Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sweet Spots for the Time-Crunched Gamer: MapTool

If you're reading this blog your probably a person with a family and career who has difficulty finding time and opportunity to game. For me, gaming is less about rules and more about the magic that happens when a group of three or more highly creative gamers share a few hours of imaginative fun. I run demo games for complete strangers, and from that sample, I can tell you I'm not alone.

From my introductory post, you know I've gamed for a long time with the same group. As distance or other chronological pressures prevented face-to-face gaming, I found other avenues to pursue my most favored hobby. In this article I'm going to discuss my current primary gaming tool, MapTool.

MapTool is one of several open source projects on, headed by Trevor Croft. He and his friends needed a way to game remotely and so created a Java program to share battle maps with remote players. Being good netizens they decided to share the code with others. They opened an online forum to respond to other gamers who used their tool. I don't think they ever imagined the product's eventual popularity.

Today, MapTool's functionality is driven by user requests. The software is part of an open source project, meaning if you had the desire and skill, you could download the code base, make modifications, and have your own version of the tools. Why would any developer devote so much time and effort just to give it away to others for free? There are books on the subject, but simply stated, the open source developers desire to give back to the community at large. The community responds by continuously hounding said developers for new functionality. For some reason, it works.

I remember joining the forums and making a feature request that showed up the following week. From that point on, I was hooked. While I don't contribute much in the way of code, I do spend a good deal of time on the forums responding to questions and participating in discussions of MapTool features. I also inflict that latest development build on my players forcing them to find bugs to report so that MapTool becomes a better and better product.

MapTool is system agnostic, meaning it doesn't care what game you're playing. Community contributers also participate by creating game system "frameworks." A framework is a campaign file that contains macros and properties designed to configure MapTool for use with a specific game system. At the time of this writing, there are 17 separate frameworkson the forums.

There are entire affiliate websites devoted to MapTool functionality. Describing the clicks and characters needed goes beyond the scope of this article, but if you are unfamiliar with the product, then I suggest checking out theMapTool Screencast Tutorials. MapTool can support a lot of functionality depending on how you decide to use it. I'll stick with the simplist use case for the remainder of this article.

At its core, MapTool shares files and updates token locations and properties across a network during a game session. So, per the name, you'll need a map. There are several ways to accomplish this.
  1. You can create it using an image stored on your computer.
  2. You can draw one within MapTool using an included set of drawing tools.
  3. You can drop tiles and objects on the map from files located on your computer.
Next you'll need some tokens to drop on the map. These can be images from anywhere. Normally folks use TokenTool to create these. You tell MapTool where to find this directory then drop the tokens from the map explorer directly onto the map. If using TokenTool, you can drag-and-drop the tokens directly from TokenTool and onto a map in MapTool.

Note: MapTool allows you to list your server in an online directory that displays a list of all active servers. Other users can browse for a particular server name and double-click that listing to connect directly to it. The server can specify a password for a player and/or GM to connect remotely.
Believe it or not, that's all a GM really needs to know to use MapTool. You simply start the server, ask your friends to connect and start to game.

After your friends connect, you'll want a way to share dice rolls. MapTool has a chat panel built in for sharing in-game conversation and dice rolls. Most gamers use voice-over-IP (VoIP) services or software (e.g. - Skype, Ventrillo, or Teamspeak) in addition to MapTool but I run a fair number of games utilizing chat only. But unless you're gaming face-to-face you'll probably want the dice rolls showing up in the chat panel.

To roll a die in MapTool you enclose a code with square brackets. To roll a six sided die you simply type [d6]. To roll four six sided die you type [4d6]. You can embed this with surrounding text if you like. Thus if I type:
/me attacks the pointy-eared, poofter Elf with a roll of [d20]
into the chat window it comes out as:
RPTroll attacks the pointy-eared, poofter Elf with a roll of 19
Easy as a troll walking through a hobbit village after an all-night hobbit booze-up.

MapTool supports many of the old IRC slash commands such as /me /say /whisper as well as commands like /roll /rollme /rollgm. Users can add a fair bit of HTML and a small amount of CSS to format chat output with tables, spans, headings and the like. There's a huge number of rolling options, and MapTool has its own macro language for looping, branching and manipulating token properties. All the frameworks available are written in the macro language.

 Speaking of token properties, you can define your own allowing individual tokens to have property values such as D&D's ability scores. You can then access these properties via the square bracket syntax to do things like:
Gungar has a Strength of [Strength]
Of course you don't want to have to type that every time so you can assign macros to buttons in one of four different macro types. Macros are complex for the newbies so I'm not going to get into that here. If you want more information than you'll ever use, check out the fan made RPTools Documentation Wiki for more details.

I owe MapTool and its developers a great debt. After years without gaming, I found a way to get together with the old gang. I now game on a weekly or bi-weekly basis thanks to the efforts of Trevor and others so MapTool is No. 1 on my list of Gaming Sweet Spots.

(This article originally appeared in The Dice of Life.  Additional editing by Rob Miller and/or Kristian Serrano)

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