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Worlds of Design: How RPG Tools Have Changed

I was telling my wife about GoDice (which immediately record their results electronically on an app), when she suggested an article about how RPG playing tools have changed since D&D was released. This will mostly be about dice and dice rolling, of course.

3D printed dice towers.jpg
Early Changes to Rolling

Early changes included the dice tower and the Dragonbone electronic dice rolling device. The original dice tower was the Fair Shake Dice Device, hand-made with real wood. You drop the dice in the top, they bounce around inside, and come out at the front. The idea was to thwart those who claim to be able to control dice rolling (as implied by the name of the device), and it was cool as well. Nowadays we have dice towers that can be folded up, ones that are 3D printed, and ones that are more physically elaborate than the Fair Shake.

The Dragonbone was released long before smartphones and tablets, of course. It contained a circuit board that generated random numbers. You’d move a slider to indicate what kind of die (number of sides) you wanted to roll, and it would respond by lighting up one or more LEDs on the front. It was quicker than rolling a single die, though it could not roll several at once. A button-push caused a new roll, so you could do 3d6 in succession fairly rapidly.

Today we have lots of dice apps for tablets and phones, some more elaborate than others.

Doublesix - alt.jpg

Dice

The dice themselves changed. The early polyhedral dice were made of soft plastic that gradually wore away at the corners. This gave way to harder plastic such as used today. Lou Zocchi came up with transparent dice without coloring in the numbers, dice that had not been tumbled, so that they had sharp corners (you used a fine-point marker to color the numbers). Lou claims this gives a more consistent result to rolls.

We also got modifications such as dice with a skull and crossbones or zombie, or a NSFW four-letter word, instead of a 1. Today we have metal dice, stone dice, and elaborate steampunk and fantasy dice as well, with lots of “carving” on each side. We even have Doublesix dice, D12s with the numbers 1-6 twice or 1-4 three times.

The latest idea is dice that immediately record their result on a tablet/phone app, GoDice, Kickstarter in January raising well into six figures. The idea is that you don’t have to do any arithmetic, nor write anything down, and the set of five six-sided dice includes games like Yahtzee. For a lot more money you can get two shells (each installs around a d6) that allow a D6 to act as the usual polyhedral kinds of dice, plus D24.

4 by 3 foot wall tile with tile pieces.jpg


Boards

Early on, if you wanted to use a movement grid for battles, you made your own. This was quick enough to do on a large piece of cardboard with a yardstick and marker. At some point I got elaborate and etched huge bathroom wall tiles, much like whiteboard but much cheaper, so we could write on the surface and easily erase. Later we got fabric-based “battle mats” that could be marked with water-soluble marker and erased, in both squares and hexes.

RPG terrain.jpg

Pieces

Not everyone can afford miniatures, and the original metal ones had to be painted. There were no pre-painted plastic minis. I substituted cardboard or tile squares, with the name of the character written on it, color-coordinated by character class. (Some players put their own artwork on their piece.) This worked even better for the monsters, as different size tiles could be used for the big ones and the long ones . The combination of character miniatures and tile monsters worked well. You can buy in a DIY store pieces intended to be laid down as tile, with individual small tiles that can be torn off the backing to be used as pieces.

There are lots of 3D cardboard and plastic/resin terrain pieces nowadays. At best in early days we had flat cardboard. My eyes were opened recently by a vendor at a convention selling an amazing variety of RPG 3D printed figures. I’ll write a separate column about this.

The obvious direction for almost all such changes is electronic, of course. There are apps, certainly for online play, that let you show everything during a battle on a screen, and move “pieces” with a mouse or finger, but I haven’t used them.

Your turn: What new technology have you introduced to your tabletop games?
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
I'm impressed with the explosion of fancy dice containers . . . wooden "vaults" lined with felt, stuffed animals with dice pockets, crafted "mimic" chests . . . . there are tons of options to "bling" out your TTRPG game these days . . .

I just saw some fancy D&D tankards and goblets on Merchoid.com . . . . thinking about deliberately failing my Wis save and picking one up . . . .
 

Ed_Laprade

Adventurer
For dice, you forgot about the ones that had words or symbols for various things. Alignment, weather, equipment, &etc., &etc., &etc.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
We've added decks of cards to various games. Condition cards, critical cards, wound cards - all sorts of things we can add on in a quick way that used to be table based and slow down play. Or lookup cards - several people at my table use spell cards, picking out what their current character has ready. One DM uses monster cards, with stats for him on one side and a picture on the other to show us.

Initiative trackers isn't needed for all games, but there's a variety of good looking one of those to clearly show the order of combat. Some magnetic, some have places to hang little whiteboard names, etc.

We have VTTs, app or online dice rollers, initiative trackers, encounter trackers, campaign aids, treasure rollers, etc. The largest changes to the tools of the game really are digital. But that seems outside the context of what we are talking about - the only app mentioned is recording a physical product.

Another physical / digital hybrid is the gaming table with an embedded screen. Not common, but worth of more than a little bit of awe when seen.

3D printers, especially resin printers, are also blurring that line, making custom terrain or minis.
 


Ace

Adventurer
We used to store charterer sheets on cartridges for a Texas Instruments 994A computer back decades ago It held the whole party but just barely.

Funny enough I've gone semi Luddite and try to discourage tech at the table as too much of it, smart phones, tablets and the like distracts from actual game play. The kind of sort of exception is music during at home games and if we used minis, which we don't I'd have no issue with any kind of 3d printed terrain or new fangled plastic stuff as it isn't any different than lead other than marginally safer if you handle it unpainted or decide they are tasty for some reason . o_O
 

Campbell

Legend
I use a lot of software for game prep (vector graphics for rough maps, layout software for some custom handouts, relationship mapping) and maintain a wiki for each long term game I run. A lot of my prep ends up there so I can link important information to players or bring it up on my phone if playing in person.

We also use Discord for communication between games as well as a video chat platform for playing online.
 

Ulfgeir

Adventurer
We don't really use fancy stuff in my group when we play face-to-face (wich we started doing again last weekend). The GM made earlier laminated initiative cards with the name of the players (not characters) for all the groups he played in, and then also cards with the text "Big Bad", and numbers 1-6. That way it is easy to keep track of the order. Hopefully you don't need to reroll initative every round..

And to keep track of which minis were affected by certain conditions, we started using the coloured sealing-rings from soda-bottles. Would be nice with better ones though, with the actual conditions written on it, but the cost was not deemed worth it. Maybe I will buy a set later and gift it to the group. Our battlemat has gotten lots of useage.

The fanciest stuff we have used was one GM using an app with ambient background noices suited for a specific pathfinder-campaign.
 
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Olaf the Stout

Adventurer
Prepainted D&D minis have made it a lot simpler to have fantastic looking combats.

Tile battle mats have replaced the traditional battle mats, ensuring we never go off the edge of the mat.

Bluetooth speaker and a mobile phone with various soundtracks for music to accompany sessions.
 

image0.jpg

I use a table tv and mixture of pawns and minis. I also use a commercial grade sound system you can partially see for sound effects and music. Crit cards and monster cards. This has a higher entry cost and a partially larger prep time but my games are highly rated by my players. I have never been a theater of mind person but I also play Pathfinder so the rules somewhat require visualization to run optimally.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
Just DMing with a laptop has been huge for me; I make a simple Excel spreadsheet to track initiative, resources, etc; keep Word documents open with notes and material I've written up, PDFs of adventure modules and monster manuals (which I then use Print to PDF to print separate files for maps and stat blocks, so I can keep them all in separate tabs).... I never use paper manuals or modules at the table anymore (which helps, because I try to keep my players from realizing that I am using a module, and tend to modify them extensively anyway).

I wonder at how I ever did this with notebooks and papers back in the day!
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
The main difference between the 80s and now is that now I have money to afford gaming stuff. But all the fancy terrain, infinite-role battlemaps, lego-like dungeon tiles, laser pointer area of effect gadgets, computer software, VTTs, sometimes starts to get in the way.

There is no one way that is better, but every now and then, clear the table of everything but books, paper character sheets, pencil, and some graph paper---NO put that fancy Chessex battlemap crutch away young man! Just play like some pre-teens with no money.

Not only can it be freeing, but it helps prepare you to be able to continue the game when technology fails you or gets in the way.

Try it for a session, then next week you can go back to spending a hours building digital battlemaps with line of sight, lighting, zonal audio effects, etc. And if the VTT craps out on you or you didn't have time to prepare, you at least know you can still run a game without all the toys.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
There is no one way that is better, but every now and then, clear the table of everything but books, paper character sheets, pencil, and some graph paper---NO put that fancy Chessex battlemap crutch away young man! Just play like some pre-teens with no money.

Not only can it be freeing, but it helps prepare you to be able to continue the game when technology fails you or gets in the way.
Agreed. I'll often run non-complicated combats as Theater of the Mind. It's simply quicker. Just because I have a battlemap down doesn't mean we need to use it for everything.

But I generally don't go more complex than a battlemap and maybe some dungeon tiles (specifically, outdoor terrain that I can scatter on my battlemap - I don't bother with it for indoor mapping anymore).
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Oh, I forgot another tool, because I haven't broken it out since 4e. Condition modifiers to put on minis. I have a set of Alea Tools magnetic disks in various colors, that I had expanded with clear-back labels I made up trimmed to fit on the side. There are thin magnetic parts to stick to the bottom of the PCs minis, and these amgnets just go under minis to show what conditions are on that figure. It was a big deal back in 4e, when a paragon-level combat could have 3-4 conditions per figure, with main ones having even more. We used to have a term for when a mini's condition markers were taller than then the tops of the other minis around it but I forget what it was.

Anyway, still useful in 5e, I just haven't pulled them out. I should once I go back to DMing in person.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Oh, I forgot another tool, because I haven't broken it out since 4e. Condition modifiers to put on minis. I have a set of Alea Tools magnetic disks in various colors, that I had expanded with clear-back labels I made up trimmed to fit on the side. There are thin magnetic parts to stick to the bottom of the PCs minis, and these amgnets just go under minis to show what conditions are on that figure. It was a big deal back in 4e, when a paragon-level combat could have 3-4 conditions per figure, with main ones having even more. We used to have a term for when a mini's condition markers were taller than then the tops of the other minis around it but I forget what it was.

Anyway, still useful in 5e, I just haven't pulled them out. I should once I go back to DMing in person.
I also have an Alea Tools set. All of my 3D minis have magnets glues to the bottom of their bases as do all the sloted based I use for 2D standees.

But I find I don't use them that often. Easier to just jot on the piece of paper that I use to track initiative and turns. I make these available to players but there just doesn't seem to be take many conditions involved in 5e combats that the players feel the need to use them. Also, I bought a set of simple condition and number markers that you can stick to minis with poster putty (Mini Counters & Condition Markers). For some reason my players more readily use these.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I use pretty minimal props for my in person games. Battle mat, minis and blocks I've made out of clay. Add in some colored squares (bought a strip of wood and painted) for things like walls of fire and so on along with bottle rings for conditions and marks. I don't use the latter as much as I did in 4E, but we still use it for things like concentration or hexes.

For minis I enjoy painting so I paint custom minis for PCs but use somewhat generic monsters and describe or just show the players a picture of the monster or NPC they're fighting. For larger minis, a lot of times I'll just print out picture(s), laminate and then cut them to size.

I've tried various terrain features now and then, but honestly they just aren't worth it for me. They either take way too much prep (I run a very ad-hoc game) or they limit player's ability to see what's going on.

On the other hand, I've never been much good at theater of the mind (even back in the day). They just don't work for anything but the simplest encounters and I don't usually play those out.
 

Poet22

Explorer
So many great comments here! I would add initiative trackers and prepainted plastic minis. These have greatly helped our games beyond what we did back in the 80s. I also think there are changes in practice that have helped, such as sharing table duties such as initiative tracking with the players. This has unloaded some of my work as a GM and also engaged the players more than when I used to do everything.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
The dragonbone had two problems. One the painted numbers would wear off especially the ones near the selector switch. And a circuit would die. My d12 went.

I loved the fabric based battle maps. I had both hex and squares. You could ball them up and in three minutes they would lay flat. Both the bone and mats were given away during the great game purge of 2008/09.

I allow electronic dice and apps at my table.
 



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