The essence of a role playing game is, well, ... playing a role. Theoretically, you can play a tabletop RPG with not much more than your thoughts, a rule book or two, and some dice. In practice, though, an entire industry is engaged in releasing products to make imagining and inhabiting fantastical worlds a multimedia experience. Maps, adventures, miniatures, special dice, decks of item cards, and so much more are readily available. The latest entry is a full-featured iPad and iPhone app called Battle Map [US$29.99], which is now available on your iPad or iPhone as a Universal app.
At 30 bucks, Battle Map is not cheap compared to most App Store offerings, but look at it against the similar Mac (or PC) program Dundjinni, which costs $39.99, or the PC-only map program called ProFantasy, which tops out at $605 for the whole shebang. Of course, these programs can do a lot more than Battle Map can, but they've also been around for many years. Perhaps in 2015, Battle Map will be as full-featured. In any case, other reviewers have called Battle Map "geek heaven" and a "must have," so read on to see if these words of praise apply to you.
Battle Map has two main features. First, gamers can use it to design fantasy maps; things like landscapes and castles are easy to tap out. Being able to create a world for your band of heroes to inhabit during the little down moments of your day – or, alternately, when you set aside time for it – is one reason having an app on your iDevice beats the more full-featured desktop programs mentioned earlier. Also, if you create a map on your iPhone, you can email it and then open it on your iPad. Second, once built, you can use these maps during a game in interesting ways.
First, let's make one thing clear: Battle Map does have a lot of features. There are many landscape images to create forests, oceans, or roads. You can also create buildings and underground (dark) hallways or caverns. Battle Map makes it easy to create your own dungeon crawler, all the way up to 64x50 (either squares or hexes). The bigger the map, of course, the longer it takes to fill in, which can get kind of tedious. Of course, gamers have been creating intricate paper RPG maps for ages, so for some people, this will be half the fun.
Once you have the landscape painted, you can populate it with all sorts of items, divided into the token and object categories: dwarf merchants, human peasants, farm animals, dragons, skeletons, keys, stepping stones, and much, much more. There are multiple options defining how these objects and tokens work, too. You can give an object a name and declare it hidden or visible, which defines whether or not the PCs can see it on the player map. You can see examples of this in the gallery, where the big spider (that is most certainly not Shelob) is waiting to attack the merry band of adventurers once they reach the crumbling forest.
The game's options have all been designed for generic fantasy role playing, but there are ways to make Battle Map operate pretty much how you want it to. Whether it's worth the time to add, say, a sci-fi map and items to your sessions is something you'll have to decide for yourself.
Battle Map is currently in version 1.4, and the developer has added a lot of functionality since the initial release. Things like the ability to rescale the background image, toggling whether a hidden object is automatically revealed when a character enters its space or not, and an option to change the size of name labels are all recent additions. There is a full list of the v1.4 improvements in the App Store description, along with helpful criticisms. One example is a request to be able to move objects in groups; another is to have a party of heroes that can be imported onto any map.
While these updates were free, we can imagine that, if Battle Map becomes popular, there will be plenty of add-on packs to give GMs exactly the types of images and backgrounds they want. Right now, you can import anything you want to using the game's import function (which is ridiculously easy to use if it's already in your iDevice's photo album). Still, as flexible as the app is right now, companies like Paizo have learned that serious RPG players will pay for convenience, and we imagine in-app purchases could be in Battle Map's future.
During your RPG session, you can use the iPad to display the map to the players (showing it on the iPhone might be more trouble than it's worth), or you can use an iPad or iPhone 4 (with some VGA cables and an adapter) to show the map on a TV screen or projector. For this, the app offers two modes: GM and player. The GM screen, naturally, shows you everything, but only the player mode will display on the larger screen if you're using one. This is useful, for example, if you're sending a party into a cave and only want them to be able to see the area around them that is bathed in torchlight. How much will your players be able to see? Well, that's what you need to program into the map. There aren't any game rules enforced in Battle Map, and why should there be? This is a tool. It's up to the players and the GM to make sure everything is happening as it should.
There's one last, thoughtful bonus: Battle Map includes the PrgCalc program (usually $1.99), so you can "roll" your RPG dice right from the app. There's more information in the help screens in the gallery, and check out the video for a moving walkthrough of how the app works.