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tools ttrpgs

rpg tools and tech

What do I use when running RPGs? This. This stuff is what I use.

There’s not an awful lot of writing out there on what you should use to help run or play RPGs. Most of the time, you’ll search for something specific (“mapmaking software”, “NPC generator PF2e”), and you will end up building up a toolbox of things that you find useful. This is me writing down everything I’ve found in the years that I’ve been playing. Some of it is free, some of it is paid for – I’ll include which ones are which. (Asterisk means it’s free)

There’s a rule that I’ve run into in my job as a Data Engineer/ML Engineer, which is that if a tool says it does everything, it probably doesn’t, or it just does it poorly. At time of writing, there is no magic bullet software that gives you everything out of the box for RPGs – I’d much rather use eight tools that do what they do very well, than one platform that does it all but badly.

This isn’t a top 10 list, or something where I’m throwing in everything and the kitchen sink: this is stuff that I actively use when running RPGs. If there’s a problem I have with it, I’ll tell you.


Game Engine

FoundryVTT

I’ve been using Roll20 since 2014. I cut my teeth playing RPGs in person, so it might have even been the first time that I played an RPG online. At that time, it was a relatively new (launched in 2012) service, which offered something that I don’t know existed before then: a sound platform to play RPGs on which was free. It was easy to use, and while it was somewhat lacking in functions, it was extremely easy to sling a roll20 link at my friends to get a game going. It had a wide selection of game systems supported, with the list being constantly added to by the community, meaning it only lacked the more niche games.

This is perhaps a bit disingenuous, but I’d say that it hasn’t really changed since then. I’m sure someone can come out and mention a raft of features that it has gotten since launch, but to me, it has all the problems that it did when I started using it.

  • A website design that was fine in 2014 but is now very outdated by modern standards.
  • A lack of responsiveness – everything feels delayed and painful.
  • Pretty woeful asset management, in terms of finding images that you’ve uploaded, and other data.
  • Playing audio is a chore, sometimes working, sometimes not.
  • It’s a centralised service, with all the problems that being dependent on a central service brings (downtime, security, closed source)
  • This is not from my personal experience as I haven’t tried, but I’ve heard making sheets for systems is a pretty awful time.
  • Limited and stilted GM tools (copying a token doesn’t copy rotation, a r g h, journal/notetaking has the absolute bearest of functionality)

This is ignoring all the nonsense that seems to follow Roll20, but I could keep going.

Release Notes for the Foundry Virtual Tabletop 0.7.9 update version
FVTT’s 0.7.9 release (latest at time of writing)

Bluntly, FoundryVTT is just a better piece of software. In my eight months of using it every week, I’ve never had a moment of “gosh this was better in Roll20”. Everything I said above as a negative for Roll20, is a strength for FoundryVTT. However, there’s two big hurdles for it:

  1. The price. (50 dollars plus VAT where applicable)
  2. The learning curve and setup.

If you’re expecting it to be a similar amount of effort to setup as Roll20, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s a bit of work to be done, depending on what solution you’re going for (self-hosted, managed service, dedicated server), but it’s definitely surmountable. Generally speaking, if there’s a problem, you can google it and get a solution. If you’re completely tech-averse, it might be worth looking at the managed solution/partner hosting options where they handle that for you.

As for the price, I’d much more in favour of paying a larger sum once, than a small sum until the end of time, especially if I’ve made content dependent on “premium features”. Obviously it’s an immense privilege of mine to be able to drop 50+ bucks on RPG software, but I do not regret it one bit.

There’s too much to talk about with FoundryVTT, I’ll do another post on it at some point in the future. I’m not intentionally trying to be pithy when I say that it’s changed the way I run games for the better, and I’ve never had a complaint from one of my players about it. Everyone prefers it to Roll20. It’s a smoother experience, more feature rich, powered by open source contributions from a big community. It does everything that I want for a game engine, and I can’t see myself not using it anytime soon.

Watch this space for another, in-detail post.

Map-making

Wonderdraft

I love making maps. I’ve been making maps since I was a kid, and I make maps as an adult. For me, there’s a few things that a piece of mapmaking software needs to have.

  • A reliable, modern, low-learning curve UI.
  • A solid selection of drawing tools. It doesn’t need to be photoshop, but it needs to have firm fundamentals.
  • A sizable selection of high quality pre-drawn assets that share an art style.
  • Support for additional, imported assets
  • Preferably non web-based. Yes, I know this makes me sound like a luddite, but for drawing tools, I’ll always take a dedicated application on my PC over the hassle of a browser in the way.
  • A reasonable pricing structure.

Wonderdraft ticks all of these boxes. It’s cheap, purchasable through a trustworthy mechanism (Humble Bundle), and does everything I want from a global mapping tool. Where it begins to fall down is in the regional mapping scale (city details, county-level stuff) – I primarily use it for worlds and continents, and avoid doing things like city design in it. Here’s some stuff I’ve made in it:

A region I very imaginatively named “The Kingdom” before being told that was ridiculous, and renamed to “The Kingdom of Meridian” – far more reasonable.
Wizards and Druids who hate each other and fight over islands, mapped.

For the scale of map that I want to draw, it suits it perfectly. Naturally, it’s going to run into an issue (if you can call it that) of “same-face”, where you’ll realise that a lot of maps made in the software look similar. This is an advantage for maps made for the same world, but might be a bit weird if you’re trying to do a campaign with a very different vibe.

Dungeondraft

It’s Wonderdraft but for battle/dungeon scale maps. The UI is very similar (unsurprisingly), the layout/tech underlying it is very similar. It’s much more unstable than Wonderdraft, and much rougher around the edges – this is because it’s a much younger product. All of the requirements I listed above apply here, but there’s one incredible thing about Dungeondraft that puts it above other software I’ve used in the past.

It integrates beautifully with FoundryVTT due to the genius module of Dungeondraft Importer. This turns the normally annoying task of aligning a grid with a background PNG, sorting out lighting, line of sight things like walls and doors into a literal three-click job. Click Dungeondraft Import, select the .ddvtt exported format file, import as scene, done. This is so fast that I’ve actually managed to cook up maps in the software as my players were travelling to a location.

Are you going to get professional artist quality battlemaps? No. Are you going to get extremely servicable maps that don’t take hours to make? Yes. Here’s some examples:

Mushroomy, leafy cavern thing.
An entrance to a tomb, imaginatively named “The Tomb Entrance”. Ignore the white space, as the players can’t see that.

I think if you wanted to get more stylised maps, or more dramatic maps, you’re going to need to pick up a pen/paper/copy of illustrator. As I said, the only thing holding it back right now is the instability and bugs, which it has a few of. Save often.

Worldographer

https://i2.wp.com/worldographer.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/screenshot.jpg
“What the”

I know what you’re thinking. “That looks horrendous”. “Wait, between Dungeondraft and Wonderdraft, what’s this meant to do?”. Like many DMs, I am sometimes possessed by a powerful, destructive craving to do a hexcrawl campaign. This is a mapmaking tool that enables specifically that. I can sense your next question – “can’t you just create a map in Wonderdraft and put a hex overlay on it?”. Yes, and Wonderdraft actually includes that as a function. Note that I didn’t say this was a tool to enable hex-based maps, I said this was a tool to enable hexdrawl campaigns.

The reason you want to use this, is because you do not want to be thinking to yourself “is this beautifully rendered hex a marsh, or is it a swamp?”. You want that distinction to be clear, so that you can spend less time thinking about what a hex is meant to be, and more time thinking about what that hex, and the other four hundred million hexes on the map contain. Worldographer makes that distinction clear, painfully so, and gives you a load of other functions related to world-generation and notekeeping. There IS a free version of the software with some functionality removed (like notekeeping), so I’m not sure I’d suggest using the free version other than to test it out.

A map of mine, ignore the scrawling.

Misc

TokenTool*

This piece of software is just perfect. You know how I said that I’d much rather have eight tools that do their specific functions well? TokenTool is that, personified. What does TokenTool do? It puts borders on images. Does it do anything else? Not really. It can put backgrounds on them as well, solid colours, gradients or other images.

What makes it amazing? It behaves exactly as you would expect it would. Can you drag images into it? Yes. Can you copy and paste images into it? Yes. Can you copy and paste out of it? Yes (uh, at least, I think so). Do you have to download images to put them into it? No.

I use it to put specific backgrounds and borders on my tokens, and that’s all I use it for. Best of all, it’s completely free. Amazing.

yEd*

yEd - Graph Editor

Keeping on the theme of “incredibly specific software”, yEd is a graph editor. It allows you to create flowgraphs, which is incredibly useful for the more involved campaigns where you need to keep track of relationships, clues, whatever. I’ve used it for Call of Cthulhu, Dogs in the Vineyard, Monster of the Week and more. It’s a bit rough around the edges at times, and it’s not as shiny and friendly as something like Microsoft Visio (paid for) – but at least I don’t feel like I’m at work using it.

Is the UI really that old? Yes. It’s no frills, but often that’s what you want in something like a graph editor. It is considerably better than something like Google Drawings for this, and it’s free.

donjon.bin.sh*

Medieval Demographics and Tavern Generator

There should be some law akin to Godwin’s Law but for donjon. Something like, the longer a discussion of tools for TTRPGs continues, the likelihood of someone mentioning a donjon tool approaches one. Well, here we are, it’s done now.

I’m going to call out two of the tools that I use the most frequently, though in reality there’s probably something in there for everybody. The Tavern Generator is extremely good for when your players want to know about the other tavern in the town. You know the one. It’s not the one with your interesting NPCs, with your story hooks, with a bar brawl just waiting to burst out – because they didn’t like the name of the place (calling it the Gilded Goose? What were you thinking). It’s that other tavern, the one you’re furiously trying to will into existence with every neuron in your brain.

The Tavern Generator gives you that. Sometimes it goes a bit extra:

“Okay”

Otherwise, it gives you a perfectly sensible base with which you can offload some of that mental processing. Speaking of offloading mental processing: do you know how many buckle makers your town needs? No? Neither do I, but the Medieval Demographics Tool does. Is that going to be an important demographic for your town? Probably not, but it’s very useful for sanity checking what you’ve done already. If you’ve got a village of 500 people, having thirty guards is probably unreasonable. I wouldn’t suggest ever trying a campaign where you attempt to fit every single job that the tool suggests into a town, but it helps keep us on the straight and narrow.

In-Person

I usually consider myself a split 50:50 online vs in-person DM. I think there’s advantages and disadvantages to both, and hold them in different places in my heart. However, in-person right now has the disadvantage of “we’re in a global pandemic”, so this is a section for after that whole thing’s cleared up. A lot of this stuff is going to be so egregious that you might roll your eyes, but hey, people have the fancy silverware for when people come round for dinner, I have the fancy…orc…tokens.

Elgato Stream Deck

Marketing image of the stream deck buttons ascending into space.

I’m a huge fan of audio in my games. While people might wrinkle their noses at the idea of introducing “impure, physical things” into their astonishingly cerebral game, I am not above playing spooky background music when something spooky is happening. Previously when I DM’d in person, I would walk over to my PC, put on a youtube video of some music, then walk back. Yes, I bought this device to not have to do that. Please, give me a chance to redeem myself in your eyes.

There’s two things that the Stream Deck has, that make it perfect for me.

  • Programmable physical buttons to play/stop certain sounds.
  • The ability to add background images to those buttons.

This means that I can have a button on the deck that says “Carriage Noise” with a little icon of a carriage behind it. I press that button, and a looping sound file of carriage wheels on a road begin to play out of my speakers. The stream deck is small enough to fit behind my GM screen, which means that I can now play a sound as I describe something spooky happening! No longer is there an awkward pause as I stand up, walk over to my PC and play some music!

OK, sure, there’s more reasonable soundboard software that enables this if you’ve got a smartphone or a tablet. But I enjoy the physicality of the stream deck, and the simplicity of the setup (no internet connection required, among other things). This is so far down the “must have” list that it’s almost invisible, but don’t knock it.

Campaign Coins…Coins

Big Bag Ol Coins

I bought a bag of Trade Bars from this website a long time ago, and they’ve been a staple of my RPG cupboard ever since. Real metal, really lovely quality, great art. Have they been extremely useful? Not really, but they (like many of the other things I use) add a level of physicality that I adore. Nothing says “lecherous public official” like handing a player a bag of coins and asking them to do something unspeakable.

Bear in mind that these are coming all the way from Australia, so don’t expect speedy shipping.


That’s it for now. I also make extensive use of Google Docs and Sheets, but I imagine most people are capable of finding a word processor/note taking application that suits them, so I didn’t include it here. I also haven’t included anything to do with figures or miniatures – which probably requires a post on its own.

This is obviously going to be a living list, so I’m going to revisit it occasionally with minor additions. Otherwise, there you go.

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