Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hacking Up Map Tiles for Tabletop RPGs

This post was written in collaboration with Ben Criger.

We want to make tabletop gaming more fun. That means removing tedium and headaches, making games more visually gripping, and giving gamemasters the tools they need to quickly construct worlds for their players. As it stands, this world-building has to be suspended whenever combat breaks out. Too much time is spent to track what combantants are where, what the environment is like, where important objects and effects are, etc. This motivation is part of why we have previously tackled projects like hero_init, which removes from gamemasters running HERO System games much of the burden of keeping track of initiative orders and of communicating combat numerics to players.

Today, though, we'd like to look at another part of the picture: the combat map.
Hero Game, 8one6. Used under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.

The map serves as a visual language for roleplaying combat; it represents the environment shared by the players and narrators. For games that are entirely about the map, such as war games, maps are lovingly prepared with all manner of props and decorations, at great cost (both in money and time).
Dark Angels Meet Orks on Warhammer Armies, Steve Goeringer. Used under Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 license.
For RPGs, however, the tool of the trade is often a wet-erase mat on which map features are drawn at game-time, slowing down combat and exploration. If a GM is well-prepared, they might have eschewed a wet-erase mat for a map predrawn on paper, but that presents its own problems (how does the GM reveal map details "on the fly," for instance).
A Riverboat In the Swamp, MockLogic. Used under Creative Commons BY 2.0 license.
Many elaborate tools and solutions exist and are being developed, including ones based on projectors, flat-panel TVs, augmented reality, etc. These ideas are not yet generally applicable, though, if only because of cost, preparation time, and the specialized knowledge needed to make them work well.

Our approach is to use a combination of rapid prototyping tools (in particular, 3D printers and laser cutters) to manufacture physical objects that help in quickly building and annotating rich environments in which minifigs can be readily placed and moved. The first step in this approach is to make tiles that can support minifigs, markers for annotating characters and locations, and that can be quickly connected and rearranged. By adding pegholes to these tiles, environmental details can be added around minifigs. 3D-printed risers together with pegholes in the tiles allow for the map to be quickly extended into the third dimension, as is useful, for instance, in superhero games with flying characters.

By making tiles from readily-available acrylic, we can prototype these ideas quickly and effectively using equipment found in hackerspaces like KwartzLab (thanks tp help from our good friend Catherine Holloway). The tile shapes are generated procedurally by a Python library, while the 3D printed parts are generated using OpenSCAD. This allows for rapid customization and manufacturing, and keeps costs low. More importantly, we will soon be making the software implementing these procedures open source, so that gamers can make their own map tiles and accessories without having to ask for permission, and can remix and extend our ideas in new and interesting ways.
A few tiles from our first batch.
Our first batch doesn't have the pegholes, due to a DXF error that has since been fixed, but with what we have right now, we can already confirm that our designs can be connected and disconnected quickly. Moreover, we can start making marker accessories for things like character numbers (useful for mooks!), grenades, status (slow, poisoned, etc.).

Eventually, we'd like to have the design down enough that we can sell tiles and accessories for those players and game masters that either don't have access to time, equipment and expertise to manufacture their own, or that prefer to buy them pre-made. Towards that goal, we'd like to offer readers of this blog a set of our map objects to use in their own games, so that you can let us know how you like them. If you're interested, please let us know!

No comments: