I have a D&D gaming group that meets infrequently (every three or four months) because the players live far apart. We experimented with playing online but I wasn’t really happy with the software we were using. So a few days ago, I searched for other electronic tools for tabletop gaming.

What I Found

I found a great site at www.rpgvirtualtabletop.com that compares several different programs for online gaming. A “Virtual tabletop” is any software that is meant to do the job of a physical gaming table: providing a map display, “miniatures” (little icons you can move around to show where the characters and monsters are), a dice roller, and usually some kind of chat. If you’re interested in playing tabletop RPGs online, that site is a good starting point to see what’s available.

My New Favorite

My new favorite game aid is called InitiatveTool, part of the RPTools suite. My D&D group has a large party (7 player characters plus an animal companion) and they often encounter groups of a dozen or more humanoids. Rolling initiative and sorting all the characters into initiative order can be quite a production. I used to do this by hand.

PCGen has a feature that will do this (on the GMGen tab) but PCGen is a serious memory hog and it gets seriously bogged down after loading that many characters and their opponents.

Enter InitiativeTool. It is much more lightweight than PCGen and does not run out of memory after loading all the combatants in the battle. It does quite a bit more than just keep track of initiative. As you can see from the screenshot, it also displays a character sheet for the character or monster whose turn it is.

Screenshot of InitiativeTool

InitiativeTool tracks initiative in the left pane and displays a character sheet in the right

InitiativeTool includes handy timers to keep track of events such as when a spell expires. I am quite impressed with it but I do have to mention two drawbacks to the tool. First, the RPTools developers have done their level best to hide any kind of documentation. Supposedly there are forums and a Wiki but I have not been able to find them. Second, data entry into InitiativeTool is a royal pain. The interface is a tree view of the data structure of the character and you have to expand and collapse each node in order to edit it. No fun for typing in 7 PCs and 20 orcs. I’m pleased to say, InitiativeTool ships with pre-loaded statistics for all the monsters in the 3.5 SRD, so you rarely have to type in the monsters; and there is a work-around to avoid typing the PCs as well, but it is not perfect.

If you want to give InitiativeTool a try, I recommend you use the stable version (1.0.b24 at the time of this writing). Anything more recent will probably have spiffy new features, but it’s hit and miss as to which of them will be working. I’ve tried it both ways — the stable version provides a better experience.

InitiativeTool-PCGen Compatibility

The best thing about InitiativeTool is that it can load data created by other tools. That way you do not have to use its tortuous data-entry interface. Recent versions of PCGen (5.14 and later) can export a character sheet to InitiativeTool format. Simply use File -> export -> To Text and choose the cryptically-named csheet_InitTool.rpgrp. This creates an output file that can then be read into InitiativeTool as a “group” of characters.

In a lot of ways, this offers the best of both worlds. PCGen is great for editing a character and checking all the arithmetic, but it can’t really handle more than two or three characters at a time. InitiativeTools is good for displaying many characters at a time but for creating and editing characters, it’s less powerful and a lot less convenient to use than PCGen.

My experience with this is that it works pretty well for the stable version of InitiativeTool. For some characters, there are some slight errors in the output file that cause InitiativeTool to fail to load it. For me, this had mostly to do with the location of the character portraits (stored in the “token” tag of the .rpgrp file). I was able to open the .rpgrp file with a text editor, hand-edit it to delete the offending “token” tags, and then the file loaded fine. So for the stable version of InitiativeTool, the feature has some inconveniences but it works. I tried loading the same (fixed) file into the latest unstable version, and it wouldn’t load at all. This is why I recommend against the unstable version.

It appears the RPTools team is also working on their own character editor called CharTool. I tried it but could not figure out how to make it produce output that can be loaded into InitiativeTool, and as I’ve said the RPTools documentation is missing in action. My guess is that CharTool is in the pretty early stages of development and its integration with InitiativeTool isn’t done yet.

New Page on my Blog

I’ve created a new page on this blog for Electronic Game Aids. I’ll update that from time to time as I discover new software that I find useful.