November 27, 2011

My Digital Campaign Toolbox

Campaign ToolboxGnomeStew author DNAphil recently posted about what digital tools he uses to run his campaign. At the end he asked GMs what tools they use, and I thought I’d respond here in the newsletter.

Four Tool Types

You can divide tools into four categories based on how they’re used by GMs:

  1. Group management and organization
  2. Planning, design and preparation
  3. Aids during sessions
  4. Backup and security

I tend to use a lot of software. I do not think the average GM will use this amount or variety, but I like to experiment and I am ok with installing something that has just one specific use for me.

You might prefer to limit your software choices, which is great. I just want to make sure you do not interpret my list as a tip to use lots of software.

Instead, my tip would be to find what works for you and stick with it unless something more useful comes along.

Two New Trends In GM Digital Tools

You might recall I’ve written about GM software before. In the years since, though, digital GMing options have changed due to two great trends.

The first trend is shocking in how fast it’s emerged. Mobile devices like the iPad and Android have entered the GMing arena, and with them vast apps marketplaces.

Apps allow fast development and single-task solutions. Before, software tended to cover more functionality, 90% of which you might never use. Now, you can get specific with your GM needs and find great apps for them.

This means GM solutions are faster to develop and easier to improve over time. Great news for us!

The second trend covers improved online services. Web 2.0 stuff. Quite often these tools are free, and because they are online, can be collaborative.

That means everybody in your group can get involved, get value from, or interact with each other outside game night.

Category #1: Group Management And Organization

Session logistics

We use Yahoo Groups to coordinate sessions. The group mail feature lets us pick game days through email. Conversations also get threaded at the group site for easy future GM reference.

Groups also offers file storage, database and calendar.

Yahoo Groups >>

I use Google Groups for various non-GMing projects. It offers similar functionality to Yahoo Groups, and you might find this service preferable.

Google Groups >>

Session scheduling conflicts

When it seems like a maze picking the best date to play because everybody’s schedule is crazy, I go to Doodle to help me make a fast decision.

You create a new poll per conflicted session, enter potential dates, and ask everybody to vote for their preferred dates or available dates.

Doodle then tallies votes on each date and shows the winner. Plus, you can see who voted for when. This function is sometimes important if a session requires one or more players to be present for plot reasons.

Doodle >>

Campaign Wiki

We use PBWorks to coordinate long-term information for each campaign, such as character sheets, campaign FYIs, player contact info, player session logs, and so on.

Each session we take turns supplying dinner. So that schedule, plus a list of player allergies and preferences, goes onto the wiki too.

PBWorks >>

I tried using a GM wiki, but I prefer a different tool, MyInfo, which I describe in the next section.

You might also get great value out of RPG wiki-like services, such as Obsidian Portal or Epic Words.

Another option is Google Sites, which has an easy website builder and toolset.

Category #2: Planning And Preparation

Player feedback

I ask for session feedback, treasure wishlists, campaign moment requests, and similar player input. This gets handled in person or by email.

For email, I use GMail to keep this information organized. Using the label feature, you can tag emails however you want.

My labels are:

  • Ideas
  • Reference
  • To Do
  • Waiting

Ideas are player requests and other inspirational messages.

Reference contains rules discussions, good links and information I might want to refer back to.

To Do is my bucket of action items that crop up in email discussion.

Waiting is stuff I await a reply on from a player. I comb through this bucket before sessions and prod players who need to get back to me on something.

You can assign an email multiple labels. So, something might be Reference, To Do and Ideas at the same time.

Gmail >>

Information Management

I use MyInfo to manage all the details of my campaigns, adventures, NPCs, encounters and game worlds. It’s commercial PC software.

I created a web page that goes into detail about why MyInfo has been my GM tool of choice for several years running. The page includes several screenshots of my Riddleport campaign file and setup too.

From the page, in addition to features info, you can also download a free trial:

MyInfo for RPG >>

If you are looking for free digital tools for campaign info management, you can’t go wrong with wikis or Google Sites.

Tablesmith For Generators

A cool shareware program (just $10) that is your personal random generator.

It comes with lots of generators, and you can get a bunch more from the Yahoo fan group, including tables from my book, NPC Essentials.

You can create your own generators fast with the program’s editor.

Advanced features let you combo tables or create Mad Libs type generators.

Tablesmith >>

Also check out Chaotic Shiny’s generators.

NPC Generation

I’ve spoken about Hero Lab several times in the newsletter, so will not say too much here.

While I use it for Pathfinder, it supports many game systems, including D&D 4E, Mutants and Masterminds, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds and Call of Cthulhu.

You can read a recent review of Hero Lab here.

Productivity

Here’s a new one I have not told you about. It’s called Action Enforcer and it helps me get more done in the limited time I have available to do campaign planning.

I should write a full review of it sometime. In a nutshell, you decide what you want to accomplish, then you set up timers that countdown time remaining for your tasks.

This works for several reasons. A deadline forces efficiency. You are less likely wander surfing when there’s a timer reminding you to stay on track.

You also learn just how long certain areas of game prep take, so you can budget better in the future.

And most important, it gets you to plan what you’re going to do ahead of time.

“Task grazing,” which is moving from task to task with no plan and just doing things as they come to you, is often inefficient. Many times I’ve showed up at a session only to realize I should have spent more time on X instead of working on less important things like picking NPC hair colours.

Thinking a bit first, which usually takes under a minute, and setting up timers for key tasks, easily doubles my productivity.

GoodReader

This iPad app is essential to me. I use it to read my rulebooks in PDF format and to view images and maps. Easy to use during sessions, too.

GoodReader >>

Index Cards

A sweet iPad app that lets me plot things out fast, easy and visually.

It’s basically virtual index cards, but with sorting, ordering, drag-and-place, extended text field, search, projects and list view.

I use it for encounter prep, but whatever you want to use index cards for, you can do with this app.

Index Cards >>

A nod goes to Corkulous. This is like Index Cards but uses Post-It notes instead.

Daily Notes

This iPad app is my idea capture system.

Pen and notebook work just fine, but I have my iPad with me all the time, anyway. And Daily Notes offers me tabbed sections (i.e. Work, RPT, Gamer Lifestyle, Riddleport), tags, search, date sort and digital editing.

Daily Notes >>

CarbonFin Outliner

When I want a bullet list brainstorm, I use this iPad app. Create unlimited outlines, with nesting.

Tasks allow me to create quick action lists. You can tag items, add notes and export to email as text or OPML.

CarbonFin Outliner >>

Penultimate

This was the app that hooked me into buying an iPad. Draw with your finger!

Just like a whiteboard, but it’s portable, offers a square grid background option and lets you export. You can also organize your diagrams and maps into albums.

Penultimate >>

Chronology

A timer iPad app I discuss in detail here.

iThoughts HD

A killer mindmapping iPad app. I love mindmaps for brainstorming and planning.

More details in this article.

Category #3: Game Session Tools

This category covers software I use at the game table.

Most of the software and apps have been covered above. What I use to prepare, I use to help run sessions.

However, starting this past September I’ve embarked on a quest to reduce my computer use at the table. That’s probably a discussion better held in an article not about software. :)

I just found myself looking at a computer screen more and more, and I didn’t like that trend.

But currently, in addition to MyInfo, GoodReader, Hero Lab and TableSmith, I also use a couple other things:

* Google Spreadsheet

I’ve got a pretty slick spreadsheet setup now, after months of in-game use and tweaks.

I use it to track initiative and various PC stats that I prefer to roll myself in secret, such as perception skill checks.

* Pathfinder SRD

What’s better than having the rules online? I can search, bookmark and keep several rules open in multiple tabs in my browser.

Pathfinder SRD >>

MapTool

I also plan on seeing what MapTool can offer for easier mapping and exploration.

Several RPT readers have mentioned this free software, and it’s on my list to learn more about.

MapTool >>

Category #4: Backup And Security

I saved the most boring stuff for last. Hooray! I feel, though, that if you use technology for gaming, you need to protect it.

To protect my data, I use DropBox, which is like a virtual hard drive. The service gives you 2 GB of cloud storage for free.

There is a desktop application, an online version you can use through a browser, and a standalone app.

Plus, most of the apps I mention in this article have DropBox integration.

You can also share specific folders you create in DropBox with your players. This makes file transfer super easy. When you update a file in a DropBox folder, that update simultaneously propagates through all your devices and shared folders. Everybody is always on the same page, so to speak.

You could use DropBox to easily distribute player guides, handouts and surveys. Players could use it to share their character sheets.

DropBox >>

SyncBack

Some data I’m not willing to trust to the cloud just yet. Character sheets? No problem. My tax filings? No.

So I use computer backup software called SyncBack, which is freeware. The best feature is the scheduler, which means backup is automated and hands-free.

SynchBack >>

Malwarebytes Anti-Malware

I first used this commercial software to remove a trojan on my computer in 2008.

Trojan and virus removal is free as a one-time service. I purchased the full version for 24/7 protection after it proved to me it works.

And it has caught malware several times for me over the years, before it could infect my machine.

I do not buy computers for my family anymore without also buying a license of Malwarebytes for them.

Malwarebytes >>

Avast Anti-Virus

In the fall of 2008 my computer became infected. I had anti-virus protection, but it failed.

After Malwarebytes cleaned things up, I did some research. Some companies invest a lot of time in reviewing and researching anti-virus software. The common conclusion?

No single piece of software catches everything. There are a few logical reasons for this, such as hackers sometimes targeting one piece of anti-virus software or software virus definition updates come a little bit too late to you.

So, the advice was to install multiple AV applications to create an effective net for protection.

This still does not give you 100% protection, but reduces chances even more. Assuming your RAM and CPU are sufficient to manage multiple AV services running on your machine at the same time, then I recommend adding Avast.

Avast is free and always well-rated.

Avast >>

Microsoft Security Essentials

This free service came to my attention through the Windows Secrets newsletter.

Windows Secrets >>

I had previously not trusted MS anti-virus schemes. But Windows Secrets raved about this new service for Windows owners. They put it to the test and it beat other applications, including Avast, in finding and protecting from threats.

So what the heck. Three is a good number, right? So I also run Microsoft Security Essentials with Avast and Malwarebytes.

Microsoft Security Essentials >>

Conclusion & Caveat

So, that’s a lot of software. And please understand that I like fiddling and trying out software. My list here is not meant to tell you that you need a bunch of software to be a great GM or to run great games. Far from it.

It’s just personal preference. Though, as I mentioned, I’m weaning myself off computer use at the table a bit.

The biggest tip I can offer you, from years of personal experience, is to step away from technology and first think about how you want to organize yourself and operate as a game master.

Make technology work according to your systems and preferences, not the other way around.

Get your systems in place, then determine what aids you need, such as software, hardware, binders, index cards, Post-Its, and whatever else works for you.

Too often we spot software we think is cool and we suddenly change our methods. Most often, it’s temporary, as you discover the inevitable limitations any one piece of software imposes.

Instead, plan your GMing system first, according to your strengths, weaknesses and preferences. Then find software that meets your needs.

You will avoid many false starts, time wasted on data migration, and time wasted learning how to use software that you discard in a few months or less.

For me, MyInfo, Hero Lab and Google Spreadsheet are my core because they work with my GMing methods, not the other way around.

Cindy

wow nice tips, i use that mindmapping software (iThoughts) too, it is really useful. but simetimes, i think cubes re better than a random generator software. it kills the feeling. not every process must be digitalized

Wkr

I use as a app for organizing playgroups and backups ThinkBinder.

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