Firing Squad: Interview with RPTools’ Keith Athey

March 2014’s RPG Blog Carnival is focusing on Virtual TableTops and Online Gaming. I invited VTT creators to chat with me briefly about the state of VTTs, and what’s the future of online RPGs.

This evening I sat down for a brief chat with +Keith Athey of RPTools, and we spoke for just shy of a half-hour.

Unlike the usual Firing Squad interviews, this one, and hopefully others to follow, is only posted when I have a complete transcript up. This will occur, but I’m posting it right away.

With that: enjoy the interview!

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing
Squad. This evening we are joined by Keith Athey from RPTools. This particular
interview is a sort of an extra bonus interview. I’m trying to conduct
interviews about virtual tabletops and online gaming as part of the RPG Blog
Association Blog Carnival for March.
I suggested the topic and
I’m trying to support the event by bringing in content creators and innovators
and people who are actually running, using, and developing online systems for
role-playing games.
So Keith thank you for
joining us tonight.
Keith Athey (Content Creator for RPTools): You’re welcome. Glad to be here.
Doug: So
tell me a little bit about RPTools. I’ve personally used MapTool as part of a
GURPS Dungeon Fantasy campaign, where we were actually playing the Jade Regent
adventure path, but we played using Dungeon Fantasy. So I’ve had some
experience with the system.
But for those who don’t,
or for those who have never had a virtual tabletop experience at all why don’t
you tell us a let bit about what RPTools does, and tell us a little bit about
what VTTing is about.

Keith: Well
virtual tabletops I guess I got involved in them when I was no longer able to
game with my friends, so I was looking at something that would allow me to
connect over a large distances.
So I stumbled onto MapTools,
and at that time it was still in its early phases of development. There was
Trevor Croft who did most of the coding, and the Rice brothers, David and Mike,
who participated as well.
It started out as three
tools that turned into four which then started coalescing into this central
program called MapTool.
What it does is it’s a
virtual tabletop, it allows dice rolling, maps, map creation, asset management,
and later on they added on the ability to develop custom frameworks in
something called MT script. Which is a language that is a entity into itself.
Although MapTool is on the
surface is basically a place you put your tokens to move around and it has a
lot of map functionality. The real strength, I think, comes from the MT script
of the user community and what they’ve developed in the way of frameworks for
different systems.
Doug: One of
the players in our particular game. She is, I think we have several who are
really good at the scripting, but she is a script-wizard
and has coded the GURPS critical hit tables, and the dice rolling, and it
automatically gives you Deceptive Attacks, which is a rule mechanic in GURPS
that if you have a surfeit of skill, you can take a penalty to skill to give a
penalty to your attack. It’s all in there.
So if you have a really
good skill, and you take some penalties and your skill is still 20, it’ll
automatically give you a -4 to Deceptive Attack. So you don’t waste your extra
skill, because you can always fail on a 17 or 18.
I know that the code tools
are really powerful. And honestly, one of the reasons that I’m interested in
VTT is exactly why you got into them. I don’t have a face to face gaming group.
I have kids, and a busy life, and I can’t get 6 to 8 to 10 to 12 people in the
same room on a regular basis or any basis for that matter. I can hardly arrange
to go to dinner.
Do you think online gaming
is a kind of flash in the pan or do you think it’s going to be replaced by
going back to face to face gaming, or do you think this is a new way for doing
Keith: I
think that they’ll always been room for both from this point forward.
I think what you’ve seen
from traditional tabletop gaming, where you have the paper, pencil, and dice –
I think you’re going to begin to see that move more and more to virtual tabletops,
even if those tabletops are inside the same room where the players are
gathered. The tools are just to powerful to ignore.
I think as – now I just
turned 50 so I’m past the half century mark, right? I’ve been gaming for 35
years. I think the younger generations of folks are going to demand what
they’ve seen in their X-Box. You’re going to see your tabletop move towards
your X-Box. Just like you’ve seen your X-Box move towards your tabletop.
I mean today’s gamers on
the X-Box demand a much more story rich environment then back when saw back
when I was first story-gaming with Doom and things like that. You know it’s a
first person shooter. They want a story. They want something they can immerse
themselves in.
That’s something that RPGs
have given folks forever. The reason we started playing was we needed this
creative outlet to have fun, and we wanted to recreate things we’d read, or
things we’d thought of. And the RPGs were a natural place for that.
So when you have the
online games they’re going to be…you’re playing the game that the game creators
made in the X-Box on the tabletop, you can’t get a experience like that because
it’s based on the imagination of your gamemaster as well as the imaginations of
that table or virtual tabletop, You co-create a story.
And I just think that’s
going to become…I don’t see that going away, but I do think that people are
going to move more towards virtual tabletops than tabletops.
I’ll be honest with you, I
don’t really roll dice anymore. I have – I use the virtual tabletops for that
because a) it takes into account all the modifiers. I’ve developed several
frameworks, the most complex has been Savage Worlds, which doesn’t have the
same game mechanics as other game systems like the d20s. I had to code a lot of
the initiative stuff myself as well as some of the modifiers you’re speaking
of. They’re handled different in Savage Worlds then they are in other game
So the MapTool allowed me
to do all of that.
Yeah, I can buy…there are
venders out there that are selling Savage Worlds virtual tabletops and some
that are selling generic virtual tabletops.
I think the main thing
about MapTools is that it’s free and runs on anything. It runs on Linux. It
runs on Mac. It runs on Windows. Which is very important for my gaming group.
So for all those reasons I think MapTools are a natural choice for me, and
virtual tabletops are the natural choice for me based on my situation which is
like yours. I’ve got children and a family.
Instead of driving a few
hours to get to a gaming group, you get up from the dinner table, you have
family time, and then you walk into your office and go online and begin gaming.
It cuts out some of the
pizza, but other than that it’s still a great experience.
Doug: I
remember that when I was gaming, I think it was at Rice, the pizza outlets were
Mr. Gatti’s, which was edible, and Dominos which we claimed could fax from
point to point with no change in taste, so [both laugh] that would be a case
where the digital pizza is of higher quality than the actual pizza. I know that
they’ve improved since then, but boy was it awful then.
Some of the things that
you’ve mentioned in terms of the power of the virtual table top . . . One of
the things…GURPS get a good knock for occasionally being  so front-end loaded. You have to do a lot of
work to get characters or a story. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that is
the perception.
VTTs are a bit the same,
in that to get the maximum utility out of it you have to have at least one
person in your group who is kind of a script wizard. Do you think…
Keith: I
would say MapTools is a little heavier than most in that regard, because it
runs a client side tool – meaning every PC has its own version of MapTool
running, vs. some of the stuff like roll20 and others which are all web-based.
It is a little higher end on
the technical scale for people to get it up and running.  But I’ve had complete novices get set right up
and running with no problem.
I’ve also had the complete
opposite, folks really struggle getting Java set up right, or their network set
up right. You don’t run into that with some of the web-based systems, but by
their nature a web-browser based system cannot be as functional as a
client-side system. It’s just apples and oranges there.
But there is a lot to be
said for a web-based front end for an ease of getting into kind of thing.
But that said, there is
nothing simpler than sitting at a table next to somebody and saying you got to
add these two together and don’t forget to add the die to this. That’s your
lowest common system.
I will say that however
with the scripting ability of MapTool and some of the others I find that game
speed increases dramatically, because you’re letting the framework do a lot of
the things for you that you used to have to dig through and argue over. At
least for me, my gaming actually sped up, I can get more done in two hours than
I used to get in four or six in the old days.
Doug: What I
have found in my experience, is that has been true for video-based VTTs, where in roll20 or MapTool, you’ve actually got
people talking – whether it’s a offline window or you run a Hangout or a video
tool – in a different window. I find that game speed is much faster.
When we’ve played MapTool
with chat only, because that group is not found of video, it crawled. So there
is a certain amount…the tool was not the rate-limiting step. That was not
MapTool’s fault. There is a certain amount of human interaction to go smoothly
and well to get the most out of a VTT.
Keith: I
agree. There is nothing like … I say as a GM I like to hear my gamers scream
[both laugh]. I find that still to be true even though a player…the voice chat
goes much quicker than just the chat.
I’ve run many chat-only
sessions of VTT, and like you say they are slower. But the nice thing is
everything is in the chat. And what I like about chat only is you can save that
chat and let people read it later. And that’s a nice feature of most of the
VTTs out there.
Doug: What
I’ve done. I like to transcribe – [laughs] as you’ll find out, I’m big into
transcriptions and I like the reading of things.
What I’ll often do is take
screenshots of whatever we’re playing and put them into the transcript of the
game I’ll do as we’re gaming, It does make for a wonderful session log.
I caught a little bit of
well-deserved humor after I was doing that with Erik Tenkar’s Swords and
Wizardry group.  Within 5 minutes of the
end of the game I had posted up a fairly substantial transcript with pictures
and all kinds of stuff. We were actually playing through Tim Short’s Gothridge
Manor #3 little adventures on the Virtual Tabletop. I had screenshots and they
were all they’re and they were like “You got this up already?!” and I was like
“It’s easy. It’s all there.”
It’s not like you’re
uploading camera pics and as things happen you’ve got your battlemap and you
just capture a screenshot.
And I’ve seen that done
very effectively, not just with my stuff. Lots of people will say “Here is a
cool thing that happened” and they’ll show a shot of the screen from a VTT, and
you can see the four hundred icons that are all coming in, and you know that
the end is nigh.
Keith: You
know a side effect of that is that recently we started a play-by-post game with
my old-old gaming group. And it’s based off a novella I published called “World
of Grey” – a futuristic sci-fi.
We wanted to do this and I
decided to go ahead and use MapTool for the map creation and to create those screenshots
you’re talking about.
I don’t know if this is
true of other tabletops, I assume it is, but MapTool also makes a great
play-by-post as well.
Doug: Yes.
Keith: It’s
not a virtual tabletop per say, but it’s a awesome tool for just playing by
post or doing email games like that. Especially with MapTools drawing
And the number of huge
image libraries out there in places like RPGNetShare. Devin Night makes some
great tokens as well. There are a large number of top-down tokens out there for
the virtual tabletops and I will say, for me who is artistically challenged
it’s been a great boon for my gaming. I can make good-looking maps, I can just
take work that others have freely given on the communities and putting them in
my games that way which is another big strong selling point in my opinion on
It is a open source
project. There is nobody making (at this point) any money off it. All the
donations of art, code, and everything that people have given was given because
they wanted to give it to the gaming community.
And see that as well with
other virtual tabletops as well, I think. It’s an amazing thing and it’s one of
the things that attracted me to MapTools from the beginning. The community
behind it, and I’ll say the same thing for Savage Worlds, Clint Black, and the
I’m attracted to nice
communities, communities that want to help you – and MapTools is one of those
and Savage Worlds is one as well.
I’d gather other gaming
communities are the same way. I think Fate has a good backbone of the community
going. Because as RPGers, what we’re attracted to is not just the game. If it
were just the game we’d be playing Skyrim or other things like that.
It’s getting together with
people and interacting and MapTool and other VTTs as well as game systems as
well have that same camaraderie going on.
Doug: So
what do think the future…I just had a chat with Stacy Dellorfano, who founded
and has run ConTessa, an online gaming convention, twice now. GenCon 2025 –
project ten years and what do you think is there going to be a online virtual
tabletop section of that? Do you think it’s going to be something where you can
easily have of your seven or ten gamers, five of them are there in front of you,
and the other five are in Australia, Hong Kong, Minneapolis, or Montreal at the
same time. So you have this sort of worldwide fusion of both face to face and
online PCs. Do you think that’s eventually where we are going to get?
Keith: Yes I
do. However.
I will say the thing about
conventions in general is that the gaming is part of it, and it’s a important
part of it, but much of that experience is just meeting your heroes and people
you think highly of in the gaming industry as well as your fellow gamers that
you may have met on forums or VTTs or whatever.
I have a group of friends,
I haven’t made GenCon yet, it’s still on my bucket list, I had four of my
friends who met and gamed at GenCon . . . and you know that that’s a different
And when you’re with that
many people you can sit around and get ten people on a screen and that’s fun.
But it’s nothing like actually outside of the game socializing, going to eat,
going for a drink or two, or just chatting about games outside of the QWERTY
My problem with the
internet is that many people are anonymous and they feel powerful behind that
anonymity. Face to face is much harder to do that. There is just a different
interaction and different social level you get by actually meeting people face
to face. That’s not to say I don’t have great online friends – I do. People
like Matt Jackson and a few of us like that, that are all over the internet,
and you interact with them often – even over videochat.
I suspect if he and I were
in a room together it would be a little bit different experience with thousands
and thousands of other gamers. It’s just a different thing. It’s more like a
happening versus a event if that makes sense.
Doug: No,
and I agree. I had the fortune of hitting GenCon when I was in grad school and
I happened to met Timothy Zahn there, and that was when his Thrawn trilogy was
busting out all over,  and I got to
interact a little with the West End Games guys which was a awful lot of fun
because I was running a Star Wars game and I still have very fond memories of that system.
And it was really cool,
and I can’t remember who I met at the Steve Jackson Games booth and I know I
met a couple of them, and I’m sure I didn’t make a impression at all at the
time [laughs]. It’s a lot easier to say “Oh yeah, I wrote one of your books”
then it is to say “Yeah, I play your game.” Oh, yes, nice to meet you, that’s
Keith: Steve
Jackson person knows that that’s a different thing then reading something he’s
written on line [laughs].
Doug: Yes.
So taking MapTool into the
future a little bit, where do you think it’s going to go?
And I’ll make a little
wishlist for myself too.
For someone who doesn’t
have time to write code or learn it, do you think that there’s room for some
kind of more . . . almost like a GUI or powerful script thing? Where you can
get some of the scripting down more through menu selection or graphicals. “Oh,
I want to build a events table” and you populate it, add rows and it sort of
codes it for you.
Do you think that there
are going to be scripting aids to make the power a little more accessible?
Keith: Well,
it’s like I said, the strength of MapTools is community, and there are so many
frameworks developed by different people who either wanted to see things done a
bit differently in their framework, or for game systems that did not have
frameworks put together in the past.
I think what you’ll see is
a strong look at the common elements in all of those. Some of the folks like Covered_in_Fish
and Wolf_42 is another one – I could list a bunch of them, but I know I’d
forget at least half, but I’ll put those two because they have been two of the
most prolific.
There are a number of
folks who have developed all these tools for the MT script language. I think
you’ll see a lot of these fold into the main product as time goes on.
Some of the common things
like character sheets. Just about every framework put together has a way to
display your character information, and I think you’ll see a expansion of the
initiative system beyond the sort of DnD(ish) initiative that you have now.
I think you’ll see more
potential expansion in the area of sound as well as animated artwork. Some of
the animated GIFs, I think you’ll see that rolling in.
What’s on the top for the
future is a reworking of the GUI, which is a little dated I think, which most
people would admit.
Some of that is waiting
for Java FX to get worn and more mature and cross platform. Java FX has been
out for a while, but getting it for Mac and Linux, getting all those stable and
ready to go has been a little bit of a waiting game.
Part of that is because
the industry players don’t necessary want to play well together [laughs]. They
don’t want cross platform tools. What they would tell you is go to the web.
And that’s nice. HTML5 is
getting much better. I think it will continue to get better, but there will
always be browser incompatibilities. You got to code for Chrome. Code for I.E.,
Safari, and all the rest.
Each platform has its own
issues. The problem with Java is that they had a few GUIs. One was Swing,
another was SWT. They settled on Swing. Then around the time Oracle took over
Java they sort of shelved Swing, which is what MapTools is written in.
So now the next great GUI
is going to be Java FX we believe and they’re making great strides and getting
that thing ready to go. But it will mean a rewrite of the MapTool GUI and none
of that will happen quickly. And so . . .
Doug: So I
guess that’s the hard part about a user-supported piece, is there is no CEO who
can say “Your priorities are now different, and you 15 coders are going to make
this happen and it’s going to be on this deadline.” Getting software guys to do
anything on a deadline is hard, getting them to do it free has got to be . . .
slightly more difficult.
Keith: Well
it is. There is a guy named Rhys and he really kicked up the whole MT script
thing – and it’s going to sound kind of funny – with an IF statement.
If you’ve ever coded a
spreadsheet and you’ve put a three-parameter IF:  “if this, then this, if not that, then this.”
And that started everything [both laugh].
And I think Trevor who was
the original coder, wasn’t a big fan of user build frameworks, user built code
and I showed him what I’d done one time and said “What do you think?” and he
said “You. Scare. Me.” [laughs].
Because it was outside of
Java, it was beyond his ability to control the performance or anything else.
But that said, that’s the
power of it as well, once MT script got in there and started getting different
developers adding more functionality it took off. There is almost nothing you
can’t do with MapTool at this point inside MT script.
It’s like any other thing,
it’s got its strengths and weaknesses. But by and large the guys that went in
there and started working with that thing made it into an incredibly powerful
Doug: Do you
think there is ever going to come a time when a Steve Jackson Games, Paizo, or
a Wizards of the Coast, or a Evil Hat is going to come one or more virtual
tabletops and say “I’ve got GURPS 6th edition”(we’ll just skip right
over fifth). I’ve got DnD 6th edition, or whatever and it’s going to
launch inside a co-developed virtual
experience that can either be done at the tabletop with tablets (or whatever)
to assist, or online with the power of a Google Hangouts video mated with a
fairly robust random number rule support, a character sheet, and by the way you
can pull in maps.
I got one other wish list
I’ll cover wholly separate later because I think it would be awesome.
Do you ever think they’re
going to be a partnership that way where the next editions of games are almost
going to be required to be supported
on a VTT?
Keith: [emphatically]
Doug: [laughs]
Moving on then…
Keith: And I
say that someone who’s 50 and in the software industry. What I’ve seen happen
in the gaming industry is that people that develop games do not know how to run
software projects, and people that know how to run software projects do not
know how to run games.
It’s not that the two
cultures are perpendicular to each other or anything, it’s just whoever the
management is is going to favor one or the other. So you’re either going to
have a strong RPG and a weak VTT or the other way around. It would take someone
that is strong in both communities to do it right.
Doug: Okay. Then
the last part of it is I guess my wish list – and this may be something like
“And this is what I’d really like to have” and you’re like “Yeah, that’s
already in there.”
Obviously, a lot of these
VTTs have a fairly powerful capability to bring in a map, a image, or jpeg, or
Is there a utility, or
could there be a utility that takes that map and then says “Okay, wherever
there is a light/dark boundary I’m going to put a wall.”
So you can not just bring
it in, but powerful features like lighting or sound or I’m going to set off a
fireball in this thing and it’s going to blossom into how many cubic feet.
Do you think there is a
capability there for taking a flat file, so to speak, a flat picture and
integrating it into some of the more powerful “Here’s where the walls are and
here is the door and here is the properties of said file.” Is that something
that is possible? Or a next step?
Keith: Yes.
In fact it’s partially solved now…
Doug: Okay.
Keith: …in MT
script. There have been some people that have created tokens or a vision blocking
layer and recorded it in a macro so that whenever you plop that token it’s
going to recreate that as you go.
I know that in the future
as people who don’t use MapTools won’t know this pain. The tokens are stored in
a special file folder with the .RPTok extension, and that will be a future hold
for animated file pieces, these virtual vision blocking layer inside the tokens
so that when you drag in these .RPTok it brings this stuff with it. Including a
animated .GIF, if you have an animated GIF of a fireball. It’s going to explode
out like a fireball, on a time schedule. I’m sure all that is not too far away.
Doug: Right.
And the maps themselves, as opposed to the moveable tokens, you think that’s
something where the walls will auto-populate. Essentially something like a cave
complex: here’s a map and I’m going to call this the open spot and it’s going
to follow a contour around and say “Okay, that’s the open spot. Do you want to
make all this the wall?”
Keith: I’re making me put my software developer hat on now. The way I would
handle that is through textures. You would have vision blocking texture that
you would lay down, and you’d leave the open spots as visible areas. And
wherever you drew that light-blocking texture would always be blocked.
Doug: I
guess what I’m looking for is something like “Oh! I saw a great map that
somebody uploaded!” And rather than having to sit down and spending hours
recoding it in your tool the package would say “I’m going to help. I’m going to
guess and hopefully that’s going to help in a good way rather than a Microsoft
way.” [both laugh]
“Really we’re going to
help you by doing everything you don’t want.”
If you’ve ever written for
Steve Jackson Games the first thing you do is turn the Microsoft Autoformatting
OFF, because if you really want to make Steven Marsh even more long-suffering,
send him something with the autocorrect on, because it wrecks the layout. Absolutely wrecks their ability to import it
into a file they use.
But anyways, that at least
for me, timestrapped and 40 some odd years old. If I drew a map or grabbed a
map and it says “I’m going to take my best guess into making this into
something that can be used.” Within the power of the machine, the code, would
be a real help for a novice user.
Keith: I
think that’s all doable via a colorpicker tool. I think the same thing we’re
talking about doing the light blocking layer via texture, you could do it
through a color-picking tool.
Doug: Okay.
Well I always give my guest the last word so if there is anything you want to
add or amplify or chat about. Have at it.
Keith: My
son is here. His name is Chaos Lord Zack [a child’s voice can be heard off
Zack Athey:
Hey! [garbled audio] [Doug and Keith laugh]. What are you talking about?
Keith: So
he’s often on my video chats, but he’s usually more vocal so thanks for helping
me out there bud.
Zack: That
just makes it a lot worse.
Keith: Other
than that I’ll say that from a MapTools standpoint, and RPTools standpoint it’s
the community that makes this really work.
I’m part of the RPTools
staff, but it’s really everybody that contributes to the forums every day and
everybody that submits artwork, everybody that develops new macros for folks,
all that stuff. That’s what makes MapTools great and will continue to make it
great going forward.
Doug: Well I
wanted to thank you for your time and thank Zack for being a gentlemen in the
Keith: You
bet [laughs].
Doug: Alright,
thank you very much.
Keith: Thank
you, sir.
Doug: Bye,

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