We’ve barely started our 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but like any good Dungeon Master I’ve already spent far too many hours designing world details and backstory the other players will never encounter, and probably wouldn’t really give a darn about anyways.
That’s just how it works. Being a DM is a lot like being a writer, and as Steven Pressfield detailed in his excellent book The War of Art, writers learn to love being miserable. Whether you’re churning out words nobody will ever read or planning encounters in a dungeon your characters will totally ignore in favor of chasing some stupid chicken, the act of creating is often a brutally thankless task.
You learn to love it or you spend your life as a reader and player, rather than writer and DM.
Mapping your imagination
For as long as there have been fantasy stories, there have been elaborate fantasy maps. Hand-drawn maps, scrawled on graph paper or freehand, have a long and noble history in the world of D&D, but now that we’re in the computer age there are probably better ways to do things, right?
If you’re looking for the quickest, easiest way to make a map of your game world that looks way more professional than it has any right to, your solution has just recently come onto the scene. Inkarnate Worlds, currently in Beta, is a free online program that allows you to make the fantasy map of your dreams.
While Inkarnate has some rough edges and might not have ALL the little icons and terrain features you would like (it is in Beta after all), it really is the best and easiest-to-use map-making tool around. Once you get over the initial stumbling block and realize that the empty space on the map is water by default (something that seems to trip up a lot of users) you’ll be crafting continents and placing cities in no time.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a map I made just now, with a strict five-minute time limit:
Nice, right? Or at least better than you would expect for five minutes of work. With another half-hour spent adding different terrain types and placing some cities, I’d have a great-looking world map on my hands, just ready for players to not care very much about it!
Inkarnate is great for regional maps too, though because you can’t currently re-size features like mountains, farmland, or city icons, there’s a limit to how zoomed-in you can get before things no longer make visual sense.
One other issue with Inkarnate (aside from its Beta nature, which meant I couldn’t get too mad when one of my maps didn’t save properly and I had to re-do a bunch of work) is that it’s all based on your input. You actually have to hand-draw everything, which means you’ll never get continents and coastlines that were designed by non-human forces, and which have that essential randomness to them that can make a difference. If that’s a problem for you, you’re in luck! Once again, there’s a tech solution.
As detailed in this in-depth tutorial, the Atlas Map Style uses photo editing tools to render a field of clouds, then runs those clouds through some filters until geographic shapes emerge, totally free of any actual drawing. Since randomness can be a great tool for creativity, the Atlas Map Style is a great alternative for those who really have no idea what they want their world to look like, and want to let a computer design it for them.
Keeping it all organized
The days of binders stuffed with paper notes are over. Here in the 21st century, tech-savvy DMs turn to digital tools like Microsoft OneNote or Evernote which allow them to create quests on the go and access their information anywhere. The next time you have a great idea for a dungeon while at the mall or something, just snap a picture of your inspiration, add some notes, and save it to your favorite cloud-based note tool. Do this enough, and you’ll have a great pool to draw from the next time your players jump merrily off the rails. Oh, you don’t want to follow the quest breadcrumbs I set up? That’s fine. Instead, you’re going to be plunged into a prison dungeon I thought up while eating at Cinnabon!
Beyond the note-taking stage, you really need a proper campaign wiki to wrangle all your ideas into an easy-to-use interface. And just as Inkarnate is the map-making tool that will do the job for just about anyone, Obsidian Portal is our recommendation for a free-to-use, robust wiki that should do everything you need it to.
Obsidian Portal is totally free for you and your players, unless you decide you want to upload custom background images or set up multiple separate wikis (neither of which is necessary, but which are both cool features), in which case a premium Ascendant membership is five dollars a month, or 40 dollars a year.
Though you can use the basic wiki functionalities of Obsidian Portal to do everything you need, the site also provides pre-set places for players to enter information about their characters and for everyone to keep track of campaign logs. Each wiki page you create also has advanced functionality that allows you to enter secrets only visible to the DM or to make certain pages editable by specific players.
All you really need to know to get started on Obsidian Portal is how to make a new wiki page (just put “[[ ]]” around a word when you’re tying, and it will be done automatically). Once you’ve got that down your scattered notes full of exotic city names, random encounter tables, and quests your characters won’t be ready to take on for ten levels or more will come together into a properly-organized framework.
For our TableTech campaign, I run two separate Obsidian Portal wikis. One I share with the players, and it’s full of widely-known world information, helpful maps and charts, and character pages the players can update themselves. The other wiki is something only I can access, and on my laptop it functions as my digital DM screen as we play. With a few clicks I can find any world information I’ve pre-planned, NPCs the characters might encounter, dungeon maps, quests, and everything else I need (though the lack of an official PDF Monster Manual comes up yet again as a shortcoming and a bummer).
Of all the technical additions we’ve tried so far in our campaign, using a laptop and wiki for DM info is my favorite, and it’s something I’ll continue to do in the future, whether or not the rest of the game is tech-heavy.
Do you have a favorite map-making program or wiki site we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments.
TableTech is our ongoing series taking a look at the ways people are bringing technology into the world of tabletop role-playing games. You can check out other articles in the series here.