Software I Use For RPGs

I use a dual-boot Windows XP Home and Ubuntu Linux system. My computer is very old for a computer nerd, nearly 8 years old, but since I mostly use Linux, it runs a LOT faster than Windows and does not slow down with age. (This may be the year we get a new computer.)

My number one tool is the programmable text editor, NoteTab Pro. It is a Windows program, but runs just fine in Linux via Wine. I keep text files and outlines with lots of my information. I also have customized clips (NoteTab scripts) for generating random names. I used another tool to generate 1,000 names for each of a variety of cultures, real and fantasy. My clip then uses those lists to pick a random name. I have it try again until it picks a name I want. I also have clips to help me build NPCs, Kingdoms, etc. I keep adding to the capabilities of the Clip Library, but it still has too many rough edges to share. It is hard to find enough time to build the campaign — I get caught up in building the tools.

Next would be Open Office. I mainly use Calc, the Excel equivalent, to do what I need with spreadsheets. Open Office is available for Windows, Unix, Linux, and Mac. It can save directly to PDF, which is handy if you have to use Windows. I saw two interesting articles on using spreadsheets for timelines, in this case Googledocs, and for maps (floorplans), just in the past week.

On Linux, one can print to a file, and choose pdf without having to set up another driver to do this like in Windows. The easy way to do this in Windows is with CutePDF. It is a free print driver that lets the user save a PDF of anything they can print, to the directory  of their choice.

For graphics it is Gimp, the free graphics editor, which is available for Windows and many other OSes. I have fiddled with my campaign map which I got on the computer using my camera on a tripod, since my scanner is broken. My camera is now out of commission. It is over 6 years old. I can get a 5 megapixel camera for a lot less than I paid for this one. (Sometime after summertime expenses for the family.)

For web browsing, I use Firefox. It too, is a program with native versions for many OSes. I like its tabbed interface, which I have used for over 11 years with NoteTab. I often end up with a few dozen tabs with the various topics I research. I like the ability to save a group of tabs together, so I can re-open all of them at once. It makes it easy to go on the side tracks of research, but not lose your original place. I also like the customizability of all the add-ons. NOTE: I switched to Chrome a few years ago, due to speed issues with Firefox. I was reluctant, but don’t miss it.

I have a couple of one-page wikis, such as ten foot wiki, that I am evaluating to help organize my information. Using such wikis online requires having them secured and backed up regularly to prevent malicious or accidental loss of information. The nice thing is that they can be used locally for the DM to keep all his notes in one place if he has a fast enough computer to handle it. The drawback is no power. The advantage of pen and paper is that you can play by candle light, or the light of a campfire, as my group did in high school, when we stayed at a friend’s house “in the country”. We would beat on each other with sticks for swords. We learned about padding our weapons from an SCA guy at the local Renaissance Festival, and had a few less bruises.

When I started with Basic D&D in 1978, computers were a novelty no one I knew could afford. The well-to-do families had the first Atari game systems. My high school had one Apple II, that we occasionally got to play a Star Trek game, there might have been a couple other games. And we had to write a ten line program to do square and cube roots. It was either my junior or senior year in the 1981-83 time frame that we finally got a TI 99-4A. In college, I was in the first group of freshmen that did not have to use punch cards. It was not until the mid 90s that I had a computer of my own that I was able to type up all my character and other information. I still do maps by hand. I suppose if I had a Wacom Tablet, that might meet my needs. The one thing about us “old-school” gamers is that we can spend a lot less money to have fun. If I had all the game systems and other fancy toys my boys have, I would never have gone outside as a kid. I certainly would never have been bored.

My brothers and others in our game group talked about having computers networked together so that each person only saw things from his character’s perspective, but the GM could see it all. We should have patented that idea, since WOW and others have done it. Oh well. Since those online games require a monthly infusion of cash, I have steered clear of them. RPGs are a big enough time sink if one is not careful. It is all too easy to lose track of the time when engrossed in a project on the computer.

The nice thing about using computers with gaming is that you can consolidate a lot of information in a small space and still read it, all without getting writer’s cramp. I am slowly consolidating all my information so that I only have one binder for my characters, and another for my campaign.

Now there are all kinds of programs for running RPGs online. It is hard not to have that face-to-face. I think I could do a game like that if I could do it with the group I used to play with all the time. If you know each other, such things would be easier. I do have online friendships with people around the world, but playing an RPG online seems quite difficult. I may give it a try sometime, since finding a local group has not yet born fruit. The one benefit is that you don’t have to worry about your wife not approving of the people coming to your house. My wife is not OK with the whole gaming thing, so I have not introduced my kids to it. I think after all our years of marriage, I have finally convinced her that it is not evil, in the sense of all the sensationalism of the 1980’s. The only kinds of games my wife likes are board games and card games.

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Forgot The Clue

Another time I DM’d I had an adventure that started in town with a festival/carnival, and one of the major NPCs with the festival was actually the bad guy. The clue was the way he laughed. However, it was not until the party was in the dungeon that I realized that when I go to the note about using this laugh in the dungeon, I had not given them the clue in town.

In my inexperience, I gave it away by describing the laugh in exacting detail, as one they heard at the carnival, so it was a give away that ruined the fun of the players figuring it out.

There are just certain things you cannot forget in an adventure when you are a DM, especially when it is one that you designed yourself.

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First Is The Favorite

All of the online discussion I have followed the last several months about Old School/4e/New School gaming got me to thinking.

My first exposure to Dr. Who was Tom Baker, Doctor number 4. As with most other fans of Doctor Who, my favorite is the one I first encountered.

With some exceptions, I think this informs a lot of the old/new debate. That to which we are introduced first, in a successful, and non-biased way, will tend to be our favorite. When a game or TV series is new, one tends to have a different perspective to those who come in on the middle.

For those of us who remember the enormous impact Star Wars (That’s episode IV to you young wippersnappers.) had upon our childhood/teenage years, that movie had a bigger impact than others, because it was first. Those of use who lived the movies in their historical order have a different perspective than our children who were toddlers & infants when the re-makes of the first three movies prepared the way for the final three movies. (Do you remember all the speculation in the 80’s about either a total of 6, 9, or 12 movies?) The special effects got better, and some argue are what carried the final three movies.

With D&D, my story begins with “Basic D&D”, a Blue box with a dragon on it. It had some funky dice in it. I still have the dice, they are chipped & worn. The d20 is nearly a sphere. the d4 is the only one I still use, but it is hard to read. It was an introduction to D&D and featured only up to level 3. The label of “Basic” led my brother and I and our eventual crowd of fellow players in our school to consider it old and poorly done. We were 13/14 years old in 1978, give us a break! When we got wind of Advanced D&D, that is where it was at. We were children of the space age, the children of the baby boomers, “Newer Is Better” was what we were all about.

The hardcover books, cool illustrations and better quality paper and type led us to feel that AD&D was the real deal. We bought all the books as they came out and read them with delight and quickly incorporated them into our games. At first $12.00 then $15.00 for a book, that was a lot of money for a teenager mowing lawns. At $10.00 a pop, and only 3 lawns, it took time to earn that money.

I think the more one has invested in time and expense also impacts which version one prefers.

I tend to favor the older rules since those are what I know so well, and have laid out a chunk of cash already. It is hard enough to get an opportunity to play, why shell out money for a new set of rules that change the way you have always done things?

I have never played 3e or 4e. I have not even taken the time to flip through the manuals at the local game shop. It does not grab my interest. Now, if I were 13 again, 4e, and possibly 3e, would be all I could easily find, and would probably think newer is better.

I have more of an emotional attachment to AD&D, but it is more than that. It is familiar, and I could play AD&D at a moment’s notice. When I hear all about feats, skills, multi-class, and other such terms, they are either new terms, or used differently than I learned them. There is a whole new jargon to learn.

I also played more than just D&D, but D&D is the one that capture my imagination, and the one that I think about the most. Rarely do I think of something and make a mental note, “Hey, that would be good to use in Boot Hill.” Partly, I think it is because the medieval style fantasy settings with their magic and other things that can never happen do more to capture my imagination. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big Science Fiction fan, but I am of a generation that has seen so many things become reality, such as a computer on every desk, and more than one computer in many homes. I remember when the year 2000 seemed a long way off and we wondered what it would be like. There are lots of neat gadgets, cable is common and relatively inexpensive, and via the net, one can communicate around the world in an instant. Those changes have taken the edge off the unknown of the future. While it is not yet reality, many things are not far from becoming reality. Although we still do not have a flying car in every garage.

This is similar to computer games. Sports games and things like The Sims and Second Life do not interest me. Why pretend to do and be something that I already do everyday? Well, sports games do not interest me because I don’t like some of those things in reality, and the ones I do like are more fun in reality. Now fighting the alien hordes, or exploring the depths of space are things I will never do. The same is what hold my interest with D&D — fighting an orc invasion, gaining a treasure, or casting spells to overcome a challenge.

The appeal of D&D is that we can be the hero and be admired by our fellow players for how we play our heroes and their exploits. We can do the things that only action heroes in big budget movies can do, all for a few dollars here and there.

The rules each of us choose are the ones that best suit our needs and the group(s) with which we play. For me it is AD&D, and all the OD&D and other retro-clones make more source material available for lots of ideas. More rules-neutral resources would have more traction for the broadest base of players. If you are a player/DM with a strong grasp of your chosen rules framework, you can take any resource and run with it.

I must be honest and label myself a grognard. I do not need lots of new monsters and magic, when I have not managed to run into all the creatures in the original Monster Manual during all the games I’ve played in over the years, let alone MMII, FF, etc. What I need are ideas to help me be a better gamer, either as a player or DM. The fight over old/new school is like the old vi/emacs debate. Everyone is right and everyone is wrong. Be honest about your ‘drothers, but get on with it and get to the common ground of tips, tricks, ideas, etc.

Those who point out that having fun is the most important part are right. We need to “man up” and not be like the dreaded little league coach or parent who thinks they know it all, and ruin it for the kids. It’s just a game after all! Kids have to pay to play, it’s not like they’re being paid millions of dollars just to play a game.

I must admit watching sports does not catch my interest, but RPGs and D&D in particular do. But I try not to be annoying with my interest of RPGs the way many sports fans I know who are annoying with their constant talk of stats and legendary feats. I’m just glad the gamers don’t get wrapped up in the numbers and the old war stories of games past. 😉

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Gladiatorial Combat

Sometimes we would get tired, or our usual DM, my brother, did not want to run a game that weekend.

We all still wanted to play, so we would have a “what if …” scenario where one player would fight another to the death, so see who was toughest. None of it had any real effect on the campaign.

That was when we still were more towards the scale of “Monty Haul” with lots of magic items, etc.

My character, Kad Staglar, was a halfling fighter/thief with a girdle of storm giant strength a +2 longsword and a ring of regeneration. When we were in a dungeon, he would just run through the lower half of doors to open them.

Another player’s character had managed to beat everyone else. I believe he was an assassin or something with a poison weapon. My halfling was doing a lot of damage, but he went down. Just as Bret was sure he had won, my halfling got back on his feet and rejoined the fight. Bret soon remembered the ring, and when Kad went down again, Brett’s character removed the ring.

Has any other player group done that?

In college we had a group that had a competition that would have characters plopped down on an island. We had a million experience points and a certain amount of gold to prepare our characters. This was still 1e AD&D. The choice was either assassin for the quick kill potential, or fighter for the ability to take a hit, but there were a few who chose M-Us. I do not remember actually playing this out. I think my choice of assassin did not last as long as I’d hoped.

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Total Chaos

Another time I was a DM, I had an adventure planned and had 6 or 7 players. I had the obligatory, “you meet in a bar…”

Rather than joining forces, each player went off in a different direction out of town. This so totally blew me away, that I had no clue how to handle it. I just rolled for random encounters hoping something would come up.

This was so totally unexpected that I doubt a group of players could so overwhelm me into a flabbergasted state again. What I should have done was come up with something totally unexpected to draw them back together.

The thought has crossed my mind that they all went in on this, just to mess with me. I tended to be a good target for that sort of thing in high school.

This is where plot hooks fail. If the players do not take the bait, you have to be ready with a plan. Not to force them into something, but encourage them to make choices that will allow the game to be fun for all. I guess with a big enough sandbox, one could let the players run around independently. Look at it like a dungeon on a huge scale, just like when a party gets separated, they each get their own opportunity to do their own thing.

As Moltke said, “No plan of battle survives contact with the enemy.” In the realm of RPGs no module or other adventure planned by the GM plays out as planned.”

What examples of total chaos have you experienced as a player or GM?

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Sending a Bulette against a Second Level party.

Sending a Bulete against a Second Level party was one of my first experiences as a DM. I wanted to do something new and introduce a monster we had not encountered before. Back in those early days, we took turns being DM. Needless to say people did not want me to DM for a while after that.

What is funny in retrospect is that the party actually stood their ground and tried to fight the thing. I believe it was a TPK, but a do-over was called, and all those characters were available for the next session with a different DM.

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Music To Enhance Play

Long ago, we used music from movies and TV shows to serve as the soundtrack to our gaming sessions. We had cassette tapes we bought, and then put together our “favorite songs to game by”. Fast forward to 2009 and CDs and MP3 players and Computers make it easier to mix the songs together. Someone with more time on their hands could add the sound effects of wind, rain, lightning, charging hoards of monsters, etc. for the DM to kick off at the appropriate time.While that would be nice, to me that is just more prep time for the DM. If there was a standard “library” with an easy to use program to key it off at the right time so game play is not interrupted, it would work for me. Just setting the scene with the appropriate music and letting the group’s imagination take over works wonders.

We just set the music and let it run, as we do not want to spend time juggling tapes/CDs to interrupt the flow of the game. It is amazing how we seem to end up in a fight when the music is appropriate. Sometimes the DM picks more ominous music than the players want to listen to, so we players would have our own tapes/CDs to raise our spirits a bit.

Favorites for us then and now are many of the Star Trek songs used in the original TV series, the “Planet Eater” music was used in many of the original episodes, but it does server to build tension. “Wrath of Khan” has a good soundtrack. “Aliens” is good too. “Star Wars”, and most things by John Williams can fit the bill. Classical music also fits the bill such as “Mars” from “The Planets” by Holst, “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, “Night on Bald Mountain”, etc.

What music or other mood enhancers do you use in your games?

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Enhance Your Story With Other Fields: Biology

Exchange of Realities has an interesting article on enhancing story with other fields, with the focus on biology. This is something we all practice by our nature, often unconsciously.

One of the best things about writing and gaming is that they take skill synergy like almost nothing else in
the world does. No matter what you do or learn, odds are that some part of it can apply to the writing desk
or the game table. Sometimes it’s direct, sometimes it’s obvious when you’re willing to think twisty, and
sometimes it’s entirely unexpected.

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Medieval Population Density

This informative article about population density of medieval based worlds and number of cities, towns, and villages and numbers of a give occupation relative to population.

There are links to websites to run the formula and build a kingdom quickly. One can also use Excel to build the formula into a spreadsheet, of which there are links to some examples .

I recommend saving it as a PDF so that it is available for off line use.

[Edit] Corrected link to website to use current URL. 09 February 2014.

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Genealogy Programs To Generate Family Trees

One of my non-RPG interests is genealogy. There are several free genealogy programs that can save off various styles of family trees to PDF. This could be used to generate a family tree for characters, or kings and other rulers.

Many of these can export to RTF or other formats, so that a background could be used if the PDF is only to be used online. Otherwise, get some parchment paper, and give it the rough treatment, if it is to be an ancient document. For example, tear off or burn a piece that the players will need to know for some reason.

For Windows PCs, Legacy Family Tree has a free version able to meet these needs. It also works on other OSes with Wine. For Linux, there is a GUI based program called GRAMPS, that can also run on other OSes. For those not afraid of the command line and an ncurses text interface, there is LifeLines. It was originally developed for Unix, but has been ported to Linux, Mac, Windows and others.

What programs and utilities do you use outside of your gaming life that could be used to add flavor?

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Ramblings of an Old Gamer