I’ve got a couple of sessions with the display under my belt now, which means I’ve spent a good amount of time learning how to prep for my digitally-enhanced game. After doing a bunch of research and experimentation Microsoft PowerPoint has become one of my go-to tools to drive the display. Why? How? Read on…
Most of the discussion that I’ve seen on this topic seems to center around digital tabletop software to drive the gaming display. On the surface that makes sense… after all someone put a lot of time and effort into writing software that has been designed to function as an enhanced table top. Isn’t that what I want? Nope. 🙂
To me, the goal is not to digitize the gameplay, but to use digital to enhance the analog game. I don’t want to lose the tactile nature of moving minis across the map. I don’t want to replace the character record sheet. I don’t really want the digital table to be at all “aware” of the game (ok, that’s not entirely true… but more on that in another post). Nope, I just want a flexible way to display things (maps, npc portraits, etc.) for the players. So I made a rough list of requirements:
- Display image files from a pre-staged collection
- Easily add arbitrary images on the fly
- Easy to learn
I have used PowerPoint for easy formatting of handouts and even some lightweight graphic editing in the past. It’s always been useful, but it’s not actually what PowerPoint was designed for… it was designed to present content to an audience. Umm… yeah. It didn’t take long to figure out that PowerPoint is not only well suited to meet my requirements, but it has a few more obscure features that make it a compelling choice. Let’s look at how it’s working for me…
Display images files from a pre-staged collection
This is easy. For each game session, I create a new PowerPoint slide deck that contains maps and imagery that I think are most likely to come up in the session. We might not use it all or I might have to come up with something else on the fly… but at least half the time there will be something in that prepped deck I can use. Here are a few slides from a recent session:
- Title slide – why not? I put this up while players are gathering at the table getting settled… where are we starting? how much time has passed? I’m already thinking of other ways to use this…
- Mood piece – just an image to help paint the picture of a road the party finds themselves on for a few days… picturesque, flat, the occasional copse of trees slowly passes in the distance.
- A tavern (encounter map) – the party didn’t end up going in here, but I was ready.
- A road (encounter map) – the party had to fight a pack of axe beaks being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger.
- An NPC – they didn’t meet this guy (yet)
The maps and images just come from creative internet searching… so added prep time is actually minimal. Copy, paste, rotate, and resize is easy. Actually pouring over thousands of internet images is the hardest part but it also serves as an amazing source of inspiration.
Tip: Figure out both the dimensions and resolution of your display. I set up a template deck in PowerPoint with the slide size set to the exact dimensions of my screen, so you know things like a 1 inch grid will scale properly. With a 4K display, filter the internet search for high resolution images whenever possible… PowerPoint will scale anything you paste in there, but the large images will look nicer.
When the session starts, put PowerPoint in slideshow mode with “Presenter View” active. Now you can use the presenter view window on your main monitor to jump between slides. A quick alt-tab jumps you back to your notes, or whatever… do whatever you want on your laptop because PowerPoint will keep displaying the current slide.
Tip: While the presenter view window is active, pressing the ‘b’ key on your keyboard will blackout the second monitor. Useful when you don’t want the screen to be the focus of the game.
Easily add arbitrary images on the fly
This technically doesn’t even require PowerPoint. If you don’t mind a slight break in immersion at the table, you can just pop a browser window up on the second screen (Win-Shift-arrow moves the active window between monitors).
If you don’t want to expose your internet-searching-secrets to the players, you can easily paste the found image into a new slide in your presentation and jump to that slide without missing a beat. As an added bonus, if you save these game-time changes to your PowerPoint deck at the end of the session, you’ll have the image captured for future reference.
Tip: Keep a collection of encounter maps you like on your laptop organized by name, folder, or (as I do) metadata tags. If your players take an unexpected turn and you find yourself saying “roll initiative’ you can do a quick search to pull up a cool map that fits the scenario.
Honestly, I can imagine a couple of even better ways to do this… I’d love to see a browser extension that allowed you to right click on an arbitrary image and display it full screen on a second monitor.
Easy to learn
I’ve used PowerPoint professionally for years and while I’m no expert, it’s pretty easy to learn the basics. As I’ve been using it for this purpose, however, I’m discovering all sorts of cool features that are incredibly useful at the table.
Not sure how to judge this one. I pay for an Office subscription, so PowerPoint is installed on every machine I own. Always has been I think. If you are using Word or Excel for school or work you probably already have PowerPoint.
BONUS 1: Interactivity and Dynamic Updates
Here’s one of those hidden features of PowerPoint that I only recently discovered: while presenting on a second monitor in slideshow mode any edits that you make to the slide currently displayed will update on the second monitor automatically!
Now I can add/move/remove map elements from encounter maps like area of effect markings or atmospheric effects. I can even implement a pretty good fog of war effect with creative positioning of simple black shapes over a map .
BONUS 2: Pen support!
Because I use a Surface Pro to drive the display at the table I can use the Surface Pen to draw too. I use this to highlight parts of the map or even improvise a whiteboard / battle mat when I don’t have a suitable encounter map.
Who would have thought that PowerPoint could be so much fun?! 🙂