Building your TTS mod
With lock down still ongoing (I’m writing this blog at the start of July 2020 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic) more and more gaming is taking place on entirely virtual tabletops. There are a range available, but the one that I’m familiar with is Tabletop Simulator. Whatever the future holds though, TTS will remain a useful resource for the playtesting and dissemination of games for independent designers. All the tools you need to design a mod for your game are available for free providing you have the relatively cheap program (currently £15 on steam). When launching a Kickstarter anything that shows you are willing to let backers try before they buy is a huge benefit, even if they never take advantage of the offer it is reassuring that they know you’re willing to let them see the game, it shows confidence in your design. The traditional other method of getting across the same confidence is a review and considering the cost of creating a prototype and getting it in front of a reviewer this is a resource that most independent games designers should be availing themselves of. A TTS mod shouldn’t replace reviews or print and play versions, but it should be used alongside them, and when they are not possible can go some way to covering the gap. There are a few tools that will ease your entry into TTS, I’m far from expert in using it, but I can hopefully help you with a few early stumbling blocks.
Download a mod of a game that you’re fairly familiar with and give it a play through, it can be a solo game if you don’t know anyone else on TTS, there are a range of good ones out there (Perilous Tales has a beta test version up that I created, if you’re struggling). As with all game production putting yourself on the other end of the equation is a great learning step. Now, the first time you play TTS, it’s a bit like playing a game with boxing gloves on and a two-inch range of vision. Persist through though because once you get used to that side of things there really are a good range of options available. Play around with the options available when right clicking on objects, particularly locking objects in various forms.
The very basics
Many of the basic components in TTS are a little random in their availability. For example, you couldn’t make a bingo set with them, because they don’t have a set of basic numbered counters. It doesn’t have meeples or euro cubes as standard. You can import pretty much anything in, but you should take a look at what’s already there and try to figure out what you can do with it. For example, meeples don’t exist but ball headed pawns are available, so you can save a lot of effort if your meeple doesn’t need to be laid down during play by using an alternative.
Check the experts
Check out the knowledge base https://kb.tabletopsimulator.com/ don’t try to read it all right now, its terrifying, but when you have a specific question it’s a great place to go to first. After that, check out the TTS guides which offer tons of perspectives on most problems you’ll come across. I find it easiest to start poking things around and then finding out that something doesn’t work before asking questions, but feel free to check some of these out before starting.
One of the issues with TTS is that mods often assume that players already know the game they’re playing, which is not necessarily true, and even if they do it can be pretty annoying to get halfway through a TTS game and then need to dig through BGG or a physical box to get to a rule. There are a range of options to get around this that should be considered.
1) Custom PDF. There is an option in the TTS custom elements list to load a PDF right into the game. Its not often used because many of the mods are made by fans of games they have and converting a rulebook in your hand into a digital PDF file can be a pain, but if you’re making your own game in the mod there’s a good chance that you have it in PDF format. If you do, load it right in there, your players will thank you.
2) Reference cards. You should have reference cards anyway, they make people’s lives easier, load some into the game, I’ll run over making cards in a minute.
3) Notecards and the notepad. TTS has an option to load in notecards that you can type onto and a notepad that all players can pull up on the screen. These are best used to explain how the current mod works or differs from the standard game since they do not allow for the use of many words and certainly not for diagrams, but they can easily be deleted once set-up or similar is complete.
4) Info. Each component has an option where you can enter information that will be shown whenever a player hovers their mouse over the component. This is a brilliant option for miniatures games where each mini can show its stats without need for looking it up, but its worth considering dropping reminders in for a range of information and keywords attached to elements in any game.
Getting your cards in
Creating a deck of cards is the core of a lot of games and mods, and happily its something that’s pretty easy thanks to some programs that come alongside TTS, particularly the deck builder app that will be in your steam folder in Tabletop Simulator/modding/deck builder. The way that TTS creates a deck is for you to load up a single image with all the cards in it in a grid, if you have the card images you can load them into the deck builder and it will automatically generate just such an image. There are just two things to consider when using this process:
1) The last card image is what will be displayed to other players when the card is in a player’s hand as a hidden image, so it’s a good idea to put the card back there, even for the card fronts. You can turn this option off, but its still a good idea to build in the option.
2) Make sure you get the grid right. When loading into TTS it will ask for the width of the deck, this is not the width of cards but that of the grid. You need to tell TTS the number of cards to the grid so that it can cut in the right places when making the deck. So if your grid is 4 cards by 5 the deck is 4 wide, whatever size the cards are.
Shoulders of giants
There are tons of mods on TTS including scripted assets and scanned custom items. Take some time to hunt around and find some elements that other clever people have made that might be suitable for use in your mod. Properly credit the sources in your description when you make your mod live, but the community is largely built on a give and take process in this respect. In particular there are a range of creators who have posted minis available for use in mods that are not being sold for profit. Other things to check out are alternative table elements beyond the small number of slightly pokey tables offered by TTS, dice trays and roll generation clickers and even effect generators. Load up a mod, right click on an element and save it then it can be loaded into your own mod. Make sure that you credit all elements and if a mod is asked not to be used in others, please respect that.
Full of clever ideas
While TTS lacks a lot of basics it also has lots of clever stuff that are well worth checking out from the basic options, the three worth looking up are Measures, Digital Counters and Infinity bags.
1) If building a minis game measuring movement is a potential impossibility in TTS until you realise that you can set any element to be measured whenever it’s moved. Simply right click on a mini and set its movement to be measured and you’ll have the easiest and most accurately measured minis game you ever played.
2) There are two assets in the general TTS menu that can save serious headaches, the first are the Digital Counters, these are small square counters with plus and minus buttons. They can be colour coded, named as linked to an element, shrunk and grown, locked and set to starting values and are extremely useful when building a mod.
3) The other asset are the infinity bags. Bags in TTS are hugely useful anyway, but infinity bags are a massive time saver. Load up an infinity bag and drop a single asset into it, from then on players can take the asset out the bag endlessly and neatly, never running out. Use infinity bags for anything from coins and counters to minis.
Stepping it up some
Those are the basics, but you might want to load in your own minis to boost things up a little. This can be tricky, but this is a general idea of how to get it done. First you need a 3D file, Thingiverse is a great source for these, particularly for tabletop gaming. The issue is that most 3D files you find online are for 3D printing and they are way more fine-grained than TTS can handle. So, you’ll need to load them up into a 3D program and reduce the number of triangles used to build them. I suggest Blender, its free and will only make you go slightly insane learning it. Your mini wants to be made of around 15,000 triangles before TTS will be able to use it, Blender can render your mini down for you using its decimate function. Save it as an obj file and load it up as the model/mesh and collider for your custom model and you’re all set. Load it as cardboard rather than plastic though, plastic is set very shiny in TTS for some reason. Your model will come out plain and you can set its colour. It is possible to load in a Texture to paint the mini with, but that’s a whole other guide of its own.
Just to say, if you do load a mini into your game, at the bottom of the custom options, pick its type as figurine please for the sanity of everyone. An asset defined as a figuring will always automatically self-right so you can put it on its base. One that hasn’t been will topple over at a moment’s notice and force players to spend half their play time trying to get the damn thing upright again.
Bags of simplicity
One final thing, if you load a lot of assets into your game that are not all needed all the time, put them into bags. Bags are simple tools that are exactly what they sound like, they can be colour coded and named to indicate their contents. When TTS loads up a mod it will load up every unique asset not in a bag on the initial load, but assets in bags will not be loaded until they are pulled out the bag. This means that if you have a mod with 50 potential minis but only 5 will be needed at any given time, or where there are 300 odd assets, but only 50 needed per player, you can hugely cut down the loading time for the game by bagging them up and only forcing players to load the ones that they actually need.
In conclusion, Tabletop Simulator and in turn Tabletopia are extremely useful assets to an independent games creator, get on there and have a poke around. I often hear people starting out complaining about the cost of creating and printing a high-quality prototype, which is a real concern. While physical prototypes are needed, from a PoD service like Gamecrafter a small run can cost hundreds of dollars so they can’t be sent out to just anyone. TTS is your friend there. Have you played any good mods on TTS, or have you created your own? Let us know so we can all check them out. In that vein, check out the mods on TTS for SSO and Perilous Tales that I’ve created and the Moonflight mod that Wes Woodbury from FunDaMental games was good enough to create for us.