Making the Game part 9 – Production

Previous entry: Part 8

Welcome back to my blog series Making the Game, in which I talk about the process of creating my card and dice game, Chaos & Alchemy. This is the final part in the actual making of the game – getting the physical item produced.

Chaos & Alchemy is a fairly simple physical object as games go. It consists of:

  • A box
  • A baggie full of dice
  • A label for the box
  • A rule booklet
  • A deck of cards

Each of these items needed to be sourced in a way that met my standards for quality but was as inexpensive as possible.


I have one word for you when it comes to boxes: Uline. I spent time thinking that I was going to use a little jewelry box from the Container Store, or possibly getting something custom printed from All Packaging Co. or something like that, but no. It was Uline. They have tons of choices, and they’re even happy to send you samples if you’re trying to decide among different options.

My own personal copy of Chaos & Alchemy (#1/125) in the box

Now, I did have to buy my boxes in a case of 500 even though I only needed 125, but that was okay. Uline. They’re awesome.

I’ll note here that I also got my dice baggies from Uline. Did I mention that they’re awesome?


As a role-playing gamer, I’m very familiar with Chessex when it comes to dice. I liked what they had to offer, and they offer discounts for bulk orders like mine, too. I didn’t want to only talk to one company, though, so I also reached out to Koplow.

Koplow was good in that they were willing to send me some samples (I had to pay for my sample dice – and shipping – from Chessex). However, their selection isn’t as broad as Chessex’s. Specifically, I was able to get some really sweet black dice with gold spots from Chessex, which went perfectly with the color scheme of the cards in my game (the card back and the dice go beautifully together). Koplow didn’t have that color combo.

Even though Koplow would have been a bit cheaper, I went with Chessex, and I think it was the right call for me.


My graphic designer, Bree (I’m telling you, game designers – hire her!), knows her stuff in the graphic design world, and she found some high-quality glossy label paper that I could use for my box. She designed the label itself, too – using the awesome cover art from Chris Rallis on the front, with a blurb about the game on the back, the ages / time / number of players on one side, and legal info / credits on the other side.

We had considered lots of different packaging options; for a long time, I thought I was going to be using a two-piece box with a belly band. Ultimately, though, the 4″ x 3″ x 2″ flip-top box from Uline was the perfect size for the cards, dice and rulebook, and a belly band made no sense. The sticker option was perfect.

The tricky part was actually getting the darn things printed. I wanted the quality to be excellent, so I wanted them done on a color laser printer, which I do not happen to own. After calling some different print places, I decided to go with Staples.

Staples had a little trouble with the PDF I was using for printing, apparently because Bree had created it on a Mac and their system was Windows. I was getting slightly off-color backgrounds to the text boxes on the label (and the rules sheet). The solution was for me to open the PDF in Photoshop Elements on my Windows computer and save it as a new PDF. Voila – no more weird background colors.

The PDF is formatted to do two labels per 8 1/2″ x 11″ page, which meant that they needed to be cut out using a paper cutter. My awesome wife Barbara handled all of the label cutting. I applied the labels to the boxes (very carefully) myself.

Rules sheet

There was a point after we had decided on the compact box that Bree and I thought we might go with a tiny little rulebook with a whole bunch of itty bitty pages. Ultimately we thought better of this and went with a single 11″ x 17″ sheet of paper that would be folded in half to form a four-page booklet, which could then be folded into ninths that would slide perfectly into the game box.

Bree designed the rules sheet in color, but did it in such a way that it would still look good in black and white. I really wanted to have color rulebooks for Chaos & Alchemy, but boy howdy is that expensive to print! I went with black and white here.

I had Staples print these, too, and we had some miscommunication about the price. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone with Fedex Kinkos for the black and white rule sheets. Live and learn.

For folding, my wife and I each got a bone folder (something I previously knew nothing about; apparently it’s used in scrapbooking) to make nice, precise folds. After doing one right, we had a template to work from, and things went swimmingly. We knocked out all 125 of these things in about an hour and a half.


I saved the big one for last. Chaos & Alchemy is fundamentally a card game, which meant that I needed to have some high-quality cards printed. I wasn’t sure how to do this, so very early on I reached out to Rod Waibel of Sacrosanct Games. I had backed Rod’s Kickstarter for Compact Heroes last year, and I figured that he might have some suggestions for me.

Rod came through like a champ (hence his credit as a “production consultant” in the rulebook). He pointed me toward Superior POD (print-on-demand) for small print runs and a company in Asia for a large print run if I get to that point.

Ah, Superior POD. I have such a love-hate relationship with them.


  • Great web site that gives you automatic quotes for any size order of any size card deck
  • Templates for print jobs are easy to download and easy to design to
  • Great product – the cards themselves look and feel really nice
  • Occasional bursts of great customer service – when they had printed the wrong sheet the wrong number of times on one of my early test orders, they reprinted the right sheet and got it out to me right away
  • Reasonable prices for a small print run
  • Ability to shrink-wrap the decks
  • Ability to print card boxes and rules booklets (though I didn’t use these)


  • Card boxes are very flimsy (which is why I didn’t use them)
  • A little unpredictability in lining up card fronts and backs (some cards come out a bit crooked)
  • Atrocious communication 80% of the time

Ultimately, I went with these guys, and I got my cards, and they look great, and I could afford them. I didn’t go with their card boxes, but that’s okay – I found another source (there’s this place called Uline…). The card crookedness isn’t a deal breaker; it’s a little less professional than I’d like, but it’s way better than I can do myself.

The customer service, though… wow. As I said, I had an awesome experience with my first one-off order when they fixed an error they had made very quickly. But ever since then, it’s been a nightmare.

My second one-off order, with the final card images, was a mess. I paid extra to have one-day turnaround, and two days later I got an email in the afternoon telling me that there was a problem and that I’d have to re-do my files. This meant that I ended up getting three-day turnaround, and some snippy emails from customer service in the process (granted, I was a bit snippy at that point myself).

My main order was nearly a nightmare. I don’t want to go into all of the details here, but suffice it to say that I went out of my way to try to do everything perfectly, and I was met with absolute silence until it was too late. I got my cards almost a week later than I should have, and then there were issues with the shipping charge…

But you know what? I got my cards, and they look awesome. I had a lot of stress along the way, but the final product is great, and I’m a happy customer.

I would recommend Superior POD as a company to work with for small print runs like mine, but I would caution you to build it plenty of extra time to the process. Fortunately, I had left myself eight days of wiggle room, and while I needed six of them, it all worked out.

This game comes with everything you see here!


Since I did so many pre-orders, I’ll say a few words on shipping. Single copies of the game are shipped in bubble mailers. Multiple copies (2-4) are shipped in cardboard boxes I have lying around (I’ll often make a box that’s the right size by cutting down a larger box). More than that (5+) go in a medium flat-rate box from USPS. Single copies weigh only 9 ounces, so I use first-class mail. Multiple copies are over 13 ounces, which means either parcel post or priority mail, so I’ve been springing for the priority mail option. It seems to have gone great, too, so I plan to stick with it.

And there you have it! The nitty gritty of production. I’ve shipped out about 50 games, delivered a few more to friends in Colorado, consigned some to an FLGS in Colorado, brought a few with me to Indianapolis to deliver to folks who pre-ordered for GenCon delivery, and brought the rest along to try and sell here at GenCon.

Wish me luck!

Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

P.S. If you’re at GenCon and want me to demo Chaos & Alchemy for you, send me an email at or watch my Twitter feed for updates on where I am at what time!

GenCon 2012: OnlineDM’s plans

I am fortunate to be able to say that I will be attending GenCon this year for the second year in a row! Last year was my first GenCon, and I had a blast (those posts are available here and here and here and here). This year, I was not planning on going until my wonderful wife convinced me that the card game I’ve been developing, Chaos & Alchemy, was good enough to deserve a GenCon debut.

What do I look like?

If you want to find me at GenCon, it will probably help to know what I look like! I’ve had some Chaos & Alchemy T-shirts printed, and I’ll probably be wearing them most of the time, so I’ll look something like this:

Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM himself, wearing an awesome Chaos & Alchemy T-shirt

If you see me and want to talk to me, please do! I’ve never been recognized by a stranger before. That would be cool!

Chaos & Alchemy

Obviously, I’m going to be demoing the heck out of Chaos & Alchemy, the game that inspired me to come to GenCon. Unfortunately, I don’t have a booth or anything like that. This means that I’ll be camping out at vacant tables wherever I can find them. I plan to hang out in the board game area somewhat, but since I’ve discovered that Magic: The Gathering players seem to love my game, I plan to hang out there, too.

Chaos & Alchemy cover art by Chris Rallis – Logo by Bree Heiss

My general plan is to put myself at a table and invite passers-by to sit down and play. It’s not a well-thought-out plan, I’ll admit, but I’m going for it! If you see me and you want to try out my game, please do! Really, I would love that.

As I write this, I have pre-sold about 40 games, and I have about another 10-15 that I don’t plan to make available for sale (complimentary copies for certain folks, or copies that I plan to keep as extras for myself, just in case I need them later). Since my print run is 125, that means that I plan to have about 70 copies available for sale at GenCon. If you know you want a copy of Chaos & Alchemy and you would like to pick it up at GenCon (and get the special GenCon promo card for sure), you can order in advance and just let me know that you’ll pick it up at GenCon. Several people have chosen this option already.

Edit: Since I put up my original post, I’ve learned that I won’t be allowed to run anything that resembles a formal event, which means that my banner is a no-no. I’ll do my best to be easy to find, but I’m new at this!


As I mentioned in my Making the Game post about marketing, I’ve signed up to sponsor two GenCon events.

On Thursday at 5:00 PM, I’ll be in the CSO-4 room of the convention center (wherever that is) to be part of a recording of This Just In From GenCon in which I’ll get to talk a little about Chaos & Alchemy (and GenCon so far). I believe this recording is open to the public, so if you like the show you can come to the recording and have the bonus of seeing me there, too!

Later that evening, at 7:00 PM, I’ll be over at Rock Bottom Brewery for the GenCon Social. For those astute GenCon schedule trackers out there, yes, this conflicts directly with the D&D keynote address. Sigh. Still, I definitely want to be at the social since this is where folks will get their dice bags containing goodies, including the GenCon exclusive Chaos & Alchemy promo card! I’ll reveal that here for the very first time:

Social Convocation – the GenCon 2012 promo card for Chaos & Alchemy

Those of who who have been following my game know that the card illustrations are black-and-white, but since Social Convocation is a special one, I hired an artist to do it in color. She did a fantastic job, too! Everyone who buys a copy of Chaos & Alchemy from me at  GenCon will get one of these cards (while supplies last – I’ll have about 65 of them).


I do have tickets to a few seminars that I may or may not attend depending on how things are going with the Chaos & Alchemy demos. If I have a line of people who want to try the game, I’ll probably keep playing rather than stopping to attend a seminar.

  • Thursday 10:00 AM: D&D Digital Future, ICC room 139
  • Thursday 6:00 PM: Kickstarting board games, ICC room 210
  • Friday 1:00 PM: D&D “The Sundering”, ICC room 139 (most likely to be skipped, I’d say)
  • Friday 3:00 PM: Law of the Geek recording, ICC room 201
  • Friday 6:00 PM: The Tome Show advice episode with Robin Laws, Crowne Plaza Victoria Station C/D
  • Saturday 10:00 AM: Board game design with Rodney Thompson (Lords of Waterdeep), ICC room 211
  • Saturday 6:00 PM: The Tome Show Gamer to Gamer with Chris Perkins, Crowne Plaza Victoria Station C/D
  • Saturday 7:00 PM: The Tome Show Behind the DM Screen, Crowne Plaza Victoria Station C/D

I’ll be interested to see how many of these I make it to. I think that the board game Kickstarter seminar might be useful, since I might be doing one for Chaos & Alchemy soon, but it’s right between This Just In From GenCon and the GenCon Social. I really want to attend Law of the Geek since Geoff Gerber was kind enough to talk to me on the phone about general legal stuff with my game, and I’d love to attend the Tome Show recordings to meet Jeff Greiner and Tracy Hurley in person (since I’ve been on their show a bunch of times now).

The board game design seminar with Rodney Thompson mainly interests me because Rodney was one of the main people behind Lords of Waterdeep, which I think is an excellent game. I’d love to pick his brain about the design process.


Naturally, I plan to spend some time in the vendor hall when I’m not otherwise engaged, and I’d like to at least play a few board games or indie RPGs while I’m at the convention, too. The vendor hall might be especially interesting, since one company has already asked me for a copy of my game. Who knows – maybe a publisher will decide to pick up Chaos & Alchemy and run with it!

In any case, I know I’m going to have a blast. If you’re looking for me, watch my Twitter feed – I plan to post updates on my GenCon whereabouts regularly.

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Making the Game part 6 – Hiring artists

Previous entry: Part 5

Welcome back to my blog series Making the Game, in which I talk about the process of creating my card and dice game, Chaos & Alchemy. In the earlier entries in this series I’ve discussed the inception of my game idea, my first outside playtests and the development of the game’s theme, the point where I decided to actually produce the game, the process of working with my awesome graphic designer, and legal stuff including the formation of an LLC to publish my game.

Once I had decided that I was actually going to produce my game, I started moving on a lot of projects at once. I’ve written about some already (legal stuff, graphic design) and will write about more in the future (playtesting, production details). Today I’m focusing on artists.

Sadly, I have poor skills of an artist. And since stick figures weren’t going to cut it for Chaos & Alchemy, I knew I would have to hire some artists to illustrate my cards. There’s a delicate dance here, though; I wanted art that would look good, but I couldn’t afford to pay tons of money for it.

Also, I don’t know any illustrators. This could be a problem.

I started by putting out a call online for suggestions of artists on Twitter. My network isn’t all that big, but a response from Michael Olsen led me to one artist: Beth Sobel. I think Beth’s art is really outstanding and a great fit for Chaos & Alchemy. She was one of the last artists I contracted with, and she asked if she could sign up for all 10 of the remaining illustrations I needed at the time. Thank you, Beth!

Adjacent Laboratory by Beth Sobel

I next thought about places where I might find artists online, and I came up with the folks from the Prismatic Art Collection, which I had recently backed on Kickstarter. I think the project is a great idea, and I know that part of the whole point is to get exposure for these artists so that they could get more paid work. Since I was offering to pay, this seemed like a good place to find artists.

I started by pinging Tracy Hurley just to make sure I didn’t need to go through her or Prismatic Art before contacting the artists (nope, I could go straight to them), and then I started emailing artists. I looked through the stuff they had submitted to Prismatic Art so far as well as stuff on their web sites (for those artists who had web sites) and picked a few people to email.

Saboteur by Andres Canals

Some of them got back to me quickly, but were unfortunately too expensive for me to work with. Some never replied. One replied over a month later, by which point I had already contracted out all of the art. But one, Andres Canals, did get back to me promptly and was willing to do black-and-white illustrations for a price I could afford (which turned out great).

Going through this process with the Prismatic Art folks helped me crystallize my plan. I would hire a bunch of different artists for low-cost black-and-white illustrations for the cards themselves. I would also hire one artist to create a single full-color illustration that I could use on the cover of my game. Each time I contacted an artist from here on out, I would ask for two quotes: One for black and white card art and one for a full-color cover illustration.

Volatile Solvent by LochaBWS

I found one artist in-person in Colorado at the friendly local game store. She goes by LochaBWS professionally, and she spends a fair amount of time in the store with a sign on a table offering to draw character portraits for RPGs for $10 apiece. I noticed her there in my first week of creating Chaos & Alchemy, and I approached her after I was done running D&D Encounters a week later. She would indeed be interested in doing sketches for my cards, so I had her flip through the cards and pick out a few that she had ideas for. I hired her to illustrate four of them, with more to come if she did a good job and was interested in more work. She delivered her work on time, and ended up illustrating a total of 13 cards.

One artist came to me directly via D&D. I have been running a Friday night online D&D game for a couple of years, and when development work on Chaos & Alchemy took off in earnest I had to step away from running the game. During the last session that I ran, I was talking about Chaos & Alchemy, and a few people in my game mentioned that they might be interested in doing some illustration work for it. One of these, Lana Gjovig, latched on to the physical objects in the game that needed illustrations and offered to take those. She also recruited J.J. Mason to illustrate another card. Networking!

Fun side note: Lana uses an alias for our online games; putting together a contract for her illustration work was the first time I heard her real name.

Replacement Codex by Lana Gjovig

Royal Inspector by J.J. Mason

Another artist came via networking in a different way. LochaBWS (the artist from the local game store) had gone to Denver Comic Con in June and brought back a business card from an artist who worked fast and who she thought might be a good fit for Chaos & Alchemy. I contracted that artist, and she was far, far too expensive for me, but she in turn put me in touch with another artist, J. Embleton, who was interested in the work I was offering at the price I had in mind. J is primarily a comic-book artist, and you can see that in the work she’s done for Chaos & Alchemy, but I think we came up with a style that fits the game nicely. J also signed up to do the sole full-color card illustration in the game, which will appear on my GenCon promo card (to be revealed later).

Call for Knowledge by J. Embleton

Each artist had to sign a contract (put together with the help of my lawyer, Rob Bodine) that specifies:

  • Our respective names and addresses
  • The work they’ll do
  • The dates they’ll do the work by (including proofs if applicable)
  • The fee I’ll pay them for the work
  • The fact that they’re assigning my company the copyright in their art once I pay them for it
  • The fact that they’re an independent contractor rather than an employee

I used the same contract with all of my artists (except the very earliest art, which came before my lawyer had drawn this contract up), which worked out nicely.

With all of the individual card illustrations contracted (43 unique cards, plus the one promo card), that left only the cover illustration. This one would be more expensive, I knew, but I was willing to splurge a little bit to make the game look good on a shelf (and to have some awesome art to use in marketing on a web site or a vinyl banner, for instance). I had asked a few folks involved with Prismatic Art Collection about cover illustrations, but it didn’t seem like that was going to be the way to go.

I next turned to deviantART, a web site where all kinds of artists can display their work. I searched for “alchemy” and other similar terms and started putting together a batch of favorites.

My absolute favorite piece among those that were already created was “The Alchemist” by Jena DellaGrottaglia.

The Alchemist by Jena DellaGrottaglia

I could see this piece being used as-is as the cover art for Chaos & Alchemy, so I reached out to Jena to talk about buying or licensing the rights to the art for my game. Unfortunately, Jena was busy with other things at the time and couldn’t get back to me until I had already passed the point where I had contracted with another artist. Also, apparently Jena is much more established in the art world than I realized (doing book covers and such) and her rates were too expensive for someone like me. But she’s a heck of an artist, you have to admit!

With Jena not able to get back to me in time, I turned to another artist I found via deviantART, Chris Rallis. He had created this piece for a video game called Spellchemy:

The Alchemist by Chris Rallis – For Spellchemy by Mind Juice Media

I thought that Chris’s style would fit very nicely in Chaos & Alchemy, so I inquired about fees and timing for creating something similar for my game box. Chris was very professional and said that he would be able to create artwork in a little over a week’s time (full color and all), but his rate was on the high end of what I could pay.

I talked with another artist about creating something similar, and while the other artist’s rate was lower than Chris’s, I definitely liked Chris’s style the best. So, I bit the bullet and paid for some awesome artwork:

Chaos & Alchemy cover art by Chris Rallis – Logo by Bree Heiss

Seeing the results, I have zero regrets! Chris did an amazing job.

And with that, the art for Chaos & Alchemy is complete! You can see all of the card illustrations over on the Art Gallery, and you can see an illustration from each artist in its final form within the card frames on the Sample Cards page. I hope you like them – I sure do!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

P.S. Pre-orders are still open for another day or two for Chaos & Alchemy at 10% off the regular price plus free shipping.

Monster Stock Art and Minions Do It With One Hit Point

Here’s a quick post to highlight a couple of cool things I’m supporting on the RPG internet this week.

Monster Stock Art

As you undoubtedly know if you read my blog, I run lots of D&D games using MapTool (both online and in-person with a projector). One of the reasons I love MapTool for in-person games is that I don’t need to buy monster minis; I just use monster images on round tokens in MapTool to represent the bad guys.

I generally just use Google Image Search to find cool monster pictures online, but I’d love to have an all-in-one source for monster images. So, I was happy to discover and support Joe Wetzel’s Monster Stock Art project on Kickstarter.

Basically, he’s paying for a whole crapload of monster art to be delivered in either PDF or higher-resolution image form, with the option to also get monster stand-ins for physical tokens (which I obviously don’t need). Yay for cool monster images! Coming soon to a MapTool game near you (if you’re one of my players).

Minions Do It With One Hit Point T-shirt from d20monkey

I’m not a major reader of webcomics, but I do follow a few. These include the Order of the Stick, xkcd, The Oatmeal, and d20monkey. The latter of these has been coming out with nifty merchandise for a while, and he’s finally gotten me to bite on an item:

How awesome is that? This was featured in one of Brian’s comics in July 2011, and it’s finally available as an actual shirt. Get yours here! (Note: Man, did I have a hard time tracking down the comic where this idea originated!)

-Michael the OnlineDM

New OnlineDM avatar, courtesy of James Stowe

If you see me posting in the comments here on the blog or over on Twitter, or on EN World or the like, you may notice a new avatar.

Since shortly after I started the blog, I had been using this image as my avatar:

You may recognize it as the Rune of Terror from the room full of zombies on the first floor of the Keep on the Shadowfell. I used it because it was the first thing I had drawn myself that looked at all respectable (even though it was my attempt at recreating something that another artist had drawn). Ironically, I never got to use that image in-game, as the group that I was running through the Keep ended up not being able to play any more.

I’ve felt for a long time that I’d like something better. I’ve asked a couple of friends of mine who are artists if they would be interested in a commission from me, and none of them really were. Then I saw James Stowe’s offer to do commission work. I really enjoyed the character sheets he had created for his kids, and I like the cartoon aesthetic, so I commissioned him to do a couple of pieces for me.

The first is a portrait of my beloved bard, Factotum. I think James nailed this one.

The second is an avatar of me, Michael the OnlineDM. I sent James the link to this picture of me and asked if he had any inspiration about how to get the “online” part of my name across. I think he came at it in a brilliant way:

So, don’t be confused if you see a little cartoon guy in a computer screen box instead of a rune of terror – it’s still me!

And if you’re an artist who might be interested in commission work for a banner for my blog, I’m offering to pay! Send me an email at if you’re looking for work and think you might be able to come up with something good.

Cover art: The Staff of Suha Cycle

I’ve written three adventures over the course of the past year, all of which have been run as MyRealms adventures for Living Forgotten Realms (even though they’re not really set in the Realms). I’ve released versions of the first two of these on my blog already (the Staff of Suha and Tallinn’s Tower). The third adventure, Descent Into Darkness, is done and has been run twice already, but I’m going to wait until after I run it at TactiCon this weekend to release it (since I may tweak it further after more play testing).

My eventual plan is to release all three as a single adventure PDF. Each of the three adventures is really a delve – a four-hour, self-contained adventure. Together, they make for a respectable-length adventure that I’m calling the Staff of Suha Cycle.

When I started thinking about doing this, I realized that I needed a prettier layout than I’ve been using. I’m not much of an artist, but I’ve been trying to make things look a little bit nicer in Word (and the ultimate PDFs).

And if I’m going to publish this as a full-on adventure (for free, of course), I need some cover art. So, I created some.

This is the cover page for the Staff of Suha Cycle adventure. I’m quite happy with the way it turned out. I wouldn’t call it professional, but I’d definitely call it presentable.

What do you think – does this cover make you interested in checking out the adventure?

Free art: Numeric runes

There’s a puzzle in my third adventure (to be released after I run it at TactiCon next Friday) that involves numbers. The puzzle itself is optional and could be handled with skill checks, but I decided to go ahead and make it a true puzzle for those players who enjoy that sort of thing.

And since this is D&D, just throwing a set of numbers out there didn’t seem like enough. Yes, I’ll give the Arabic numeral version of the puzzle to parties who don’t want to deal with extra complexity, but I decided to use runes to represent the numbers 1 through 8.

Now, I don’t know anything about runes and wasn’t quite sure how to find runes to represent numbers, so I decided to just create my own. I’m not an especially artistic person, but I figured I’d be up to the task of making simple linear runes.

To make them more decipherable, the number of pen strokes in each rune corresponds to its number. So, the rune for the number 6 has six strokes.

Feel free to use these at your own table, and let me know if you have any suggestions to improve them!

Rune 1

Rune 2

Rune 3

Rune 4

Rune 5

Rune 6

Rune 7

Rune 8

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.

Treasure from the past

As I mentioned in my introductory post, I had tried playing a little bit of D&D years ago, under Third Edition (3e) rules.  My wife and I bought the 3e starter kit and later the core books (Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual).  We played through some of the starter kit dungeons (I was the DM, she ran several characters) and had a good time.  One of the people she worked with was a regular D&D player, as was his girlfriend, and they were interested in playing with us.  We set up a session where I would DM and the three of them would play.

I remembered that I had run them through a pre-packaged module where they had quickly taken it off the rails, and I was unprepared as a first-time DM to deal with it, so that ended badly.  They also fudged their dice rolls to get extra crits, which I also didn’t know how to deal with.  That turned us off of D&D for years until we picked it up again in early 2010.

Now that I’m running my Fourth Edition party through the Keep on the Shadowfell I’m having a better time keeping my wits about me when the unexpected happens (and no one is fudging their dice, either, which helps).  I’ll admit that I’m starting to get a little tired of the Keep, though, and I’m thinking ahead to what might come next.  I had come up with lots of neat little ideas, trying not to put too much effort into any of them because I don’t know what direction things will go.  And then I remembered something:

Didn’t I do some prep work for my own Third Edition adventure way back when?

I found my old manila folders for D&D 3e stuff.  There was a folder full of character sheets for characters that both Barbara and I had rolled up.  I learned two things here:

  • Wow, we sure rolled up a lot of characters, especially without Character Builder!
  • I think the old way of rolling ability scores must have been overpowered – those characters had some amazing stats.

That was a nice trip down memory lane (ah yes, Barbara’s elf Druid named Lyssiah Stormwhisper!  I remember her…), but what I really wanted was in the next folder:

  • The printout of the ill-fated pre-packaged adventure that I ran
  • A map for a world of my own creation that I had drawn in colored pencils (two drafts, one on graph paper)
  • An arena dungeon with multiple levels that I had created myself (two drafts, one on graph paper)
  • A cavern-style dungeon with even more levels that I created myself (again two drafts, one on graph paper)
  • A typed, four-page write-up of a full-on adventure through the cavern-style dungeon, complete with monsters, traps, difficulty classes to find doors and so on, read-aloud text…

I was blown away by the amount of time I must have put into creating this stuff – and I never used any of it!  None!  The full adventure write-up amazed me.  It’s not quite up to the quality of a professional module, of course, but it’s not completely amateurish, either.  I remember devising this dungeon and the back story now that I’ve re-read it, and I remember that I thought hard about verisimilitude when I crafted the dungeons.  For instance, I thought about why these creatures would be living where they did, why secret doors would be hidden, where the creatures slept and spent their awake time, and so on.

The question now is, what do I do with this?  I don’t think I’d use the “published adventure” that I wrote as-is since it was customized for the characters who were in the party at the time.  I could totally see myself using the dungeon maps, though, just with new monsters and even the same general logic of what types of monsters can be found where.  They still seem like pretty cool encounter areas.

What do you think?  Is something like this worth re-using?  To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’ve put the world map that I drew below (click to enlarge).  If you’re interested in seeing the other maps and the adventure I had written, let me know.

Ervallen Map

My artistic skills are developing!

I’ve mentioned before that I am not artistic by nature.  Okay, singing and acting, sure, but not the visual arts.  However, being an online dungeon master (hey, that’s the name of the blog!) has forced me into the visual arts on a small scale, and I have to admit that I’m having a lot of fun with it.  Gametable comes with a lot of pre-made artwork to use – dungeon walls, trees, character and monster minis, etc. – which helps a lot.  But if I want my game to look right, I have to do some artwork.

Sometimes this involves drawing large, freehand features like rivers, roads and mountains.  These don’t need to be too detailed, so a rough outline of what they should look like is all I really need.  Witness the maps from my first online session:

Kobold Lair Exterior Kobold Ambush

However, we’ll soon be getting into the Keep on the Shadowfell itself, which deserves higher-quality artwork, in my humble opinion.  Having the dungeon walls pre-made helps.  I was able to add some simple features like doors.  I shared in an earlier post (and on my downloads page) some basic game elements like tables, prison bars and stairs.  For the next part of the dungeon, though, I needed some artwork.  Specifically, I needed a rune that appears several times on the floor of one section of the dungeon.  The runes are background elements, but they’re important.  I really wanted to get them right.  There’s an illustration in the adventure manual of what they should look like, roughly, but not the type of illustration that I could cut and paste to use in the game.  No, this time I had to actually draw the runes in Photoshop:Rune from Keep on the ShadowfellOkay, I know I’m not a pro, but come on – that’s a badass-looking rune!  And I really did have to draw it more or less freehand.  I first drew the top triangle-thingy, then copied and rotated it so that I had three of them, then drew the other symbols in part using the line tools in Photoshop and in part just freehanding it. I learned a lesson about combining layers in Photoshop, too.  By default, every time you draw a new shape, Photoshop Elements puts it on a whole new layer.  This is convenient much of the time, when you want to enlarge or rotate just one piece of the drawing (you don’t have to worry about selecting it perfectly – it’s on its own layer).  It got annoying, though, when I wanted to shift and resize the hand that I drew and I found that each finger was on its own layer, as was the palm.  Eventually I just merged all of the visible layers and selected the hand independently, which worked just fine.  And now I have a rune!

I also have some new environmental elements, most of which started with photos online that I resized or modified in some way.

ShelfThis shelf, for instance, started from a schematic of a bookshelf that I found online.  It’s surprisingly hard to find overhead views of lots of the items I’m looking for in the game, so the schematic below was where I started:

Bookshelf schematic

From there, I used the eyedropper in Photoshop to pick up some of the brown color, then used the line tools to make the top solid, then got a little creative with making the 35″ measurement on the front of the middle shelf disappear.  Sure, my dungeon shelf has particle board, but that’s okay!

I also needed some suits of armor.  There are tons of great pictures of suits of armor online, but again, it’s hard to find one from overhead.  Fortunately, I was able to experiment with the tools in Photoshop to distort the image of a straight-on picture of armor so that it more or less looks like it’s coming from overhead.  I started with the picture on the left and ultimately turned it into the image on the right.  It’s not great, but it’s better than nothing (and it looks fine at its usual 64 by 64 pixel size).

Suit of armor - original Suit of armor - overhead

Finally, I created a few other miscellaneous minis that I’ve shown below without full write-ups.  These are things I’ve created from images I found online.  From left to right, my improved fire pit, a coffin, a tent, a blue slime (I love Dragon Warrior!), an ochre jelly and two kruthiks (yeah, I had no idea what I kruthik was, either).  Also, an awesome giant rat.

Fire pit Coffin Tent Blue Slime Ochre Jelly Kruthik - full body Kruthik - face close-up Giant rat

I’m pretty happy with myself, I have to say!  I hope we get to play this dungeon soon.  Lane, Zach and Barbara have said that they want to play sooner rather than later, even if we can’t get our full group of five players together.  We may run some more side quests – perhaps even some that I’ll try to build myself – or we may delve into the main keep and pick up other players for future adventures.  Frankly, I’m getting a little too excited about what I’ve created in the keep NOT to run it!  But we’ll see how things play out.  Barbara and I will be traveling next week, and we realized that there’s nothing keeping us from playing our online game while we’re on the road.  We’ll have the laptop, and that’s all we really need.  Plus, we’ll be in Boston, so we’ll be in the same time zone as our friends in Florida (as opposed to Mountain Time here in Colorado), so that might even be easier.  Our next session will likely be played from our hotel room!