After almost a year of running our current home campaign of Shackled City (D&D 3.5), and a little under a week away from starting a new homebrewn campaign at work (D&D 4), the time seemed appropriate to revise my collection of computer tools that I use to run my games.
In the past, I've been using one particular all-encompassing tool most often, and tested a few others that were much alike. Until recently, however, I realized that these tools didn't really help me improve my efficiency as a DM anymore. In the past, they used to, because they took care of all the nitty-gritty rules details for me, but since then I've grown and I've learned, so much so that I feel these tools are now holding back my creativity.
The features I need the most are the following (separated between 'planning' and 'playing'):
- Planning: a quick and clean way to write down ideas and inspiration, and still be able to go through them easily enough in the future
- Planning: a fast way to design maps, where the tool itself doesn't slow me down (otherwise, I could just use pen and paper)
- Planning: preferably some way to make the maps visually appealing
- Playing: a battle map
- Playing: a way to quickly find important PC and NPC stats
- Playing: a good overview of rules that can easily be searched (so I don't need to flip pages when looking up a rule)
- Playing: a batch dice roller, for rolling all players' saving throws at once, for example
- Playing: a flexible initiative tracker
So I've spent some time looking for a way to improve on these issues, and I think I'm almost there. Allow me to present you my suite of favorite tools (all of which are totally free, and system-independent).
To brainstorm on campaign and adventure creation, and to jot down ideas, I use a tool called Freemind, which is a freeware mindmapping tool. Mindmapping is ideal for this job, and Freemind does well what it's supposed to do.
Making maps goes through a number of tools. First, I create the basic idea and layout of the environment (dungeon, landscape, cityscape, etc.) in AutoREALM. This tool has some basic and a few advanced drawing capabilities, a nice collection of icons, and a system of layers that make rudimentary mapmaking quick and easy. Moving stuff around and relating all features to each other is a brease, which is ideal for the planning process of the maps.
AutoREALM has a few features that can improve your maps visually, but I personally find the resulting maps lacking appeal. Therefore, once the layout of my maps are satisfactory, I export them to GIMP (or even better: Adobe Photoshop, if you're rich), and start drawing over them. This is the hardest part, and takes some practice, tricks, and preferably a drawing tablet with a pressure sensitive pen, but it gives the best results. I might in the future make a blog post with some tips and tricks on this matter.
For campaign notes during play, I use the very simple, but very elegant KeyNote. It's just an rtf text editor, but with tabs and a tree-structure of notes. This allows me to neatly sort all rules summaries, PC and NPC stats, campaign notes, and more in a single file, with a nice overview and easy access. Unfortunately, the tool is no longer being supported, but the latest version has all I need.
Handling combat is done, for now, with Calc (it's the OpenOffice alternative of Microsoft's Excel, except it's totally free). It allows me to put a combatant with some info (like AC, hp, status effects, combat notes) on each line, and easily sort the whole initiative list when necessary. I might change to another tool for this, but for now I will try this one out.
Finally, showing maps to players is done with the ultimately cool MapTool from RPTools. It supports a client-server approach where the DM has his maps with fog-of-war, topology (i.e. obstacles that block player view), monster tokens to be moved around (and the possibility to show stats on mousing over those monsters), simple drawing tools which may or may not be visible to the players (DM's choice), a macro system that allows custom rolls to be made (rolling all PC spot checks and NPC hide checks at the same time, for example), and much more. This is by far the best tool I've ever seen, and it's constantly being improved on and new features are added.
Monster and player tokens (visual representations for the battle grid in MapTool) are created with the TokenTool. It's really fast, easy, and professional looking.
The only thing I'm still looking for, is a tool where I can link all my maps together (sort of like an interactive atlas), but MapTool (see above) might soon have that feature too.
The preparation tools have already been tested (and approved). I'm wondering how the playing tools will behave, but I already extensively used some of them (like MapTool and KeyNote) and I'm pretty confident the rest will do its job too. I just hope I won't fall into the trap of relying on them too much. I need to make sure I spend most of my attention on my players instead of my screen.