Many of us have started playing role-playing games in high school, college or university and made great friends along the way. As life goes on we might move away from those friends and miss the good times of gaming around the table. One way to get at least part of this feeling back is to use modern technology to meet virtually and play via the Internet. While this can be done easily with generic online tools like Skype, Discord and similar options, quite a few developers have picked up the idea and offer software products tailored to this specific purpose, going so far as incorporating rules and tools for specific games making the experience as smooth as possible.

Many of these incorporate tools for sharing and using maps – either just for visual reference or to replace a gaming surface where you would have moved miniatures on. This is where it becomes especially interesting to us map-makers, as Campaign Cartographer 3+ and especially Dungeon Designer 3 are supremely suited to producing the maps for these software tools. Therefore I want to take a look at the various options out there and how they handle maps. They are not in any significant order, perhaps a vague sense of general popularity.

roll20Roll20

Perhaps the most popular virtual tabletop option currently available, Roll20 is strongly aimed at d20-type games like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder and 13th Age, but can be used with any other games as well. A listed of directly supported system can be found here. Its map feature allows you to import floorplans (e.g. created with DD3) as battle maps, use character or monster images as tokens on the map (e.g. from the Token Treasury) and includes dynamic lighting functionality for the maps.

A basic Roll20 account is free of charge, but you can pay for more privileged access and many types of resources for the game.

Fantasy Grounds screenshotFantasy Grounds

Where Roll20 is a web-based application, Fantasy Grounds is a downloadable, stand-alone software, where one person is hosting with a GM account and the others join in with their client software. It has a very polished look with some beautiful design feature, like dice actually rolling across the virtual table, and also offers a large selection of different rules packages to choose from, which provide game-specific tools to facilitate the game.

Of course maps can also be imported into Fantasy Grounds, from overland maps to battle maps, including a grid feature to move virtual miniatures around. As you can set the size of the grid in Fantasy Grounds visually, it is very simple to add one on top of an existing Dungeon Designer 3 grid. But line of sight and dynamic lighting are limited.

Fantasy Grounds has a variety of pricing models, from a free demo version which lets you connect to a game hosted by someone with the most expensive version, to yearly subscriptions and one-time purchases.

d20Prod20Pro

Another commercial offering, d20Pro also concentrates on the d20 family of rules as the name suggests, but can be expanded to other rules systems. The official D&D license as well as Pathfinder support feature prominently on the website.

Its map feature provides line of sight and fog of war effects and – as usual – importing images as maps. It also links to its own web-based map editor – World Engine – allowing limited map creation on the fly.

D20Pro’s pricing structure is simple (and fairly low) with just a player and a DM version of the license and a 30-day free trial.

MapToolMapTool

Another option is the free (donation-supported) MapTool. It is open source and the community provides a variety of extras, but of course it doesn’t have the kind of focused, system-specific support that the commercial competitors offer. IT can be very powerful if you dive into the open source framework to build your own system-support from the ground up, but that is quite a commitment.

Its map part does offer automated line of sight and fog of war features, making it convenient to use as virtual battlemap platform, without going into the kind of financial commitment other tools require.

AstralAstral

Astral is a purely web-based application including a fairly powerful map-making option. It doesn’t have official support for specific game systems, but provides basic assets for typical games (D&D, Cthulhu) with pre-made templates.

The basic version of Astral is free, but you need to pay for more online storage space, as well as additional assets for map-making, ambient sounds, etc.

Other tools

There is a variety of smaller tools around, and the VTT Wiki is good place to get a list and check them out. Or see this comparison of different vtts on Taking20.

Campaign Cartographer 3+ is an outstanding tool that excels in helping cartographers, authors, artists, and hobbyists bring their ideas to life. I imagine we all know this well!

It’s also a fabulous tool for the well-prepared DM/GM, for creating homebrew maps or spawning maps for existing published content that better fit the needs of a particular gaming group. Drawing maps and exporting or printing them before a gaming session is a wonderful way to immerse your players in a tabletop roleplaying experience, whether you prefer “theatre of the mind” style combat or gridded battlemaps with miniatures.

But did you know that CC3+ is also an excellent tool during a gaming session? This article explores the many ways that DMs can use CC3+ as a “game-time”, not “design-time”, gaming aid.

Overview: CC3+ During Your Gaming Session

There are several advantages to using CC3+ to help power your next gaming session. Some of these require a bit of advance preparation; others can be used immediately no matter what maps you use.

1: Dynamic battlemaps for sprawling or unexpected encounters.
2: Easy-to-hide secrets.
3: In-person VTT capabilities.

Solution 1: Dynamic Battlemaps

If you’ve been a dungeon/game master for any length of time, you know that no matter how much you prepare, and how many different paths you predict and plan for, the players are going to do whatever they damned well please. While that element of surprise is arguably the best part of a tabletop RPG experience, it can also be very frustrating–not only for the GM who has to scramble madly to accommodate the unexpected, but for the players, who one minute are dealing with elaborately-drawn battlemaps and the next minute are using hastily-scribbled pencil drawings on a pizza box. (This latter example may sound extreme, but in middle school I resorted to drawing encounter maps on the lids of pizza boxes all the time. If my seventh-grade self could have seen what CC3+ made possible, he would have exploded in envy!)

Succinctly, then, the problem is, no matter how many different individual battlemaps you prepare ahead of time, PCs’ actual use of those in an encounter could very easily expand beyond the boundaries you drew. This is especially true in open-air or wide-space encounters: plains, wilderness, ocean, mountains, and expansive underground chambers and caverns.

How, then, can CC3+ help this phenomenon during a gaming session?

Simple: don’t export JPGs or print out battlemaps before a session. Use CC3+ to display the battlemap that applies, on-screen, DURING the gaming session.

I started using this approach during gaming sessions as an extension to my “Unified Battlemaps Approach” to drawing maps. You can check out a complete description , but essentially, instead of drawing individual battlemaps, you have a single, giant map file for an entire “level” or region of your game. Then, you zoom into pieces of it as areas of interest, and flesh them out with detail.

If you take this approach, you’ll end up with a massively-detailed regional map, and you can zoom into it for individual battlemaps. But even if you don’t take this approach, you can still use Dynamic Battlemaps during a gaming session using CC3+.

The approach involves the following steps:
1A: Create Named Views
1B: Use Named Views
1C: Zoom & Pan as Needed

1A: Create Named Views
Sure, you can use Zoom Window to get a close-up on a particular map region. But if you have certain areas of interest you know the PCs will have encounters in, you can save yourself some time by creating Named Views, so you don’t have to draw the zoom window precisely during a game session.
Mine Level 6 Overview Continue reading »