Roleplaying In A

My Laptop and Tabletop Gaming

In Props on April 18, 2010 at 7:10 am

Back in March, I asked for help with mapping and one of the responses was MapTools, “an online, multiuser, networked, graphical, interactive, programmable virtual tabletop”. Kristian on The Dice of Life pointed out how useful this software was even for local tabletop use.

I then spent 12-15 hours learning to use it and this week, had great success with it. I was on an RPG Circus episode with some comments about it as well.

In that episode, and other places, I’ve heard some logical objections to using software mapping during games and I wanted to address some of those objections today.


The first, and probably the hardest hurdle for anyone thinking about using something like this is the expense of the equipment. I don’t recommend anyone go out and pay thousands of dollars for 6-7 laptops to use at a gaming table. This sort of thing is going to work best in homes with an HDMI-capable  laptop and an HDTV.

I think networking a bunch of laptops would be both a headache and just outright not worth it. With an HDTV, which many of us already own, you can pay about 30$ for a wireless mouse and an HDMI cable and have a set-up that works much like a tabletop battlemat or something similar.

As you can see in the picture on the left, this let’s you use the television as a map substitute and minimizes the distractions that laptops can cause with players, since the GM is only person using one.

The players then use a wireless mouse that gets passed around as needed to move tokens around on the display and an HDTV is generally large enough that the entire party can see it.


There’s no getting around this one – learning to use software like this takes time and you definitely should invest enough of it that you know what you’re doing before you ever introduce it into the game. My prep for this campaign took a full two months from conception to character creation and a week of that was learning to use the program for mapping.

Take a few hours at a time to teach yourself this software. Some types are going to be easier than others and if the one you’ve picked starts taking too long to learn, do not be shy about switching to something else. Maptools took me 12-15 hours altogether and the time was the best investment I put into it.

When we did start using it, it was easy to show the players how.


One of the more important problems heard on RPG Circus about using mapping software was the level of detail a GM may feel obligated to attempt. I have to say, that’s entirely in the head of the GM. My players paid almost no attention to the small details on the map. They cared where walls were, did a tree block a shot or not, where was the door.

One of the things I made sure I took the time to learn was how to draw a map quickly, during the game, at need.

Players don’t always do what we expect. There will be a time I’m going to need a map I haven’t drawn before the game. Knowing how to toss some lines on it as if I were using a marker is key to my success. There is no way I can think up every scenario they might get involved in.

If the effort daunts you, use it like an electronic battlemat. Sketch your map out on paper before the game, then just draw things out on the screen at need during the game. The players won’t mind a bit.

Try it.

If you own a laptop and an HDTV, try this. Take some time to learn it well and then toss into a game once to try. I personally will never go back to physical mapping.

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  1. I could definitely use something like this, but I’m tech-deficient. It would take me forever to learn this.


  2. If you never try, no you will never succeed. Break it up into small bites and take your time 🙂

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