MapTool states should differ for online and in-person play

I’ve been running my online Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition game for several months now, and MapTool has been fantastic for running the game.  The players have macros for their powers and abilities, we can keep track of hit points electronically, etc.  It’s also great because it’s easy to keep track of all of the conditions that can be put onto a character – bloodied, prone, marked, cursed, ongoing damage, weakened, dazed… the list goes on and on.  My MapTool states for the online game consist of little icons that can show up over a token in a 3 by 3 grid (so there can be up to nine states on a token at once).

A token that is granting combat advantage, dazed, slowed, taking ongoing damage, marked, cursed and bloodied

I love this about MapTool for in-person games that I run using my projector, too.  Unfortunately, it’s much harder to make out the details on a monster token when I’m using the projector because I have to keep the map zoomed pretty far out in order to project a grid with 1-inch squares.  This means that it’s really hard for the characters to see all of the states on a creature.  Is that guy bloodied?  Is he marked?  What about prone?

The solution here is a combination of using bigger states and using different states.

  • Bloodied: The most important state.  Instead of an icon on the image, use a red circle around the token
  • Prone: A purple triangle (actually a yield sign)
  • Marked: A blue or green X (have two different marks available in case you have multiple defenders in your party)
  • Cursed/Quarried/Oathed/etc.: An orange cross
  • Other: Normal icons, but in a 2 by 2 grid instead of 3 by 3 (so they’re bigger)

The most important states for players to be able to see clearly are those that are most likely to affect their interaction with a creature.  They have to know if it’s bloodied, prone, marked, or subject to a striker ability (quarry, etc.).  It’s nice to know if the bad guy is dazed or has -2 to its defenses or it’s slowed, but not AS important.  The really important conditions, therefore, should get big, prominent marks across the face of the token.  The less-important conditions can rely on the 2 by 2 grid (at the very least, you as the DM can still zoom in on them on your screen to see what they are.

The easily-visible conditions can be tailored to your own campaign, of course.  Every defender should have his or her own color of marks, but they can all use the same symbol (since a new mark will override an old one, you’ll never have to worry about making multiple marks visible).  If you have multiple strikers that can put conditions on a creature, you’ll want to use multiple shapes (maybe a cross for one and a diamond for another).  Assassin shrouds are tricky – I haven’t yet come up with a good way to keep track of how many are on a creature, but fortunately my regular games don’t include any assassins (though I see them occasionally at convention games).

Bottom line: Icons are great for understanding what a particular symbol means, but they’re hard to see at a distance.  Colorful shapes are better for in-person games with a projector.

New campaign: Homebrew all the way!

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve volunteered to take the next shift as dungeon master with the group I’ve been playing with here in Colorado for most of this year (my first real Dungeons and Dragons experience).  I had considered three options for this campaign:

  • War of the Burning Sky, which I am already running for my online campaign (though I would have to adjust for the fact that the in-person campaign is starting at level 5)
  • An adventure setting from Nevermet Press that I’ve volunteered to playtest (called Brother Ptolemy and the Hidden Kingdom)
  • A total homebrew campaign, based on an adventure I had written but never run for D&D Third Edition

War of the Burning Sky was originally my first choice, but after starting to work on the adjustments I’d have to make for the level issue and after talking to my current players and getting their thoughts on the matter, I decided that it didn’t seem like it would be as much fun for me (even though it would be a LOT less work).

The playtest game intrigues me a great deal, but the adventure would span several sessions, and I really didn’t want to commit to anything like that without having the time to really get to know the material first (the whole document is over 100 pages in length).

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that homebrew was what I really wanted.  Having discovered my adventure from years ago that never saw the light of day, I felt like I had to give it a go.I began by transferring my map of what was originally a goblin stronghold (the adventure was written for first-level characters) into MapTool.  It’s now an orc stronghold, since these characters are higher level.  I kept the geography pretty much the same as I had created it years ago, removing only a couple of pointless storage rooms (I like verisimilitude, but rooms that have no bearing on the adventurers at all should be cut).  I sketched out the whole complex, only making a couple of edits… and then realized that the party wouldn’t be STARTING in the stronghold, but out in a town where they’ll get the chance to find out about this thing.

So, I needed to back up and draw some more.  I started with a tavern, using a Dungeon Tile image.  I called it the Shady Maple Inn and built it around a huge maple tree in the middle of the place.  It was built and owned by an elf who loved the tree and made it part of his establishment (this made me very happy for some reason).  The players had the possibility of meeting some bandits along the road, so I created a bridge encounter map.

There was also going to be an attack by some insects during a night spent camping in the forest, so I put together a forest encounter map with trees and bushes.

This would be everything the party would face, at least for the first session.  I figured that we would get through some decent fraction of the maps I had prepared.  After all, there was a lot to get through in the first session:

  • Character introductions
  • Determining how the party members know one another – past adventures together, etc.
  • Meeting the NPC who would ask for the party’s help
  • Getting from the tavern to the manor house where a minor noble was looking for aid (likely encountering bandits along the way)
  • Meeting the minor noble and learning about the family heirloom that had been stolen
  • Investigating near the manor house to learn more about the thieves
  • Tracking the thieves through the forest
  • Battling creatures overnight in the woods
  • Getting to the stronghold
  • Dealing with the front door defenses
  • Working their way into the depths of the keep

Now, I don’t know if it was the efficiency of running the game in MapTool with the projector or what, but we got through a LOT in one session!

We started playing at about 4:15 this afternoon.  We spent about 30 minutes on character introductions and party backgrounds.  Then the action started, and the players jumped on it.  No gallavanting about, chatting with random NPCs – they heard about a mission, pounced on it without asking questions and started to complete it.  They wisely figured out that they could take a boat up the river to the manor house, which meant that they could skip the bandit encounter at the bridge.  At the manor house, they investigated the theft of the family heirloom efficiently and moved on to the forest.

Here, they were set upon by some creepy crawlies at night.  The luck of the dice had this encounter happen during the first watch, which meant that everyone would be taking an extended rest afterwards (some of them had just started doing so).  This worked out pretty well, actually – since the extended rest was coming, everyone was free to blow daily powers and action points.  The attack came from some centipedes and rot grub swarms (set to appropriate levels for the party, of course).  Even after I brought in some extra centipedes in the second round, the PCs had no trouble beating them all up.

The next morning we had a little skill challenge to continue the navigation through the forest to the orcs’ lair.  The party just barely failed this skill challenge, which made for a cool encounter.  Instead of being able to walk right up to the front door and trying to figure out how to get through, their failure meant that orc archers in the guard tower saw them coming and got a surprise round on them.  This was excellent, because the archers with surprise were pretty darn scary.  Even though these are only level 4 creatures, they have a burst 1 attack (a hail of arrows, basically) that deals d10+6 damage to everyone in the burst that it hits, and I rolled a 9 and a 10 for damage for the two archers who fired into the group.  Suddenly our healer was down to 12 hit points (out of a maximum of 43) and the party was legitimately scared.

Despite the fear, the party had the right tools to handle this problem: Area attacks.  By the rules of the game, an area attack only requires that the spellcaster have line of effect to the origin square of the area burst (which the arrow slit grants), and then enemies inside the tower would not have cover from the area attack because it’s originating inside the tower.  Unleashing a few of these helped bring the archers down before they could raise the alarm.

The door to the stronghold was trapped, and I allowed some active Perception checks to notice the trap before just setting it off on everyone’s heads.  This was a bit generous on my part, but our games haven’t involved a lot of traps in the past and I felt like it was unfair to shock them TOO much by springing a trap when they would never think to look for one.  Now they’ll think about it!

Once inside, the party used some good Stealth to sneak up on the orc minions (two-hit minions, as is usual in my games) in the next room, who were distracted by their dice games.  For this battle, the minions went to the far side of the bridge and pulled it back across, attacking mainly from range (even though they’re not great at range).  I made it clear that the river is nasty and the party does not want to fall into it.  Again, the PCs beat up the bad guys before they could raise a further alarm.

The last battle of the evening took place in the orcs’ sleeping chamber.  This area was dark, as the night shift orcs were sleeping.  One orc was awake – the cook over in the kitchen area, preparing a foul-smelling stew.  The party again made good use of Stealth, letting the party’s Monk get a surprise attack on the cook.

This battle was a little more interesting, as the orcs who had been asleep quickly woke up and did their best to sneak toward the party in the dark.  The Monk ended up bloodied a couple of times, and the Warlock/Sorcerer got a little bit beat-up as well, but since the baddies kept clustering, they were mowed down by burst and blast attacks.  Who says you need dedicated controllers in a party?At this point it was a little after 9:15 PM.  It had been five hours since we had started playing, and we had taken about an hour-long break for dinner in the middle.  We played through four combat encounters, plus the background stuff and some role-playing, investigations and skill challenges.  And this was all with brand-new characters and players who were still figuring out what those characters can do.  I was amazed at how far the party had gotten.  This was as much of the adventure as I had prepared, so we called it a night at that point (playing a few games of Zombie Dice first).

Today was a great start for a new campaign!  I feel like everyone had a good time, and the MapTool / projector combo continues to be a big hit.

DM Lessons

  • Once you’re comfortable as a dungeon master, run your own homebrew games whenever possible.  Time constraints may make this hard, but don’t let a lack of confidence stand in the way.
  • Drop future adventure hooks liberally – even if you haven’t figured out exactly where they’ll lead yet.  See what piques your players’ interest, and run with those, abandoning the others.
  • Preparation is huge.  Know the layouts of combat areas and how the enemies will use them before the battle starts.  If you can do the mapping in advance (such as with MapTool, or even pre-drawing the maps on battle mats or paper) it will save a lot of time at the table.
  • Be prepared for players to come up with ways to skip over combat encounters, and let them do it if they find a way.  Don’t get too attached to a battle.  You can probably find an excuse to use it again at some point in the future!
  • If you’re comfortable with it, technology at the table can automate the boring parts and help everyone get to the fun faster.

Starting my first in-person campaign

The day has come: I’m about to serve as dungeon master for an ongoing, in-person campaign.  I’ve been running my online campaign through the War of the Burning Sky via MapTool and Skype for nine sessions over the past few months, and it’s gone very well.  I’ve also run one-shot Living Forgotten Realms games in-person at my local store and at TactiCon.

This is different.  This is in-person and ongoing, playing with people I already know (including my wife).  We’ve played two short campaigns with this same group of people.  Nate ran the first one, which took our characters halfway through third level in a largely home-brew campaign inspired by some published stuff.  That one ended when my character died and everyone else just felt like trying new characters and a new person wanted to DM.

The second campaign was run by Bree (Nate’s wife) and consisted of several of the Chaos Scar adventures.  That took our characters from first up to third level as well.  We wrapped that one up this past Saturday, with Bree deciding to step down as DM because of her other time commitments.  I had previously offered to try my hand at running the game if she didn’t have time, and she took me up on the offer.

So, here I am.  I will definitely be using my projector rig and MapTool to run the games.  I love the rig, and I love MapTool.  The next question is, what campaign will I run?

I’m considering running War of the Burning Sky (WotBS) since I’m already familiar with it and I have lots of maps and monsters already built in MapTool (meaning easier prep for me).  The complicating factor there is that this new campaign is going to start with the characters at level 5, and WotBS starts at level 1.  This gives me a few options.

  • Drop them in the middle of the second adventure, when WotBS assumes characters are around level 5, hand-waving the back story
  • Start them at the beginning of WotBS but skip most of the encounters from the first adventure, increasing the difficulty of those encounters that I do run to be fun for fifth-level characters, eventually getting synched up with level and adventure sometime around level 6.
  • Run something else.

I definitely don’t like the first option – dropping them in the middle of the story.  That just feels wrong.  I’m torn between the second and third options.  The second option wouldn’t be too hard.  I already have maps for the encounters I want to run, and I would just have to create new monsters (or level up the ones that I have).  I can do that… but I’m trying to decide how much fun that would be.  I’d really like the in-person campaign to be more free-form than that.

I could run a different published adventure.  More Chaos Scar?  Maybe Scales of War?  Those leave me feeling a little cold, frankly.  Tomb of Horrors is interesting to me, but that’s for higher-level characters (hey, this group will level up eventually…).

If I don’t go with WotBS, I think I’m going full-on homebrew.  I mentioned a few months ago that I discovered a complete adventure I had written (but never run) when I first tried D&D Third Edition a long time ago.  It’s actually pretty well fleshed out with nice maps and everything, and I could probably use it for this game.  I’d have to pick completely different monsters, of course, not just because this is a Fourth Edition game but also because I wrote the adventure for first-level characters.  I can do that, though.  That one adventure would probably last a couple of sessions, which would give me time to start planning ahead.

The more I think about it, the more I’m feeling like the homebrew option will be more fun.  Of course, it will be a lot more work, too!  What do you think?  Go with what I know?  Or go with the treasure from the past?

Giving dungeon mastering advice

As my regular readers know, I’m pretty new as a dungeon master.  I only started playing Dungeons & Dragons in early 2010 and my first attempt at DMing was about six months ago.  I regularly make notes in my blog about the lessons I learn from other DMs that I play under.

It was, therefore, a little surprising when I was asked for MY advice from another DM.  This past Saturday I played a Living Forgotten Realms game at my friendly local game store, Enchanted Grounds.  It was a game for level 1-4 characters and I had planned to play a new cleric I had put together using Heroes of the Fallen Lands.  There were already two other healers at the table, though, so I instead played my trusty half-elf paladin, Rhogar, in his last 1-4 adventure (at the end of this session he had reached level 5).

The DM for this adventure was Andy, who had played in the first game I had run with my new projector setup about a month ago (I believe you can see Andy’s elbow on the left side of the picture on that post).  Andy is the one person I’ve met who has told me that he reads my blog, which was a very cool moment for me (Hi Andy!).

The adventure itself was a lot of fun.  Our party got off a ship in a genasi city and was beckoned by an elderly dragonborn to come over and talk to him and his elven companion.  The elf lady was the dragonborn’s ward, and she was very ill.  He was trying to take her to the realm of some elves who lived in some woods far to the south in the hope that they could cure her.  We agreed to help.

Andy ran this whole section really well – the roleplaying was great, and he got everyone around the table involved.  Rhogar decided that, being a noble paladin he couldn’t bear to make the poor elf woman walk all that way, so he rented a horse for her to ride.  Andy was great at improvising the existence of a stable, stablemaster and horse on the spot, even giving the stablemaster and horse some names. None of this made a lick of difference from a mechanics perspective, but it made the adventure come alive.

After about an hour of roleplaying, the party got into three combats.  The first two were tense, interesting affairs while the third was, frankly, a boring solo encounter (no fault of the DM).

At the end, Andy asked for feedback.  I’ve never been asked to give my thoughts on another DM before!  I told him the things I laid out above, and also suggested that he should feel free to modify combat if it makes sense to do so.  For instance, he could have had the solo monster have two initiative rolls if it wasn’t turning out to be much of a challenge, or have some more bad guys come in after a couple of rounds (a few more of those insects that grabbed and immobilized in an earlier encounter would have been vicious!).  But that’s subtle stuff, and a published adventure is supposed to take care of that sort of thing.

Most interesting to me, I realized that I actually felt fine giving dungeon mastering advice.  I didn’t feel like a fraud.  I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I will ALWAYS be looking for more advice on my own DMing, but I’m now a legitimate part of the dungeon mastering community and I have useful things to say.  That’s a good feeling!

TactiCon Days 3 and 4 (Saturday and Sunday)

The big weekend days of TactiCon were so big and busy that it took me until Monday to be able to write about them!  Thank goodness for the Labor Day holiday.

Here’s the “Too Long, Didn’t Read” summary:

  • Both of the games I ran on Saturday went great – the projector was a big hit.
  • I played in a very cool custom adventure Saturday night with a novice DM – another good experience.
  • I played in one game on Sunday, which was marred by the most annoying player in the world.
  • I got great reviews from my players and walked away with a free D&D book for my time.
  • I’m looking forward to running and playing more games at the next convention in February.

Saturday: Running the first game

Saturday was the day that I was signed up to actually run two games, though I had run an impromptu one the previous night when the need arose.  I got to the venue right at the scheduled 9:00 AM start time, which meant that I was later than a DM should be.  I arrived at the room where I would be running the game, and my players were already there.  I felt a little bit bad for running late, but no one seemed to mind.

The morning session was a repeat of the game I had already run the previous evening at TactiCon and earlier in the week at my friendly local game store: CORM 1-1 The Black Knight of Arabel.  My party of six players was actually a little underpowered compared to most of the parties I’ve played Living Forgotten Realms with, and it was kind of refreshing!  There was one brand-new D&D player (I love that so much!) and several characters that weren’t optimized to the hilt.  It was still a balanced party, though, so there wasn’t a problem.

This party was the first one I’ve seen that decided to go into Arabel after the initial shadow attack, rather than going after the dark rider on a distant hill.  This meant that I got to run the in-town skill challenge for once, and I had fun with it.  The party took on the optional combat challenge in the brewer’s basement to recover the broken obelisk – a better battle than I was expecting.  The final battle was run pretty much as scripted – I didn’t ramp up the difficulty at all, and it was still a good challenge for the party.  They, like the last party to go through that encounter, played “Grab the Baby from the Evil Cultist”, with the party bard eventually putting the baby in a balcony to keep it out of harm’s way.  Interestingly, this party never met the titular Black Knight of Arabel and finished the whole adventure having learned nothing about him.  Weird, but it worked out okay.

I had an hour between games, so I dashed to the hotel restaurant to get a burger to go.  The service was slow, and I was a little bit nervous leaving my laptop and projector set up in the hotel room with no one around, but when I got back everything was just as I had left it.

Saturday: Running the second game

My afternoon game was with a more experienced party, and we were playing the adventure that I was less sure about from a fun perspective: TYMA 2-1 Old Enemies Arise.  The first battle is the hardest one of the adventure, and I basically told the party as much during the battle so that they wouldn’t be too afraid to use daily powers as needed.  This party lacked a true defender, so the warlord played that role and found himself the target of a savage beating, ending the battle with only two healing surges remaining.  The group decided to take an extended rest in town, and since that made sense within the story I decided to allow it.

I ignored most of the scripted skill challenge because it just didn’t make any sense.  The party is supposed to talk to two different farmers outside of the skill challenge to get information about the kobold attacks.  Then they’re supposed to go BACK to town to start the skill challenge of gathering clues about where the attack is coming from, even though they already know at this point.  And this is supposed to require four successful checks.  Stupid.

So, once they knew that the attacks were coming from the west, I moved into a simpler tracking challenge, followed by some checks to narrow down which cave the kobolds were in.

The first cave combat is one that I ran for my online group a week before, and it was only so-so that first time.  I changed it.

  • As written, there are five trapped squares, and whenever any square is triggered, spears pop up from all five squares. This is boring – once the trap has gone off once, the players will just walk around all of the trapped squares, making the trap mostly irrelevant.
  • I upped the number of trapped squares to ten.
  • I also made it so that each square triggers independently, leading to an awesome minefield experience as the PCs tiptoe across the cave.
  • Finally, I gave the trap savant something to do – his crossbow bolt now pushes the target one square on a hit.

This encounter ended up being a lot of fun.  One character charges in and is hit by a trap.  The rest of the players tiptoe carefully, hoping to avoid the traps.  The decoys jeer at the players, trying to pull them onto traps and to hit them with their swords.  The savant shoots bolts from afar, trying to push players onto traps.  The final encounter after that one wasn’t super-interesting, in part because the dailies all came out, but everyone seemed to have a good time overall.

Saturday evening: Playing in the special event

In the evening, the LFR game was a special one written for the Con called In the Blink of an Eye.  All of the tables of all levels were playing in the same setting, but in different parts of it.  Our group scouted for a way to sneak into a castle and ended up going in the royal family’s emergency escape tunnel.  We were attacked by iron snakes that came out of the walls, retreated when bloodied, and reappeared later.  It made for a surprisingly cool fight.

We then dealt with a trapped corridor using skills, at which point we were at the stopping point for the adventure with time to spare.  The DM decided to make climbing some stairs into an athletics check, at which my heavily-armored paladin failed again and again, taking a little damage each time before finally succeeding.  He is now known as Rohgar Stairslayer.

It was fun to play at the table of a new DM.  She knew the rules well enough but was lacking a little in confidence.  I could see a lot of myself from a few months ago in her – a very interesting process.

After the stopping point, a 16th level rogue from another table was sent to join our party (I’m still not sure why) and we fought a hydra.  It was a 6th level solo, but with unloading of dailies we finished it in two rounds (without the high-level rogue having to do anything significant).  I’ve heard complaints about solos, and I understand them now.


On Sunday I decided to sleep in, so I only made it in time for one LFR game.  The DM was one I had played under before at Enchanted Grounds, and he had lots of 3D props for the table (trees, bushes, rocks, etc.) which were pretty cool.  I liked the module, too – AGLA 1-1 Lost Temple of the Fey Gods.  The experience, however, was heavily marred by the presence of one player who was totally mechanics-focused and asked endless questions trying to push the envelope (Can I hide here? Can I see around this corner? Will I get anything useful if I use Arcana now? Could we put away our torch, blinding the rest of the party, so I can use low-light vision?).  He was horribly irritating to play with, and I pitied the DM for having to deal with him.  Had I been running the game, I think I would have paused the game, pulled him aside, and explained that he needed to just play rather than trying to squeeze every non-existent advantage out of the game and sucking the fun out of the table.  If he couldn’t do that, I would have removed him from the game.


At the end of the convention, there was a little ceremony to thank the DMs.  Everyone was given a choice of various RPG products (I picked up the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide – I figure I should probably take a look at it) and was recognized for their work.  There’s another somewhat bigger convention in February, Genghis Con, which I’m now looking forward to!

Overall, I had a great time at TactiCon.

  • I did get minis for Rohgar and Kern (though nothing for Zaaria) as well as a couple of miscellaneous minis for players to use at my table.
  • I ran three games and got fantastic evaluations – seventeen perfect scores and one score of 9 out of 10.  I’ll take that!
  • The projector setup worked beautifully and the players loved it.
  • I played a bunch of LFR and got Rohgar to level 4 – woo hoo, I can play in H2 adventures now!
  • I discovered a cool board game, Fresco, which I think I might pick up for myself.

I did not get to play any non-LFR RPGs, but I think I’ll remedy that at Genghis Con in February by just signing up for a slot in advance and diving in, most likely into Savage Worlds.  I’d also like to run a few more sessions if possible – maybe 4 or 5 next time.  It should be awesome!

TactiCon Day 2 (Friday)

My blogging of the TactiCon experience continues with day 2: Friday.  This was the first full day of the convention, and I learned that it doesn’t really hit its complete stride until Saturday.

I was up late last night, so I didn’t make it to the convention site until a little after 10:00 this morning.  That ended up working out just fine.  The vendor hall still wasn’t open yet (it turns out that it was opening at 3:00 PM on FRIDAY, not Thursday), so I went down to the RPG area to watch for a bit.  I watched a little bit of a Savage Worlds game, which looked like fun.  I also watched some D&D players whom I knew, playing an LFR game for 7th-11th level characters on a cool pirate ship battlemap with a full model of a ship for them to run around on.

I then went to the registration desk to sign up for an LFR game in the afternoon.  They had one open for the 2:00 PM session, which fit perfectly.  Since it was pretty quiet at registration at the time, I chatted with the lady there, explaining that this was my first convention and that I was looking for suggestions and advice.  She advised me to pick up a couple of generic tickets for future games (either board games or RPGs).

When I asked about miniature painting (I had seen a sign for this), she told me to try the free (!) paint and take activity.  You just sign up for a slot, and they’ll give you a free metal mini, use of their paints, and some tips on how to do it.  The next slot was right away, at 11:00, so I signed up and went right over to miniature painting.

The guy who helped me was a very cool gentleman named Chris.  He gave me a choice of three different metal minis (apparently they’re 95% lead and 5% tin, so it’s too much lead to call them pewter).  I picked the one with armor and a sword, as he seemed like a perfect fit to be Rohgar, my half-elf paladin for LFR games.

The basics of miniature painting, as Chris explained to me, are:

  • Shake your paint pots thoroughly
  • Take some paint out of the pot and onto your styrofoam plate palette using a brush
  • Add a little water and mix to thin the paint
  • Start by painting the interior layers (face, underarmor) and work your way out
  • Have fun!

I ended up with the following mini:

Rohgar is completely and totally awesome-looking now! No, he’s not perfect – you can see where I missed some spots.  But he looks really, really good.  It took me about 90 minutes for the whole process, and I’m surprised to say that I had a good time.  I could definitely see myself painting minis for any character I plan on playing regularly.  I wouldn’t do it for armies of monsters, of course, but for a few PCs, yes, I think I would.

After mini painting, I grabbed a burger in the hotel restaurant. I still had an hour to kill before my 2:00 LFR game, so I dropped into the board game area.  A couple of guys were looking for more players for a game called Fresco, which I had never tried before.  Always being up for a new game, I sat down and learned to play.

I haven’t talked about this much on my blog, but I love board games, especially “Euro games” or “German-style board games” or whatever you want to call them.  Fresco is apparently pretty new, and I like it a lot.  The niftiest part is the mechanic to begin each “day” in the game, where each player decides what time they want to wake up.  If you wake up early (5:00 or 6:00), you get the best selection at the market and first choice of the available parts of the fresco to restore in the cathedral, but you make your apprentices unhappy and one might refuse to work.  If you sleep in, you have fewer market choices and you go last, but it makes your apprentices happy and you may attract another apprentice to work for you.  I also love the mixing of paints to make more valuable works.  It’s a cool game, and I think I might try to pick up a copy for myself at some point.

At 2:00, my afternoon LFR game began.  This one was a lot of fun.  The DM let me play Rohgar as a third-level character even though he was technically 10 points shy of level 3.  This meant that I got to use his +2 Vicious Longsword and his Cloak of Resistance +2 that he’d been carrying around since his first and second sessions, unable to use them until he hit level 3.  Woo hoo! The session was CORE 1-3 Sense of Wonder, which involved being transported into the middle of a bar fight by a gnome who thought he was summoning a living construct called a Gondling.  We then helped the gnome locate a temple of Gond that had been lost beneath the sea and fought our way through the temple, past some vicious guard robots, eventually ending at a very cool little puzzle.  The puzzle involved each player having a vision (written on paper), then comparing visions to figure out the right order to do things in order to open a vault of treasure.  Way fun, and the DM was awesome and enthusiastic.

Also, Timothy and Sheryl, the couple from last night, were at this game as well.  Sheryl was still just watching, but we chatted again.

I then stopped by the exhibitor hall to get some minis. I picked up a few cheap, generic minis that I can use in case a player needs one, but I also got one just for my wife Barbara:

I don’t know exactly what this is supposed to be, but it’s a dual-sword wielding cat creature.  Barbara loves cats – whenever she plays in the Daggerfall/Morrowind/Oblivion universe of video games, she loves to play a Khajiit, and her first D&D 4th Edition character was a Shifter.  She doesn’t have a character like that at the moment, but I’ve already told her that if I run an in-person campaign that she plays in, we can house-rule a Khajiit type of race for her to play.

I popped out to grab some dinner, then came back in time for the 7:00 PM LFR sessions.  I was planning to use my generic ticket to jump into whatever was open, but it became clear that things were getting messy for the organizer, Linda.  I had anticipated that this might happen, so I had brought my projector rig and left it in the car.  I volunteered to run a session of CORM 1-1 The Black Knight of Arabel (the same one I had just run on Tuesday), and Linda gratefully accepted my offer.

A couple of my players helped me get the stuff from my car to the hotel room where we were playing, which was kind of them.  We ended up starting the game around 7:30, and because of the late start I decided to run the battles as written, without making them more difficult.  That ended up being a little bit of a mistake, as the party mowed down everything in their path.  They seemed to have a good time doing it, though, and the role playing was fun, so I’m not complaining.

The best part for me was that Timothy and Sheryl were there again – and Sheryl played in this game! She mostly asked Timothy to drive, but she rolled her own dice.  By the last encounter, where the party came upon the cult leader getting ready to sacrifice a baby on the altar, she made her own decision: Rather than fight or talk, she wanted to move up there and grab the baby.  She ended up needing some help from the wizard, who used Mage Hand to get the baby to her (technically the baby was probably too heavy, but the Rule of Cool applied here), and then they passed the poor kid back and forth like a football, but the good guys won the day.

I’m continuing to have a blast at TactiCon, and I’m looking forward to running two games tomorrow.  I’m hoping I can get Barbara to come at some point, as I’m sure she would love some of the stuff in the vendor hall.  We need to get her a dragonborn mini to paint for Zaaria, her Runepriest.

TactiCon Day 1 (Thursday evening)

As promised, I am blogging about TactiCon.  The convention began Thursday evening, with your intrepid reporter learning a lot about how conventions work.

First, when the brochure says that the Exhibitor Hours begin at 3:00 and registration begins at 5:00, that does NOT mean that the exhibition hall for people to shop in opens at 3:00.  It means that people who are involved in running the convention can start getting set up at 3:00, but there’s nothing for players to do until 5:00.  Oops.

Second, it’s important to sign up for particular events in advance if there’s something in particular you want to play.  I had pre-paid for my badge, and it was waiting for me, which was great.  However, I hadn’t registered for any individual games, and the two low-level Living Forgotten Realms games this evening were already full.  I bought a generic ticket and was told that I might be able to get into a game anyway.

I left the hotel and came home to take my wife to dinner before heading back to the convention, getting there just before the 7:00 PM start time of the evening’s RPG sessions.  There were a total of five players with generic tickets who wanted to play low-level LFR, and the organizer persuaded a guy to run an adventure he had never even read before.  What a trouper!

The game was interesting, to say the least.  We played CORM 2-1 For Crown and Kingdom.  It’s actually a pretty cool module, and for running it completely on the fly I think the DM, Leo, did a nice job.  He ran the skill challenges in the manner I hate, though: “Okay, this is a complexity 1 skill challenge, requiring 4 successes before 3 failures.  You can use Perception, Nature, History…” Ugh.  No role playing, just roll the dice.  But since he had no chance to look over it beforehand, I won’t fault him too much for that. He also let the game get bogged down in some rules discussions – I feel confident that I won’t let that happen at my tables.  If there’s disagreement about a rule I’ll go with what seems most reasonable and move the game onward to the fun parts.

My favorite part of the evening was talking with a pair of other people at the table.  There was an older guy who had never played 4th edition before but who had excitedly rolled up an eladrin wizard and was ready to go.  He brought his wife along, and she had never played an RPG before and really had no interest in playing, either.  Still, she was willing to let me talk to her about the game, trying to give her a basic overview of what she would see and what everyone was doing.  She paid polite attention to the game, and we chatted about music afterward.  She even thanked me.  I don’t think I created a new gamer, but I at least had a positive interaction with someone who clearly was not a fan of role playing games.  Baby steps.

I think I’ll bring my projector setup and leave it in the trunk of my car tomorrow, just in case they need someone to run another ad hoc game.  I mostly plan to play, but I’d be lying if I denied wanting to show off my sweet setup to as many people as possible!  I do want to get at least one more LFR game in as a player, just so I can get my half-elf paladin, Rhogar, up to third level so that he can finally equip the two seventh-level items that he’s carrying around!  Ten XP shy…

The projector setup is a success!

It’s late.  I have to go to work in the morning.  I don’t care, though – I’m excited, and I need to write about it!

This evening I put my projector setup into action for the first time.  I ran a Living Forgotten Realms session at the local store, Enchanted Grounds.  I had seven players turn up for a session of CORM 1-1 The Black Knight of Arabel.  I had played this module in the first LFR game I had ever experienced as a player, so I was pretty comfortable running it as a DM.

I arrived at the store about 40 minutes before the game’s scheduled start time so that I would have plenty of time to find a good table, set up the rig, adjust the projector’s focus and so on.  All of that went totally smoothly.  By the time 6:00 rolled around, I was ready to go.

This would be the first time that I was using MapTool for the monsters and the map but not for the player tokens – the players brought their own minis for that.  I had realized when putting the adventure together that, if I wanted to keep track of initiative within MapTool, I would need to have something to at least represent each player for that purpose.  So, I created a set of seven generic PC tokens with their own set of properties.  The image for each token was a number (1 through 7) which I assigned based on the players’ seating arrangement around the table.  The name of each token is the character name.  Their properties include the player’s name, their race and class, their defenses, their initiative modifier (for tiebreaking) and their passive Insight and Perception scores.  It was great for helping me remember everyone’s name, character name, and character type.  The defenses didn’t come up much, nor did the passive insight or perception, but it was nice to have in case I needed it.

The adventure began with a little back story of how the party came to be traveling to the town of Arabel – charged by the king in the capital city to investigate rumored Netherese activity involving shadow creatures and reports of a black knight.  They began by helping a man repair his wagon, when they were set upon by shadow creatures.

The first battle was quite easy for the party, even though I made the minions into two-hit minions.  They dispatched the shadow creatures with little fanfare, helped the wagon driver repair his vehicle, and set off after the dark rider they had spotten on a distant ridge.

At this point I turned off the projector as the party entered a skill challenge to track down the rider.  This was a well-written skill challenge, and the players role-played it well, too.  They ultimately came upon the rider in his camp and started disagreeing about whether to attack or talk.  I allowed a little talk from those who wanted to do so, but the “attack” camp grew restless, so I called for initiative.

The not-so-bright fighter in the party (good role-playing, not a dumb player) decided to charge Dark Skull, narrowly avoiding some traps.  Other players tried to convince Dark Skull to drop his weapon, and he said that he didn’t want to hurt anyone, but he wasn’t willing to drop his guard with the fighter standing next to him.  So, the parlaying character decided to bull rush the fighter out of the way.  Great plan – except that in her quest to get to the fighter, she ran over a pit trap!  Oops.

Dark Skull teleported into the shadows, and the cooler heads in the party were eventually able to start a dialogue that led to an alliance with the falsely-accused knight (the skull was just a mask). They decided to go back to Arabel to find out who was really behind the dark goings-on. Since we were going into role-playing, I turned the projector back off.

Since we were doing fine on time, I decided to  run a little bit of the Arabel skill challenge.  The party repaired a broken obelisk in the town square, then went to the tavern where the innocent “black knight’s” father worked.  The father had cursed his son, leading to his shadow powers, and so the party questioned the father.  They asked about his family, and the father didn’t mention any adult son but told them that his wife and infant son were at his house some distance away (I made this up on the spot).  The PCs decided to go to that house to question the wife.  They found the house to be dark and broke in – no one was home, but the door to the basement was locked.  They picked the lock – and found an empty basement.  Clearly the father had lied.

The group returned to the tavern to confront the father about the lie, and found that he had left, heading toward the town square.  Some streetwise checks confirmed that people had seen him go that way, with some young lovers (also made up on the spot) in the square pointing toward the theater as being the father’s destination.

Upon entering the theater, the party saw a bunch of cultists of Shar looking at the stage, where the father was making a speech and getting ready to sacrifice a baby.  Again, some of the party wanted to talk, but others charged into action – the battle was on!

This is an interestingly-designed encounter, with the players having the option of either convincing the crowd to disperse, in which case they fight the leader and some shadow creatures, or not convincing the crowd to disperse, in which case they fight the leader and the crowd.  Since the party had mowed down everything in their path, I decided to have them fight BOTH the crowd and the shadow creatures!  Happily, the shadow creatures rolled low for initiative, so their entrance from behind the party made for a nice little surprise.

Even with the two-front battle, the players were able to win the day.  They mowed down cultists with no trouble, and the shadow creatures simply didn’t deal enough damage to be a threat.  The most interesting part of the battle was in round four, where I had the leader give up on fighting off the party and start trying to sacrifice the baby.  He picked up the baby and got ready to slaughter it, so the players tried hard to stop him.  One of the physically weaker characters in the party leapt down from the balcony and bull rushed the leader to make him drop the baby.  Unfortunately, this left the baby next to the party wizard’s flaming sphere!

One of the fighters, who was prone at the base of the stage, made a DC 20 athletics check to pull herself up onto the stage from prone and charge over to bull rush the baby out of harm’s way, diving to the ground again to do so.  The cult leader naturally picked the baby back up again, getting ready for the slaughter, so the party wizard hit him with an attack that caused him to lose the ability to take opportunity actions.  There’s a little-known rule that says if you can’t take opportunity actions, you lose any grabs you were making.  The baby gets dropped again (fortunately, I ruled that it was wearing a tiny little Amulet of Feather Fall as part of the ritual), and ultimately the cult leader was wiped out.

The session was loads of fun, and the technology ran without a hitch.  The only minor issue is that even the 2,500 lumens aren’t quite bright enough in some cases – the altar on the stage was tough to see (black on brown).  The solution there is probably for me to think a little more about contrast when I put the maps together.

I’ll tweak a couple of things for the convention on Saturday, but for the most part I am ecstatic about this rig.  It’s loads of fun to run, and it makes the game go very smoothly.  Thank you to my players for coming out to give this a whirl – especially to Andy, who told me that he reads my blog.  That’s the first time I’ve ever met one of my readers without having known them in person first.  It was a pleasure gaming with you, Andy, and with everyone else, too!

P.S. If anyone wants the MapTool campaign file that I used for this game (with my updated tweaks added), it can be downloaded here.

Projector purchased!

Lord help me, I’ve taken the plunge: I’m building a projector setup for my in-person D&D gaming.  Inspired by Ian at the local store and by Sean Pecor online, I figured that if I’m going to be true to my Online Dungeon Master self while still playing in-person, it only makes sense to bring technology to the table and use my computer to run in-person games, too.

I did a lot of research, culminating with a conversation I had at my bowling league tonight with a guy who works with video setups for a living.  He confirmed that the sort of things I was looking at were indeed the right tools for the job.  I did a bunch of searching on Projector Central and ultimately settled on the ViewSonic PJD5152The features that I like about this projector are:

  • Short throw.  This means that the projector doesn’t have to be very far away from the tabletop in order to project a clear image (which means my rig doesn’t have to be crazy-tall).
  • 2,500 lumens.  That’s pretty bright for a short throw projector, which (I hope) means that I will be able to use it even in a setting where there are normal lights on.
  • 5.5  pounds.  That’s pretty lightweight, which I care about since I plan to take this rig with me when I’m DMing at a store or a convention (hello there, TactiCon!).
  • $464 from (via  It’s still a big purchase, but compared to most of the other options out there, it’s a good deal.
  • 30 day return policy.  If it turns out that this won’t work properly, I can get my money back.

The features that I’m a little more nervous about:

  • 800 by 600 resolution (SVGA).  That’s not super-high.  Now, I’m figuring that it will be fine for my purposes (my projector expert friend agreed), but the other DMs I’ve seen with similar rigs have had 1024 by 768 resolution.  Getting that would have meant a big step up in price.  On the other hand, my bowling buddy said that if I’m going to be using the VGA output on my laptop to connect to the projector, higher resolution wouldn’t do me any good.
  • 2,500 lumens.  While it’s pretty high for a short-throw projector, my bowling buddy was saying that I would want 4,000 to 6,000 for good image quality in normal light.  I couldn’t even find a short-throw projector with 4,000 lumens (3,000 to 3,500 were available for beaucoup bucks).  Sean Pecor seemed happy with his 2,000 lumens, so I’m optimistic, but still a little concerned.
  • The price.  Yeah, it’s a good deal by projector standards, but holy cow that’s a lot of money!

The projector should arrive sometime early next week, at which point I will most likely be in New York on business (that figures).  I plan to try it out without building a rig first, just holding it over a table.  Once I feel confident that this thing is going to work, I’ll begin construction of the rig to hold the thing.  I like Sean’s setup, and I plan to build mine largely based on his.

So, am I nuts?  Any advice for me as I (perhaps foolishly) forge ahead into the realms of becoming a projector-wielding DM?

Eat what you kill

There was a post on EN World asking how people have taught the rules of D&D Fourth Edition to new players.  I shared my story there, and since it ended up being a pretty long reply, I thought it would make for a good blog post.  I’ve told a little bit of this story in my first blog post, but here’s the extended version.

I was at a wedding in Florida (I live in Colorado).  The wedding was in the morning, and the festivities were done by mid-afternoon.  I was a pretty new D&D player at that point and hadn’t DMed at all, but I had brought the DMG 2 to read on the trip.

One of my friends, Zach, noticed the book and asked about D&D.  He had played World of Warcraft and knew a little bit about D&D.  I talked to him, and he was into the idea of playing, as was his wife, Lane.  She had never played anything like D&D.  My wife, Barbara, had been playing in a game with me for about three sessions at that point, so she at least knew the rules.

I helped Zach and Lane roll up some characters in the Character Builder on my laptop, guiding them through the process.  Then the bride and groom showed up and wanted to play, too, so I had Zach guide the groom through character creation on his laptop (CB is a free download for levels 1-3, woo hoo!) while I helped the bride.  Once they all had characters, I helped transfer their stats to sheets of paper in an abbreviated format (no printer, you see).  My wife used her character from our session at home (which we saved on the laptop).

Zach drew up a battle grid (freehand) on two sheets of letter-sized paper that we had on hand, and we fished around for coins and little dried fruits to use for PCs and monsters.  I found a free adventure to run (Keep on the Shadowfell), and we dived right in, right there in the hotel room.

So picture it: Six people seated around a hotel end table that’s been pushed to the middle of the room.  Four are sitting on beds, two on chairs.  There are a couple of laptops around, one of which is mine that I’m using to run the game.  People are busting out their cell phones to use online dice rollers (we had no dice, you see).  The PCs (coins) are attacking the monsters (little dried blueberries and pineapple chunks), enjoying the pleasure of eating what they kill (if you haven’t tried this, I highly recommend it).

As for teaching the game, it went something like this:

“On your turn, you have three actions you can spend – a standard action, a move action, and a minor action.  Most of the time you won’t have anything that’s a minor action, but you can use it for drawing a weapon, for instance.  Your standard action is usually going to be an attack, and I’ve laid out your options for those on your sheets of paper.  Your move action can be moving up to your speed or, if you’re standing next to a bad guy, you might want to just move one square – if you move away from a bad guy at full speed, he gets to smack you.”

“When you attack, you pick which bad guy you’re attacking and which of your powers you’re using for the attack.  You roll a twenty-sided die and add a number to it (the number is on the power).  I’ll let you know if your total is high enough to hit the bad guy.  If it is, your power will tell you to roll a different die and add another number, which will be the damage you’ve dealt to the bad guy.”

“You have a hit point total, which is how much damage you can take before you end up unconscious and start to die.  You’re trying to wipe out the bad guys before they wipe you out.”

That was it in a nutshell, and it was enough to get us through two encounters.  We didn’t do a lot of role playing, of course, but everyone seemed to get the gist of what they could do on their turn, and they had fun beating up kobolds and goblins.  It led to a recurring online game after we went home to Colorado, so I’d call it a success!