- VideoOwlbear Rodeo: A Simple D&D Virtual Tabletop
If you're seeking a lightweight virtual tabletop, try out Owlbear Rodeo. It's awesome.
Covid-19 forced many DMs to move games from in-person to online. For a lot of us, running games online is an entirely new experience. I moved all of my games, about three a week, online and lept into trying out all sorts of systems for online play. My favorite, and the one I've been using for eight months now, is to run D&D over Discord. By copying and pasting pieces of maps, usually grabbed from Dysonlogos, I can show the players where the characters are without using a full virtual tabletop like Roll 20. For combat, I use text-based combat tracker for rough zone-based combat more similar to theater of the mind than gridded combat.
There are times, however, where dropping down a map with tokens for monsters and characters can be useful. Many players and quite a few DMs prefer this style of play.
The big dogs among virtual tabletop tools are Roll 20 and Fantasty Grounds. There are other popular and well-loved tools as well like Foundry but these two typically come up when someone talks about virtual tabletops.
These other VTTs are fine all-in-one systems that integrate D&D's rules with the rest of the tabletop.
The problem is, I'm fine with running games mostly on Discord. I don't need a fully integrated D&D experience in my VTT. My players like using D&D Beyond and I'm not picky about how they roll dice, whether it's with Avrae in Discord or a plug-in like Beyond20.
Unleash the Owlbear Rodeo
When I want a VTT, I really just want a map and tokens. That's what Owlbear Rodeo provides. Owlbear Rodeo is a slimmed down virtual tabletop that focuses on maps and tokens. It has no integrated ruleset, although it does have a shared dice roller in it if you want one. Owlbear Rodeo makes it easy to drop in a map and includes a bunch of default tokens you can use if you don't feel like adding your own.
If you do want your own tokens, you can upload a bunch of them right into Owlbear Rodeo all at once, whether your tokens are from Printable Heroes (my personal favorite tokens; search for "vtt") or your own hand-made tokens using Token Stamp. Grabbing an image off the net, dropping it into Token Stamp, and uploading it to Owlbear is fast and easy.
Owlbear Rodeo requires no login or account from either you or your players. You can log in if you want to keep track of your previous maps and tokens, but it isn't necessary. Owlbear uses some sort of cookie to keep track so if you come back it will likely remember what you already uploaded but only if you're coming in from the same machine. Not requiring a login makes it easy for players to jump right in. No accounts means any player can move any token around since everyone's permissions are the same. I'm assuming your players aren't a bunch of 4 year olds (that's a big assumption, of course).
Owlbear Rodeo has two features that aren't the easiest to figure out at first: grid alignment when bringing in a map and using the fog of war. This three minute video by GoGoCamel camel shows how to use both the grid-alignment feature and fog of war. It's well worth the watch.
If you're used to a more full-featured VTT like Roll 20, you're likely to find features missing from Owlbear that you really want. If you dig more powerhouse tools, it probably isn't for you. I prefer to keep my D&D games as minimal as possible. I want tools that only do what I need them to do and keep the cruft out of the way. Owlbear Rodeo does just that. I can run the rest of my game in Discord and only drop into Owlbear when I need to use a VTT. When I'm done, we drop right back out again.
At this point I've used Owlbear Rodeo with dozens of players and have heard no complaints. Many have described it being the exact kind of VTT they want. If you're in need of a lightweight virtual tabletop, give Owlbear Rodeo a try.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
John B., a Sly Flourish patron, sent me a note describing an awesome video series by Wired on levels of complexity. Two of them really grabbed my attention, the levels of complexity of origami and Tony Hawk's levels of complexity of skateboarding. Tony Hawk's video begins with the basic ollie and ends with two moves having never been done at the time of the video. It's fascinating to see how the levels of complexity get exponentially harder the further along the rank you go.
D&D complexity, however, doesn't always make our games better. I'd argue Matt Mercer's Vecnca Ascended; the finale of the 114 previous episodes of Vox Machina, is about as complicated and amazing as any D&D campaign we're likely to see. It isn't, however, a realistic model of the vast majority of D&D games. Like pulling off a 1260 on a skateboard, games like this are nearly unattainable. And that's ok because complexity doesn't make great games.
I'm fascinated to look at D&D through the lens of escalating complexity but it isn't exactly practical. We may have run incredibly complex campaigns from 1st to 20th level, with detailed character story arcs, amazing tabletop dioramas, beautiful handouts, and cool props; but they're not necessarily the model of all great D&D games. A great D&D game might be a one-shot drawn from the inspiration of the DM at the spur of the moment. It might be run totally in the theater of the mind. Sometimes the best games are the simplest games: four adventurers crawling through a dangerous dungeon seeking a valued treasure.
Though simplicity may be a virtue in great D&D games, that doesn't mean we DM's can't get better at DMing. What are the paths we DMs can take to get better at running D&D games? What would it look like as a curriculum?
Instead of breaking D&D games down into levels of complexity, I'll describe potential paths for getting better at DMing D&D games. These are often parallel tracks, not a single path. There are likely as many paths for DM proficiency as there are DMs but I'm going to offer my own suggestions here.
Along with the videos on complexity in origami and skateboarding, this article was also heavily influenced by Mark Hulmes's Youtube video on Becoming a Better DM. Check it out.
The Beginner's Path: Running the D&D Starter Set or Essentials Kit
One can do far worse than to start running D&D games with either the D&D Essentials Kit or the D&D Starter Set. A set of pregen character sheets from the Starter Set is a great way to get new players on board with D&D. Other than making your way through the rules and through the adventure, I wouldn't expect a new DM to do much else. We're not necessarily going to have deep character background integration, detailed story threads, or amazing tabletop displays. This is just plain and simple D&D and it can still be an awesome time.
In reading tons of posts on Reddit's D&D Next, and the DM Academy subreddits and clearly many new DMs choose to go the homebrew route. I don't recommend it for new DMs but likely others disagree and I doubt I'll be listened to by those who want to anyway. I do, however, recommend keeping things simple. Avoid house rules until you know the system. Choose straight forward character options. Start at 1st level characters and be nice. That said, I still recommend starting with the Starter Set or Essentials Kit.
Running Your First Short Campaign
With a few games under one's belt, the next level of experience occurs as a DM runs their first campaign up to about 5th level. Here I'd expect the DM to begin to customize the adventure to fit the backgrounds of the characters. Maybe the guy running the inn is the cousin of the dwarven cleric. DMs here should likely begin improvising some scenes as they come up, including building NPCs on the spot when the moment calls for it. DMs here can hopefully start developing situations instead of building scenes already planned out.
Beyond this is when the complexity of DMing goes up and the paths to becoming a better DM split into parallel tracks. Each of these parallel tracks shores up different areas for being a well-rounded DM.
Becoming the Characters' Biggest Fan
Once we get beyond the basics, it's time for a DM to look at the people around the table and the characters they bring to it. We can deeply internalize a concept from Dungeon World to become the characters' biggest fan. Here we put aside any idea that we're competing with the players in a game. We put aside our own drive to force a story down one particular path. We play to see what happens. We put the characters first and foremost in the spotlight. We make reviewing the characters the first step in our game prep. We run session zeros to calibrate everyone's expectations of a campaign.
We serve the fun of the game first and foremost. Our goal is for everyone, including ourselves, to have a great time.
Recommended reading: Dungeon World.
Run Lots of Games, Run Lots of Systems
We get better at DMing by DMing more games. We also get better by playing more games, with as many other DMs as we can, good or bad, so we can see how it's done. Playing and running other roleplaying game systems also helps us become better DMs. There are lots of ways to run RPGs and lots of systems to help you do so. These systems often have great ideas we can bring back into our D&D games. Running games for a wide range of players also teaches us a lot. Convention games and organized play programs offer great opportunities to run games for many players.
Flexibility, Adaptability, Improvisation
As the most valued DM traits; we can follow a lifelong path for improving our flexibility, adaptability, and improvisation skills. We can work harder at thinking on our feet, building scenes as they occur during the game instead of planning them ahead of time. We let go of fixed scenes and predetermined stories and build situations. We can learn how to improvise NPCs. We can seek out the tools that help us best improvise during the game. Learning how to stay flexible, go where the story goes, and steer it delicately towards the fun is an advanced DM trait that leads to more enjoyable games for both DMs and players alike.
According to RPG veteran Monte Cook, there is no more important skill for a DM to learn than pacing. Robin Laws teaches us that understanding how upward and downward beats feel during the game and knowing how to shift them one way or the other to avoid apathy or despair is an advanced and critical skill for running great games. Like a curling player, our job is to smooth out the path in front of the story, not grab control of it. Recognize and take hold of the dials you have available to change up an encounter, a scene, or a whole adventure to fit the feeling and theme of the adventure's pacing as it plays out.
Recommended reading: Hamlet's Hit Points.
Maps, Props, Terrain, and Handouts
Physical stuff increases the immersion of a game. When players have things they can see, touch, and hold that ties them to the world, that world becomes ever more real. While not necessary to run a great game, tabletop accessories, when used well, can make a great game better. Some of these things can be made at home for almost nothing. Others can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. These exponential costs often result in linear gains, however. Before spending a lot of money, consider that there are often ways to make our games better that cost nothing at all.
Rules Proficiency, Not Rules Mastery
One might think that a better understanding of the rules is critical to run a great D&D game. Certainly being proficient enough with the rules to run the game is important but, according to tens of thousands of surveys conducted by Baldman Games for their organized play program, rules mastery, as one of four tracked attributes, has the least correlation to a fun game. Instead, being friendly and being prepared have a far greater correlation with running a fun game. DMs should have enough of an understanding of the rules to keep the game running smoothly. Rules mastery, however, isn't required. Instead, focus attention on the other areas that have a higher impact described above.
Learning from Other DMs
The internet has given us unparalleled access to other DMs. We have unlimited sources to run our ideas by other DMs, see what ideas they have, and get differing points of view. I argue that the D&D-focused subreddits on Reddit offer some of the best access to DMs of all experience levels. Look at the questions those DMs are asking and learn from the answers they receive. Further, if you happen to be running a published campaign book, there's almost always a subreddit focused on it with advice, tips, tricks, and accessories to help your own campaign run well.
A Lifelong Pursuit
Being an expert DM is a lifelong pursuit. Never have we had more access to more knowledge about being a great DM. We have access to videos of more D&D games than we could ever watch. With a few clicks we have access to the knowledge of thousands of other DMs. Spend time figuring out what makes a great D&D game for you, build your own path, and keep running D&D games.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
The eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master mentions little about maps. The expectation is that the "develop fantastic locations" step covers locations big and small and stick-figure diagrams are enough to connect locations together.
Recently, though, I've been using actual location maps — mostly dungeon maps — in my prep and found a nice lazy way to fill these maps out.
Behold Dyson Logos
There are lots of sources for great maps out there but my current favorite is Dysonlogos. Dyson offers nearly a thousand maps on his site for free, many of them usable in commercial works if you're so inclined. Visit the site, grab a map that fits the location you're thinking of, and you're off to the races. For lazy map making, think in general terms about the location you need and grab the first map that fits the idea. Need a crypt? Grab the first crypt you find. The less picky you are, the easier it is to find a map that works.
Next, as part of "developing fantastic locations", annotate the map with evocative names that fuel our minds when the characters reach the room. This way we don't waste time on rooms the characters don't visit and yet still have enough detail to improvise the room if the characters do go there.
Annotate the map with whatever image editor is easies to use. On my Mac, I use Preview to add text labels with white backgrounds to the map so it's easy to read against the map's background. Here's an example map from my Eberron game.
Microsoft Paint works equally well. More advanced image editors can also do the trick but you don't need anything too fancy. It should be fast and easy. We're not making publication-level work here. Friends of mine like dropping the map into Roll 20 and annotating it right in the virtual tabletop. Anything can work as long as it's fast and easy.
Define Ten Locations
Sometimes we'll want to annotate every room in a dungeon if it isn't too much trouble. Other times, though, it isn't so clear how many places we need to label. A city for example, may need a bunch of locations to feel real and alive. In this case, I recommend defining ten locations. Ten seems like a lot, and it may be more than you actually need, but defining ten locations pushes our brains into interesting and creative directions. Here's an example of a city map for the city of Eston in which I defined ten locations the characters could explore:
Dropping evocative names on a map like this gives us ideas should the characters visit a location. For larger locations we might use additional maps to further break down these larger places. Otherwise, if the characters never bother to explore them, we need nothing more than a couple of words.
Use Evocative Labels
When you're considering your labels, make them unique and interesting. Inspire yourself with your descriptions — even of they're only two words long. "Lighting Rail Station" isn't very interesting but "Wild Lighting Rail Station" sounds cooler. We have an idea what might be going on there. "Radiant Sinkhole" is more interesting than a straight sinkhole. Here's a list of ten example evocative labels for the inner cars of Karshak, the rogue warforged lighting rail in my Eberron game modeled after Blane the Mono in Stephen King's Wastelands:
- Manifest Portal Engine
- Karshak's Artificer Brain
- Warforged Guardian Car
- Automated Dining Car
- Transparent 1st Class Cabin
- Gas-induced Sleeping Cabin
- Cryofreeze Cabin
- Dragonshard Storage Car
- Automaton Construction Car
- War Caboose
These aren't perfect examples but hopefully it gives you the idea. The main thing is that the labels mean something to you. You're not writing these for anyone else.
Home Use Versus Publication
When we're preparing stuff like this for our home game, remember that we're only doing this for ourselves. We don't need to meet the high standards required for publishing adventures. We only need a few words to spark our own imagination, not pass this along to others. Fast and dirty is perfectly acceptable for our own prep. Leave it rough, no one will care what it looks like. The game is your painting, your maps and prep notes are your messy palette and brush rag. Don't worry if they're rough.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »