MapTool macro: Attack and defense modifier states

More MapTool macro fun! Yes, I’m a nerd and proud of it.

In a game like Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, it’s pretty common to get temporary bonuses to attack rolls or defenses. When you’re playing with pen and paper, you have to keep track of these yourself. When you’re using MapTool, the program can help.

Now, I’m sure that some of the snazzier MapTool frameworks out there will handle temporary modifiers in super-fancy ways that actually change the calculation of attacks based on these modifiers and so on. I’m not looking for any of that. I’m simply looking for a visible reminder on a token that it has a temporary bonus or penalty.

I started creating +2 attack and-5 attack and +2 defense states in a piecemeal manner months ago. As PCs and monsters in my games started getting powers that could apply these bonuses or penalties, I created states that would remind me of them. I would then turn these states on and off very manually – right click on the token, find the right state, click on it. Repeat to turn it off.

Well, I’m sick of that, so I decided to automate the process.

First, I created a set of 20 token states: +1 to +5 attack, -1 to -5 attack, +1 to +5 defense and -1 to -5 defense. They look something like this:


Depending on whether I’m using MapTool online or with my projector setup, I either display these states as 3×3 grid images (online) or 2×2 grid images (projector – the larger images show up better). The red boxes are for attack (or damage) and the blue boxes are for defenses. I use 80% opacity, so you can still make out a little of the token art behind the states.

A monster with +5 to attack, one with -3 to defense, and one with +2 to attack and defense

For a while, I was creating individual toggle buttons for my states. Click a token, then click the “+2 Attack” button, and the +2 Attack state will toggle on or off. Now that I have 20 of these states, I decided to streamline. Rather than 20 buttons, I have two: One to set attack modifiers and one to set defense modifiers.

Attack bonus macro (download the macro)

[h: x=input("NewMod|0|What is the token's new attack modifier?")]
[h: abort(x)]

I start by asking for the new attack modifier in a pop-up; if the user clicks the Cancel button, the macro ends. Note that the user can specify a +2 bonus as either “2” or “+2”; the macro works either way.

[h: SelectedTokens=getSelected()]
[FOREACH(TokenID, SelectedTokens, " "), CODE:

I create a list of token IDs called SelectedTokens for however many tokens are currently selected, and then I loop through each of these tokens to perform the same code on them. This lets me apply (or remove) a bonus or penalty to a bunch of tokens at once.

 {[if(NewMod>5 || NewMod<-5), CODE: {[assert(1==0,add("<b>Error</b>: Attack modifier must be between -5 and +5"),0)]}; {}]

I throw off an error message if the user tries to enter a number over 5 or under -5, since that’s the range of states I’ve created.

  [h: OldMod=getProperty("AttackState",TokenID)]
  [h: OldState=if(OldMod>=0, add("+", OldMod, " Attack"), add(OldMod, " Attack"))]
  [h: NewState=if(NewMod>=0, add("+", NewMod, " Attack"), add(NewMod, " Attack"))]

I figure out what the current value of the token’s AttackState property is (a number from -5 to 5), and then convert this to a string like “+2 Attack” or “-3 Attack”. This corresponds to the names of the states in my campaign file. I do the same for the new attack modifier, getting the appropriate state name.

  [h, if(OldMod==0), CODE:{}; {[h: setState(OldState,0,TokenID)]}  ]
  [h, if(NewMod==0), CODE:{}; {[h: setState(NewState,1,TokenID)]}  ]

If the new or old modifier is zero, I don’t try to change it (since no state is displayed on the token for a zero bonus). Otherwise, I turn off the old state (setting it to false, or 0) and turn on the new state (setting it to true, or 1).

  [h: setProperty("AttackState", NewMod, TokenID)]

I set the value of the AttackState property to whatever the user entered, so that the macro can reference that property the next time it’s run. I then close the CODE block and the FOREACH loop that I started at the top. Voila!

The whole macro is as follows:

[h: x=input("NewMod|0|What is the token's new attack modifier?")]
[h: abort(x)]

[h: SelectedTokens=getSelected()]
[FOREACH(TokenID, SelectedTokens, " "), CODE:
 {[if(NewMod>5 || NewMod<-5), CODE: {[assert(1==0,add("<b>Error</b>: Attack modifier must be between -5 and +5"),0)]}; {}]
  [h: OldMod=getProperty("AttackState",TokenID)]
  [h: OldState=if(OldMod>=0, add("+", OldMod, " Attack"), add(OldMod, " Attack"))]
  [h: NewState=if(NewMod>=0, add("+", NewMod, " Attack"), add(NewMod, " Attack"))]
  [h, if(OldMod==0), CODE:{}; {[h: setState(OldState,0,TokenID)]}  ]
  [h, if(NewMod==0), CODE:{}; {[h: setState(NewState,1,TokenID)]}  ]
  [h: setProperty("AttackState", NewMod, TokenID)]

Defense bonus macro (download the macro)

The defense macro is exactly the same as the attack macro – just replace “Attack” with “Defense”.

[h: x=input("NewMod|0|What is the token's new defense modifier?")]
[h: abort(x)]

[h: SelectedTokens=getSelected()]
[FOREACH(TokenID, SelectedTokens, " "), CODE:
 {[if(NewMod>5 || NewMod<-5), CODE: {[assert(1==0,add("<b>Error</b>: Defense modifier must be between -5 and +5"),0)]}; {}]
  [h: OldMod=getProperty("DefenseState",TokenID)]
  [h: OldState=if(OldMod>=0, add("+", OldMod, " Defense"), add(OldMod, " Defense"))]
  [h: NewState=if(NewMod>=0, add("+", NewMod, " Defense"), add(NewMod, " Defense"))]
  [h, if(OldMod==0), CODE:{}; {[h: setState(OldState,0,TokenID)]}  ]
  [h, if(NewMod==0), CODE:{}; {[h: setState(NewState,1,TokenID)]}  ]
  [h: setProperty("DefenseState", NewMod, TokenID)]

I hope this type of macro is useful for folks out there. As always, let me know if you have questions about my macros or requests for new macros. I love this kind of thing, as you can no doubt tell!

Note: All macros were generated with version 1.3.b66 of MapTool, but they work with 1.2.b86 as well.

Download the properties for online games with these states

Download the properties for projector games with these states

Download my complete campaign template for online games

Download my complete campaign template for projector games

D&D Encounters Dark Legacy of Evard – Week 1

I’ve volunteered to run D&D Encounters for the Dark Legacy of Evard season that began today. I’ve only played one session of Encounters before, but the store owner, Jeff, was trying to recruit enough DMs so that we could run four tables per night and still be able to have DMs alternate weeks (so, eight DMs total). One encounter a week shouldn’t be too hard to prepare, so I gave it a go.


I got the adventure last Friday and gave the first chapter a read-through. The Encounters adventure comes with poster maps and tokens, but if you’ve been following my blog, you know that I love to run games using my projector setup and MapTool. So, I began creating maps in MapTool and programming up the monsters.


For tonight’s session, we had six players, which meant that we were only going to run one table. I was the first DM there, so I was fortunate to be able to run my game. Four of the players were Encounters veterans, but two were not.

The first of these newcomers was my wife, Barbara! We’ve played D&D together many times over the past year and a half that I’ve been involved with the game, but this is the first time she’s participated in public play. Huzzah!

The second newcomer was David, a complete newcomer to D&D4e. He had played a little bit of D&D 3.0 years ago, but he was really coming to the game fresh. Excellent!


Tonight’s session started off with the party introducing themselves to one another. They were on a weeks-long journey to take some messages from the leader of Fallcrest to far-off Sarthel. Some of the players decided that they were actual couriers while others were either guards or hangers-on. One was a Revenant who, it was decided, had been found by the party near the side of the road a few days prior with no memory of his previous life.

It was a quiet evening in the Old Owl Inn in the town of Duponde, and the adventurers were resting and waiting a few days for the bridges over the Nentir River to be repaired so that they could continue on toward Sarthel. They spent some time chatting with other travelers and locals about the spooky weather and hearing rumors about the ghost of the shadow wizard Evard whose grave is in Duponde. The innkeeper and a visiting scholar told them some of the tales, and the group eventually went to bed.

In the middle of the night, everyone woke up to a strange feeling of being pulled in odd directions, the temperature dropped, and lights began functioning poorly. A scream came from downstairs in the common room. The adventurers geared up and went down to investigate

The battle

They arrived to find the old bartender knocked out behind the bar while a quartet of gargoyles, animated incarnations of the statues that adorned the front of the inn, flew around the room wreaking havoc. Battle ensued.

The encounter map (no grid)

The Shade Executioner in the group snuck up behind one of the statues and grabbed it with his garrotte, nearly killing it outright. Our Half-Orc Knight waded into combat to challenge a pair of monsters. The Revenant Hexblade found himself on the wrong end of a gargoyle attack and was knocked to the ground and dazed – and bloodied. He fought back from the ground with his single action on his turn. Our Drow Hunter finished off the gargoyle that had been garrotted.

At the end of the round, a pair of shadow creatures emerged from the darkness and attacked. One of them melded into the shadow of the Knight, dealing him some necrotic damage, while the other melded with the prone Revenant, taking his hit points into negative territory, but not dropping him to unconsciousness yet (Revenants get to keep fighting until they fail a death saving throw).

These shadow creatures turned out to be pretty tough – hard to hit when they were melded with characters, and insubstantial unless hit with radiant damage (which no one in the party could deal). The gargoyles started dropping, but one of them ignored the Knight’s mark to go after the prone Revenant (who, remember, was at negative hit points, but still fighting) – and killed him outright. Negative bloodied value, dead-dead. (This is only the second time I’ve killed a PC as a dungeon master.)

Truly scared now, the remaining five party members did what they could to finish the fight quickly. Our Drow Hunter provoked an opportunity attack from a shadow (a hit – the first against him – bloodied the Hunter) and succeeded in dazing the monster. That shadow was soon finished off, but its partner came after the Drow and knocked him unconscious. The Knight had been brought back from unconsciousness by the Half-Elf Sentinel already, and then fell yet again to the shadows before the Sentinel eventually stabilized him.

Ultimately, our Shade Binder dealt the killing blow to the last shadow monster, and the survivors could catch their breath.


This was a brutal encounter. We lost one PC, although had it been anything other than a Revenant who kept fighting while at negative hit points, we might not have actually lost anyone. Two other PCs ended the fight unconscious, and one was bloodied. The Shade Binder somehow escaped the fight unscathed (my wife’s character, but I swear I didn’t go easy on her – she just stayed out of the way). The Drow Hunter (David, the first-time player) spent four healing surges at the end of the fight and now has a grand total of two remaining for the next three encounters. The Knight took a total of over 60 damage during the fight (hey, achievement!). Brutal, brutal, brutal.

In talking to the players who had played D&D Encounters before, it sounded like the only similarly tough first session was Dark Sun (which I had read about, and I understand that Dark Sun was supposed to be vicious). This felt like a pretty random battle, but man, was it tough. I guess the Shadowfell is meant to be an unhospitable place.

All that said, I think that this party’s particular makeup was not well suited to this encounter. We had multiple controllers, but there were no minions. We had only one defender, and he took a ton of punishment. We had only one leader, and extra healing would have been really helpful (rest in peace, Revenant). And of course, we had no divine characters, so no one could deal radiant damage. A cleric would have rocked against those shadow creatures, but the party had to slog it out the hard way, dealing with the insubstantiality of the shadows.


All that said, the players legitimately seemed to have a good time, and the newcomer said that he plans to come back next week, bringing a friend. I had fun running the encounter, and I’m looking forward to the next one. I already have set up the first three encounters in MapTool, and I hope to get all 13 in there over the next few weeks. The adventure looks like a lot of fun, and I could definitely see running it again for a home campaign.

The encounter map, with a grid

Quick-hit recap

I took a little time off from blogging over the holidays, but my D&D life continued.  Here are some quick-hit thoughts from the past couple of weeks.

  • My brother-in-law and his wife became huge D&D fans during their visit.  He played Sunday through Friday, every day, and she played Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Now we have to figure out a schedule for an online game since they’re in Texas and we’re in Colorado.
  • We rolled up Gamma World characters with the family and had a good time doing so, but didn’t get a chance to actually play the game yet.  Too bad – it seems like goofy fun.
  • I ran two Living Forgotten Realms games at my local game store, one of which was my first try at a MyRealms adventure (one I wrote myself).  It went well and had some exciting combat, and I asked for player feedback afterward.  Since we finished with an hour to spare, they suggested that I include more role playing time at the beginning.  Done!
  • My regular Friday night online game took two weeks off and got back together for gaming last night.  It was good to get the band back together.  They’re deep in a swamp and spent last night fighting witches and skeletons.  I’m a little worried because we had a four-hour session and spent almost all of it on two combats – I need to speed those up.  I’m happy, though, that they reacted quickly and strongly to the new NPC I introduced – I think I’ve done well at role-playing her, and some of them love her and some of them hate her.  Perfect!
  • I’m participating in a forum-based “story playtest” of the next campaign saga from EN World, called ZEITGEIST.  Basically, the writer spells out a given situation, we tell him how our characters would react, and he narrates what happens and what comes next.  This is my first play-by-post experience, and I think it’s totally cool.  I love being able to really get into character with the rest of the group, and I could see myself doing some more play-by-post in the future. Also, the ZEITGEIST story is really cool so far.
  • I’m all signed up for Genghis Con, the February convention here in the Denver area.  I’m running three LFR games (two sessions of my MyRealms and one of another module I’ve run before) and I’ve signed up to play in three RPG sessions, none of which are D&D 4e.  That’s intentional.  My only RPG experience is with this one game, and the Con seems like a perfect time to see what other games are like.  I’ll be trying Savage World, Call of Cthulhu and GURPS.
  • My regular in-person game gets back together this afternoon after the holiday break.  I guess that means I’d better stop blogging and start prepping!

100 Posts: My top five favorites

According to WordPress, this is my 100th post on Being an Online Dungeon Master.  My first post was in late April 2010, and here I am in November 2010 putting up post number 100.

I thought I would use this momentous occasion (tongue firmly in cheek here) to chronicle my own personal top 5 posts of the first 100.

#5: MapTool programming. I’ve picked this post to be emblematic of my many posts that talk about writing macros in MapTool (these are collected on my MapTool Education Central page). I list this mainly because a lot of the traffic my blog gets is from people who are searching for tutorials on writing MapTool macros, and I’m proud of my learning process and the way I’ve documented it on my blog.  If you just want a finished product to play D&D4e in MapTool, you should definitely check out the various frameworks that are out there.  But if you enjoy writing your own macros, as I do, I hope that my blog can help you with the learning process.

#4: Are you in the RPG closet? I like this post because of the discussion it engendered.  Lots of gamers hide their hobby from certain people in their lives (often co-workers), and I’ve been guilty of this myself.  Is it a bad thing?  Well, after this discussion I decided that I wanted to be more open about my hobby and specifically mentioned it to a few people at work.  Nothing horrible has ensued.  I feel better about myself now.

#3: Eat what you kill. I love this story. In this post I tell the tale of the first game of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition that I ever ran as a DM.  It was totally improvised and run at a friend’s wedding all the way across the country with no gaming supplies – and we still had a blast.  That story is what led to the creation of this blog.

#2: Building a better portable projector rig: This is one of my personal favorites, because I’m proud of what it documents.  In this post, I describe how I built the final version of the rig that holds my projector above the game table so that I can run in-person games using MapTool.  I was inspired by a post from Sean Pecor in which he details the construction of his portable projector setup, but after some trial and error and some investigating online, I went in a different direction.  I would love it if other people followed my lead and built a rig like mine and used it to play RPGs with their friends – that would be quite cool, in my opinion.

#1: My online campaign begins. This one isn’t so much about the post itself as the game behind it. I knew when I started this blog that it was entirely possible that I would someday run a game completely online – finding strangers online to play with, running the game, keeping a campaign going.  Amazingly enough, I’ve succeeded on my first try.  The group that gathered online for that first session in July is still playing together in November.  I had to cut the size from eight players down to five, but those five are still playing with me in the same campaign that we started four months and 12 sessions ago.  They’re great people, too – even though we’ve never met in person, I legitimately consider them friends.  And it’s all thanks to playing D&D on the internet!

To those of you who regularly read my blog, I thank you.  I appreciate those rare occasions when you leave comments, and I appreciate those of you with whom I’ve communicated regularly.  I enjoy blogging about this hobby whether anyone reads what I write or not, but it’s always nice to hear that someone is out there.  Thank you!

Virtual Table announcement – My thoughts

Wizards of the Coast made waves in the online D&D community on Thursday, November 18, when they announced that they are working on a Virtual Table program, the closed beta of which would be starting on November 22. (FAQs are here.)

Obviously, we don’t know very much about the Virtual Table yet, but we’ve been given some information.  The approach is similar to MapTool – two-dimensional, top-down view of the battlemap with circular tokens to represent player characters and monsters.  It’s programmed in Java, but apparently within a web application (for what it’s worth, MapTool is also a Java program).  It will also apparently have integrated voice chat.

This leaves much room for speculation, and there are many unanswered questions.  Let me first say that I see this announcement as good news.  I love MapTool and would be perfetly happy to keep using it forever.  But if WotC brings out a better product, great!  I’d be happy to switch.  I’m already a Dungeons and Dragons Insider (DDI) subscriber, so I obviously approve of their tools.  I also REALLY want to get in on the beta – I’m a great play tester and I think my input would help them improve their product.

Anyway, below are the questions to which we do not yet know the answers, and my thoughts on those questions.


What will the Virtual Table cost?  From the announcement, they haven’t figured this out yet.  This means that it’s unlikely to be just a part of a normal DDI subscription.  I see a few possibilities here.

  • Free program to everyone.  Pretty unlikely, unless they think this will drive new subscriptions to DDI or something like that.
  • Free to DDI subscribers.  This could happen, but I think it’s unlikely given the announcement.  If this is the case, I imagine that every player in the game would have to have a DDI subscription, not just the Dungeon Master.  That’s a bit of a bummer; I don’t think all of my online players, for instance, are subscribers.
  • Included as part of a “higher tier” DDI subscription.  The existing DDI could still give you access to everything it does now, but the “Gold Tier” subscription would provide access to the Virtual Table as a DM, the Monster Builder, a potential Campaign Builder, etc.  This seems like a reasonable possibility.
  • Microtransactions.  This one makes me shudder, but I fear that it might be the way they go.  The basic program would be part of DDI (or potentially totally free), but the DM would have to pay for dungeon tiles, map objects, monster tokens, trap tiles, etc.  For players, who knows?  Maybe they would have to buy access to races and classes and even powers individually (or possibly as packs that would give access to a book’s worth of content).  This has some similarities to Magic Online, which has been successful for WotC.  I really don’t like this approach as a customer, though.

This is obviously complete speculation, but my guess is that they’ll make the Virtual Table part of a regular DDI subscription, and it will include tokens for the monsters in the Monster Vault and some basic Dungeon Tiles.  You’ll probably also be able to have character tokens from Heroes of the Fallen Lands.  If you want more than that, they’ll charge you for it.  To be fair, it takes me about 10 minutes to create a new monster token in MapTool (finding the image, making it into a token, setting its properties, programming its attacks and abilities), and if I could pay a dollar and have a pre-made token, that might be worth it to me (my time is worth more than $6 per hour).

Creation of maps

I think it’s pretty clear that the Virtual Table will support Dungeon Tiles (whether you have to pay for the various sets of tiles, of course, is an open question).  So, building maps out of Dungeon Tiles will be the default.  Will there be support for drawing custom maps as in MapTool?  What about importing JPG maps?  What about extra objects to drop on top of Dungeon Tiles?  I have no idea.  If MapTool can handle custom drawing and importing and objects, it seems like it would be a failure for Virtual Table to not be able to do this.  But I won’t be at all surprised if it’s Dungeon Tiles only.

Creation of monsters and PCs

The announcement says that there is currently no integration of Virtual Table with the online Character Builder or the future online Monster Builder (I’m glad that they’ve confirmed that there will be a new Monster Builder – I had assumed as much).  Maybe that integration will never come, but that seems like leaving it out would be completely stupid.  Let’s face it, the big win for Virtual Table over something like MapTool would be easy importing of PC and monster tokens, complete with stats and powers and everything.  I know that some folks have built tools to do this with MapTool frameworks, but having it built-in as part of the program itself would be nice.

The other possibility is that you’ll have to buy PC and monster tokens individually or in packs.  Sigh.

Built-in rules support

MapTool and its ilk generally have no knowledge of rules – they’re just virtual tabletops.  I’m guessing that the Virtual Table will have some kind of rules support built in by default (though to be clear, the announcement does say that you CAN use it with older versions of D&D, just with no built-in support).  This will likely mean that the player can click a button for their attack, click for their targets, and have the effects of the attack be handled automatically (hit or miss, damage, ongoing conditions, etc.).  It could possibly keep track of triggered abilities, reminders for saving throws, and so on.  Again, some frameworks do this for MapTool, but built-in support would be cool.  D&D4e is a complicated game, though, and I think it will be tough to do this right (especially since abilities are so open-ended and interactions with other abilities are nearly infinite).


I said above that it would be nice to be able to import monsters from the Monster Builder, but I certainly hope that there’s some support for customization.  What if I want to give a monster an extra ability or tweak some numbers?  This is easy in MapTool, and I think it’s important to keep it easy in Virtual Table.  What about house rules?  I love the Bonus Point mechanic (more on that in a future post) and I intend to keep using it.  If I can’t do that in Virtual Table, that would stink.

This is an area where I could see the Virtual Table starting off with very little support and then having some of that support get added over time.

Finding a game

I think it’s likely that there will ultimately be an “online community” around the Virtual Table, just as there is for Magic Online.  There will probably be a server that the program connects to, with various “rooms” that you can go into to meet your friends and then invite them to the appropriate “table” where your game is being held.  This would also allow for the possibility of pick-up games, which is a cool idea.  I could see this being a place for weekly Encounters games to be available to people who can’t come to their Friendly Local Game Store, for instance, or for big events that take place with multiple tables playing the same adventure at once.  If this works, it could be a big advantage over something like MapTool.

The downside of this approach is that the game runs on the WotC server, and is therefore prone to slowdowns and crashes.  This was definitely a problem with Magic Online when I played during the release of new sets, so I worry that it could be an issue the with Virtual Table, too.  We shall see.

Usability with a projector on a physical table

This one probably doesn’t matter to the vast majority of people who are interested in the Virtual Table, but it matters to me.  I am an all-MapTool DM.  I use it for my weekly online game, my weekly in-person game and my occasional turns as DM at my local store for Living Forgotten Realms.  I really need the functionality to have one instance of the program running on my main laptop screen as the DM and something like a second instance running in full-screen mode on the projector.  Would I need two separate DDI accounts for such a thing?  I have no idea.

This is another area where I could see support not existing at first (because, let’s face it, most of the users don’t care) but perhaps being added later.

Wrapping up

Overall, I’m excited about the idea of the Virtual Table.  It has the potential to be tons of fun and to make it even easier to prepare for and run D&D games using a computer (which would make me happy).  It has the potential to stink horribly, of course, but I like that they’re announcing their beta plans and that they’ll be letting beta testers blog about their experiences.

And if anyone with any connections at Wizards of the Coast is listening: Please send me an invitation to the beta test!  I would be extremely useful to you, I promise. 🙂

United Kobolds of the Living Forgotten Realms

This evening I ran a Living Forgotten Realms game at my friendly local game store, Enchanted Grounds.  The amazing thing is that it wasn’t a big deal.

You might remember my post from July where I ran my first LFR game at the store.  That was a big deal to me.  I spent a month preparing for that game.  I talked on the blog and on EN World, asking for advice about running a game in public.  I had to work to create paper maps and tokens for the bad guys.  I read and re-read the adventure to make sure I understood the ins and outs (even though I had been through it already as a player).  I over-prepared.  And to be fair, I had a blast running the game.

This time I realized at some point over the weekend – oh yeah, I’m running a game on Tuesday!  No problem.  It helps that I had already run this particular adventure at TactiCon and I therefore had all of the files I needed on the laptop in MapTool, ready to run with the projector.  (This is TYMA 2-1 Old Enemies Arise.) Still, I really didn’t stress about it.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to stress.  Aside from my accidental unplugging of the projector during the game (twice – but fortunately never in combat), it all went very smoothly.  The party battled some kobolds by the side of the road.

They met with some farmers to investigate the kobold menace.

They fought in a cave full of spike traps.

And they battled the big bad guy in another part of the cave.

The first battle was fair – the defender took some serious damage, but never dropped.  The spike cave battle was lots of fun – I got to push and pull players into spikes all encounter long, when they weren’t stumbling into them on their own.  The final battle was kind of boring – I really need to find a way to spice up that encounter if I ever run this adventure again.

Part of what I enjoyed about this particular adventure was that two of my players are DMs whom I respect – Rich and Aarun.  You might remember Aarun’s name from my very first experience with Living Forgotten Realms – he was the dungeon master for my first game, and I absolutely LOVED the experience of playing under him.  He mentioned this evening that the blog post where I mentioned his name (with its unique spelling) shows up when you Google that name.  Well, Aarun – here’s another Google hit for you!

Anyway, it’s great to run a game for people you respect and for them to clearly have a good time.  I also hung around the store afterward to chat with Wes, another DM I greatly respect.  I’ve already signed up to play in some LFR games in December, and I specifically sought out games that Aarun and Wes are running.  If I can run a game for that type of person and they have a good time, I feel good about my dungeon mastering!

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?

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!