Leaves are falling all around, it’s time I was on my way.
Thanks to you, I’m much obliged for such a pleasant stay.
But now its time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way.
For now I smell the rain, and with it pain, and its headed my way.
– “Ramble On”, Led Zeppelin
I’m an older gamer. Old enough so that when I originally said gamer people figured it was either RPG-ing or wargaming, not video games. I’m starting to creep up towards 40 years of age. My first gaming group was in the Howard Whitmore library in Naugatuck, CT. I was in middle school. I’d gotten the D&D game but I had no one to play with. So I had a signup for a gaming group. My first group was made up of total strangers. But many of those strangers went on to become friends throughout middle and high school – one I’ve recently re-encountered on Facebook.
As the years passed my life changed. Gaming in middle and high school was easy. I managed to play in the occasional game back in college. But after college life changed. I got married, I moved from Connecticut to Massachusetts. Through friends of friends I managed to first join a gaming group then form my own new group, made primarily of people in their late 20s and early 30s. But the real world intruded on this group too. People moved away, got married, had kids. Eventually the group diminished to near nothingness.
Deciding I still liked this gaming think, I went full circle and posted online openings for new players. Much to my surprise this worked out well. This new group has had some turnover. One of the players, oddly enough, moved to Connecticut. But he wanted to keep gaming with us. All of us in the group being techies we managed a simple system – Yahoo! Messenger with voice, webcam over the battlemat. This arrangement worked for a while but there were some issues – it was awfully hard for him remotely to keep up with things – especially as the miniature figures went dancing all over the table. It got even more problematic as we began playing Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. D&D 4e is a very tactical game. Where you are and how you move matters a great deal. Some people hate this sort of gaming. I have to confess I thought I would as well, but we tend to have a blast with it. This isn’t to say I sometimes have an itch for a less tactical game – like AD&D or Wild Talents.
As it became more and more frustrating, we decided we’d look for a better solution. We looked into a bunch of online applications designed to share a map across multiple computers. Adding to the complexity is the fact that yours truly is primarily a Mac user (at least at home – at work I use a bunch of platforms – PC, Solaris, Linux, etc.) In the end we decided on the application called MapTool (which is a part of the RPTools suite). The RPTools website can be found at http://www.rptools.net/. MapTool had a number of factors in its favor:
- It was a Java app which made it platform independent.
- It allowed one computer to host and the others to connect to it (i.e. no need to depend on a corporate or volunteer server).
- It didn’t care what sort of game you played (while it is obviously geared towards D&D 3.x any game would work with it)
- It doesn’t care what sort of map you use – you import an image file of it, set the scale, and you are good.
- Counter/token creation is simple (using their Tokentool Java app).
- There is an easy way to hide/reveal portions of the map as the GM.
- It’s free.
I first did some experimenting on my MacBook Pro. The app had to be started from a Mac Terminal – a lot like a Windows Command Window or an xterm. The package I had installed had a Mac startup script. I ran into some problems with it. Being a software engineer it was easy to find the problem – Unix and Windows tend to use different mechanisms to terminate lines and it looked like the startup script had Windowisms that was confusing the Unix terminal (each line was terminated with a ctrl-M character). I used a script to parse the file and strip those ctrl-Ms. Then I was able to run easily.
In the adventure we are currently playing I’d creating a map using Profantasy’s Campaign Cartographer 3. I opened this map up on my Mac (it’s a PC-only app so I was using VMware’s Fusion app for a virtual machine – my employer EMC owns a majority stake in VMware so there’s some employee loyalty there – plus it’s a very good product, at least in my opinion). I saved the map as a JPEG file. I then imported it into MapTool. That proved to be easy as was scaling the map properly. I did a little bit of tinkering to determine the optimal detail the image file needed.
I did a little more tinkering to expose my MapTool app to the internet – really just a matter of enabling port forwarding on my router for one speecific port. The rptools website has lots of tutorials, both for config and use, which made this easy and MapTool had a utility to test to see if the computer could be reached from the outside.
On the night of our first session using the tool, we had a little bit of a surprise – one of the regulars was sick and couldn’t make it – but wanted to try out the remote service as well. That meant we’d have two remote people and at my house there’d be me and two more. We tried Yahoo! Messenger conference call with voice but the sound quality was unacceptable. One of the remote players suggested an internet voice/video app called ooVoo. That worked like a dream. We had a three-way video and audio conference up in no time and the quality was excellent.
We then fired up MapTool. I had my Mac function as the server. The two remote players connected. Also, one of the local players had brought a laptop so that he and the other physical player could see a player version of the map. Getting the session started was incredibly easy. I’d say the first half hour was very awkward as we got a feel for the application. But after that we were all competent enough to use it. I wasn’t using any super-advanced features – i.e.. no light sources, individual vision for each session, etc. I did use the “Fog of War” tool to hide sections of the map from the players until they reached them. And I did use an initiative tool to keep track of initiative – that was a dream, since as a DM I sometimes forget to have monsters act… I have to say we had a blast. It worked well at the house, the remote players felt fully engaged and part of the session. The player who is usually remote really got to enjoy the game in a way he hadn’t since he lived locally. Everyone saw the same board and had the same controls.
There were a few things I’d note:
- We all found it a little awkward that to scroll the map you dragged it by right-clicking. We’ll probably get used to it.
- I really would have liked to have had an LCD projector at my house for the people who were local. We’ve talked about getting a cheap monitor to hook-up to a local player’s notebook, but locally using notebooks worked fine.
- Everyone needs to be running the same version of MapTool.
- It may have been a good night on the internet or something, but latency was no problem for any of us. There was no noticable delay. All the more impressive considering the streaming audio and video.
If you’re in a situation like my group is in, with some or all of the players remote, RPTools has an excellent suite to simulate the tabletop experience. I strongly endorse it.