My Digital Campaign Toolbox — RPT#534

From: Johnn Four

GnomeStew 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.

Here’s the GnomeStew post: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/stewtoolbox

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 solution 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: RPGWIKIS.

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

Category #2: Planning and Preparation

  • Player feedback

I ask for session feedback, treasure wish lists, 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: Google Mail.

  • 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 GM Organization.

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. http://mythosa.net/wiki/pmwiki.php?n=Main.TableSmith

Also check out Chaotic Shiny’s generators: Chaotic Shiny.

  • 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 HL here: Hero Lab for Pathfinder.

  • 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 colors.

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. http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/goodreader-for-ipad/id363448914

  • 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. http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/index-card/id389358786

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

  • 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 + Tasks.

  • 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.

  • 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: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/cmchronologyreview

  • iThoughts HD

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

More details in this article: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/cmflowcharts

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: d20PFSRD.

  • 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. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rptndropbox

  • 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: Freeware.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Microsoft Security Essentials

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

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. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/mssecurity

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.

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A Brief Word From Johnn

Thanks For Giving

If you are in the U.S., I hope you are having a great Thanksgiving weekend. The Magic Item Contest second draw took place this week. With over 80 entries, I have huge gratitude to you, my readers, for giving your time and attention to the newsletter and for taking time out of your days to send in your tips and contest entries.

Here are the randomly rolled winners of round #2:

  • Cheka Man
  • Norman Harman
  • Lucas Mackay

There’s one round of prize draws left: December 5.

So there’s still a great chance you can win.

To enter, follow this 3 Minute Magic Item template to create a magic item and then email your creation to [email protected]

  • Awesome Name
  • Appearance
  • Benefit
  • Drawback
  • Lore
  • Twist

Multiple entries are welcome, and give you more chances to win.

Thanks to Gator Games for sponsoring this contest!

Prizes up for grabs:

Care of Gator Games (available to North Americans only due to shipping restrictions):

  • Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 for D&D 4th Edition
  • Monster Manual 2 for D&D 4th Edition

And these prizes are available to anyone in the world:

PDF of your choice from Kobold Quarterly.

AstroSynthesis 3.0 from NBOS.

So, take three minutes to enter right now.

My Gratitude List

I’m Canadian, so we had our turkey holiday last month.

However, I’ve seen several folks write about what they are grateful for this week for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, and I think it’s great to do anytime, whether your country is currently feasting on turkey or not.

So, here are a few things Roleplaying Tips related that I am very grateful for, in no special order:

  • Jenette Downing for doing an awesome job with the Roleplaying Tips blog.
  • Mike Bourke for being a great writer and thinker, for being great to work with, and for doing such a good job on Assassin’s Amulet.
  • The internet and email, which allow me to write and publish Roleplaying Tips so easily.
  • Game masters who keep gaming and learning and teaching.
  • Garry Stahl for doing such a super job moderating the GMMastery Yahoo! group.
  • Paizo for producing Pathfinder and being so community- minded and fair.
  • My players for putting up with my writing about them in this newsletter and for putting up with all my GMing foibles.
  • Steve B. for helping me with the website over the years.
  • The loyal fans who write in regularly with GM tips and advice I can share in this newsletter (and to readers who have submitted even one tip over the years).
  • My wife who lets me put so much time into Roleplaying Tips.
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Game Master Tips & Tricks

Do you have a game mastering tip to share? E-mail [email protected] – thanks!

1. Steal The PCs’ Loot

From: Alexander Ulmer

One of my favorite methods for parting players from their loot is good old theft. Think about how tempting a target a character dripping gold would be to a thief.

You don’t even need to steal it all. In an urban setting, a pickpocket might become as much of a nuisance as mosquitoes in a swamp. Maybe each pickpocket only gets a few coins, but after enough events the bleeding will add up.

There is another low-level bleed that is sure to affect the player’s wealth, which will come into play soon after it becomes well-known the players are rich. This bleed will come from shopping for even the most mundane items or daily food. Even an honest merchant will be hard pressed not to add a bit to the cost of his goods when such a well-heeled patron presents himself.

It might be a thumb on the scale; or offering only the best quality, and therefore the most expensive items; or even a 5% to 10% increase across the board.

This effect is similar to what was seen in gold rush towns, where even the most mundane items became exorbitantly expensive just because everyone could afford a $10 loaf of bread.

There is also the possibility of a more concerted effort to steal more substantial sums. A group of well-organized thieves might attempt to steal several backpacks of loot, or even a few chests.

Think about a party of NPCs that need to fund their next expedition and are not rich in coin or scruples. Maybe they wait for the party to leave town and then strike. Or maybe it’s a group of enterprising gnomes that tunnel right into the players’ treasury.

Eventually, players will want to start spending gold on improving their home security. This is another possibility for lightening the player’s purses. The best locks require the best locksmiths, and they demand the highest prices.

Other superior security measures will likely require importing the required talent, providing accommodations for them and their staff, and supplying the best quality materials.

The levying of taxes on the players will surely reduce the gold they have available. Imagine what the local lord, baron or king would think about the players beginning to revival them in wealth. They would certainly wish to receive their fair share of the newfound wealth.

This could be done via a flat income type tax, or a series of smaller taxes, such as:

  • The antiquities tax on old jewelry, art or arms
  • The monster slaying tax – a cash penalty for harvesting alchemical components
  • Import tax – the local governments fee charged for bringing in goods manufactured elsewhere

Another way to part players from their cash would be through investment. Players could be approached with a huge variety of investment opportunities:

  • The baker who wishes to expand his ovens
  • Buying a portion of the rights to a claim or a mine
  • Getting in on the ground floor of an exotic import business

While not every investment turns out poorly, the potential for failure exists, and the greater the potential reward the greater the risk.

That is not to say the bakery might not burn down in an accidental fire, or the importation of parrot feathers establishes a new fashion trend that takes off like wildfire.

There is also always the potential conmen and swindlers posing as honest entrepreneurs looking for venture capitalists.

One sneakier way of taking cash from players would be for the local lord to grant them lands or a title. This would be done with much ceremony and pomp.

Becoming a land owner or titled gentleman would entail vassalage, complete with the requirement to provide troops for the lord. Hiring, equipping and supporting even just a company of men will require a fair bit of coin.

Then there would be the cost of upkeep of such a force. Also, as a lord, you might be expected to host parties or festivals, which could be another expense.

From: Josh

Hi Johnn,

I don’t know if you’ve already covered this (I’m pretty behind on my email), but I have a suggestion for Ben who was asking about getting the PCs to spend large amounts of money.

If their wealth is public knowledge, people could be coming to them as potential patrons or investors.

For example, a group of dwarves might approach them to ask for startup funds for a brilliant invention, with a promise of X% of the profits once they have enough to sell.

Or an aspiring adventuring party might ask for help buying the gear they need to help them survive until they’ve found their share of magical armor and weapons.

From: John Romero

Is Ben M. serious? What kind of penny-pinchers is he DMing for?

1. Taxes – If officials smell gold, they will find a reason to raise the levies on partying adventurers. The k\King has to raise armies and keep the streets properly cobbled.

If they have property, they will be paying property taxes according to the location of their property relative to the ritzy sections of town.

2. Medical bills – Especially resurrections, mending bones and removing curses and poisons $$$.

3. Wine, women and song – Allow the characters to have significant others who develop all sorts of needs and addictions. General entertainment expenses as well.

Addictions to fashion and style should be cultivated.

4. Ransoms – party members or members of their family get kidnapped.

5. Target for thieves – Somebody takes their stuff. Or just paying adequate security costs whether in personnel or magical effects when they are out on adventure.

6. Trappings – Sure they have property, but are they doing it in style? Otherwise, regardless of their heroism, the city snobs will ignore them unless they are greasing the right palms.

Think of World of Warcraft. Sure you can get a flying mount, but the really sexy FAST flying mount costs about 10,000% more.

7. Inflation – If the merchants know the customers (characters) are loaded, the prices will go up, up, up!

8. Gambling debts – With that much cash involved, the games will be rigged.

8a. Stocks, commodities, and futures – Make a gambling game out of that, and rig it also.

9. Magical gear. Make more of the magical gear in your campaign one-shot or limited duration requiring frequent replacement, whether from a dealer or in materials to recreate.

2. Computer Game Soundtracks Make Great Session Soundtracks

From: Fred Ramsey

Computer games often use MP3 files for their background music.

Just search in the install directory for any sound files.

I’ve gotten some great music from The Elder Scrolls:

Oblivion, for example.

You can find ambient, neutral themes, as well as combat music.

3. Best & Worst Character Concepts Successfully Played Out

From: Sean

Johnn,

I was thinking over my next character concept when something hit me that would be a good piece for RPT:

Best/Worst character concepts successfully played out

I figured I could start the suggestions with a few I’ve run for or played myself.

= Good =

  • A NE drow sorceress from a lineage of drow tainted with black dragon’s blood, natural tendencies to evil and greed. (With family history back to her great-grandmother and full page of background on how she acquired her abilities.)

– In a party of NG and LG clerics and paladins, they kept trying to convert me and I was a master at discreet amounts of tolerable evil.

  • A kobold trap smith who was exceptionally good at what he did and somehow always managed to survive death by being tricky and conniving.

– Also managed to find his way through most battles completely unscathed.

– Nearly all of his abilities were non-combat oriented, but he was quick enough at setting traps he could use it offensively in combat.

  • The half-orc beggar mage who took the feat “pass for human” and really RP’d the beggar piece, including carrying his equipment around in his beggar’s bowl of holding and wearing rags.

– Ironically, he turned traitor on the party for cutting his share of loot.

  • Cybernetic Taung (Star Wars campaign) who watched his family murdered by imperials, nearly dying himself, turned hired hitman working for the alliance.
  • The guy who writes the whole backstory for everywhere he’s ever been with his character (character journal).

– These can be awesome seeds for custom campaign settings, but they easily turn into a bad novel nobody wants to read.

= Bad =

  • A goblin tinker who had nearly zero value to the party since 90% of his creations explode.
  • “I’ve been frozen in time for 1000 years and knew the fallen god Aroden personally, thereby negating a large chunk of the plot.”
  • Character that turns an otherwise neat feature into a one- trick-pony show. The fighter who wields an over-sized spike chain and specializes in trip-attack-of-opportunities and 20 ft. + reach.
  • The archer who can deal over 100 something damage a round spaced over too-many-to-count attacks.
  • The “insert movie/game character’s name here” clone who insists their idea was original. (Do’Urden clones, I’m looking at you.)
  • The “insert backstory later” NPC run by a player. (I think players watch us DM this way and think it’s alright.)
  • Pretty much anyone who takes something from Savage Species and tries to run it in a normal campaign. (I once had a player try playing a feral anthropomorphic baleen whale barbarian, starting strength somewhere above 30.)
  • A Spartan lost in Golarion (as-in Halo space marine). He insisted he was just a fighter with flavor text in the beginning, which was okay, till he started trying to get rules for his machine gun and futuristic weapons.
  • The “I don’t want to roll up a new character, so I’ll just multiclass into everything!” munchkin.
  • Class/Race/whatever sourced from some obscure book the player found on the lost bookshelf of the abandoned library, that happens to be D20 compatible.
  • Custom class/race/whatever written up by the player that is somehow crucial to their character concept. These can also be awesome boons to roleplaying, but generally I find they do this with a lack of understanding and balance more often than not.
  • The paladin with tin armor. AKA not spec’ing for the class you intend on taking. A fighter with CON as a dump score isn’t going to last long. Also goes for combat wizards with STR as their primary score.
  • And the DM who creates all of the above character’s in other people’s games.

That’s all I can think of for now, hope you laugh at a few and it spawns a few ideas of your own.