Unplugged: Computer Assisted RPGs

fantasy groundsYou can play RPGs on your computer, sitting alone in front of a screen, or you can play face to face RPGs assisted by your computer and enjoy all the fun of hanging with your friends for a casual evening of fun.  Ever since computers went mainstream, gamers have tried to find ways to use their computers to make life easier for playing pencil and paper role playing games.  We’ve come a long way my friend, and now there are options aplenty.  While it seems there is not yet a global panacea for the problem, there are a few applications that can add to your next gaming session.

Today we’ll take a look at four specific applications.  Two, Fantasy Grounds and Realm Works, try to ease the burden for GMs (game masters, who prepare the story and run the opponents).  Campaign Cartographer 3+ provides powerful, Photoshop style tools and options to quickly create elegant maps, and Syrinscape provides an interesting take on a way to bring sound effects to your next RPG session.


Fantasy Grounds by SmiteWorks

Topping the interest charts is Fantasy Grounds, due to their recent announcement of integration with the newest version of Dungeons and Dragons, the 5th edition.  Fantasy Grounds focuses on providing a virtual tabletop for players to use either at the table or online for “telecommuting” one’s RPG experience.  To this end, the program  has many features that allow for a GMs and players to move tokens around on maps, interact using combat rules, and generally to accommodate much of the rules-oriented aspects of the game for a session via videoconferencing.  The software’s best features lie with in-game management of combat and other in-game challenges.  Players and GMs can manage changes in their status and use online map functions to assist with exploration.  The GM can set up encounters complete with maps and stats for the enemies and manage the results of combat on the fly (either all online, or as players play at the table.)  My favorite aspect of the current setup is the ability to purchase a complete “package” for a given game module which comes pre-loaded with all the necessary maps, encounters, and enemy statistics.  This is a great time saver, helping GMs more easily handle mundane chores like common combat information.

fantasy grounds player

Gamers can buy a license (or subscribe monthly) to use the software as a player or as a GM.  Alternatively, one person can buy higher-end licenses that allow any number of players to use the free version of the program when they play.  In addition to some modest support of common game rules like Pathfinder, D&D 3.5, 4th, and 5th editions, d20, Fate, and Savage Worlds (if you recognize any of those), GMs can purchase licenses which will have much of that system’s options pre-loaded. The 5th edition D&D is, of course, the biggest news since this is the first computer app that supports the 5th edition rules set.

While the program does a very nice job of table-side management, I was not a fan of the outside the game management.  Yes, it was great when combined with pre-prepared modules, but I found the user interface for creating new characters or monsters exceptionally tedious.  To create a character, one must continually pop up new windows (often several windows deep) and then drag your selection over to the character window.  No drop-down options in sight.  It is very tedious and almost made me want to just make a character on paper and then type it in.

As it stands, Fantasy Grounds stands out as an excellent implementation for online (or even just computerized) game sessions.  I wish the user interface were better at times.  And as things stand at present, it is the only game in town with a 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons license.


Realm Works and Hero Lab – from Lone Wolf Development

Realm Works focuses in on campaign management, rather than on gameplay assistance, and Hero Lab is Lone Wolf’s answer for character creation and management.  With those two focuses, the company does well.  Hero Lab is pretty easy to use and allows players to quickly generate a character of any level and can then use the program (or a free iPad app) to manage one’s player character at a game session.

realmworks page

Realm Works, on the other hand, is targeted at GM’s who want an easier way to manage the information generated over the course of an entire campaign.  The bells and whistles are all here, with ways to create entries of people, monsters, maps, and places and link them all together for quick reference.  A GM can even set up which information can be accessed by the players, either during play or on the online cloud servers (useable with a moderate subscription).  A GM can even set up a computer with dual monitors to show the limited player information (maps with fog of war or character pictures) without revealing all the information (secret items or areas on the map, or a given person’s statistics.)  The program also allows a GM to visualize significant links between people, organizations, etc… in order to keep track of important relationships.  It can even “automatically” generate previous session summaries to distribute to players at the start of each session.  Unlike Fantasy Grounds, Realm Works is pretty much system independent.  That means it can be used with any system, but also means that it is trickier to keep game statistics closely matched to the database.

However, Hero Lab provides this ability in spades.  It is easy to use and has a wealth of options.  It does suffer from the somewhat prohibitive costs of this type of software.  While the base Hero Labs package comes with the basic rules for one role playing system (of your choice), additional systems cost extra.  This isn’t too prohibitive, but GMs and players who extensively use the newest modules and supplements will find themselves needing to frequently fork over additional money for the add-ons.  At present, Hero Labs covers a wide range of rule sets, including Pathfinder, 4th Edition D&D, Fate, Savage worlds, and more (one can even create a home-brew system with a bit of work.)  Notice it does not currently cover 5th edition D&D.

Campaign Cartographer 3+ – by ProFantasy

No good adventure is complete without maps, and if it is maps you want, Campaign Cartographer is one of the best around.  Gamers who have strong “Photoshop-Fu” may not need a mapping-specific program, but the rest of us can make good use of CC3+, as it is called.  The main program allows one to create indoor and outdoor maps using icons or, particularly nice, vector graphics.  Using vector graphics to create a map is extremely useful as a map can be scaled up or down to cover large and small areas of exploration and still “look good.”

campaign cartographer 3+

It is a very powerful program, but all that comes at a price.  As with high end drawing programs like Photoshop, there is a learning curve.  Not a great program for simple cut and paste mappers (although it isn’t bad, and has some bells and whistles), it excels if one is willing to learn the moderately archaic way of interacting with things.  For example, rather than selecting a thing and then performing an operation, one decides on the operation and then selects the object.  Apparently this is common in CAD software but can be a rude awakening for the rest of us.

Despite the somewhat steep learning curve, once a user is past the basics the program can be quite powerful, helping you quickly create a nice looking map.  Users who want to go further can wring out even more impressive results, but that isn’t for everyone.  I tend to piggyback onto the developments posted by a fairly active user base, who can provide advice on specific settings or video tutorials on how to get the most out of specific features.

The “plus”  in the name is the newest development.  CC version 3 has been around a few years, but it has just been revamped to run much faster (even with all the bells and whistles visually turned on.)  It is a bit easier to use, with menu functions more accessible, although the underlying style of use still needs a user to “get it” before things make the most sense.  Finally, the new version has also added in some new Photoshop style effects so even the Photoshop folks might want to take a look.  (And as their literature likes to mention, they do offer a refund guarantee if you are on the fence and aren’t quite sure it’s the thing for you.)

The program isn’t for everyone, and takes a little bit of work to get up to speed.  I’m not a heavy user by any means, but didn’t find it taking too long until I was up and running and having fun making my own cool looking maps.   That’s the beauty of the program.  While I have the ability to learn some of the basic ins and outs of a new program, I do not have the artistic ability to create nice maps from scratch.  I’m usually quite impressed with myself whenever I finish making a map in the program.



And now for something completely different, Syrinscape is a company that specialized in providing soundtracks for your role playing game.  This might seem a bit odd, but isn’t too far out of left field since soundtracks are common in movies, TV, and even used to inspire athletes in their workout.  Why not have a soundtrack for an inspiring speech or epic combat in your role playing game?  Things would be useful, but rather mundane if Syrinscape had simple soundtracks you could loop in the background while you play the game.  However, the program goes way, way further.


GMs can use the Syrinscape features to modify the soundtrack on the fly to better model the development of the game.  Lets take the example of a dragon attacking a town.  On the default setting, there is a bit of background chatter, some animal noises, a bit of music from the bar, etc…  Clicking on the next sound sequence brings up the sounds of a dragon battle, complete with roars and the sound of burning.  The final example sequence has lower level chatter, burning buildings, some wailing in the distance.  This variation on a theme is pretty cool, but one can change (via sliders) the volume of each individual element of the scene!  Feel like more “roaring” from your dragon?  Adjust the slider.  Too much music in your morning?  Adjust the slider.  To top things off, there are quick-buttons on the side to let you one-off specific effects.  Hit the right button and you get out a dragon roar,crumbling building, spell effects like fireball, weapon impacts, and (of course) the ooh and ahh of the crowd reactions.  I doubt anyone was thinking “hey, I would love to be able to dj mix the background noises in my next role playing session”, but now that Syrinscape has shown me what can be done, the idea just got a lot more tempting.


Not a piece of software, or even an app, the electronic Dragon+ magazine was just announced for both iOS and Android devices.  Dragon+ is essentially Wizards of the Coast’s newest venture into support for their Dungeons and Dragons role playing game.  Dragon+ is an electronic magazine that one can access on the magazine app of their mobile device.  The first issue is free, and the subscription method seems to imply future issues will also be free.  While I peruse the regular articles posted up on Wizard’s site, I do look forward to having access to a more periodical style of articles.  No big groundbreaking information, but a simple pointer to something big D&D fans may want to check out.


Final Thoughts:

Paper and pencil role playing is a great creative activity, for the players as well as the GM running the show.  While designing and running a long running game can be fun, it’s always nice to have some tools by one’s side to either ease the burden or put that extra special “splash” to make a session more memorable.

One Response to “Unplugged: Computer Assisted RPGs”

  1. In the last few months I’ve been looking for a “GM toolbox” of just this sort of thing. I’ve seen other posts of the same thing, but none of them had the exactly the tools I was looking for, this has given me exactly what I have been looking for, and I’m always on the lookout for more tools to put in it. If you haven’t checked out The City of Brass, definitely check it out. I find that more superior to Realm Works only for the fact that it’s web based and it’s available on any device whereas Realm Works is only available on computer, and The City of Brass let’s you roll from the web page as well as update content on the fly. But, I must add, to give props to Realm Works, as I purchased a copy for myself despite liking TCoB better after getting into the beta. Props must go to LWD.

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