Eat what you kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First MapTool session

The D&D drought is over!  Last night, after Barbara and I returned home from our business trip to the east coast, we got together with Lane and Zach (our friends in Florida) to continue our adventures in the Keep on the Shadowfell.  This time, we did it with MapTool.  It was, quite simply, a success.

I’ve already written about how much I love MapTool, and my players seemed to really enjoy it as well.  They liked the attack macros (even Barbara, who loves rolling physical dice, even used the attack macros from time to time), they liked being able to keep track of their hit points within their MapTool character sheets, and they LOVED the way MapTool shows the path that their character is taking and the number of squares they’re moving as they drag their token along the map.  One quick tip for playing D&D Fourth Edition in MapTool: Make sure all of the players go to Edit – Preferences and set the Movement Metric to “ONE-ONE-ONE.”  If they don’t do this, MapTool will calculate diagonal movement incorrectly for them.

We played for about two and a half hours, yet only went through one encounter.  This was partly because we spent the first 30 minutes catching up with one another from our recent trips and partly because we had to make sure everyone knew how to use MapTool.  The encounter was the battle with the giant rats and the ochre jelly in the caves beneath the Keep.  I wasn’t quite sure how many giant rats I wanted in the battle – the original adventure calls for 13 rats, but against a party of five characters rather than the three that we have.  I decided I’d start with six rats and add as needed to keep things interesting.  I think this was exactly the right approach, and I ended up with 11 rats in the end.  The rats ended up not being all that interesting; they generally missed with their bite attacks, and they had a lot of trouble isolating one character away from the others.  I realized that this battle didn’t have any enemies with either ranged attacks or area/burst/blast attacks.  Every single monster only had the ability to attack a single character at melee each round.  This made them not especially challenging, although the moment that the jelly split in two when it became bloodied was pretty cool.

The battle was an easy win for the party, and Kana (Lane’s druid) did catch a glimpse of a pillar of white light off to the south, which disappeared before too long.  Hmm, what could that be?  (This is one of the ideas that I want to discuss on the blog, but it looks like we’ll have to wait and see).  When the battle was over, the party decided to take an extended rest, as they were getting low on surges.  Not bad for having battled through all of the goblin areas of the Keep, plus the rat/jelly cave.  Rather than heading back to Winterhaven or just staying in the rat cave, they decided to close themselves into the bedchamber of Balgron the Fat, with Zach’s Eladrin rogue trancing and keeping watch.

Since this decision has already been made, I can talk a little bit about the consequences that the party will face when they resume play on Monday evening.  See, they’ve left the goblin area of the Keep strewn with dead goblins everywhere.  Now, no other monsters have traipsed through this area while the party was exploring, but that doesn’t mean that no one will be passing through any time in the next six to eight hours.  It’s quite possible that other inhabitants of the Keep may pass through the area, discover all of the dead goblins, deduce that there must be enemies about and get reinforcements.  I haven’t challenged the PCs yet.  But this time, with the bad guys knowing what’s coming, it might be different!

Now, while the use of MapTool for the session was great, and I don’t plan to switch to anything else, I did learn a few lessons that I plan to implement before our next session.

  • I need a button for each character to be able to roll their own initiative.  While my macro that rolls initiative for everybody is cool and all, the players like to roll it themselves.
  • I need buttons for each character’s skill checks.  I think I’m going to implement this by adding skills to the character’s properties, but I’ll just have the number next to the skill be the number that gets added for training or any special skill bonuses (racial, item, etc.).  I’ll have the macro look up the appropriate ability modifier and half-level modifier from the character sheet so that I don’t have to touch the macros as characters level up.
  • I should allow the characters permission to edit the macros on their own character token.  I’ll trust them not to mess with the macros, but I want them to be able to look inside and see what’s going on if they’re interested (Zach is – he’s a programmer).
  • I need to figure out how I want to handle the bad guys’ tokens.  Right now, they use the same properties as the players’ tokens.  That’s not ideal, since it means that if I actually put numbers in for armor class, hit points, etc., the players would be able to see them.  I think I’ll create a separate set of properties for NPCs and make them invisible to players.
  • Similarly, I’d like to figure out how to hide the NPC macros from the players.  Strict Token Ownership might accomplish this, but I’m not sure yet.

All in all, it was a fun way to play D&D, and the players are psyched about playing again Monday evening.  Meanwhile, I played a Free RPG Day session this morning at my Friendly Local Game Store, and I’m playing the first session of the new campaign with my regular in-person group tomorrow.  The D&D drought is officially done!

Hotel room Dungeons and Dragons part 2

I’m hoping to get up two posts today, as I’ve had two different sessions of D&D in the last two days.  I’ll start with Wednesday evening, when Barbara and I in our hotel room in Boston got online with Lane and Zach from their home in Florida to continue our adventures in the Keep on the Shadowfell.  In our first session in the Keep this past Sunday, we had to improvise in a hurry as we learned that we wouldn’t be able to use Gametable due to networking issues in the hotel, and I switched things over to OpenRPG in a rush.  This time, I was prepared – I had already converted the maps over to OpenRPG and was ready to go (the OpenRPG map of the first level of the Keep is available here or on the downloads page – but my players shouldn’t go poking through it just yet!).  We called each other on Skype, connected to the appropriate room on an OpenRPG server, and we were gaming!

We started with some back story.  When we first began playing together, it was a big rush and no one had any ideas on back story for their characters, why they were adventuring together, etc.  I had thought about this over the past few days and filled in the party (since they were willing to hear my thoughts).  All of the characters are female, so I explained that they had all been approached when they were younger girls (the human equivalent of 10-12 years old) by a Deva named Juni Lamplighter (or one of her allies) to come to the Academy of Adventure.  Juni, being a Deva, remembered times when the world was not so dark and chaotic and wanted to bring some light and order to the world, so she decided to set up a place where individuals with talent, primarily girls who felt like outcasts, could train to become adventurers and work to do good in the world.  The PCs were all pupils at the Academy, and Juni had sent them to Winterhaven after they finished the main body of their training as a way to get started in making a difference.  Yes, it’s a bit Hogwarts-esque, but that’s not a problem.  The players seemed fine with this, and it provides both a reason for adventuring as well as some future plot hooks, so we’ll run with it.

At the end of the previous session, the party had just cleared out the goblin torture chamber and decided to rescue Splug, a goblin prisoner who had been put in a cell for cheating (or as he called it, “being good at playing cards against”) the other goblins.  He offered to serve as a porter for the party and tell them what he knows of the Keep if they would free him.  They let him out, and he told them about the excavation where goblins were digging for some unspecified treasure (but hadn’t found anything), the stairs that lead down to some caves, the main door and the secret door to the chamber of the goblin leader, and the door that led to the deeper part of the Keep, where Splug had never been.

Balgron the Fat

Balgron the Fat

The PCs decided to use the secret door to sneak into the sleeping quarters of the goblin boss, Balgron the Fat, to surprise him while he was asleep.  Zach’s rogue rolled great on her Stealth checks to get into the bedchamber, and they decided to try to tie up Balgron while he slept in order to interrogate him about the rest of the Keep.  This was awesome – the players were thinking outside the box!  They had rope in their packs, so I ruled that this would require a Dexterity check (figuring that Balgron would probably wake up while being tied).  Well, the dexterity roll was crazy high, so I ruled that they succeeded in tying up Balgron, but he woke up as they finished.  Balgron was confused for a moment, but as soon as they started asking him questions, he yelled for his guards and we rolled initiative.

There was only one other goblin in the room with Balgron, and I had that guy poke his head into the curtained area that surrounded Balgron’s bed, see the situation, and run for the door to get the other troops.  The door was locked, so it took him a little time, during which time the PCs attacked him to try to stop him.  Lane’s character had been hanging back, keeping an eye on Splug, but when the battle began and Lane’s character ran into the fray, Splug skedaddled.  The party wasn’t able to stop the goblin guard before he opened the door and raised the alarm.  A bunch of other guards came running down the hall, and the party decided to try to close and re-lock the door rather than just fighting (creative!).

I ruled that Balgron had another copy of the key on him, and since the rogue had decided to sneak attack the crap out of him while he was tied up (not very nice, but brutally effective), Balgron decided to cooperate to save his own hide.  He told the PCs where the key was, and they locked the door.  Naturally, the goblins began trying to bash it down, and wouldn’t you know it, one of the little minions got a critical hit in throwing himself at the door, so I ruled that it broke off its hinges and was now open again.

Balgron was willing to answer some questions now, and also willing to tell his guards to go away, which they did.  The party started asking him about the Keep, who hired him (Kalarel), what he was doing there, etc., and he answered more or less honestly.  Then the party opened up his treasure chest and he started bargaining for his life.  The chest had some gold, an enchanted short sword (which Zach’s rogue coveted) and some potions of healing (which the party had none of, and I figured they could use them).  Balgron was willing to give up the potions in exchange for his life.  The rogue held out for the sword, and Balgron grew enraged, burst out of his ropes and called the guards back in.

The ensuing battle was actually not all that interesting.  Balgron was already badly bloodied, and the fact that all of the goblins were coming down a narrow passageway made them easy fodder for Barbara’s swordmage’s enlarged dragon breath.  A few got into the bedroom and Balgron did his goblin shuffle once, but that was all she wrote. There was barely any damage to any of the PCs.  They rolled really well, and used smart, creative tactics.

Next up, the party knew about the excavation going on, but they weren’t interested in taking on those goblins – they wanted to go down into the caves.  They wanted the digging goblins to leave peacefully and debated whether to charge in and fight them, try to reason with them by telling them that their leader was dead and they were free, or something else.  They decided to leave Balgron’s severed head (yuck) where the goblins would be able to see it when they left the excavation chamber, and then head into the caves, figuring that the goblins would see the head as a sign to get out of there.

Well, I had the goblins roll Perception to see if they noticed the head while they were still working, and they did.  As the adventurers started heading down the stairs, the goblins quietly moved into position and started throwing Alchemist’s Fire.  The battle was on.

Guard Drake

Guard Drake

Two guard drakes charged up to the top of the stairs, and the PCs were basically hemmed in on a stairway.  They came perilously close to backing into the caves at the bottom of the stairs, at which point they very well may have been set upon by more enemies from the back, but they just barely stayed on the staircase and thus only had to face the goblin bombardiers and guard drakes.  This battle was tougher, and Barbara’s swordmage actually fell to zero hit points before being healed by Lane’s druid.  It was a close call, but once the drakes were dead, things turned in the party’s favor.  The last goblin bargained for his life, offering a dirt-covered object that he had dug up in exchange for being allowed to leave.  The party agreed (though not before the rogue observed that they could just kill the goblin and take the item), and the goblin was escorted out of the keep.  I’ve decided that he was named Steek.  The item turned out to be an enchanted totem with some healing powers, which is useful for Lane’s druid.

At this point, we called it a night.  I have to say that this adventure is beginning to feel like a success.  The players seem to be having a good time, and the technology is pretty much transparent (though I’m feeling like the OpenRPG dice roller tends to roll on the high side quite a lot; probably my imagination).  The players are definitely thinking creatively, and I feel like I’m doing pretty well at rolling with the creativity.  They’ve now gone through four encounters with no extended rest and only using one daily power.  I’m pretty sure I need to ramp up the challenge level a little bit (though we discovered that we had been playing Zach’s rogue a little bit wrong on Sunday, letting her get combat advantage too easily with the sling), but everyone seems to be having a good time, so I don’t want to go nuts.  Zach and Lane are going on a two-week vacation soon, so it might be a while before we get to play again, but our in-person game in Denver was just canceled for Sunday, so who knows?  Maybe we can play one more time then.  I’m up for it!

Improvisation is important

Barbara and I are now in Boston for a business trip of mine, so what do we do on our first day in town?  Play D&D online with our friends in Florida, of course!  Hey, we’re all on the same time zone now, so we might as well.

At 11:00 AM, we all met online to play.  I called Zach and Lane via Skype, which worked great.  My maps in Gametable were ready to go, so I loaded up a map and hit Host.  I checked my IP address and told it to Zach… and realized that we can’t use Gametable when the host doesn’t own the internet router that they’re connecting to.  As you may recall from my earlier article about connecting to your players via Gametable, I had to go into my router settings and forward internet traffic that came to my IP address to my computer in particular, rather than to Barbara’s computer or some other device on our network.  Since I didn’t own the hotel router that I was connecting to, I couldn’t go into its settings to forward internet traffic to my computer.  Zach and Lane could host on their computer, but that wouldn’t work since they’re not the DM.  I could send them the complete map with all of the monsters revealed and everything, but that’s a less fun experience for them.

So, I improvised.  Back in the earliest days of my blog, I thought we were going to be using OpenRPG rather than Gametable for running our online games.  Gametable is far easier to build maps in, but OpenRPG is easier on the networking side.  As long as everyone can connect to the same server, OpenRPG is good to go.  So, we could play via OpenRPG – but all of my maps were in Gametable.  What to do?

I started by asking Lane and Zach to give me 20 minutes to get everything set up.

  • I then opened up Gametable, set the view to show the first area of the Keep on the Shadowfell (the entry chamber guarded by goblins) and took a screenshot.
  • I pasted the screenshot into Photoshop Elements.
  • I trimmed the canvas so that the top left corner was on the top left corner of a grid square, and the same for the top right.
  • I resized the map image so that the grid squares were 64 pixels wide (that’s where they started, but I had to zoom out in order for enough of the map to show up on my screen shot).  In order to do this, I counted the number of squares across in the image, multiplied that number by 64, and resized the image (keeping the proportions constant) so that the width equaled the number of squares times 64 pixels.
  • I erased the areas of the map that weren’t part of this first encounter.
  • I saved this image file on my Dropbox public directory (more on Dropbox in a later post).
  • I opened OpenRPG.
  • I set the General property of the map so that the map was plenty large enough for my new image.
  • I set the background color of the map to gray (not necessary, but nice).
  • I set the grid size to 64 pixels and made the grid lines invisible (since my image file had the grid lines from Gametable).
  • I loaded my new map image as the background, using the public URL from the Dropbox directory.
  • I also copied all of my Gametable character and monster pogs to my Dropbox public directory so that I could load them into OpenRPG. (I suppose I could actually do the same with environmental pogs… hmm…)

Once I had this set up, I opened a new room on an OpenRPG server, called Lane and Zach back and told them how to connect to my room in OpenRPG.  I assigned them the role of Player, and they could then move their minis around the map.  Huzzah!

The map image I created is below.  It’s messy, because I had to manually erase the parts of the map that I didn’t want the players to see, but that’s okay.

Entry chamber

We played through the entry chamber and the torture chamber (which I created in the same manner and had to load as a separate background image when they went into that area), and I have to say that it all went pretty well.  I had to manually add each monster as they encountered them rather than revealing them from the private map as I would have done in Gametable, but that was easy enough to do.

It’s worth mentioning that the party ripped through the bad guys like a knife through butter!  Zach’s rogue successfully stealthed down the stairs and got a sneak attack with a sling on the first goblin warrior, then rolled the highest initiative and finished the warrior off with more sneak attack damage before he had a chance to warn his friends.  I had already removed the pit trap and the swarm of rats from the encounter in order to level it down for a party of three PCs, and I was planning to remove one of the goblin sharpshooters as well.  But since the party was handling everything so skillfully, I left the second sharpshooter in the battle, and the PCs had no trouble at all.  The torture chamber was a little more challenging, but it was awesome when Barbara’s swordmage shoved a goblin into the iron maiden and slammed it shut on him to start the battle.  I removed just one goblin from the battle, and that was all I did to level it down (well, I also forgot about the daily power of the hobgoblin’s magic armor, but oh well).  After the two battles, we had played for two and a half hours (including technical difficulty time) and decided to call it a day.  The party did decide to release Splug, cautiously, which should be interesting!  Best of all, they were still excited about the game and want to get together tomorrow evening to continue!  I’d call that a success.  They were within a few XP of leveling up, so I awarded them a few extra points for good roleplaying and general cool moves so that they could begin tomorrow with level 2 characters.

Since I’ve now had a little more time to prepare to run the game in OpenRPG, I’ve figured out the fog of war function and decided to use it for tomorrow’s battle.  I created an image of the entire first level of the Keep on the Shadowfell (even though there’s no way the party will get to all of it tomorrow), loaded it into OpenRPG, and used the fog function to hide everything that the players haven’t discovered yet.  This is a little imperfect, as Barbara can see my screen (we only have the one laptop here in the hotel room), but that’s okay – she’s good at playing based on what her character knows rather than what she as a player knows.  Tomorrow should be even smoother!

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!

Private maps in Gametable

Today I’d like to focus on an important tool within Gametable – the ability to set up your map with some items hidden and then reveal them to your players as they explore and discover new things.  This isn’t very hard to do, but it’s important to do it right.

As my example today, I’ll use the Irontooth encounter map that my party went through last weekend.  Here is the completed, fully revealed encounter map (and the map file is at this link):

Kobold Lair Interior - Complete

This is a pretty straightforward battle map.  I started by setting the map background to gray.  I then created a few underlay images of dark gray walls to serve as the cavern walls.  You’ll note that these are actually square images, not rectangles.  If you make them rectangles, Gametable will want to center them within their squares, which is really not what you’re looking for.  When creating images that you want to appear off-center in the game (such as a 2 by 1 square wall that you want to show up in the bottom two squares of a four-square box, rather than across the middle of the four-square box), make the image a transparent square and then color in only part of the square, as I’ve done below.

ThickWall_1 ThickWall_2 ThickWall_3 ThickWall_4

After using these thick walls for the cavern layout, I brought in several copies of my homebrew kobold pogs along with the pre-packaged goblin pog (for Irontooth).  I labeled the kobolds who weren’t minions by left clicking on each and and choosing “Set Name.”  (I also do this in-game to denote a creature who is bloodied, prone, marked, etc.)  I brought in my homebrew minis for Irontooth’s bed and treasure chest.  I also drew the waterfall entrance on the left side of the map by hand (I’m not much of an artist, but I can spice things up with a little color).  This gave me a complete map – well, except for my PCs’ minis.

Now, when the party comes through the waterfall, I don’t want them to see the entire map all at once.  I certainly don’t want them to know where Irontooth and his treasure are, for instance.  I don’t even want them to know how big the cavern is at the start.  Here is what I want them to see when they first walk in:

Kobold Lair - Initial View

This just shows what the players could see when they first walk through the waterfall.  There are four kobold minions and a kobold skirmisher in front of them, and they can see the cavern walls that are immediately around them.  So, what happened to the rest of the cavern?  It’s on the private map.

Kobold Lair - Private Map

To get to the private map, either go to Map – Edit Private Map, or simply hit Ctrl+F.  You’ll note that the public map now appears in a shaded-out form, while the parts that are hidden from the players are in full color.  You can now edit this map as you would the main map (add or remove items, move them around, draw on the map, etc.).  To reveal something to the players, you simply need to publish it.  To publish an individual item, such as a monster or a treasure chest or a single section of wall, you can left click on the item you want to reveal and click Publish.

Publishing the Denwarden

Alternatively, you can use the mass publisher tool.  This tool can be found on the toolbar at the top of the screen (and can be turned on by pressing Ctrl+9):Publish Tool

The publish tool will let you drag a box around areas of the map that you want to publish, and they will all appear at once.  This is also the way to go when you are getting your map set up for your players – you can start with your complete, revealed map and then selectively use the publish tool to move some items to the private map.  So, when you’re on the private map the publish tools moves items to the public map, and when you’re on the public map it moves things to the private map.  It toggles their public/private status.

There’s one other important point to understand about the public and private maps – they are separate map files in Gametable.  I learned this lesson the hard way, before I really understood the private map.  In my earlier post about my map of the first section of the Keep on the Shadowfell, I showed an image of the complete keep (so far):

Keep on the Shadowfell Map 1

I was so proud of myself for setting up this detailed map.  I then moved most of it to the private map (so that it would be ready to go for my players) and saved the map file.  I then cleared off the map and started drawing my map for the outdoor kobold ambush.  When working on that map, I started moving things to the private map and realized that all of the private items from the map of the keep were there, which I obviously didn’t want outdoors, so I cleared it all off the private map.

Imagine my chagrin when I later opened what I thought was the complete map of the keep that I had drawn, only to discover that it only contained the small section that I wanted to be revealed to the players when they first entered:

Keep on the Shadowfell - Revealed

Crap!  The private map was completely empty.  It turns out that I had to save it as a totally separate file and then load that file when I had toggled my view to the private map view.  So, here is how I set up map files now:

  • Start by saving a new map file as “NameOfMap_Complete.grm”
  • Go to Map – Clear Map
  • Build the new map, with everything revealed
  • Save the map
  • Go to the private map (Ctrl+F)
  • Save this map as “NameOfMap_Private.grm”
  • If there’s some private stuff on here from a previous map, go to Map – Clear Map
  • Toggle back to the public map and start unpublishing whatever you want to hide using either the Publish tool or by left clicking on each item and choosing Unpublish (for finer control)
  • Toggle back to the private map, and you’ll see your unpublished items
  • Once you have everything set the way you want it, save the private map as “NameOfMap_Private.grm” (you’ve already set it up under this name) and save the public map as “NameOfMap_Public.grm”
  • When you’re ready to use this map, you’ll need to toggle to the public map view and load “NameOfMap_Public.grm,” then toggle to the private map view and load “NameOfMap_Private.grm”

So, remember that you’re actually editing two different maps, one public and one private, and you’ll be all right.  Once you understand how this tool works, it’s fantastically useful.  I love being able to set up my entire map in advance and then reveal little bits at a time.  If you set up a whole dungeon level this way, you can simply save the public map and private map as they exist at the end of your session (with the player characters saved wherever they happen to be standing and everything) and pick up right where you left off at the last session.  This is one area where the online game has some advantages over the in-person game!

Also, I’ve saved the public, private and complete versions of my maps on the Downloads page, so you can see this in action with maps that are ready to use.  I’d love to hear any comments you have regarding ways to improve this process, experiences you’ve had with this type of map online or in real life, etc.

Second gaming session – the Irontooth battle

As we planned on Friday, I got together Saturday afternoon online with Barbara, Lane and Zach to finish up the side quest of ridding Winterhaven of the kobold menace.  There was only one encounter to run: the infamous Irontooth battle.  From reading about the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure online, I knew that other DMs said that the Irontooth battle could be a total party kill (TPK), especially if the players were unlucky or if they were still new to the game and not understanding what they could do.  The battle is set up as a sixth-level encounter for a party of first-level players.  Encounters that are a level or two above the players are totally reasonable but challenging, and three or four levels above them should be highly threatening.  Five levels above?  Now you’re just trying to kill your friends, and that’s not fun.

So, in addition to scaling the battle down to work for three players, I wanted to scale it down a little farther still in order to be more like a fifth level encounter.  This is a good time to talk about scaling encounters for smaller parties.

Wizards of the Coast tries to help out DMs when it comes to scaling battles up or down for party size or character level (on pages 56-57 of the DMG1).  Every monster has an experience point value, and an encounter of a given level for a given party is made up of monsters whose XP total equals the XP for a monster of that level times the number of PCs in the party.  If you want a first-level encounter for three players, you see that a first-level monster has XP of 100, so you want monsters that total 300 XP (100 XP times three players).  If it were a third-level battle for a party of six characters, you’d see that a third-level monster has XP of 150, so you want 900 total XP in the encounter (150 XP times six players), and so on.  That could be made up of a whole bunch of tiny little minions or just a couple of higher-level baddies.

The Irontooth battle as written is worth 1,250 XP – a sixth-level encounter for a party of five players.  I wanted it to be more like a fifth-level encounter for a party of three players, which meant I was aiming for more like 600 XP.  That meant I had a lot of slashing to do.

  • The encounter calls for 10 Kobold Minions at 25 XP each.  I cut this down to 4 minions (100 XP)
  • 3 Kobold Skirmishers at 100 XP each became just one (100 XP)
  • 2 Kobold Denwardens at 125 XP each became one (125 XP)
  • 1 Kobold Wyrmpriest at 150 XP was eliminated, which I hated to do but I had to do something (0 XP)
  • Irontooth himself is built to be worth 300 XP.  I cut his hit points from 106 down to 80 and removed his hit point regeneration ability (getting back 5 HP per turn once he’s bloodied seems too strong), but left his damage and other abilities alone.  I figured this made him worth about 250 XP (250 XP).
  • In addition, a Kobold Slink escaped the previous battle to go into the cave to warn the other kobolds, so he was going to show up here.  However, he was beaten up from the earlier battle and doesn’t have any healing surges, so I started him at his bloodied hit point value and shaved his XP from 100 to 75 (75 XP).

All together, this adds up to 650 XP, which is slightly above a fifth-level encounter for this party.  Hoo boy!  This could be tough.  The map is below (and the Gametable .grm file is at this link, as well as on the Downloads page with my other maps).

Irontooth Battle

The Irontooth battle, scaled for three players

Fortunately, the party’s tactics were sound.  The battle is set up in two waves, with a second group of enemies (including Irontooth) coming into the fray three rounds after the first wave.  The party finished off the first wave (four minions and a skirmisher) during round three, just in time for the second wave (Irontooth, the denwarden and the bloodied slink) to show up.  Had they still had parts of the first wave running around while they were trying to deal with the second, it could have gotten ugly.  As it stood, they did a good job of saving their daily powers and action points for the second wave, where things got challenging.  The Healing Word power that I had given to Lane’s druid, Kana, was used up early on, and everyone’s second winds were used, too, but they ultimately finished off Irontooth with single-digit hit point totals remaining.

My favorite part of this day’s session was the excitement when the treasure chest came into view.  Zach’s character seriously considered ignoring her allies in battle (all three characters are female, even though Zach is male) so that she could sneak over to the chest and try to pop it open during battle.  Cooler heads prevailed, and she decided to keep fighting and pick the lock on the chest later (no one thought to try using the key from Irontooth’s pouch, but the lockpicking went off without a hitch).

We’re going to try to get together on Friday nights, starting this coming week, with the whole group of five adventurers.  This time, they’re ready to take on Shadowfell Keep itself.

First actual online gaming session – it rocks!

We have a success!  Tonight my friends and I tried playing D&D online together for the first time, and it worked.  Not only did it work, but we had so much fun that everyone wants to get together again tomorrow to finish the adventure.  Huzzah!

The day started off with bad news for gaming.  The group is supposed to be six of us.  I (Michael) am the DM and my wife Barbara is playing our defender, a dragonborn swordmage.  We’re in Colorado, a bit south of Denver.  Lane and Zach, who live in Tallahassee, Florida, are a deva druid and an eladrin rogue, respectively – a controller and a striker.  Jen and Eric, who live in Bradenton, Florida, are a gnome wizard and a half-elf cleric – another controller and a leader.  However, a few hours before we were supposed to start, Jen called to say that Eric had to work late and they weren’t going to be able to play tonight.  Should we cancel?  Should we just do a technology check?

Screw that – we’re playing!  This was actually Barbara’s suggestion, which made me very happy.  Also, since we were planning on waiting until 9:00 PM Eastern time to get started in order to give Eric time to get home from work, with Eric not playing we were able to start closer to 8:30 Eastern.

In preparing for today’s session, I had to get myself a webcam so I could talk to everyone on Skype.  Well, I could have just gotten a microphone, but the webcam only cost $30 and it works just fine as a microphone, so that’s what I got.  I also had to get my maps ready.  You may recall my last post, where I put up the detailed map of the first few areas of the Keep on the Shadowfell itself, all finished and ready to go.  Well, since we were going to start with a smaller group, I decided that we should try a side quest first.  When we first played in person in Florida the night of Jen and Eric’s wedding, the group charged right through the first kobold ambush and a quick stop in Winterhaven before making a beeline for the keep, which is where we stopped, halfway through the first battle.  I missed the fact that I was supposed to send a second kobold ambush at them when they left town, and I didn’t roleplay anyone in the tavern to give them a chance to explore (I was a bit rushed as far as prep time went – that is, I had none!).  So this time, I rolled back the clock and gave them the second kobold ambush, then sent them back to town.  In town, I railroaded them a bit into a side quest to seek out the source of the kobolds.

First thing first: the kobold ambush.  Here is the map I used, with enemies displayed.

Kobold Ambush

Gametable map for a kobold ambush encounter

Okay, so this one isn’t as fancy or detailed as the Keep on the Shadowfell map I shared yesterday.  This is partly because I wasn’t using the nice, pre-created dungeon walls that come with Gametable this time and partly because I was in a hurry.  I drew this last night (after realizing that the party might want to try a side quest), but I didn’t have much time to do it.  Fortunately, it wasn’t hard.  I took the same kobold image that I used for my OpenRPG mini in an earlier post, added a green background, and used TokenTool to make a pog.  I’m still torn on the “little statue” mini versus “round pog” mini debate, but I have to admit that the round pogs look pretty good and are easy to distinguish from one another at a glance, especially if I give them different background colors.  These guys are all kobolds, so I used the same minis, but I set their names differently to distinguish them.

Combat was surprisingly interesting.  The party didn’t have much success with their Perception checks, so the kobolds got a surprise round on most of them.  Two out of the three PCs were bloodied, one getting down as low as 4 HP, but they prevailed.  My favorite moment of the night was when Lane’s character wanted to claim the holy symbol from around the Kobold Wyrmpriest’s neck.  She was into it!

After heading back to town (on rails), the party found their way to Lord Padraig to get hired to clear out the kobold home base.  Barbara’s character was savvy enough to do some negotiating, getting a little extra gold for their fee (if they succeed, of course).  They decided to sleep in the inn for the night and then headed toward the kobold lair (Paddy drew them a map).  This brought them to the next encounter:

Kobold Lair Exterior

The exterior of the kobold lair in the waterfall valley

This is, obviously, another map that I drew in a hurry last night.  I used pre-packaged trees and rocks, drew a stream and some foam at the bottom of the waterfall, and pasted in the image of the waterfall valley from the Keep on the Shadowfell PDF, just so the players could see what it looked like.  I also used a circle of stones from Dungeon Tiles (available for Masterplan via the Dungeon Tiles Yahoo group).  Quick and easy, and it worked just fine.  This time, the party tried to be stealthy and had some good success with it.  Kana, the fragile druid, managed to get herself surrounded by minions (the kobolds with no labels) but wisely used some area of effect spells to get out of trouble.  The slink got low on hit points and managed to escape into the waterfall to warn his buddies.

After this encounter, even though it was 11:30 PM Eastern time, Zach and Lane were really tempted to keep playing.  I suggested pausing until tomorrow, since we all have some free time tomorrow.  This would also give me time to put the next map together!  Very important.  So, we’re getting together online again tomorrow afternoon.

A good time was had by all tonight, and I’m excited!  I’d like to share a few things that I learned this evening.

First, a little prep time goes a long way with Gametable.  It doesn’t take too long to put together a totally serviceable map that’s way fun for play.  I wouldn’t have a problem with drawing on the fly if I had to.

Second, scaling encounters meant for five players down to three players isn’t that hard.  I simply brought the total XP of the baddies down by 40%, eliminating enemies as needed.  It worked like a charm – a good challenge, but one that the party can handle.  We’ll see how that goes with the big boss battle tomorrow – one that I’ve heard should be adjusted even with five players (it’s a level 6 encounter for level 1 characters – I plan to tone it down).

Third, if you’re missing an important role in your party (in our case, a leader to heal characters), you can get creative.  We gave our druid the cleric’s Healing Word power and changed her Wild Shape power to a free action.  Having Healing Word mattered a LOT, and I’m glad we did it.  If we continue much longer with a three-character party, we’ll have to establish a more permanent way of getting a healing feature, but this patch worked great for tonight.

Fourth, I’ve learned how to use the private map effectively – but that’s for another post.

Fifth, keeping track of initiative and hit points in an Excel spreadsheet is awesome.  I love it.  If I were DMing a game in real life, I would still want to use it.  Again, that’s a post for another day.

Sixth, the dice rolling macros in Gametable are fantastic.  That’s another topic for a post of its own.  But I’ve decided that I want to set up macros for each day’s encounters in advance – every bad guy’s attack and damage rolls – and it will make combat super-easy.

I’ll also start a Downloads page on this blog for posting my Gametable map files, dice macros, images, etc.  If there’s something you’ve seen me mention on the blog that you don’t see on that page, please let me know.  I want that page to be a good source for other DMs who want to run adventures in Gametable.  I’m loving it!

First map in Gametable – game on!

I haven’t posted in a couple of days, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on my online D&D game!  Our group is tentatively scheduled to meet online tomorrow (as I post this) for the first time.  We plan to try connecting to one another with Gametable and Skype and maybe, if the technology works out okay, try to get some gaming in.

I don’t have much of an audience for this blog (yet), but I could see my players checking it out from time to time.  This is interesting because I really want to share the work I’ve done so far, but I don’t want to spoil any surprises for the players.  Since it’s unlikely that my friends will be checking this before we play – and because I’m just anxious to share what I’ve learned – some lessons are below.

First of all, I should point out that I’m using a published D&D adventure (The Keep on the Shadowfell) for this first game.  I’m an inexperienced Dungeon Master, and my more knowledgeable brethren have told me to stick with pre-published adventures, at least at first.  This means that I can build maps in advance using Gametable.  I’ll jump to the punch line and show you the finished product (at least, finished so far):

Keep on Shadowfell Map 1

My first detailed map in Gametable, ready for adventure!

So, what’s all this?  It’s the first five areas of the Keep on the Shadowfell, fully revealed.  I used a few pre-packaged items and a whole bunch of items that I’ve created myself, so let me share with you a little bit about what I’ve done.

The basic building block of the dungeon is the dungeon wall.  Gametable comes with four walls – short (2 square) and long (4 square) horizontal and vertical walls.  These are easy to use for the basic dungeon layout.  It also comes with a bunch of pogs – that is, minis to use for characters and monsters.  I’ve used their Goblin mini (quite liberally) and one of their character minis (for one of my player characters).

Long vertical wall Long horizontal wall Short vertical wall Short horizontal wall

Above are the four dungeon wall graphics that come with Gametable; below are the monster and player pogs I’m using that came with the program:

Goblin pog


Skeleton pog


Skeleton Lord pog

Skeleton Lord

Female character

Female character

Male character

Male character

Now, if you look at my map graphic, you’ll notice a whole lot of other things on there.  Everything aside from the stuff I just listed is something I made – usually using images I found online, but occasionally using my own skills of an artist.  My wife Barbara is the one who usually uses Photoshop Elements, but for this project I’ve had to get at least a little bit familiar with the program.  (By the way, if you own any of the images I’ve used and would like me to take them down, just let me know).

If you’re going to make graphics using Photoshop Elements for something like Gametable, you’re probably going to want them on a transparent background.  That way, if your new item (such as a treasure chest, a table, a stairway, etc.) doesn’t take up every pixel of its square, the pixels around it will match the dungeon background or the other elements you’ve put it on top of.  That’s a good thing.  The best way I’ve found to get a transparent background is to start with a new file, specifying that you want it to be transparent.

New Photoshop File

Note that the Transparent box at the bottom is checked

This will give you a file with a gray and white checkerboard background – that’s Photoshop’s indication that the background is transparent.  I don’t know of a way to do this in regular old MS Paint, so I’ve migrated to Photoshop Elements.

To turn an image online into a useful Gametable element, start by copying the image into Photoshop Elements.  You can do this by simply clicking on the image, dragging it down to Photoshop in your taskbar, waiting for the Photoshop window to open, and then releasing the image inside of Photoshop.  For instance, I need to get an image of a zombie (a monster my players will be encountering soon), so I’ll begin by searching for promising images using Google.  Here’s one that I like, from a blog called Great White Snark (this is actually a picture of a cake!):

Zombie large

I copied this to my clipboard, then went into Photoshop Elements and selected File – New – Image from clipboard.  Now I have the image open in Photoshop exactly as you see it above.  I don’t want the whole thing for my zombie mini – specifically, I don’t want the white walls in the background, nor do I want to see the edge of the table that the cake is sitting on.  So, I use the Magnetic Lasso tool to highlight just the parts of the image that I want (yes, this can be very painstaking) and then go to Edit – Copy.  Now that just the zombie itself is on my clipboard, I create a new blank file with a transparent background as described above and paste my zombie image into that.


Finally, I need to get my zombie image to the size that I want.  I described in an earlier post a program called TokenTool that helps you generate pogs like those that come with Gametable – round, with some kind of border encircling them.  Those are fine, but I’ve discovered that I actually prefer my minis to be like little statues with transparent backgrounds rather than filled-in circles.  This way, if they ever end up on top of each other, you can still see some of the mini that’s hidden behind the other.  Also, I try to make them square so that I can anticipate how they’ll look.  Finally, I’m starting to feel like I want my minis to be a little bit smaller than the full size of the square, just so that they don’t overlap with the edge of a wall or anything like that.

I’ll start by making the image a square.  To do that, I want to pad the canvas size in the horizontal direction so that it matches the vertical direction.  I go to Image – Resize – Canvas Size, and I see that my image is currently 333 pixels by 489 pixels.  I want some extra space around the mini, so I’ll resize to 525 pixels by 525 pixels (the canvas, remember, not the image), and I’m left with this:


Now all that’s left to do is to shrink this down to the size of a mini for Gametable – 64 by 64 pixels (if it were a large creature, it would be 128 by 128 pixels, and so on for bigger sizes).  I go to Image – Resize – Image Size (as opposed to my earlier Canvas Size) and choose 64 by 64 pixels.  With that, I have my finished zombie mini (note that Gametable uses PNG files for its images, not JPGs):

Zombie Mini

To make the other items you see on the map, I used pretty much the same procedure.  This includes crates, chests, three different tables, plank bridges and a torture rack, all of which are below:

Crate mini


Chest mini


Small table

Small table

Tall table

Tall table

Long table

Long table

Plank bridge

Plank bridge

Torture Rack

Torture Rack

There were a few items that I drew myself in Photoshop.  The biggest pain in the butt was actually the stairs, because I wanted them to be open rectangles that showed the dungeon background through them, rather than filled-in rectangles (which Photoshop draws by default).  In Paint this is an easy change to make, but in Photoshop it’s a huge pain.  I ended up using this article from in order to make the stairs work, but boy, what a hassle!  They did turn out looking great, but SO MANY LAYERS!  I used a more freehand approach to draw the curtain, which I end up changing within Gametable so that it has a face size of 2 squares (with just 1 square, it sits in the middle of the square – I wanted it to go across the border of the squares).  The pillar was easy (just a gray circle), and the prison bars were also simple (a few gray squares copied over a few times – also changed within Gametable to have a 2 square face size).  The bed was a little bit trickier – I used the wood from the plank bridge as the headboard and then some rounded rectangles for the bed itself and the pillow.  The bedspread needed texture – a flat color looked awful – so I picked one from within Photoshop.  I freely admit that my fire pit looks like a pizza – I guess I should have searched for a good image of that online, but oh well!  And the iron maiden’s fancy artwork is all me, baby.  Yes, I am a crappy artist, but it kind of looks like an overhead view of an iron maiden, doesn’t it?  Kind of?  A little?







Prison bars

Prison bars



Fire pit

Fire pit

Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden

I also created a couple of custom monster and character minis – I’ll probably need to make a few more characters before tomorrow night’s session, for the rest of my players.

With that, I’ll call it a day.  I’ve discovered several more features of Gametable, such as how to hide areas and monsters from your players until the players encounter them, but I’ll save those lessons for another day.  If you’re running your own games in Gametable or similar software and you’d like to use any of the graphics I’ve created, please feel free – I hope I can save you some trouble!