules, and since the dice rolls results are visible online, then there is no problem to set p this kind of wargame.

For those who use mass battle rules, playing with many units, it is possible to use GameTable to play and record campaign data on a map.

The major advantage is the ability to play the campaign moves between wargame meetings, which limits time lost during game sessions. If you have a referee, he can carry out the moves and communicate to the players only the elements which are visible to them.

Finally, the possibility of recording the unit's information on the token labels enormously facilitates the management of a campaign (in particular, the management of provisions, ammunitions, straggling).

Integration of character sheets

I use GameTable exclusively as a gaming area, to represent the terrain and move the figures, but some seem to appreciate the possibility of integrating the gaming data in the program (I think this kind of stuff works easier and better on paper).

If you want, it is possible to create character sheets in GameTable and to display and modify them easily during the game.

First, place background sheets (one for each character you want to include) far from the maps that will be used during play (the size of the surface has no importance with GameTable, which is, in practice, unlimited).

Place a pog on the background, which will be used as illustration, and name it. This gives access quickly to the character sheet by clicking it in pogs-in-play list.

For each type of information on the sheet, place the pog named after this type of information (for example Characteristics, Talents...) and give a value to each stat of this type (for example, for characteristics, give a value to Strength, IQ, Luck...). For each part of equipment, deploy a pog and give it the stats involved (damage, price...).