Technology Is A Double Edged Sword

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on May 11, 2010

For the past five years the group at Dungeon’s Master have used MapTools as the primary means for displaying our combat encounters. To say that MapTools has changed the way we play the game would be an understatement. In a previous post, Desktop Killed The Tabletop Game, I wrote about how software like MapTools has the ability to change the way the entire hobby is played and I still believe that to be true. I believe that a blend of software and hardware, such as what the Surface Scapes project is doing, will also revolutionize the way we play our hobby. Perhaps not in its current form, but certainly we are seeing the beginnings of how technology can be applied to Dungeon & Dragons and bring our minis and maps to life.

As I mentioned, the Dungeon’s Master team has usied MapTools for many years. It’s been great in assisting us in keeping our game going. When a member moved beyond driving range it allowed him to continue to log in and play D&D with the rest of us. The experience wasn’t exactly the same, as he wasn’t sitting at the table, but he was able to participate and we were all able to keep in touch. Through a robust set of macro’s the software also allows you to track conditions, hit points, healing surges and numerous other aspects of the game. One of the trick with minis is finding ways to creatively mark each mini with the appropriate conditions. MapTools eliminates that problem.

However, it introduces a new problem to the mix. As everything is fairly automated, it means that player’s have less to do in between combat rounds and an active Internet connection can lead to trouble. As our member who moved away has made the decision to no long play D&D due to other obligations we’ve been left with the dilemma, do we still need MapTools for the original reasons we started using it?

The answer is clearly no, we do not. However, we’ve grown dependant on many of the features that are available to us through the software. However, the other night the decision was made not to use MapTools and instead to use a large battle map with minis. I was surprised by how refreshing the experience was.

Technology is a double edged sword. It can assist us, making many tasks light work. However, it can also provide us with a distraction that pulls away from our productivity. Now, before I go further I want to stress I’m an advocate of MapTools and other mapping software. It holds an important place in the game and demonstrates what is possible given time and some creativity to make the hobby better.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Maptools and using a battle map with minis.



  • The DM is able to prep maps ahead of time. Building line of sight features in. All monsters are also able to be placed hidden on the map, with hit points able to be tracked through the software.
  • Vision tools are available, allowing the fog of war to be removed as the PCs move about the map. The line of sight feature mentioned above eliminates discussion about whether or not a PC could be seen or not.
  • Top down view of the battlefield allows for a dynamic view of the encounter.
  • Blast and burst templates are able to be marked and clearly seen. Difficult terrain can be drawn onto the map.

Battle Map

  • Maps are drawn ahead of time. Standard graph paper can be used or dungeon tiles. Alternately a large battle map with dry erase markers.
  • The battle is viewed in 3D, giving a true sense of the scale of the battle and the size of the combatants.



  • Finding suitable maps can take time. Creating suitable maps takes time and requires a degree of skill.
  • Usually requires an active Internet connection which can lead to player distractions.
  • Technology doesn’t always work as intended and for something to not connect properly can lead to time spent trouble shooting.
  • If the Internet goes down, so does your game.

Battle Map

  • Tracking conditions can be cumbersome.
  • Unable to see when a creature is bloodied unless its mini is marked.
  • Maps need to be hand-drawn or dungeon tiles need to be purchased. Can result in maps always looking alike.
  • You may not always have the correct mini, making your red dragon appear as an earth elemental so that the size is correct.

I’m sure there are plenty of other pros and cons to both methods of mapping. MapTools and minis have been used by our group to great effect and we enjoy what each delivers. At the end of the day I don’t think there is a single right answer on which platform to use. Rather it’s a question of what works best for your particular group.

In the end a hybrid approach might be best. With a flat panel monitor lying on the table displaying a map. PC minis could be used and the DM can still track hit points through the MapTools software.

How has your group experimented with different mapping applications? What have you had success with and what has been a downright disaster?

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1 Quid May 11, 2010 at 11:31 am

One of the big pros/cons in my opinion is cost. Assuming that you already have a computer then there’s no additional cost to use MapTools (since it’s free). Minis, dungeon tiles, erasable maps and wet erase markers all cost money.

If I was just discovering D&D I’d already be out of pocket for a PHB and dice. Add to that a DDI subscription (for character builder) and the hobby gets really expensive really fast. I be less likely to use minis knowing that there’s a free alternative.

2 Anarchangel May 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I was going to say that the cost was a con in the other direction. What sort of hardware does one require for this? A spare flatscreen monitor laid flat? Or just a spare monitor and the map is displayed vertically? Does the GM (or a designated player?) have to move everything? Doesn’t that make it a lot slower?

Is there a “so you’re thinking of going to digital battlemaps” guide anywhere?

3 Swordgleam May 11, 2010 at 12:53 pm

When a player had to move away for the semester, we just set up a webcam and aimed it at the battlemap for fights and at whomever was talking for dramatic bits. It worked fine, and allowed us to avoid getting distracted by the internet since there was only one laptop at the table and the only thing it was running was skype.

4 onlinedm May 11, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I play in an in-person game where we use a battle mat and minis, and in an online game where we use Gametable rather than MapTools (but I assume the experience would be similar with MapTools). I do love the customizability of the virtual map. It’s nice to make every encounter area look just the way you want, creating images for monsters and PCs the way you want them to look, keeping track of zones and conditions with ease, etc. Your point about difficult terrain being a pain to handle on the battle map is dead on – it’s a piece of cake with a virtual map, but not so much with a physical map. That being said, I prefer the tactile sensation of moving minis around when sitting at a table with friends.

Your suggestion of using a flat-panel monitor is interesting, but I saw an even cooler setup in a local game store. The DM had a computer running something like MapTools (I’m not sure if it was that program or another), and he had a monitor in front of him and a contraption that held a projector about five feet above him. The projector shot its image at a mirror, which reflected the map image onto the table in front of the players. PCs were represented by minis that we moved around as we wished on the map image, while monsters and the environment were all electronic. It was pretty slick, I must say, and I’d much rather do that than shove minis around on a physical screen. I don’t know how much it cost this DM to build, but the end result was something to behold.
.-= onlinedm´s last blog ..Troll druids are nasty =-.

5 MAK May 11, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Our group has developed a “computer assisted battlemap” solution: we create encounter maps in advance and print them out before the game. With experience, the quality has steadily increased from 8-bit block graphics to somehing closer to published poster maps. We usually print out two full color A3 sized sheets (luckily there is a large color printer at work) and tape them together – that is about as big as can fit on the table, about 40 by 60 cm.

Instead of minis we made numbered & colored token sets for different size categories (“medium red 5”, “large blue 1”, “huge 2”, etc) that fit the grid. The tokens were seen as a better idea than minis since the numbering makes it easier to identify individual opponents and follow status effects.
.-= MAK´s last blog ..Ville Makkonen uploaded =-.

6 Jeff May 11, 2010 at 5:49 pm

I’m just wondering, when you use software like maptools, how are your players involved in the combat? Does everybody come to the table with a laptop and everybody connects to the same content using their own puters or do you project the map onto the table or wall? Is there another way i’m not thinking of?


7 Wimwick May 11, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Great comments everyone. I can see the argument that cost could be a barrier with mini’s. The flip side of the coin is how are you displaying the map? With our group everyone shows up with a laptop, but we have the means to all be able to afford a laptop. Not all gamers would be in that position. Alternate idea’s are a projector or spare monitor, again a cost is involved.

Before using MapTools our group used graph paper and tiny lettered beads to mark PCs and NPCs. So there are definitely different low cost options available.

At the end of the day use what works best for you and your group. I don’t own any mini’s, but a member of the group loves to collect them so i use one of his.

8 Dungeon Newbie May 11, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Cost is a very important factor when considering technology. What’s the point of buying that new-fangled tool which will supposedly “Help you organize your game” but costs a zillion bucks and requires state-of-the-art laptops and super fast, 900000 Gigabytes per second Internet Connection? And when you break your bank to buy it, all it does is display the HP of monsters in bars rather than in numerical form, which makes it harder to play and takes a lot of getting used to.

9 Chromed Cat May 12, 2010 at 4:15 am

I know this subject has been brouched before, but i still found the article and comments rather interesting. Having options available is great if you want to play and this subject has illustrated that very well.

Personally having the chance to play with Map Tools and with the Battle Map i’m still not inclined to pronounce a winner. What i have found with Map Tools when everyone was in a different location, my group ended up focusing alot on story development and sessions when we would even forego battle action. Do other people find thier platform for gaming influencing their style of play?

Mostly we play with figures i’ve painted and maps i’ve printed now. And i understand the cost concerns of people. I’ve sourced most of my minis for $1.50 a piece from Megaminis ebay store which is very reasonable. The tracking of effects has been assisted by a free program called Masterplan 8 and after a year of using it i don’t know how i got by with out it.

The merging of a digital platform like Surface Scapes with actual minis does sound very exciting. I’m keen to see how this all evolves and wether it will change the paradigm of play.

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