Wednesday 26 June 2019

Digital Tools for Pen & Paper

Tools of the trade from a sophomore dungeon master

Last year I took my first steps into the world of Dungeons and Dragons by diving into the deep end (there's a mixed metaphor for you!) and running my own campaign for a group of friends and family. As someone who feels a deep need to create but suffers from a lack of artistic talent, it's been an extremely rewarding experience. Back in April, after eight sessions of roughly four hours each, my band of heroes managed to defeat the menace lurking within The Sunless Citadel and conclude the first chapter of my planned three-part campaign.

Something I wasn't fully prepared for was the level of organisation that is required from a Dungeon Master. Even using a pre-made adventure like Sunless Citadel, there is still a huge amount of information to keep straight in an average session. I am absolutely in awe of Dungeom Masters of yore who had to do it all without a laptop behind their DM screen! As I prepare for chapter two I thought I would share some of the digital tools that I've been using to make my job as DM easier, including some new things that are helping me build my first full adventure from scratch.

Story, Characters and Setting

As you can probably imagine, I make extensive use of Google Drive when managing a D&D campaign. As someone who very much feels the burden of beginning a task, having all my materials at my fingertips wherever I go is essential. Having all my campaign notes in Google Docs means that if inspiration strikes I'm usually just a couple of clicks away from being able to jot it down. Early on I copied a technique from the source book and assigned a specific font style to things that should be read aloud versus things to keep quiet.

I created a template for character stat blocks that gives me everything I need about them including base stats, armour class, hit points and so on as well as a space for notes about their personality when appropriate. For the new chapter I'm creating I added the area to note down physical appearance and personality traits to try and focus on making characters that are memorable. Here's Maurice, the first NPC my players encountered:

Human Man (Commoner)
AC: 10 HP: 8 SP: 30
S: 10 D: 10 C: 10 I: 10 W: 10 C: 10
Passive Perception: 10
Knife: +2 to hit, 1d4 piercing dmg
Sneak attack: Extra 1d6 dmg when attacking
with advantage
Hair: Black, Eyes: Brown, Skin: Pale
Distinguishing Features: Shaggy hair, shabby clothes, stubble
Personality: Mistrustful, Dishonest, Cowardly
Petty thief
Doesn’t like looking people in the eye, considers himself a perpetual victim

I also used a table like the one below to give quick access to details about towns. I don't know if I'll actually use this format for chapter two since the locations I'm creating are much bigger, but it might prove useful.

Pop: 500, Forestry, Hunting, Some Farming
General Store
Limited selection, can buy food and simple items. Proprietor Ernest Slimpkin
The Boar (Inn)
Sign shows a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth. Food, ale. Landlady Fiona Morgan
Two guards on duty at any given time, total of six, report to Felosial, constable of Oakhurst
Town square
Well with cross-beam and bucket

A technique I'm trying out for the new campaign is the Google Docs bookmark function. In The Sunless Citadel I had all the character blocks in the same document as the long-form text describing the story beats. This made it easy to get information about a character in the first instance that they appeared, because the table was nearby, but as we got deeper into the story I found myself having to jump around a lot to look up details that might be pages back. For recurring enemies (spoilers, there are a LOT of skeletons in The Sunless Citadel) I ended up having multiple copies of the same stat block throughout the document just so I wouldn't lose my place. Bookmarks allow you to create a link that jumps directly to a specific paragraph in a doc, meaning that I can now have a separate file for all my character blocks that can be easily cross-referenced by the main story doc. If combat requires skeletons, I can create a hyperlink on the word 'skeletons' and now they're just a click away! I anticipate this will be useful for a lot of other things too.


A big problem I faced in my early sessions was how to keep myself organised when running a combat encounter. With five player characters, up to three friendly NPCs and God-knows how many enemies in a given battle, it was a real challenge to keep up with everything that was happening. To solve this problem I created a Google Sheet with columns for everything I needed: initiative, hit points, who NPCs are targeting, if there are any status effects on them and what their AC is. A bit of messing around with the script editor even allowed me to have the list automatically sort itself by initiative. I've included a link to a shareable version of the sheet at the bottom of this section.

Also in that spreadsheet is a tool for calculating the Challenge Rating of a battle. The Dungeon Master's Guide has a highly detailed method for working out how difficult a given combat encounter will be, so I transcribed the logic into something that I can quickly input all the friendly characters and their levels in to and then tweak the types and number of enemies on the fly until I get the desired rating. It has already saved me a lot of time!

Link to Battle Sheet Template


Maps wasn't something I had to deal with in The Sunless Citadel because the introduction to the story didn't require them, and the specifics of the dungeons were provided in the book. Now, though, I'm creating my own dungeons, and the non-dungeon spaces are going to be much larger and more detailed. This makes it important to at least have a rough map so I know where all these locations are relative to each other.

Once again, my needs are for an online tool that allows me to pick it up quickly and have all my edits sync wherever I am. A bit of research online has lead me to Sketchpad, which offers not only a healthy array of tools for making maps, but also Google Drive integration and auto-saving. It even allows you to create sketches with a square grid as the background, which is going to be awesome for dungeon mapping!

This is my first time creating an adventure whole-cloth, and I'm sure over the years my approach will develop and improve as I discover new problems to be solved. Right now I'm just very excited because I have discovered some cool online tools that are going to allow me to do a lot more for this new story. I hope other aspiring DMs find this helpful, and if you have your own tips and tricks feel free to share them in the comments!

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