Tech Tools – Using Today’s Technology To Enhance Your Games

From Christopher “frpdm” Cho

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0378

A Brief Word From Johnn

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5 Room Dungeon Contest Winners

Winners of the recent contest have been contacted. Congratulations to everyone whose name was drawn:

  • Gillian Wiseman
  • Tyler Turner
  • Nik Palmer
  • Daniel Burrage
  • Uri Lifshitz
  • Clayton Blanchard
  • Jean-Christophe Pelletier
  • Jason Kemp
  • Pirate Queen
  • Wulfhere
  • Valadaar
  • Thewizard63

Thanks to Strolen’s Citadel for co-hosting the contest.

And thanks to the sponsors for their prize donations:

Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Tech Tools – Using Today’s Technology To Enhance Your Games

I’m what you would call an old school gamer. I started back in the day with nothing more than a pad of graph paper, pencils, erasers, dice, and the red Basic Dungeons and Dragons rulebook. Everything was simple – in retrospect you could refer to our gaming back then as low tech gaming.

I remember using clear plastic sheet protectors and a grease pencil to draw a multi layered dungeon; I would place one layer on top of the other to see where stairs would line up and secret passageways would link. Back then I seemed a genius; to look back now it seems almost laughable.

With the advent of massively multi-player online games, consoles like the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, and real life commitments like a job, a mortgage, and other such buzz kills, the number of old fashioned pen and paper gamers has dwindled.

For those of us who continue to meet regularly and sling dice over a battle-mat covered table, though, there are nice tools available today to improve your game, simplify the almost overwhelming record keeping tasks of the DM, and make that evening spent together one that will be talked about for years.

To that end, I present my list of suggestions of modern day tools for use in your old fashioned role playing games. This particular set of tips is geared towards a Microsoft Windows environment, but I’m confident Linux and Mac users would have little or no problem finding the equivalent programs for their respective operating platform.

Create Wallpapers To Serve As DM Screens

This tip works best with the multiple monitor setup tip in this article and a display adapter that can accommodate different desktop wallpapers on your various displays.

Use GIMP or the Windows Paint application to create files that display commonly referenced tables, and then set the as your wallpaper.

Pressing the Windows Key +D automatically minimizes all your windows and displays your desktop, and pressing it again toggles the windows back to their former size, so it’s a quick toggle to refer to these charts and tables and then toggle back to your open applications.

Use Sound Effects And Music To Accentuate Encounters

I like to keep a library on my hard drive of music soundtracks and sound effects. Animal growls make a nice attention getter when the party is crouched around the fireplace and they think they heard a twig snap. Creaking doors, the pfffft of an arrow whizzing by, and the sound of stone rumbling on stone nicely accentuate sessions.

There are quite a few movies that have great soundtracks to play softly underneath the game session. I like the original soundtracks to Conan the Barbarian, Lord of the Rings, The 13th Warrior, and Legend.

Hard drive space being as inexpensive as it is, you can keep many of these soundtracks on your laptop hard drive; add shortcuts to your desktop and you can quickly access them as needed.

Create 3-D Levels With Level Editors From Computer Games

OK, I’ll admit I only use this for the grand finale of a campaign, or for times I find myself with an amazing amount of downtime. But, the results can be nothing short of spectacular.

A handful of computer games have level generators included with them, so you can create your own adventures for the game. Two that come to mind are the old PC DOS based game Witchaven and the more recent Neverwinter Nights. I believe Quake had a level generator plug-in, as did another game called Hexen, but you should verify that.

I’ve used Witchaven and Neverwinter with awesome results, but I have to admit the time commitment was pretty extensive, so, again, consider this option with the understanding that a major time commitment might be required.

[Comment from Johnn: you can find great Neverwinter Nights tutorials here: ]

Witchaven runs on DOS, so I keep an old Windows 98 laptop just to run it. Using the level generator that was included with it, I can create a 3D version of any dungeon, tomb, or castle ruins. I can add secret doors, traps, and other standard DM goodies. I fire this up and effectively walk the players through the dungeon. Whenever an encounter takes place we switch to either miniatures or GIMP to track the actual battle.

Use A Sound Recorder And Microphone For Note Keeping

I don’t know about you, but my group of players always seems to choose the option I haven’t prepared for. It’s commonplace during sessions that something I don’t have prepped for will pop up. Maybe the party wants to eavesdrop on a conversation between guards, or interact with a random encounter that I hadn’t completely planned for.

In cases like this, clicking on a sound recorder to invisibly store the conversation, make notes, etc. is a real time saver (and I never like to clue players in that I’m ad libbing a particular part of the storyline.)

Audacity is a free download perfect for recording audio on the fly. It’s a great tool when player characters ask, “What did that barkeep say about the brigands with the red sash?” You can quickly bring up the.wav file (after they make their memory checks, of course) and recount word for word the entire conversation.

Download Audacity (PC, Mac OS X, Linux):

Use A Computer Or Laptop

This seems so obvious, especially since most everyone uses e-mail and surfs the web daily, and if you’re getting Johnn’s role-playing e-mails then you’re obviously using a computer already. But, every once in a while, I’ll run into a fellow gamer who is surprised I use one or more laptops in my gaming sessions.

I don’t think I would want to play without at least one of my trusty laptops in front of me. If you don’t game with a computer, think about investing in a laptop, especially if you’re the DM. Once you get everything in place, your laptop(s) will become an indispensable part of your game.

Track Characters and Record Keeping with A Spreadsheet

80% of what I know of Excel I learned creating character sheets. Not only does a good spreadsheet simplify the PC and NPC generation process, but a well-constructed spreadsheet provides essential information at a glance, speeds up gameplay, and makes the gaming experience more enjoyable for all.

If you don’t have a strong command of some spreadsheet program (Lotus, Excel, Open Office Calc, etc.) you might have a bit of a time investment ahead of you as you learn the software, but, in the long run, it is well worth your effort.

I currently have a spreadsheet set up as follows:

  • Each character has one tab that is effectively a computerized character sheet.
  • It auto-fills many items for me. For example, if I select Dwarf from the drop-down box in RACE it will auto-fill the adjustments to the stats, racial special abilities, etc.
  • When I input PC experience point totals, the spreadsheet notifies me when a new level has been reached, indicating where adjustments to stats, combat stats, etc. are now available.
[Comment from Johnn: For D&D gamers, past e-zine advertiser The Only Sheet is a great Excel tool. Also, search my site for Loz Newman, who has submitted several spreadsheet tips: Roleplaying Tips Search]
  • I also have tabs for consolidating certain aspects of all characters into one page. For example, I have one tab for skills. All skills are listed, and character names run along the top. Each character’s score for each skill is automatically displayed and updated as the data is linked to each character’s tab. Any skills that aren’t taken by anyone are automatically greyed out for ease of identifying what skills are known. I can view all the stats of all the players on one tab.
  • I have similar tabs for money, magic items, combat, hit points, etc.

The hardest part of this is keeping the spreadsheet current with whatever game system options your group decides to implement. This particular tip could result in some serious up front time investment on your part, but that’s the joy of being the DM, right? Consider that your newfound knowledge of a spreadsheet application might increase your value to your employer, and suddenly a few hours creating lookup tables isn’t that bad.

Here’s a copy of the Excel spreadsheet I use (2 MB): 377 Example Spreadsheet

Open Office (Windows, Linux, Mac): Apache OpenOffice

Use GIMP, MapTool, and TokenTool For Maps And Minis

  • GIMP is graphic editing software you can download for free. It’s not as robust as Adobe’s Photoshop or Illustrator, but I find it perfect for creating maps and using it during gameplay.

Our gameplay space is limited, so in lieu of miniatures covering the table, I use RP Tools’ java based utility Map Tool to display the map. I draw in GIMP and zoom in for a tactical melee display as needed.

Info: GIMP
PC download:
Mac OS X:

  • MapTool allows you to ‘host’ your dungeon via the Internet (or your local LAN if you have lots of players who bring their own laptops) and while the DM has a sort of “God view” of the dungeon, the players can only see what the DM reveals (based on light sources or infravision or other senses.)

You can accomplish the same thing using GIMP, and if feedback warrants, an additional article can be written describing exactly how to use GIMP for gameplay.

A nice thing about Map Tool is it allows your players remote access over the Internet for groups who have players who can’t be present. It even has a built-in chat utility.

Java download:

  • RP Tools also has a utility called Token Tool, which allows you to use any existing JPG or BMP file and convert it into a scaled token for use in MapTool. I’ve spent way too much time into the wee hours of the morning downloading various pictures and then converting them into tokens for my next game session. This is definitely one to look at.

Java download:

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Use Multiple Monitors

For those who can afford it, multiple monitors will make your laptop more useful. There is a little bit of a hardware investment required here, but it’s well worth it.

When we play, I have my laptop and three other monitors hooked up to it. One monitor to the left, one to the right, and another facing the players (it displays the same information I see on the right side monitor to the players.) To accomplish this, you’ll need three pieces of hardware to add to your laptop:

  1. A video splitter box
  2. A USB to VGA adapter
  3. Some spare monitors

Most laptops these days have a video out port for an additional monitor. What I do is attach a video splitter box to that video out port, and hook two monitors up to that splitter box. Whatever I display on that monitor will be mirrored for the players to see, so during game play, the right monitor displays the dungeon and the characters via the GIMP interface.

The other piece of hardware you should consider investing in is a USB to VGA adapter. This effectively turns a USB port into a monitor port. It isn’t a fast refresh, so you wouldn’t want to play Quake or some other game on it, but for stationary data display (such as a dungeon key or game diary) it’s perfect.

I like to have the dungeon key displayed on the left side monitor via this USB to VGA adapter, and my spreadsheet with all the characters and their stats in the central, primary laptop display, along with a DM’s version of the map showing all the traps, encounters, etc. It sounds a bit overwhelming, but once you’ve tried it and become used to it, you’ll be wondering how you ever got along without it.

VGA video splitter:

USB to VGA adapter: Sabrent USB 2.0 to VGA

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Use Virtual Desktops

To add to the wonderfully nerdy setup described so far, you can download an application that provides you with virtual desktops that provide numerous additional desktops for you to use. Virtual desktops are just what the name implies-make-believe desktops running on your system.

I use one desktop as explained in the multiple monitors tip, then I have another virtual desktop just for displaying data and pictures of NPCs. I have another desktop for displaying pictures of creatures and locations, and yet another desktop for sound recording.

Pressing the Windows key +1 brings up the first virtual desktop, Windows key +2 the next, etc. It’s like having 5 laptops in front of you. It takes a little getting used to, but now, I am so used to having five desktops and three monitors I can’t imagine going back to a single display and a single desktop.

Virtual desktop download (PC): Dexpot

Use Instant Messaging For Private Conversations

This tip assumes you have players who have their own laptops, and a gaming environment with an Internet connection (wireless being ideal for obvious reasons). If you’re lucky enough to have all this, instant messaging is a great alternative to, “Ok, everyone take 5 in the living room while I talk with Steve/Arnon here about what he sees as he scouts ahead.”

Instant messenger is a great way for players to communicate to the DM without alerting the others (which may be a good or bad thing depending on your group). It’s handy to have the party thief be able to IM me and say, “I’m picking Parvati’s pockets as we make our way through the market place,” without having to hand me a piece of paper and thus alert the others that something is going on.

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Well, that’s probably enough to get the ball rolling. Hopefully you’re already thinking about which of these tips would be useful to you. I would be interested to hear what other DMs and players do to utilize today’s technology in their gaming sessions.

Now roll for surprise….

[Comment from Johnn: send feedback and tips to me [email protected] and I’ll forward them to Christopher, thanks.]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Speeding Up Convention Play

From Bill Collins

  • Roll all dice on the table – the hit die, damage die, and miss chance (if any). Announce in advance your dice pairings and which one is your high iterative attack, etc.
  • Players: if you’re going to cast a spell or use a combat rite or special ability, have the book open to it and let the DM know the save DC and/or the effect. (As an aside, I don’t worry about fireball, hold person, sorcerous blast or chain lightning – I know those. It’s when someone casts wall of thorns that I need to know the parameters.)
  • Ask a player familiar with the system to appoint themselves as a rules assistant. They can help others who have questions while I’m busy.
  • Rules lookups will last for a minute, tops. If we can’t find an answer, I’ll make a ruling and move on. Alternatively, if the next person in the order can go and won’t be affected by the previous action, they take their turn while we look up the rules.
  • I announce house rules in effect, and go over variant rules before play begins. Usually this comes up with Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved, which I run a lot at conventions. I explain Hero Points, that standing up from prone is a move action that doesn’t provoke, and anything else I’ve tucked in the character packet.
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Player Mechanics

From Ryan McHargue

Player Mechanics is a theory really, as I have only limited experience testing it out. The theory is every player has a certain playing style that can be written down into a mechanic of how their perfect scene would run.

I believe there to be four basic mechanics for any scene:

  1. Dice rolled skill checks
  2. Non-dice rolled skill checks
  3. Dialog
  4. GM Narration

Each player has their ratio of enjoyment of each element. I liken it to the video game Oblivion and the conning tool where you have four types of statements you can make: a joke, a compliment, an intimidation, and something else. Each has a value for the NPC, and depending on what value you give each one, you will get a higher level out of the conversation with the NPC.

I believe this to be the same with your players. We all like a certain amount of dice rolling, and dialog, as well as the GM setting up the mood of the scene through narration, and non-dice rolling successes or failures.

The trick is to determine what each of your players feel about these areas, and then setup your scene with as close to a custom mechanic for each player as you can.

Dice rolling and non-dice rolling skill checks are straightforward: actions you require the player to roll to accomplish, and actions you don’t because you know the outcome no matter what the roll.

Dialog is a bit easier to get a good read on for your players – the ones who love it usually initiate it more. Dialog is a two-way street, though. NPCs and PCs have to be part of the conversation.

GM Narration is the blurbs and descriptions you provide to frame the setting or to provide the players with background information.

The Questionnaire

Part of these ratios come with knowing your players, but part can come from a quick questionnaire. A choose your own adventure is what I like to use. It is a 5-minute game, and should give four parts. Each will have a hook and the four mechanic options, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Each option should effect the choices they have left.

For example:

The PC is in a crowded room when he sees a man pointing a gun at him. The man addresses the PC, calling him by the wrong name and accusing him of killing his father. The PC can:

  1. Draw and fire his weapon at the attacker and make a marksmen skill check.
  2. Take cover behind people in the crowd, not having to make a roll.
  3. Talk to the attacker and try to convince him he has the wrong guy.
  4. Get more information about the scene.

Each successive round you take away the mechanic option the player chose previously. If the player chooses to talk to the attacker, you take away his ability to talk the next round, such as having the attacker rush him firing his gun. Then, offer the player the options of taking cover as a free action, making a marksmen roll, or getting more information about the scene (such as what is around him). After the player chooses next, you take that option away, and so on.

Once all the actions have been exhausted you can finish the scene using the order of options the player chose or however you wish.

The important thing is you have come up with the favored order you can use to calculate their preferred player mechanic(s). Once you have completed this quick adventure you talk to your player and explain to him what it is you are attempting to determine (their mechanic preference). They will be able to flesh your findings out a little more, giving you better ideas as to what they like best about rolling or talking.

Armed with this knowledge of your players’ preferences, you can design their ideal scenes more often with greater accuracy.

So that is my theory. Game On!

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Roleplaying Idea: Tests Of Character

From Erik C.

After last night’s D&D session, I thought I’d drop your readers a line regarding an interesting trick that can provide an evening’s entertaining respite from the same old thing. It allows players to take a break from their own characters…in a way. I’ve done this in a couple of different campaigns now, and both groups have had a blast doing it.

At an opportune moment, provide your PCs with a series of dream sequences, where one character is trying to get a grasp on the situation and the other players represent their own characters, but kind of in an alternate universe motif.

In my latest example, a tomb the PCs are investigating has a magical series of tests the characters undergo, the first of which blinds them all with a strange white light when they enter this room.

I started by asking to speak to all but one of the players in another room, though I did it in pairs to decrease the suspicion of my victim. I then explained to them what was going on, that their comrade was undergoing some sort of experience in which I wanted them to play themselves, but with specific roles.

This test was sort of an alternate future in which some portion of the character’s current quest had been a failure, and the characters’ lives had gone down a far different road than they had planned.

The player in question, and his character, didn’t know what was going on. After the strange light, he woke in a completely different place. A couple of his compatriots were there, but they were now apparently bad guys (and so was he!) who obviously expected him to know what was going on, on the run from the party’s remaining good guys. I gave his dwarven companion an ugly scar and an eye patch to complete the illusion that time had passed.

This was to be a test of his character, to see whether he would just go with the flow and accept this new scenario, or stand up for what he believed in and refuse to accept it, maybe even surrendering to their pursuers (who arrived on scene about halfway through the scenario, accusing him and his friends of vile atrocities).

The players had a fantastic time. When it was over, and the group expected things to return to normal, I pulled the victim out of the room along with one of the other players and began outlining the next scenario for yet another victim. I have five players, and by the third such event they obviously knew what was going on, but by then they were getting into it, particularly since whatever happened to their alternate characters didn’t really matter; only the victim would remember the encounter.

(One of the players was horrified when his companions starting trying to kill each other. In that scene, the victim had apparently charmed all of his compatriots to aid and protect him as they were running from the law, and a couple of them came out of the enchantment in the middle of the scene.)

This trick works best with hard-core roleplayers, since the characters’ choices and experiences are their own reward, but I think it could make a nice diversion for any group.

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d20 Mob Tip

From Paul Wilson

In the D20 systems (D&D, Star Wars, etc) you can run mobs with ease. Because 20 divides into 100, each number on a D20 can be thought of as 5%. You treat the target number (DC) as a 50% success, and each number higher or lower modifies the success rate by 5%.

For example, you have a mob of 20 goblins archers, and they are shooting at a player character with an AC of 20. If the goblins roll a 20, then 10 of them hit. If they roll 23, then 13 would hit, and if they roll 15, 5 goblins would hit. However, if you roll a 10, then no goblins would hit.

This works because all values on a 20 sided die have an equal chance of being rolled, and if you multiply each number by 5 then it gives a number from 5 to 100 (which can be used as percentages). It does help if you have a calculator with you as this speeds things up a bit, but even without one, it is faster than rolling 20 attack rolls. It can also be used for saving throws or whenever you need to roll a 20 sided die to resolve something for the mob.

When dealing damage to a mob (rather than just targeting one individual within the mob, such as when someone launches a fireball at them), you can roll damage once and multiply it by the number of hits the mob takes. You then divide that number by the average hit points of the group. This gives the number of individuals killed in the mob. Any remainder from the damage is added to the number killed done on their next hit.

For example, you have a mob of 20 goblins and a 1st level sorcerer casts burning hands at them. It is determined that 10 of them will be effected by the spell, and as they rolled a 3 for their save, they will take full damage from the spell.

The sorcerer rolls 1d4 for damage getting 3 and multiplies this by 10 to give 30. Dividing this by the average hit points (4) gives 7 goblins killed and a remainder of 0.5 (so one of the goblins would be effectively be at half hit points).

This also works well with a mob on mob situation (it can therefore be used for a mass combat resolution).

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Group Burnout

From Ben K.

Just thought I’d add a few comments to your discussion about GMs losing the inspiration to sit in front of their groups and run a session.

I’ve learned sometimes GM burnout is actually just a reflection of general group burnout. I think we maintain an emotional and empathic link to the players, setting, NPCs, and general atmosphere of the game.

Next time you feel like you are burning out, take a look around the table and mentally do a buy-in check on your players. Do they look tired? Worn-out? Distracted? Is there a significant dip in their investment in their characters? It could just be general group fatigue.

As you say, one of the solutions is to try a different game. I’m here to offer the same advice, but I’m also here to say don’t neglect the thousands of other types of games out there that can be enjoyed in a group. Sometimes moving from one RPG to another RPG just isn’t enough; there’s still an emotional attachment to characters, setting, etc.

Don’t forget the thousands of board games, video games, card games, and sports that can be used to invigorate a group. Some of the tactical board games have just as much diplomacy and pulse pounding action as any RPG. Murder Mysteries can be a ton of fun, and you already have a group to play.

My group spent a few sessions competing against each other in Guitar Hero 2 on the Playstation 2. As DM, I went back to reading a few of my favourite fantasy books, and started up a few old favourite computer RPGs. Absence, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder.

After a few weeks of using “game night” to play other games, my old group came back together excited to see the world and characters they had begun to miss.

Cheers, and thanks for the articles!