Running online D&D: Weekly prep

I’ve talked a fair amount on my blog about macros that I’ve programmed in MapTool for my online games and recaps of adventures that I’ve run, but I realized that I haven’t spent any time talking about the prep process. Preparing to run a game online has a lot in common with an in-person game with vinyl mats and minis, but it definitely has its differences.

1 week before the game

I figure out what I’m going to be running. For my longest-running online game, this is easy; we’re running EN World’s War of the Burning Sky campaign and have been for over a year. I do still need to make sure I’ve read far enough ahead in the campaign to know what’s coming in the broad sense, but I try to be good about staying ahead of things there.

For my other online games, this might mean picking out a one-shot game (like a Living Forgotten Realms adventure) or actually writing my own adventures (a topic for another blog post).

This is also the time that I reach out to the online players about any changes they need to make to their characters. For instance, if they’ve leveled up after the last session, I remind them to tell me what choices they’re making for their characters. This is a difference between an online game and an in-person game; online, I have to maintain the tokens for the PCs and add new powers, adjust stats, etc. I also talk about magic items that the party acquired in the previous session and see which PC is going to be using them (so I can update their tokens).

3 days before the game

I send out an email to the group, announcing that there will be a session at our usual time (6:00 PM Mountain Time on Friday night for me and the person in South Dakota; 5:00 PM for the person in California; 7:00 PM for the people in Indiana and Texas, 8:00 PM for the people in New Jersey and Florida, and 9:00 AM Saturday for the person in Japan), asking who will be able to attend. I usually get a couple of responses right away and the rest trickle in over the next couple of days. Sometimes I’ll get a “maybe” (there’s a possible schedule conflict, but they might be able to come – this is usually a “no” in the end). I have a total of seven players, and we usually have 4-5 show up each week. One of the seven is almost never there, and four are almost always there; the other two are there most of the time, but not all of the time. This works for us, though I know some DMs don’t like it if players are absent irregularly. This is why I have seven players! We can still game even if three people are unavailable.

1-2 days before the game

I do my actual prep work (sometimes I get this done earlier, of course). This involves a few things:

  • Updating PC stats if the players have sent them to me after a level-up
  • Updating PC treasure if the players have decided on what they’re using
  • Setting up the maps for the next few encounters (easy for War of the Burning Sky, since decent JPG versions of the maps are available)
  • Building monsters for the next few encounters using my handy-dandy monster construction macro

For some reason, I used to procrastinate more about the PC stuff than the map and monster stuff. When the PCs hit paragon tier, I actually canceled a session so I could use that four-hour time slot to work on their PC tokens. It’s gotten better since I’ve changed my PC properties to be easier to level up (defenses now scale automatically with level, for instance), but there was a time when I almost wanted to stop running online games just because of the extra layer of work on the DM to update PC tokens. It’s better now, though.

The new monster macro has made building the monsters way easier and actually more fun. I also enjoy the process of using TokenTool to create cool-looking monster tokens from images I find online. I’m sure lots of these images are copyrighted and such, but I’m only using them in my own game (this is part of the reason I don’t distribute lots of monster tokens on my blog – well, that and laziness).

The day of the game

Since our game starts at 6:00 PM my time, I go to work early so I can leave at 4:00 PM. It only takes me 15 minutes to get home, at which point I’ll chat with my wife briefly and help take care of household tasks (feed the cats, figure out dinner). This usually leaves me at the computer by around 5:00, giving me time for last-minute prep. If there are any monsters I haven’t done yet, I’ll try to put those together quickly. If I already have a good image for the monster, it tends to take about 5 minutes per monster type to assemble.

If all goes well, I like to spend the time from 5:30 onward re-reading the material I’ll be running that evening. War of the Burning Sky is a very story-heavy adventure, and I want to make sure I understand the various NPCs and the branching points of the tale so that it all makes sense during the game.

At 5:45, I start up the MapTool server so that my players can connect. It’s not at all unusual for one or two people to be ready to go right at that time, and we might chat a bit in the text window of MapTool until start time, or they might say, “Hi, I’m here, but I’m going to be busy with something else for the next few minutes.” I also might say, “Okay, the server is up, but I’m still preppping! Please talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: A half-elf is neither a halfling nor an elf. Discuss.”

At 6:00, assuming we have at least 3 players on MapTool, I’ll start the Skype audio call so we can talk to each other… and away we go!

Game on!

After that, we play D&D for four hours. Honestly, the online experience is darn near as good as the in-person experience for me. We still get to know each other out-of-game and chat as friends. Role-playing still happens. Combat is still exciting – and pretty quick, too, thanks to the software handling a lot of the math. It’s a ton of fun, and while I also enjoy in-person games, my online game is my longest-running campaign by far.

I’ll talk in later posts about the process of running a session, but I hope this window into the online game prep process helps to show you what it’s like. Give online D&D a try sometime – it’s a ton of fun!

Reavers of Harkenwold – complete MapTool file

Since I ended up putting all of my Reavers of Harkenwold maps into an easy-to-import format and since I had saved almost all of the MapTool monster tokens I had created for the adventure, I figured I might as well bring it all together in a complete MapTool campaign file.

The linked file (which was created in MapTool version 1.3.b66) contains:

  • A big map with all of the individual encounter maps on it (feel free to copy these to separate maps within MapTool if you prefer
  • One copy of each monster and NPC token that I created for the adventure (CTRL+C and CTRL+V will make more)
  • Complete stats and attack macros for all of the monsters on their tokens
  • A generic monster token and a generic player character token
  • Campaign macros for basic things like dice rolling and toggling conditions on and off the tokens

Now, I’ll admit that there are a few things it doesn’t contain

  • A couple of maps are not present, as I didn’t use them in my run-through of Reavers of Harkenwold
  • A couple of monsters are missing (I believe the underground goblin leader is one, and there may be a couple of others) – I simply failed to save them after I’d created them
  • Not every monster is quite as fleshed out as I’d like (senses, equipment, etc.) but they’re totally ready to use (they’ve got hit points, defenses and attack macros, which is the important stuff).

Note that this by no means replaces the adventure itself. If you want to run Reavers of Harkenwold, you still need to get your hands on a copy of the adventure (there’s no background information or even information about which monsters appear in which encounter). This is just a tool to help you run it online.

If you happen to run Reavers using this campaign file, I would LOVE to hear about it! I had a ton of fun with the adventure, and this file should let you pick it up and go (assuming you’ve at least read through the adventure so that you know what the plot is!).

Download the Reavers of Harkenwold MapTool campaign file here.

An adventure becomes a campaign

My first ongoing in-person Dungeons and Dragons game as a dungeon master reached a milestone yesterday: It moved from being an adventure to being a campaign.

I’ve read the Dungeon Master’s Guide from both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition, and I know that there’s some discussion of what differentiates an adventure from a campaign.  From my reading, it’s always felt to me like it’s a question of duration.  An encounter is something that takes a few minutes of game time and maybe an hour of real-life time.  An adventure is a string of encounters that takes a few hours or days of campaign time and probably one to three gaming sessions in real-life time.  A campaign is a series of adventures that takes any amount of time in-game and many sessions over months or years in real-life time.

I suppose those things are true, but I think there’s a more important distinction about what makes a real campaign: Collaboration between the dungeon master and the players.

In an encounter, I know which enemies are out there and what they’re capable of, and the players react to that.

In an adventure, I know the same things on a larger scale.  Maybe the players are delving a dungeon or chasing after a bad guy through a city or something like that, but the overall script of what could happen is written by me.  Yes, the players can come up with interesting ideas that I hadn’t thought of and I can work them in as I see fit.  But I’m the one who establishes what could happen.

When we move to a campaign, things change.  I’ll still be responsible for creating the future adventures and encounters, but what those adventures ARE is something that the players can have a huge hand in establishing.  Would they rather head to the mountains to help a trader or head to the coast to find a wizard?  Would they rather do something else entirely that I hadn’t considered as a possibility?

My first adventure ends; my first real campaign begins

Yesterday, my friends finished the first D&D adventure I had ever written.  The main structure is something I wrote eight years ago when my wife and I tried D&D 3rd Edition, but that game never got off the ground and I never had the chance to use the adventure.  The overall plot was pretty straightforward – the party is out to recover a mysterious family heirloom from a stronghold full of orcs.  I used the stronghold design that I had drawn years ago and updated the monsters to match 4th Edition.

Things took an unexpected turn when the adventurers tossed some dead orc bodies into an underground river, which flowed by another room populated with live orcs.  This triggered another battle, and the players decided to hole up in a fortified location in the stronghold to take a rest and defend themselves.  Some bad guys took the heirloom out of the stronghold while the party was attacked by a smaller force, which led to a later chase through the woods and a last stand with the boss orc and a few lackeys.  It was a satisfying conclusion.

So now what?  Well, the party was able to establish that the heirloom has some magical properties that are being suppressed by a powerful enchantment.  They could go find a mighty wizard to help them investigate further, or they could honor an earlier promise they had made to a riverboat merchant who had given them free passage if they would agree to serve as an armed escort on a future trip.  They decided to help the merchant.  And thus the campaign is born!

What makes this into a campaign for me is that the players have decided where to take the story.  I held off on designing actual encounters for the next couple of possibilities, as I didn’t know which way the players would go.  They’ve made their choice, so I now know what to build.

Furthermore, the players also took the story in a direction I hadn’t thought about at all – they decided to claim the former orc stronghold as their “castle”!  Now, it’s out in the middle of nowhere in hostile lands, but they managed to convince the owner of the heirloom to send a small garrison of able-bodied villagers out to the stronghold to keep monsters from moving in while the party went a-questing.

There are so many juicy possibilities with this side story that I can’t wait to use them!  The party CARES about this stronghold now.  They have conquered it, and it is THEIRS.  Any time you can get the players to actually care about something in the game world, you create the opportunity for future plots.  Also, since they’re going in a completely different direction for their next adventure, things can be happening at their “castle” while they’re away.  So many possibilities!

I feel great as a DM that I’ve managed to create world elements that my players care about and that they’re interested in making decisions about where the story goes.  It’s a really good feeling.

Online game recruiting

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve started an online D&D Fourth Edition game, complete with recruiting players online (as opposed to my current game that started with an in-person game and morphed online due to distance between players and DM).  I thought my experience might be useful for anyone else who wants to start a game online, so I’m sharing it here in “real time.”

The game began with another poster on EN World, Palacer, putting up a post announcing that he really wants to play more D&D and is interested in an online game.  Several others chimed in to say that they wanted the same thing, and I said that I was also interested in either playing or DMing.  Well, no one else stepped up to DM, so I was recruited!

I put up a post in the thread laying out the overview of the game:

  • Sign-ups were now open
  • I was planning on a 5-PC campaign, starting off with more focus on combat but incorporating more role playing over time
  • Interested players should put a post in the thread and send me an email
  • Players should include their EN World handle, the name they would like to go by in the game, their preference for starting level (level 1 versus level 6), their available times to play and their thoughts on what characters they would like to play

Seven people followed the instructions, putting posts on the forum and sending me emails.  At the end of the day I put up another post saying that I would leave sign-ups open for one more day and then close them.

This evening I had seven players – well, eight if you count a couple that may be playing one character or two.  I sent an email to the group with more details:

  • We’ll get together for our first session this Friday evening
  • We’ll be on Skype and MapTool – I shared my contact information for both of those
  • I laid out character creation guidelines (no Eberron or Dragon Magazine, standard starting gold, actual characters preferred over min-maxed beasts)
  • I asked everyone to start sharing their characters in email and to send me their Character Builder files (partly so I could program up some MapTool macros for them)
  • Also, we’re going to play a session at level 1, then jump to 4, then probably to 7.  The players generally want to get to higher levels more quickly, but some players (and I) are pretty new and want to start off slowly.

So far so good!  I’ve got seven players and we’ve found a time that, in theory at least, will work for all of us.  Next step: Getting together all at the same time!  Oh, and I need to devise a campaign (little details…).  I’m thinking this may be the time to update my campaign that I discovered from years ago, at least as a good starting point.

If you have any advice on this new adventure, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

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

When should I blog about campaign ideas?

I’m currently in the DC area on a business trip, so there hasn’t been time to devote to D&D this week.  I’m happy to say, though, that there’s a chance that we might be able to resume our online campaign into the Keep on the Shadowfell this Friday, after I get home to Colorado.

Over the past few weeks of online D&D hiatus, I’ve done a lot of thinking about our campaign (as explained in my last few posts).  I’ve discovered MapTool, my new virtual D&D tabletop of choice, and learned how to make lots of cool macros for it.  I’ve played in two Living Forgotten Realms games, learning more about other dungeon masters’ styles.  I’ve also been re-reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 and pondering how to become a better DM myself.  Finally, I’ve been reading lots of D&D blogs and web sites, and I’ve listened to a bunch of episodes of NewbieDM‘s minicast (a cool little discovery – thanks NewbieDM!).

All of this pondering has led me to a question that’s really unique to dungeon masters who blog: At what point should I blog about ideas that I have for ongoing campaigns?  See, I know that some of my players read my blog, and I totally dig that.  I WANT them to be so into the game that they want to see what I’m writing.  At the same time, I’m coming up with ideas, big and small, for the campaign that I’m running for them.  I don’t want to ruin the surprise by writing about those ideas on my blog and having them read about them weeks before they ever encounter them in the game.  On the other hand, these are raw ideas from an inexperienced DM, and I’d like to get the input of other dungeon masters on these ideas before I try running with them.

What do you think?  Should I go it alone and then blog about my creations only after they’ve been put into action?  Should I go ahead and put them here, surprise factor be darned?  Should I discourage my players from reading my blog?  Or should I perhaps put spoiler alerts for my players and ask them to skip over the spoiler sections?  I’m looking for advice – please let me know what you think in the comments.