GM Tips: Top 5 Tools for the Virtual GM

Updated: Jun 21






Whether you play your favorite TTRPG virtually because the party is spread far and wide, because the pandemic requires it, or because you prefer it - there are so many amazing tools available to make your game immersive in way that - frankly - would be difficult to do around the table. We're here to help you find some 500 GP diamonds in the rough.


*Disclaimer: Aside from a very obvious connection to one of these products, we have not been paid to endorse anything listed below. These are all GM tools we discovered organically as GMs and creators ourselves.



Virtual Platform

The first decision is how are you going to play online? I've personally played and GMed through numerous methods including all the major ones. I've played "theater of the mind" style using Facebook Messenger video and have run some epic campaigns using Roll 20. Perhaps the most creative configuration I've used is ZOOM Meetings App while screen-sharing a Powerpoint presentation I had created for the evening's adventure, each slide a different room of the dungeon.

If you play D&D 5e and, let's be honest, who doesn't these days, you need to check out Shard Tabletop. It's the only Virtual Tabletop made built from the ground up exclusively for Fifth Edition. It includes a treasure horde of OGL content including beautiful VTT Token art for all OGL monsters. The marketplace is bustling with new content from just about every 3rd party publisher you can think of including all the heavy hitters: Kobold Press, Troll Lord Games, Petersen Games, Nord Games, and yours truly. Our Sandbox Adventures series strives to make the GMs life as easy as possible. Shard Tabletop's fully-integrated 5e mechanics and OGL content is difficult to beat in that regard.

For runner-up, I would recommend Roll 20. It's clunkier and less user-friendly compared to Shard Tabletop but it offers the flexibility to be used with just about any tabletop game for which you can upload assets. That flexibility is why the Headless Hydra Press team uses Roll 20 for playtesting our Sandbox Adventures.




Inkarnate

I've made maps for my homebrew settings in numerous ways such Worldographer/Hexographer, buying map assets on DriveThruRPG, and even using Microsoft Paint. Yes, you read that right, Microsoft Paint. In many ways, I'm only slightly more tech savvy than your standard Neanderthal. However, with Inkarnate, I can create beautiful looking maps for just about any type of fantasy setting you want. All of our Hexplorer Map Tiles were created using Inkarnate. They have assets for fantasy, steampunk, orc camps, wizard lairs, nautical campaigns and the best part? They're constantly adding new content. It's configured so that you can make an assortment of styles such as high-detail battlemaps, isometric regions, and watercolor-style town maps. Their customer service is excellent, they have a series of super helpful YouTube videos if you get stumped on something, and there's even a free version loaded with content to get started. To whet your appetite, here's a map I made of an island brewhouse built within a ruined fortress.




Quick Aside

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Portrait Workshop

How many hours have you spent sifting through various google searches trying to find just the right image for your half-orc sorcerer noblewoman. Well I have good news for you. I can't help you reclaim those lost hours but you don't have to lose anymore time to the Google image wastelands. Portrait Workshop, funded through Kickstarter, allows you to create highly customizable portraits of your fantasy characters. It has a MASSIVE assortment of artwork and allows you to swap out weapons, facial features, skin tones, clothes and more in seconds. We got the commercial license last summer and we've used artwork from Portrait Workshop in nearly every publication we've released. Here is artwork for the Buranar - a playable race included in our Lost in the Caligo Fields 5e adventure. As a GM, I routinely create character art for my games here. Then I can upload them as character tokens to slap them on player handouts. You can preorder Portrait Workshop now for $24.99 and it is well worth the investment.



Hexplorer

*THIS AREA CONTAINS GRATUITIOUS SELF PROMOTION* There, you've been warned. If you love hexcrawls, exploring strange new lands, or want to be able to make a hexmap for your homebrew world in a snap, come check out our Hexplorer map tiles. You can upload them onto your favorite virtual tabletop and make old school hexcrawl maps in a few seconds. Check it out!



YouTube

YouTube? Really? Yes! YouTube is an amazing resource for GMs for two main reasons: inspiration and music. If you haven't already checked out Matt Colville's Running the Game series, drop everything you're doing, cancel your dinner reservations, tell your friends you have a family emergency, and go watch it now. It's an engaging series with great information for green and seasoned GMs alike. Matt Colville is fantastic presenter and most of what I know about being a great GM I learned from this series. If I'm feeling uninspired or need a little jolt of energy to work on an adventure, I'll play Running the Game in the background while I'm working.

In addition to Matt Colville, there are TONS of YouTube creators with D&D related channels that are just waiting to level up your GM game. Additionally, I've found YouTube to be an amazing resource for epic music for your campaign. Roll20 includes integrations to play music from your computer that other players will hear. The next time the party arrives at a Tavern to quench their first, drop this little number for their listening pleasure. You're welcome.


<iframe width="683" height="384" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/X3gF1atr68A" title="YouTube video player" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>

What your favorite tool for improving virtual game night? Let me know in the comments!


- Shane Collins



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