RogerBW's Blog

Virtual Tabletop on the cheap 28 November 2021

I don't generally use maps much when I'm role-playing; my games are fairly fluid, such that it's not very clear where things are going to be happening until the session has started, and exact tactical distances don't matter much. But since the pandemic began, particularly because I can't easily sketch something and hand it round the group, I've been experimenting with something a bit more sophisticated.

Of course there's Roll20 and Foundry and so on, but they all take the form of using somebody else's server and probably paying them for the privilege. And I already have screen-sharing capability on the videoconference system I'm using for my games. (Run by me, using Jitsi. Because I'm not going to force anyone to use the data-stealing insecure horror that is Zoom.)

The main tool I use for this is Inkscape, the freeware vector graphics editor. Why? Two main reasons: I'm not working at a specific pixel size, and I expect to zoom in and out to maximise the view of the area people are interested in. (And the bitmaps I'll use aren't necessarily scaled to each other.) And each bitmapped image I import is a separate entity, so I can drag one on top of or under another, then out again, and it'll still be intact. If I want to do this in The Gimp or Photoshop, I need to put each image into its own layer.

So that's the basic idea: screen-share an Inkscape window. (I tend to do this on a machine separate from the one that's showing the other players my face, but of course one can combine the two.) The players won't be able to move stuff for themselves; too bad.

To set things up, I start with a map image. Generally I extract it from the PDF it was published in with pdfimages to get a bitmap, then measure that up to get a scale (pixels in the bitmap per notional foot). For modern games, the US has places that sell house plans (as in, you've just bought some empty land, here are the full instructions for putting up a house on it) which often have good scale diagrams.

I've written a program to build one or more scaled images into an SVG file (Inkscape's native format) and to add a square or hex grid for whatever system I'm using. (Not published, but I'll send you a copy if you ask.) That gives me the base file, with the map embedded as a locked layer.

If some of this should be hidden from the players, I make a new layer and draw black rectangles over it that I can delete in-game.

For pawns for the PCs and monsters, another new layer, import more bitmaps. (Another unpublished program will take the JPEG and transparency-map out of a Pathfinder bestiary page and produce a PNG with alpha channel which can then go straight into the map - though it'll generally need to be scaled down.)

And that really is all there is to it. It does help if you've used Inkscape a little before (I tend to use it for play-by-forum boardgames).

Dice rolling? Er, we just roll our dice. Character sheets get printed out as usual, though some people like form-fillable PDFs.


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:18am on 28 November 2021

    I've played fantasy games this way, and on Roll20, and this works fine. It doesn't have Roll20's dynamic lighting, but I'm not sure that's actually worth the trouble.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:55am on 28 November 2021

    Yes, and I believe Roll20 can also do things like managing how far a character can move, even across multiple terrain types – for a game like D&D/Pathfinder which is fully supported within the system. (I'm told some VTTs, particularly Foundry, are getting support for GURPS.)

    The most tactical game I run at the moment is probably the Dungeon Fantasy campaign, and even there I'm not using this full-time; many encounters can just be narrated.

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