Ego Check: Andy Aiken, Creator of Masterplan

When I returned to the saddle for my first DM session in over 15 years, I was more than a bit anxious about the endeavor. I have previously discussed preparing music for the campaign and buying terrain to add bells and whistles to the night’s proceedings, but the task of organizing the rest of the materials required was also cumbersome. I printed out monster stats from the offline Monster Builder and carried books for background information and possible rule clarifications. I printed out lists of NPC names and possible plot points for the adventure that night. Needless to say, I was a frantic, unorganized mess!

It was months later that I learned of Masterplan through a post at NewbieDM. The brief post indicated the software was designed to help a DM create, plan and organize single encounters and lengthy adventures. I downloaded the program, and after muddling my way through without reading Tutorials, I learned to love Masterplan. I currently use it to plan out various adventure paths in my campaign, run combat and maintain an encyclopedia of NPCs, towns, objects and places. It has reduced my stress level and assisted me with being more organized and fluid at the gaming table.

Weeks ago, I came into contact with the creator of Masterplan, Andy Aiken. I was thrilled when he agreed to spend some time with me for an interview. Throughout the discussion, we cover the genesis of Masterplan, Andy’s philosophy in terms of upgrading the program, his relationship with Wizards of the Coast and future plans to develop tools that could enhance the DM’s ability in plot management. If you have never interacted with Masterplan, then check out the interview and learn more about the possibilities that lie within. And if – like me – you have used Masterplan to simplify your life as a DM, then read on to learn more about the man behind screen making it all happen.

Andy, thank you for agreeing to spend some time with me. I have been using Masterplan to organize my homebrew Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign for well over a year now. However, could you explain the application for those that may have never used it before?

There’s a quick answer to that, and there’s a longer answer. The quick answer is that Masterplan is an app for D&D 4E DMs to help them create and run their adventures. The longer answer – well, Masterplan is a lot of things, depending on how you want to use it. When I started designing it, I was thinking about all the things DMs need to do when they’re creating games. You need a good way to visualise your plot – word processors don’t do this well, they’re too linear; you need a way to build level-appropriate encounters; you need a way to define skill challenges; you need a way to design maps; you need a way to allocate treasure parcels and select what’s in them; often you need a way to create NPCs, custom monsters, custom traps, custom magic items; maybe you even need a way to create custom races, classes and feats, or a special calendar for your world; you might need an encyclopedia to describe people and places, for example. Masterplan is the tool for all these tasks. My aim is this: whatever a DM needs to do to create their game, Masterplan should help with that task.

Obviously, creating your adventure is only half the task, so Masterplan can also help when you’re running your game. It can run encounters, handling initiative and damage and rechargeable powers and regeneration and saving throws and suchlike; it can track skill challenge progress; you can use it to show information to players, and so on. How do you use Masterplan?

It seems that Masterplan continues to evolve as you improve the application with the release of new updates. You are correct that a DM has a great deal of information to manage, and before I discovered Masterplan I did not have a great way to organize myself and the campaign. When I started playing, the offline Monster Builder was useful for modifying monsters, but I still had to print copies and keep track of Hit Points and Powers by hand during combat. I have relied on numerous published books for plot hooks, NPCs and other environmental information, but carrying around books and flipping through pages during a session can be a nuisance.

I use Masterplan to organize my campaign in one place. I’ve created an Encyclopedia of NPCs and other important information for the adventure. I developed potential plot points and encounters in a flowchart-style with branching paths to avoid railroading players. The application also allows me to execute combat encounters efficiently. I am a big proponent of speeding up combat, so removing several steps from the DM’s workload is nothing but a good thing. And I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of the capabilities of Masterplan. That is actually a feature of the application that I enjoy; the program can be tailored to meet individual needs.

Sample Plot Point Screen from Masterplan. Click for larger version.

For example, perhaps a DM and her players already have a thriving Obsidian Portal page with specific details about past adventures, NPCs and other important information on the campaign world. The DM could ignore the Encyclopedia feature but continue to use Masterplan to organize plot points and run combat encounters. Was that a conscious decision on your part to create an application that DMs could mold to their needs?

Oh absolutely. I mean, you’d have to be a really creative DM, running a huge, all-encompassing game, to use all the features in Masterplan at once! I’m sure there are some DMs like that, but there probably aren’t many; I suspect most people just use whatever features of Masterplan they need at the time. So, if you use minis on a battle map then you’re not going to be interested in Masterplan’s tactical maps, for example, whereas someone else is going to really benefit from that feature.

Creating and running a game is such an amorphous task, but that’s just the nature of the beast, isn’t it? It means different things to different people. Masterplan has to address that. You can’t create a tool for a highly individual task like DMing, which is completely predicated on individual style, and have it prescribe how you use it. This means, to continue the example above, the combat manager has to work equally well (and be equally useful) whether you’re seeing the tactical map and the map tokens on-screen, or whether you’re just using it to manage stat blocks.

I’m curious how you started the process of trapping all of the DM responsibilities in one place. What were the biggest challenges involved in taking Masterplan from a conceptual idea to an actual product?

This goes back to long before Masterplan was ever conceived of. In I guess around 2001 I was trying to come up with ways of codifying and adding structure to plotlines, because I was using word processors and spreadsheets and folders full of bits of paper, and I just wasn’t happy with it – it took me too long to find what I was looking for, and it was pretty much impossible to see the ramifications of a change. If I take out this character, say, how does that affect the plotline?

So I started working on a program called Labyrinth, which was designed as a plotline editor. What I learned from that was that there’s a trade-off to be made between structure and ease of use. The more structure you have, the more the system is able to index the content you add, which lets you do some very interesting things – for example, if you have a complicated plotline with lots of characters all interacting you can see the points of connection. In technical terms, you get metadata about your plot. However, the more structure you impose, the more difficult it becomes to add the information in the first place, so there’s a balancing act to be done here – and the balance has to err in favour of simple data entry, because without the data you can’t do anything.

When 4E came out I started writing a quick adventure for some friends, and I was struck by how difficult I found the process of creating encounters. I was trying to create some level-appropriate undead encounters, and the various restrictions (monsters have to be undead, have to select monsters of the right level, have to have the right mix of monster roles, have to stay within the encounter’s XP budget) made me wish for an automated system which would know about all the available creatures but automatically filter out those of too high or too low a level, which would let me search for undead (or fey, or elemental, whatever theme I was going for) and let me select whatever I liked the look of, and which would let me apply templates and do all the other bits of encounter design minutiae.

Sample Encounter Builder Screen from Masterplan.

So that’s where the initial idea for Masterplan came from. If I could somehow come up with a way to present an interactive plotline and tie it in with an encounter builder, I thought, I’d be on to a winner.

I certainly think Masterplan is a winner! But in reviewing the history of the program, it has not been without some complications. In May 2010, you received a Cease & Desist message from Wizards of the Coast (WotC) because Masterplan integrated with the online Compendium. You removed the integration, but continued to refine and improve Masterplan to deliver a useful tool for any DM running a 4e campaign. A large part of the usefulness of Masterplan is the continued modifications on your part to encompass the new features implemented by WotC, such as Character Themes.

But what is it like for you to develop and update Masterplan while attempting to keep up with the moving target of WotC’s online applications and features? For example, a new Monster Builder was released recently and I imagine this complicates your life incredibly as code needs to be rewritten to accommodate the new WotC features.

You’re absolutely right, it is a moving target; even if I managed to add every feature I wanted to add, there would be more to do each month.

The main reason for this, and it’s something that’s not been an issue since the original Monster Builder stopped being updated but will start to be an issue again now that they’ve added Export to the new Monster Builder, is that they tend to change the structure of the exported monster files without warning. Masterplan can import monsters by reading these monster files, but every time they make changes to the file structure I have to rewrite that code.

Earlier this year Paolo from WotC emailed some third-party developers, including me, to open up lines of communication, so that we could be ready for any upcoming changes in the digital tools. I think that was a very positive step, recognising our commitment to the hobby and supporting us. Since then, I’m afraid, I haven’t really heard from him.

But on the other hand, adding new features to Masterplan hasn’t been that difficult; the difficulty lies in making sure you’re adding the right features, and integrating them with the existing functionality. I’m very proud of how integrated Masterplan’s various sub-sections are. For example, you could create a completely new creature by copying powers from existing creatures and maybe adding a template, then create an encyclopedia entry for that creature (which will automatically include its stat block) and add a link to that encyclopedia entry in a plot point, or add that creature to an encounter. Or you could use the in-session reference to randomly generate an art object (“an elegant silver chalice, encrusted with rubies from the astral plane”), then make that art object into a treasure parcel, and add that parcel to a plot point. I’m always looking for new ways to link features together like that.

Masterplan’s flexibility is a major attraction for me. I can use the program for what I need and ignore the sub-sections that do not apply to how I prepare for gaming sessions. I imagine if you asked 10 users to demonstrate how they use Masterplan, you’d get 10 very different processes. But the great thing is that the program allows each individual user to accomplish what they need to do to prepare for and run their 4e games.

It’s interesting to hear that WotC reached out to you and other individuals who are developing support tools for Dungeons & Dragons. However, you mentioned that conversations has stalled. Masterplan has been available for free from your site for at least two years, and so far WotC has not released a tool that comes close to matching the utility of your creation. It seemed to me that their release of Adventure Tools over a year ago was a step in that direction, but that application fizzled. Why do you think WotC has avoided the development and release of a “DM Toolkit” that contains features you have already made available in Masterplan?

I honestly don’t know, and this has puzzled me for some time. I know that they were planning to do so two years ago because they contacted me about it – a gentleman from WotC whose name I regrettably can’t remember called me (on a very cracklely transatlantic phone line) to say that he had just been made aware of Masterplan, that he thought it was very interesting, and to ask whether I knew about WotC’s plans to create a campaign planning application. He said they were still in the planning phase at that point, but he was intrigued, because apparently all the features they had planned for this tool were already in Masterplan. I guess this would have been in mid-2009 perhaps. Nothing really came of that conversation; he asked me if I’d be interested in applying to join their team and I was interviewed by them a few days later, but I never heard back.

Then when Masterplan received the C&D order from the WotC lawyers, in mid-2010, I had a very interesting conversation with a former WotC employee who assumed, as I did, that the reason for the C&D was that they were attempting to clear the way for the release of their own campaign tool; he had heard that there had been private beta-testing of a new tool and he assumed this might be it.

But since then, I’ve heard nothing. No campaign tools have come out, nothing for DMs at all except for the two versions of the Monster Builder. Perhaps they’ve been working on something behind the scenes, and it’ll be announced soon, but then I was saying that this time last year.

Example Combat Manager Screen from Masterplan. Click for larger version.

Lest anyone think I’m criticising the developers, I certainly don’t underestimate the amount of effort that goes into producing and maintaining tools like the Character Builder and Monster Builder. From the little I’ve interacted with them, I know that the DDI developers are very smart, very capable, very committed people. I know it’s a relatively small development team. And I know how bureaucracy and management issues can cause delays and U-turns in projects like this – I’m sure the switch to Silverlight didn’t help. So I think the developers should be praised for doing a good job.

I imagine that the good people at WotC are quite busy developing more content and ensuring Character Builder can sustain itself. I assume their priorities are providing actual game materials first – so a great deal of time goes into working on the books and gameplay. Second, Character Builder is such a vital component to 4e that it needs attention as it requires constant upgrades in terms of content and also fixes to bugs that users discover along the way. It would seem they have recently turned their attention to making the Monster Builder more robust. At this point, perhaps developing a comprehensive Campaign Builder is a luxury they cannot afford.

Thinking about it, WotC is in somewhat of a difficult spot. Many of their most savvy and devoted customers have already found alternative applications to create monsters and run campaigns. I continue to purchase selected WotC books and subscribe to DDI, but I haven’t opened Monster Builder in months. I already use Masterplan and Powe2ools for all of my Monster Building needs; their Monster Builder for me is irrelevant. Moving forward, WotC would have to develop an amazing Campaign Builder for me to be swayed from using Masterplan. How many hours would it take WotC to create such a Campaign Builder, and how much would WotC have to spend in money, time and resources to constantly manage and update the application? On the flip side, how many additional customers would pay for a DDI subscription just for the Campaign Builder tool?

Perhaps their customers who are most interested in a Campaign Builder have found their alternative applications for campaign management, and their casual customers are not likely to use a digital campaign tool to organize an adventure in the first place. I wonder if they are sitting there figuring, “Why bother?” and focusing on other aspects of the product.

That’s a possibility. That said, Masterplan has had an integrated monster builder for two years now, and I’ve lost count of the number of digital game tables that are out there, so they’re clearly not averse to taking on other products.

Speaking of investments, how much time do you estimate that you have worked on Masterplan over the years? What motivates you to continue updating and improving Masterplan?

I’m not sure how I’d even start to estimate that. I think I started work on Masterplan in January 2009, but there were a few experimental misfires before that. Since then it’s been developed in early mornings, late evenings, weekends and days off. Currently it’s sitting at around 76 thousand lines of code.

As for what motivates me to keep developing, it’s a mixture of light OCD and the fact that I use it when I’m DMing. Every time I use Masterplan I think of something new I should add, or a better way of doing something. My girlfriend is thinking about running a game soon and as a new DM she’ll have a whole new set of insights into it.

Seventy-six thousand lines of code?! If each line of code took only a minute to complete, then that would result in over 1,200 hours (or 52 days) of work on your part. That is serious commitment to a project, and I certainly thank you for the effort and dedication.

Masterplan handles many aspects of campaign creation and management. Have thought about adding tools to assist DMs with plotting his or her adventure? I’m thinking you could have several story templates that DMs could choose from as they are creating their plot points in the campaign. Perhaps Masterplan could cue the user to insert a skill challenge or roleplaying scene after they have created two consecutive combat-encounter plot points. I wonder how elaborate Masterplan could become in terms of assisting DMs with not only creating the nuts and bolts of a campaign, but also telling a compelling story. How would you approach the concept of plot management in Masterplan going forward?

Yes this is something I’ve been planning for some time. Masterplan does a pretty good job of letting people manage their plotlines, but I’m very interested in giving people different ways to create plotlines. That’s a difficult thing to do, without the resulting plot seeming mundane – you don’t want a creative program to give you cookie-cutter output, which is obviously the danger with this sort of feature.

I’m hopeful that I can design a decent plot template feature in the future, but for now Masterplan does come with a plot design feature called Party Goals, which is available when you have an empty plot workspace.

What you do here is start by specifying the goal of the adventure – say, stop the villain’s world domination scheme. In order to stop the scheme, what do the party have to do? Find the villain’s lair, and discover what the villain’s scheme is. To discover the details of the scheme, they have to get the information from a henchman, who they first have to find and befriend… Essentially for each task, you break it down into its ‘prerequisite’ tasks, and keep going until you get back to the party’s current situation. Then when you press OK, Masterplan will create a plot structure for you.

There are a few other plot design schemes that I’d like to add to Masterplan; it seems like it’d be a useful set of features. The challenge is in adding them in such a way as to be simple to use, but flexible enough to be powerful.

I think the plot-design options would be fantastic, although I imagine it would be challenging to balance flexibility with power. What are you ideas on how to overcome that challenge?

I have one slightly vague idea for a system which would allow people to create and share plot templates, but I’m not sure yet how it’ll work. And in any case, it’s still too early to be talking about it in any detail I’m afraid.

It seems that you have built the features in Masterplan to suit your personal needs for DM tools. What are the remaining tools you want to build that do not exist yet?

Yes to some extent I suppose that’s right, although of course I also get a dizzying number of feature requests, via email or on the blog or posted on the Facebook page. Some of them I ignore, if they’re impolite or if they’re written in such a way as to imply that the requester feels entitled to my time, and some of them are features I’ve specifically excluded from Masterplan for reasons of scope, but anything I think is reasonable goes on the list of potential new features. It’s currently a very extensive list. Some of the items on the list are very large, long-term projects in their own right (turn Masterplan into an online virtual table), but lots of others are smaller and simpler, and they get added all the time, although sometimes I prioritise them based on other features I have planned.

Currently I’m trying to focus on making Masterplan easier to use. I’ve rewritten the creature builder, the creature template builder, the trap builder and the magic item builder to be a little more intuitive. I’m pretty happy with the results; now when you’re building a creature, say, you’re doing it from directly within its stat block, which makes it so much easier to see what you’re doing!

I spent some time reading through the Facebook page for Masterplan, and I see that many people are asking for specific features that suit their needs. I understand what you mean because most of the messages from users are polite but other requests for new features are closer to demands. It seems to me that Masterplan will never reach a point when it is “finished.” What is it like working on a project that may never end? How will you know when it is time to move on to something else and leave Masterplan alone without updating to a new version?

Well one problem is this: I think ‘finished’ is a relative term in software. In one sense, I guess, an application is finished as soon as it’s usable, and if that’s the case Masterplan has been finished for a long time now.

On the other hand, you might use ‘finished’ to mean the application is feature complete. I have no plans to put a cap on new features for Masterplan, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily – as long as they’re well integrated with the rest of the application, that’s the key factor. Adding new features without tying them into existing functionality seems to me to be the fastest way to make your application into an unusable mess. I’d like to think I’m always taking Masterplan in the other direction!

I think the more important factor is how long I can maintain motivation; I hope and suspect that I’ll keep interested in Masterplan and keep tinkering with it at least until D&D 4E is superseded, and probably longer.

I find that to be a challenge at times – working on a project that has no clear end point. A contractor can drive around town and say, “Look there, I built that house.” The work is complete and there is closure. Meanwhile, you are the contractor that builds a house but continues to renovate it for the family using the dwelling with the expectation that there will always be something else the family wants to change or add. It seems that your enjoyment of 4e continues to drive your design process.

When did you start playing D&D 4e? I imagine you wouldn’t invest so much time in building Masterplan if you did not enjoy the game itself.

I started playing D&D 4E when it was released. I remember being initially hesitant about the power system, based on the initial previews, but after reading the finished product for the first time I was so relieved that the classes were balanced so much better.

I certainly do enjoy 4E, very much; I think it’s by a long way the most fun edition of D&D so far. I started with AD&D, which seemed to be fun mostly for the DM, and played a little of 3E and 3.5E, in which it was just so easy to create a totally useless character (or play a high level wizard and win). Possibly I was just playing with the wrong groups though.

D&D 4E isn’t the only RPG I play though. I grew up with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, with 2E being my favourite, and Rolemaster. 7th Sea is the game that’s provided me with the most ridiculous fun. I’ve enthusiastically played every edition of the Star Wars RPG, with Saga being the most fun. I’ve tried Exalted, and it never really clicked for me for some reason. Spycraft and Eclipse Phase are games I’ve always wanted to play but I’ve never found the time.

What specific features in 4e capture your attention and motivate you as a DM, player and software designer?

As a player, the main selling point for me is the fact that all the classes are now more or less balanced against each other – a fighter feels just as useful as a wizard, regardless of level. I’m also a fan of the way your race, class and theme interact to give you interesting character choices at each level.

As a DM, the two things I like the most about 4E are encounter design and creature design. I love the challenge of encounter design because it incorporates a lot of different areas: creature selection, map design, terrain and so on. And I think 4E excels at creature design, because the power system means it’s the first edition where you can really differentiate creatures and give them different behaviour and tactics. I hope that I’ve provided useful tools within Masterplan to help DMs design encounters and creatures, because I think these tasks are some of the most fundamental for a good D&D 4E DM.

You have talked about the tools Masterplan gives to a DM for encounter design, and indicated how important solid encounter design is to 4th Edition. How do you approach encounter design as a DM? What are your suggestions for DMs out there who are toiling away to create fun – yet challenging – encounters for their players? For instance, how would you rank the importance of creature selection, map design, terrain, hazards and story?

Without question, story is the most important factor. Obviously if there’s no story reason for the encounter then you might as well just be playing a skirmish game, but more than that, each encounter should tell a story, or help to move the plot along in some way.

Masterplan allows a DM to build monsters as well.

I always try to include some unusual terrain in every encounter because it’s a nice way to give the players something extra to think about – multiple levels of elevation, for example, or something with a terrain power. And I think many of the best encounters I’ve run or played have had some additional task for the PCs to accomplish, alongside defeating their opponents (like disrupting a ritual, or defending a certain area).

Creature selection is always important though. If you’re careful you can choose creatures which have abilities which complement each other, and that can really be a challenge for the PCs.

I agree with you that the story should be the driving force for encounters; each encounter should tell a portion of a story. Masterplan gives the DM a fantastic tool to manage all of the other elements that combine to make for a great encounter. I thank you for spending so much time discussing your creation with me. But more importantly, I wish to thank you for the many hours you have spent designing Masterplan! The program has saved me countless hours in terms of preparation and has improved the efficiency of my encounters. On behalf of every overworked DM out there – thank you!

Do you have any final issues you’d like to address regarding Masterplan or 4e? What is the best way for users of Masterplan to reach you if they have questions or ideas for new features?

It’s been lovely talking about Masterplan. I only wish we had the time to go into every feature. We’ve not talked about encounter decks, the skill challenge builder, the in-session reference screen . . .

I would like to encourage anyone who has used Masterplan to leave a comment explaining how it has helped them, and which features they like or use the most. If there’s anyone who has thought about giving Masterplan a try but hasn’t had the time, or felt that it’s too complex to get into, I recommend a series of tutorial videos on YouTube which were put together by a community member. The first tutorial video is below:

But equally I understand that Masterplan can’t be for everyone; if you’ve tried it and didn’t like it, then please let me know why – perhaps there’s a simple change that would make it better.

The Masterplan website is: http://www.habitualindolence.net/masterplan/

From there you can download Masterplan, read and comment on the blog, and check out the Facebook page – there’s a discussion page there for suggesting new features or reporting bugs.

I hope you all have as much fun with Masterplan as I’ve had creating it.

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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12 Responses to Ego Check: Andy Aiken, Creator of Masterplan

  1. Bryan says:

    My name is Bryan, and I’ve ran a 4E D&D game on and off for about a year and a half now. I’ve used Masterplan and really enjoy the plotline and encyclopedia features, but have had issues with the Library and Encounter building features. With the recent changes to the Monster Builder, are there any places to find pre-built libraries? Or do you have to export each individual monster and import them into Masterplan?

    Also, for some reason I have difficulty getting the Player View to size itself properly on my television, most times the text area overlaps the edges of the screen and isn’t view-able.

    On the whole I find Masterplan to be a great tool, you deserve a lot of thanks from 4E DMs and players. Thanks again for all you do!

    • The Id DM says:

      Bryan, I believe you can find those answers by visiting the various sites for Masterplan including the Facebook discussion threads. I personally haven’t imported a new library of monsters since I first started using the program; but I probably *should* export the new monsters instead of taking the extra time to update the stats to Monster Manual 3 and beyond damage values.

    • Andy says:

      You can’t find pre-built libraries – that would be a violation of WotC’s copyright.

  2. Pingback: Interview with the ID DM | Masterplan

  3. froth says:

    i love masterplan, it makes combat tracking soooo much easier and makes my adventures look nice and clean.

  4. Kyle says:

    @Bryan

    In the Catalyst Control Center there are some options to underscan (scale it down) my TV, helps to fit my 1440*900 display onto a 720p TV without cutting off parts of my screen. There might be something that does the same thing in the Nvidia controls.

  5. Mark says:

    Andy,

    I can’t thank you enough for Masterplan. It has made running my first homebrew a joy.

    – Mark

    • The Id DM says:

      Mark, thanks for posting. I think creators of a product hear a great deal of critical or negative feedback while the people who are happy with the product remain silent. It’s great to let the developers know you’re satisfied as well.

  6. David says:

    Andy, Masterplan is tremendous! I couldn’t think of running a 4E campaign without Masterplan
    I really appreciate all the fabulous work you have put into it!
    Thank you,
    David

    • The Id DM says:

      Thank you for stopping by to read the interview. I echo your thoughts that Masterplan is so tied into my routine for planning and running 4e adventures that I’m not quite sure what I would do without it!

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