I began playing Dungeons & Dragons in grade school, and I used Apple computers almost as long. I started writing up adventures on my Apple II and printing them on an dot matrix printer, took a brief sojourn into the world of Windows PCs during and after college, and then returned to the Mac with the release of Mac OS X.
My Macs remains a critical component of my game, as I use it for everything from creating characters to writing adventures to tracking combat. What’s changed over time is the decline in Mac-specific utilities. In the early days of Mac OS X there were a slew of Mac-specific utilities and tools, foremost among them being Crystal Ball. Crystal Ball was a Mac-specific campaign manager and character creator for D&D 3rd Edition, with aspects of that game’s system resource document built in. There were also utilities for randomly generating cities and villages, constructing battle maps, and more.
Two things drove the decline of these platform-specific utilities:
- Java-based, system-agnostic utilities: The Mac market was never as big as the Windows one, plus a good number of RPG geeks run Linux. Native apps didn’t make sense in the long run … if you could create a system agnostic that could run just as well.
- The rise of tablets: The iPad and its tablet kin were what gamers had wanted for years: a way to read game PDFs on the go. At the same time, their portable and niche nature made them an obvious choice for purpose-built, easy-to-use apps.
- The dominance of the Web: A lot of generic utility apps, and even character creators, have migrated to the Web.
What we find on the Mac today tend to be OS-agnostic applications, which brings with them a different set of challenges. macOS prefers to run applications from the Mac App Store and requires you to override certain security settings to download unsigned apps from the Internet. It’s a reasonable control, given how trojan viruses and worms can spread, and it requires the security complacent Mac to make absolutely sure they know where they’re getting their apps from.
I’m always looking for websites and tools to add to this page. If you have one, email me at email@example.com.
The Computer: A Mac Book Pro (Apple M1 Pro, 16 GB RAM, Liquid Retina XDR Display) running the latest macOS. It’s the workhorse machine I used to do most of my game prep.
The Tablet: A iPad Air 2 (64 GB). Used to read game PDFs, run modules at the table, control playlists on my Mac, and jot down notes.
The iPhone: An iPhone 12 (256 GB). My primary means of documenting the game, either for blogging or restoring the battle map prior to a game session
The Watch: Apple Watch Series 6. Shockingly, used to tell time.
My Campaign Regime
I’ve settled on a couple of different tools for managing my RPG campaigns with my Mac:
Campaign notes: I write my adventures and campaign notes using Typora, a Markdown editor for the Mac. I keep track of my campaign calendar and character experience using a spreadsheet on Google Drive. I also use Google Drive to collaborate with other game masters on big campaign events where two or more of us will be running concurrent games. Finally, I use Google Keep as my scratchpad for the random campaign ideas that I get throughout the day. In addition to the web app, Keep has local versions for macOS and iOS.
Character Creation (D&D 5th Edition): Once upon a time, I used Forged Anvil, an Excel-based, fan-built spreadsheet for character creation. Unfortunately, it’s not available for download any more, so I’ve been using a hodge bodge of options including a local copy of the spreadsheet that I still have, D&D Beyond, and good ol’long hand.
Combat tracking: Microsoft Excel is my go-to tool for tracking combats (specifically hit points, battle field conditions, and experience earned).
Hero Lab: Originally a Windows-only tool, Hero Lab is now available for Mac as well. It’s popular with my gaming group because it supports some of our favorite RPGs, including Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Call of Cthulhu, Mutants & Masterminds, d20 System, 4th Edition, and World of Darkness. The drawback is its printing; the default character sheet templates are limiting, and don’t organize things as well as your typical print character sheet. Still it’s a worthwhile investment if you have complicated character concepts or need to throw together quick-and-dirty non-player characters for your campaign.
Worldographer:This tool is all about making hex-based maps, like the classic World of Greyhawk map or the expansive Wilderlands of High Fantasy map set. It’s great for making overland, city, and dungeon maps.
PC Gen: PC Gen is a Java-based, open-source character generator that incorporates the D&D 3.5 core rules, as well as numerous d20 game systems and supplements. Because it is Java-based, it can be run on Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems.
I used PC Gen a lot during my d20 days, but it eventually fell by the wayside as web-based alternatives rose to the fore. The tool’s great strength is its support for a wide variety of d20 rule sets; the greatest weakness is its often-clunky interface.
RPTools: RPTools offers a suite of Java-based programs to enhance your role-playing game sessions. MapTool is used to create an online game table (though I’ve heard of folks who project its maps in their game room for local play). TokenTool is used to make tokens for digital battlemaps, while InitiativeTool helps keep track of combat. It also has tools for character management and dice rolling.
VASSAL Game Engine: A Java-based tool for playing board and card games online that is available with a Mac installer. There are a tremendous number of modules for the game including a variety of war games, Arkham Horror, Battlestar Galactica, Axis and Allies, and many, many more.
Mac Gaming Web Sites
Mad Irishman: Character sheets for 25+ gaming systems, including Dungeons & Dragons, Arcana Unearthed, Spycraft, Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller. All of the sheets are downloadable in Adobe Acrobat format, and were created on a Mac.