Game Mastering with a Video Table

SPOILER ALERT: This blog entry contains some minor spoilers from the D&D 5th Edition Curse of Strahd adventure published by Wizards of the Coast.

Saturday, May 7, 2016: The day that I started GMing for the very first time.

Okay, I’ve actually been GMing for more than thirty years, and I’m probably being a bit on the dramatic side but holy crap running a game using a video table is so incredible. Prior to Saturday, May 7, 2016: The day that I started GMing for the very first time, I was an avid user of my 12-tile set of Tact-Tiles that I picked up at Dragon Con probably ten or twelve years ago. I also have two copies of every set of D&D Dungeon Tiles that Wizards of the Coast manufactured.

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image used from www.voidstarstudios.com

And it seems like only yesterday that I considered my Tact-Tiles and Dungeon Tiles and variety of miniatures was the best possible experience. *sigh* To be young and naive.

Our group put together a video gaming table for surprisingly cheap. The table itself was already hand-built by one of our players, and we gamed on it every week for the the past seven or eight years. We tore the granite tiles off the table and inset an inexpensive oCosmo 40″ 1080p LED TV from Newegg (when our group purchased the set it was $199.99, but as of the time of this writing it is priced at $244.99). After refinishing the tabletop with wood, we mounted a surge protector to the underside of the table. And bam, our table was complete.

Originally, we were going to put a layer of tempered glass over the set for additional protection, but testing showed that even a relatively thin piece caused pretty dramatic perceived displacement of the minis (i.e., from above the screen looking down a mini would be directly on a square, but when you sit down and view from an angle, the mini appears a significant distance from where it actually sits). So we decided just to be cautious when interacting with the set and play sans glass.

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My DM command center before the players arrive

When we play board games or otherwise need to have an unbroken surface, we have a removable wood insert that covers the TV set. It rests on the bezel of the TV, and when in place is flush with the rest of the table.

MapTool

The software that I use to run the game is called MapTool. It is a free, open-source program that is part of the RPTools suite. It’s generally intended as an Internet virtual tabletop, but it works beautifully for our in-person game. MapTool is not very resource intensive. I run two instances of it (one as the GM copy and one as the player copy) on my seven-year-old Windows laptop and it runs smoothly without a hitch.

I set up my maps in advance and add fog of war (see pictures below), and reveal areas manually as the characters open doors, go around corners, move obstructions, etc. If you use virtual minis and designate visual obstructions on the maps, MapTool will do the revealing for you. But we like using the real minis on top of the screen, and designating visual obstructions on the maps is a bit time consuming. Note that you can create maps with MapTool, and designating visual obstructions might be much easier, but I import maps as images.

And since a picture is worth a thousand words, I won’t babble on any longer. Here are some images from one of the evening’s battles. In closing, if you have been toying with the idea of making your own video table, please pull the trigger and do it. It really is quite amazing. You can put battle maps (many free and very inexpensive maps are available at sites like DriveThruRPG), city maps, regional maps, images of locations/NPCs/monsters, and all manner of visual enhancements on the screen.

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The DM view (on the laptop screen) lets me see everything. The player view (on the video table screen) blacks out whatever is designated with fog of war.

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The characters gather outside of the coffin maker’s shop in Vallaki in Curse of Strahd. Note that both the first and second floors of the shop are obscured with fog of war.

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Norros the barbarian enters the main room of ship. I subsequently uncovered the fog of war over that room.

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The players collaborate as they battle vampire spawns at the coffin maker’s shop.

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A close-up shot of the battle vs. vampire spawns at the coffin maker’s shop.

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Our gaming room.

 

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8 Responses to Game Mastering with a Video Table

  1. Very nice. Always interesting to see how other people use Maptool. All my gaming friends are spread around the country/world so we use it remotely. Still, very jealous of your lovely table 😉

  2. As David says, I’m also thrilled to see how other folks use MT. I don’t currently run a game, but when I did it was remote (as David’s is) and we played with each player having their own view of the map! Basically, this means that the fog of war is separate for each player, just as it should be for the characters in the world! MT isn’t perfect, but it solves a tremendous number of table top issues. And it’s 100% free and always will be. 🙂

    • Wow, it’s a real thrill to have Frank Edwards commenting on my blog! Thanks for the kind words.

      The idea of characters each having their own customized view of the game world is definitely an appealing one. There are some aspects of remote play that are actually better than playing in person around the same table. But I’m a dinosaur and will always favor in-person play.

      As a programmer myself, I have been toying with the idea of putting something simple together for iOS that imports a map, allows the GM to put fog of war on it, and displays a player version either via AirPlay or the lightning port. It would allow me to get my bulky old laptop off the table, and focus just on the aspects of the map software that I need.

      • As Lee says below, separating the interface will be important. It shouldn’t be too hard right now to grab a copy of the map from the server. The remote interface would need to be based on the static map image with token coordinates, with proper caching so the map image doesn’t need to be resent on every refresh. A tiling system similar to what Google Maps uses would be the best way to go, but MT isn’t currently set up for that.

        Question for you: how do you handle scrolling the map? This is the thing that has bothered me the most about this type of setup. I thought of putting a piece of movable Mylar on the table and dragging that around so that relative distances between figs would stay the same, but how big a sheet do you put down? And when you move it too far to one side, it starts getting in the way… Anyway, just curious.

        And as Lee says, “Sweet table!” Someone has some nice carpentry skills. 🙂

      • Interesting question about the scrolling, Frank. Last Saturday was our first time using the table. There was only one combat for the evening (we did mostly RP and investigation and story development that night), and for the one combat the map fit fully on the screen.

        As Lee mentioned below, it is certainly possible that we may migrate to tokens instead of minis. I will keep this page updated based on our experiences with scrolling.

        If we do end up going in that direction, I would need to do some poking around on how to designate things that block line of site so the LoS/FoW functionality works.

        I find it unlikely that I would be using MapTool to actually create maps. At present, I’m running Curse of Strand and I purchased the map pack from Mike Schley’s website. For my own original stuff, I make my maps in Campaign Cartographer 3.

  3. Lee Foster says:

    Nice setup! We’ve been using a TV inset into a table as well for a few years now (started with a projector). As TV’s become cheaper and cheaper, I think we’ll start seeing more and more of this! We also started with mini’s but quickly scrapped those and just went with tokens so the maps could freely move and fully use LoS/FoW.

    Feel free to stop by the forums and discuss your iOS ideas. I’ve also given thought on how to disconnect the “map” UI for simple display/token movement in a web page. JavaFX now gives some more flexibility on this front and something I’m looking into…

    And BTW, very nice table! I like the two tones and the finish!

    • Thanks so much for the kind words. You’re so right about the price of TVs. Now that 4K sets are coming down in price and spreading in popularity, it seems like they’re practically giving the 1080p sets away.

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