OnlineDM Mailbag #2: MapTool versus Fantasy Grounds

Welcome back to the exceedingly irregular OnlineDM Mailbag series! My first mailbag column came back in November 2011, and now in July 2012 I’m finally getting around to the second. I’d love to do more of these, so if you have a question you’d like me to answer on the blog, please send it to me at

Tobold writes:

Hi Michael!

I was looking into virtual tables for D&D 4th edition, not necessarily
to run a multiplayer game on, but for preparing my “real table”
campaign by playtesting combat encounters. I know you are a big
MapTools fan, but I’ve also seen several people claiming Fantasy
Grounds 2 was good. Did you ever try Fantasy Grounds 2? Do you have an
educated opinion of which program is better, MapTools or Fantasy
Grounds 2?

OnlineDM answers:

I do know that Fantasy Grounds 2 is quite popular, and from the people I’ve spoken to about it I believe that it’s a great tool. I haven’t personally used it, though, despite the research I’ve done into it.

My conclusion is that Fantasy Grounds is the “pretty” version of MapTool. The 3D dice rolling is very popular. The user interface is designed to look like you’re sitting at an actual wooden table. There are the equivalent of MapTool frameworks built for lots of games, including 4e.

However, I come down firmly on the side of MapTool for my own games. The biggest reason, frankly, is that it’s free. If you want to buy a Fantasy Grounds license that will let you run an unlimited number of games for anyone who wants to play, it’s going to cost you $150. For MapTool – nada. That’s a big deal to me; not that I can’t afford the $150, but MapTool does everything that FG2 does, so why would I pay for FG2?

I love the full customizability of MapTool. I can use it in a very bare-bones way, or I can go nuts with programming the fanciest stuff I can imagine. FG2 allows for this kind of development, too, but again, why pay for it?

Basically, I haven’t seen anything from FG2 that has ever tempted me to pay for it when MapTool is free. If MapTool had failings that FG2 addressed, I’d definitely give FG2 a shot. But it doesn’t have those failings, at least not in my games. I’m totally happy with MapTool and see no reason to pay to switch.

So, just to be clear, I think that Fantasy Grounds is a cool program, and I’m sure that lots of people will find it to be worthwhile. But for me, since I’m already very comfortable with MapTool, I wouldn’t want to pay the kind of money it would cost to use FG2 in the way I use MapTool (letting an unlimited number of people play in games that I host without having to pay a cent).

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

D&D Next – First playtest report

I had the pleasure of having my gaming group over to the house on Sunday for our first playtest of D&D Next. We played for about 4 hours, with the first 30 minutes being about character selection and rules discussion and the last 30 minutes for talking about the session and providing feedback.

First, I want to give a big shout-out to the Weem, who provided a great map for the Caves of Chaos that I used in my MapTool + projector setup at the table. It’s so nice to not have to draw the maps myself! I’ll admit that I was a moron and that it took me a while to realize that each square represented 10 feet instead of 5, but that’s not Weem’s fault – the map says it quite clearly!


Since I always run my games via MapTool, even in-person, I started by plopping the Weem’s map into a fresh campaign file, and then built some monsters. I began with my own 4e campaign framework, and then stripped things down to work for D&D Next. This was mostly easy, though it was a bit messy to write a macro that correctly handles advantage and disadvantage. I got there, though!

There are 34 monsters in the Bestiary for Next, and I prepped about 20 of them prior to the game. They’re pretty quick to put together, fortunately. I like that! Note that prepping them means that I’ve set up tokens in MapTool with an appropriate image, the right stats (hit points, AC, ability scores, speed, XP, etc.), buttons to track damage and buttons for each attack that the monster has.

The characters

Since we had six players and only five pre-generated characters, the party chose to double up on the dwarf fighter. Since it’s a hill dwarf, the first player to pick the character decided that it was a hillbilly dwarf. He named the character Bill to reflect this, which led the person playing the human cleric of Pelor to name his character Ted. The dwarf cleric of Moradin then became Rufus.

The party was rounded out with Gimli the dwarf fighter, Shazzam! the high elf wizzard (she likes the letter Z – and exclamation points), and Stealthy the halfling rogue (my wife likes Once Upon a Time, even though her character wasn’t a dwarf).

I’ll note here that one of my friends was interested in the rogue until he discovered that hiding takes an action. That was a bummer for him.

The adventure begins

My players tend to be more interested in killing bad guys and taking their stuff and less interested in plot. This worked fine with the Caves of Chaos, which does not come with a plot by default. I gave my players some choice among the potential plots listed in the adventure, and they liked the idea of seeking the piece of the Eye of Gruumsh that had ended up in the Caves of Chaos. Off we go!

The group decided to look for tracks near the first cave they saw (Cave A on the map), and a good Wisdom check from Ted revealed kobold tracks. When he went closer to the cave mouth to listen, some kobolds revealed themselves and combat began.

I decided to run this combat in the “theater of the mind”, so we rolled initiative and started killing kobolds. They only had two hit points each, which meant that both fighters and the wizard could reliably kill one kobold per turn (the fighters with the miss effect on their attack and the wizard with Magic Missile). The little lizard creatures went down pretty quickly. This entire combat took all of 10 minutes and 15 seconds. Not bad for fighting nine kobolds with six PCs!

The kobolds didn’t have any treasure or distinguishing markings, so the party left the bodies alone and moved into the cave. They saw a passage sloping down to the right, and to the left was a passage with a nasty smell. They decided to investigate the smell and found a garbage pit full of rats.

Rat stomping

Combat number two was another “theater of the mind” one, with the tiny rats swarming all over the PCs. I decided to throw 24 rats at them – four per PC. The rats started nibbling at PC ankles, and the characters started stomping on them.

When the wizard’s turn came around, she decided to use Burning Hands – our first Vancian spell! She waited until her friends got out of the way, then toasted a dozen rats.

Bill the dwarf fighter strode boldly into the garbage pit and took out the dire rat in one shot, and when the three surviving rats had a turn in round three, they fled. This combat took only 13 minutes; not too shabby.


From here, the party started heading down the slope, only to trigger a pit trap. Three PCs fell in, and attracted the attention of four kobolds. Our rogue spent the first round of combat fiddling with the trap to get it open so that the fallen PCs could climb out.

We noticed here that the jumping and climbing rules make pit traps not very scary once they’ve triggered. Getting out of the trap is easy enough; unless the walls are particularly slick, you can climb right out at half speed. As for the people who didn’t fall in, they could jump a number of feet (edit: I originally said “squares” instead of “feet here – not what I meant!) equal to their Strength score, which was at least 8. Add in two feet for extending your arms, and even the wimpy wizard could jump, grab the far edge, and pull herself up. Maybe I was too easy on my PCs here, but that’s the way I ran things.

Anyway, the fight against these four kobolds was pretty easy for the party since they had bright light, giving the monsters disadvantage on their attacks. As I wrote about recently, disadvantage is a big deal, equating to about a -4 or -5 to attack. Still, with all of the shenanigans surrounding the pit trap, this combat took 19 minutes. It’s amazing that this feels like a long combat!

The little boss – a battle with a map

From here, the gang noticed that the passageway eventually ended at a large chamber filled with dozens of kobolds. I decided that this chamber would probably actually have a door, so I created one on the fly. They decided to explore a different passage instead, finding themselves at a locked door.

No problem – we have  a rogue in the party! The pregen rogue has a very cool ability that says she can’t roll below a 10 for any skill that she’s trained in. So she rolls, and if it’s less than 10 we treat it as a 10 on the die. This means that opening locks is no worse than a 16 for her, which popped the storage room right open.

The most interesting item in this room was a cask of wine, which one of our fighters created a hole in with his axe. He then replaced the water in his waterskin with wine.

From here, the next clear direction was down the hall to a chamber that had three tougher-looking kobolds standing around and talking. A frontal assault was declared, and we rolled initiative. I decided that, since there were two waves to this fight and the enemies had the potential to actually take a hit and keep fighting, we would use the map and minis.

All three of the “elite” kobolds were dead by the end of the first round. In the second round, six more regular kobolds came out of a far room, escorting their chieftain. The chief actually had some hit points, but it didn’t matter – he never landed a blow with his axe, even though he was getting two attacks per round. He always had disadvantage thanks to the bright light from the wizard. The whole battle took just under 20 minutes.

Getting a little bit of treasure in the chief’s room was a nice find for the party, although the wizard continued to be disappointed with the lack of hits from her Detect Magic. No magic loot here, guys – this isn’t 4th Edition any more!

Kobold genocide?

The only remaining chamber in this part of the Caves of Chaos was the one that had dozens of kobolds in it. Back down the hall the party went, checking for traps and then opening the door.

They saw a group of 36 adult kobolds in their living quarters, with eight kobold hatchlings in the back corner of the room. A debate ensued among the party members about what to do – kill them or leave? Bill the fighter won initiative and decided to step into the room, slaughter a kobold, and then step back.

At this point, the kobolds reached for their daggers and started throwing, mostly at Bill but some at Gimli who was next to him. Rufus, the cleric of Moradin, was standing right behind them, which meant that her Guardian ability kicked in – all of the kobolds would have disadvantage on their attacks.

Thankfully, I was using the computer to roll the dice. Having to roll twice for each of 35 kobolds would have been a major pain in the butt. When all was said and done after those 35 attacks, the kobolds had only dealt 5 damage – 5 dagger hits for 1 damage each. Disadvantage is POWERFUL! They only needed to hit AC 15, but you only have a 12% chance of doing that when you’re just +1 on your dagger attack and you have disadvantage.

The rogue, the wizard and the cleric of Pelor shot some bullets and magic at kobolds as they backed down the hallway. The cleric of Moradin stayed in place to provide her fighter allies with some protection, but she refused to slaughter the kobolds.

In round two, we had 33 kobolds attacking the fighters with disadvantage. A few more points of damage landed, but nothing too serious. At this point, the cleric of Pelor left her fighters alone with the kobold menace.

Now the kobolds could show what they could do. Since they were out of the bright light, the Guardian was gone and they outnumbered the fighters, this meant the kobolds now had advantage on their attacks. Spears and daggers started landing left and right, and before half of the surviving kobolds had acted, they had dropped both fighters to unconsciousness. The kobolds slammed the doors to their chamber.

The surviving party members came back, stabilized their fighters, and dragged them out of there. The aborted kobold massacre took about 18 minutes, including some time at the end that was just about the dragging of the fighters out of the kobold caves.


I’ll put up another post later with our actual feedback from the playtest, but I’d say it was a successful test overall. There’s no way we would be switching from 4e to this game in its current state, but everyone seemed to feel like it has real potential. The one person in our group who’s been playing for 30 years especially enjoyed the game.

We’ll keep on testing, of course. There are plenty of things that we weren’t crazy about, but we feel like this game can be a good one. Definitely a promising start!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

D&D Encounters Web of the Spider Queen – Week 1

Previous week: Week zero / Following week: Week two

And so the adventure begins!

We had a total of twelve players for two tables of D&D Encounters at 5:00 PM at Enchanted Grounds today. I had four of the same five players from last week (father, son, daughter, another boy) plus two more players (adults). Our party consisted of:

  • Two goblin hunters (that is, hunters who happened to be of the goblin race, not people who hunt goblins) named Ferrin and Pointy
  • A goblin scout named Squintch
  • A goblin slayer named Snarl (who doesn’t speak but just, well, snarls)
  • A svirfneblin warpriest named Ziti
  • A drow mage named Zin

They decided that the four goblins were traveling together, and the drow and svirfneblin were another pair of travelers. The drow saw himself as a spy for the underdark. Hm. This could be interesting.

Six adventurers walk into a bar; specifically, the Old Skull Inn of Shadowdale. After some suspicious glances at the rather monstrous party before her, Ghessla Silvermane welcomed the group to her inn (extracting a promise that they weren’t in Shadowdale to cause trouble – especially the drow). She waved her burly employee Thrad over to start taking some meal orders. The Shadowdale Special was popular with the goblins (especially after the drow mage used Prestidigitation to make their meals wiggle).

The goblin hunters explored upstairs, finding that half of the second and third floors were under construction for some renovations. Downstairs, the goblin scout made friends with a smelly old man called Old Dogsbreath. He started raving about seeing drow in the woods, which Zin was quite curious about.

An attractive woman with long, dark hair told Zin that she was known as Khara Sulwood, and she had recently moved to Shadowdale. She mentioned that Doust Sulwood was her great-grandfather; Zin recognized the name as belonging to a lord of Shadowdale long ago.

A pair of dwarves welcomed Pointy into their merry drinking games.

After a while, folks started heading for bed. Ghessla pulled some of the party members aside and mentioned that allowing people into the Underdark was strictly forbidden under the laws of Shadowdale, laws that just aren’t worth breaking for less than, say, 100 gold pieces. She’s a fun one, that Ghessla.

When down in the inn there arose such a clatter…

Wouldn’t you know it, the quiet of the night was broken by a commotion downstairs. Everyone rushed down to find that the inn was under attack by drow! One invader attacked Ghessla, who crumpled to the ground, her light going out (I was using lighting features in MapTool for the first time, so this was cool). Old Dogsbreath was menacing a drow using his rusty dagger, and the two dwarves were in the process of surrendering when the heroes charged down the stairs.


Sounds and sights of more fighting were noticed outside the inn, so it was going to be up to this ragtag group to save the Old Skull Inn themselves.

Fortunately, they were up to the task! Noticing that I had used a female drow picture for the archer, Zin (our party’s drow) told the gang to try to get after her, since female drow tended to be nasty. Clouds of darkness started popping up left and right, especially once more drow came up from the cellar in round two, but a couple of PCs used their amulets from the character creation week to make the darkness go away.

Poor Snarl couldn’t land a hit on the drow he went after, even burning his action point. He soon found himself bloodied and poisoned, with Ziti having to heal him twice.

As the battle wore into the third and fourth rounds, the adventurers got the upper hand and turned the tide once the strikers started rolling well. The goblins and svirfneblin discovered that I would let them move freely under the tables of the inn, which was great fun. Before long, the inn was littered with the corpses of vanquished enemies, and Ghessla was popping up off the floor, having only played dead.

As the inn patrons were thanking the party and everyone was assessing the damage, Ziti the svirfneblin suddenly heard a voice begin speaking in her mind: “This is Elminster…”

And on that note, we wrapped up week one. Pretty cool stuff!

-Michael the OnlineDM

D&D Encounters Web of the Spider Queen – Week Zero

Following week: Week one

I’m so excited and happy to be running D&D Encounters again! I ran Encounters last summer for the Dark Legacy of Evard season (recaps of those sessions start here), and I had a blast. I especially love helping newer players get into D&D, and Encounters tends to attract a lot of new players.

This time, the season begins with a “week zero” session for character creation. I had been told that most players don’t bother showing up, since they’ll just make characters on their own in the Character Builder later. I’m happy to say that the players at the 5:00 PM tables decided that week zero was important. I believe we had nine players show up just for character creation.

Once again, I’ll be using my projector rig to run games, and my reputation preceded me at the store. Two of the players were the father and son I first introduced to D&D 4th Edition last summer at Encounters, and they’ve apparently been playing ever since! The father has also been bringing his younger daughter to play, and two more younger players were at my table as well (friends of the son, I believe). So, I’m running a table for four kids ranging from about 8 to 12 years old, plus one adult.

I don’t have kids myself, but I like kids well enough. When it comes to running games for kids, I’m enthusiastic about the opportunity! I really want to encourage the next generation of gamers, and this particular group is already pumped up. They’ve apparently been playing together at Encounters for a while, and when they saw that I was going to be running a game (knowing about my projector), they declared that they were all playing at my table. That’s a pretty good feeling!

As for character creation itself, we had a fun time last Wednesday. The boys all came to the table with ideas about what they wanted to play – two hunters and a paladin. They were excited about the new races from Into the Unknown, too; I believe we’ll have at least one goblin.

The young girl at my table wasn’t sure what she wanted to play, but since she already had experience with playing a controller, defender and striker, she decided to go with the warpriest – a leader – for a change of pace. She originally really wanted to be a kobold, but when we started flipping through the books and realized that the kobold didn’t get a bonus to Wisdom she nixed that idea. This really surprised me – I thought that she had her heart set on being a kobold (and it can totally work to have a kobold cleric), but she wanted that +2 to Wisdom. So, she build a svirfneblin instead.

I spent most of my time helping her through the character creation process, and she did really well. It was fun to build from the books instead of just using the Character Builder, and I really enjoyed the custom character sheets that were provided for this season of Encounters.

DMs were also given some treasure cards to represent a very cool neck slot item, one that can pierce a drow’s Cloud of Darkness ability. I believe these were intended to be given to players who participated in an event at PAX, but since we’re in Colorado we didn’t have any PAX-goers at our store. The DM for the other 5:00 PM table had decided that giving these cards out as a reward for showing up to character creation would be appropriate, so that’s what we did. If we have new players come later in the season, they might be able to earn the item through sheer awesomeness; we shall see.

I’ve already prepped the first week’s encounter in MapTool, and I can’t wait to get going. This is going to be fun! I’ll post weekly recaps, along with the maps that I’ve created for each session. Stay tuned!

Subsequent week: Week one

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Five new maps from Josh Cayer

Online Dungeon Master is usually a one-man operation (that’s me), but I welcome guest posts and contributions. Today, I’m pleased to share some maps and MapTool files created by one of my readers, Josh Cayer. These maps have also been added to my Map Library.

Wizard Tower

The MapTool file can be downloaded here. Josh explains:

It is a combo puzzle/encounter….I have left the solution in place.  Just remove the Orbs from the map.
Upon entry, the illusionary wizard at the bottom of the map appears and tells the players they must place 8 orbs on the map.  The orbs cannot “see” each other horizontally or vertically.
Like I said, there are no orbs on the map at the start.  A new one can be obtained from any of the three bowls.  Only one orb can be in play at a time.  Once an orb is placed, it grows to fill the square, making it impassable.
Once an orb is placed, moving next to it results in a small amount of lightening damage.
A misplaced orb can be moved but there is lightening damage.
The beholders, if killed, continue to come back until all the orbs are placed.

Wizard Tower by Josh Cayer - Gridded

Wizard Tower by Josh Cayer - no grid

Valley map

I particularly like this one. The MapTool file is here.

Valley by Josh Cayer - Gridded

Valley by Josh Cayer - no grid

Cave complex

This is a gigantic map! I’ve done what I can to reproduce it from the MapTool file with good resolution, which means that it’s a big file.

Cave Complex (very large) by Josh Cayer - Gridded

Cave Complex (very large) by Josh Cayer - no grid

Ruined temple

The MapTool file for this one is here.

Ruined Temple by Josh Cayer - Gridded

Ruined Temple by Josh Cayer - no grid

Small ship with dock

The MapTool file is here.

Small ship and dock by Josh Cayer - gridded

Small ship and dock by Josh Cayer - no grid

Thank you so much to Josh Cayer for submitting these maps! I’ve already received some more maps from another cartographer, which I’ll be posting about soon. If you have maps you’d like to see hosted by the Online Dungeon Master, please send me an email at

– Michael the OnlineDM

Maps! Lots of maps! And all in one place, too!

I’ve just returned from a very relaxing vacation, during which I did some extremely cool stuff with nice-looking PC character sheets in MapTool (a preview image is below).

However, since it’s going to take me a long time to write posts about the ridiculous quantity of work I did to put that together, I thought I’d get back into the blogging groove by pointing out that I have updated my Maps page.

Did you know that I had a Maps page? It’s under the Downloads section of my blog. I originally set it up in the earliest days of the blog, back when I was using OpenRPG and Gametable. I sort of abandoned the page, even though I kept creating maps.

I shared most of the maps I created on various places on the blog, but I thought it was high time to put them all on one page so that people who are looking for a variety of maps can find them all at once.

I haven’t done much in the way of organizing the page yet, though maps from the same adventure are grouped together (Reavers of Harkenwold, D&D Encounters Dark Legacy of Evard, etc.). These are all created in MapTool, and I wouldn’t call them super-fancy, but they work great for games in MapTool or Fantasy Grounds or similar programs. I’ve scaled them all to a 50-pixel grid, and I’ve provided versions both with and without the grid for nearly all of the maps.

As of this writing there are between 40 and 50 maps on the page, and I plan to keep adding maps to the page as I create them and post about them.


-Michael the OnlineDM

ZEITGEIST Session Three: Recap and Review

Previous sessions: Session one, Session two

Our group gathered in mid February for our third session in the Zeitgeist campaign from EN World. This session took us to the climactic finish of Adventure One: The Island at the Axis of the World.

Beware the cannonballs!

Since my group had ended session two by going a little bit off the rails, I had to create a new encounter to kick off session three. The group was racing along a sea wall surrounding a fortress, trying to follow the trail of some fiery, smoky being that had destroyed a ship in the harbor before leaping onto the wall and into the fort. Unfortunately for our heroes, the wall was being viciously fought over by the defenders upon it and the attackers bombarding it from ships in the harbor.

Sea Wall Battle - showing enemy positions

The battle is fairly simple. The party is approaching along the wall from the left side of the map. Four Rebel Musketeers (custom enemies) are on the north side of the wall, shooting at ships in the harbor, and four more are on the south side of the wall, doing the same thing. Half of each set of musketeers have their muskets loaded and ready at any given time. Two Rebel Soldiers (from the published adventure) are between the rows of musketeers, giving orders.

At the end of each round, a cannonball comes flying across a random row of the wall around the tower, attacking creatures in that row and on either side of that row. This can cause characters (both PCs and enemies) to be pushed off the wall and into the water.

Once the PCs get within ten squares or attack the enemies, the rebels notice them and turn their focus from the ships to the PCs.

The full encounter is available here (Beware the Cannonballs), and battle maps scaled to a 50 pixel per square grid are below.

Sea Wall map - with grid

Sea Wall map - No grid

Where did he go?

Once the party had conquered the sea wall tower, they moved along the inner wall until they met up with allied soldiers who had succeeded in breaching the wall. The fiery creature they were pursuing was nowhere to be seen, but the commanding officers requested the party’s assistance in dealing with some Danoran prisoners in a brig.

Negotiations with the prisoners went well and led to some intelligence about an entrance to the central tower of the keep through the sewers. The Danorans also gave the party a key that would open a door on the roof of the tower in case they ended up there. These discussions were ultimately interrupted by screams and the sound of running feet across the roof of the brig – the fiery creature was back!

Our heroes rushed into the streets to see the fiery creature, revealed as an eladrin, using a strange orb that caused the inner fortress wall to disappear, replaced by wilderness for a few moments. The fiery eladrin ran across the tops of the hedge maze within the inner fortress wall and then started scaling the central tower. The PCs decided to rush after him.

Vesper, the scout in the party, had found the token back in the mines that gave him tremendous jumping power, so he decided to use that power to go bounding after the eladrin. He hopped along the tops of the hedges in the maze and found himself at the base of the tower, staring up as the eladrin finished ripping out bricks, tearing what looked like a gold wire in the wall (gold circles prevent teleportation in this world) and then disappearing – presumably inside the tower. Vesper climbed to the roof, used the key on the roof door, and started sneaking downstairs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party found themselves dealing with an irate fey creature named Ghillie Dhu who was blaming them for lighting his hedges on fire (when in fact it was the eladrin who had done so with his fiery aura). Some quick negotiations followed, including a bit of a seduction by the female eladrin in the party, Andraste, and Ghillie Dhu was satisfied that the party was chasing the eladrin who burned the maze, not allied with him. Ghillie Dhu led them through the maze to the base of the tower, where they found a rope had been lowered by Vesper.

Level 1 PCs fighting a level 20 monster

Inside the tower, Vesper had gotten himself into a good eavesdropping position. He was able to see the eladrin, badly bloodied after fighting a bunch of guards in the tower, having a heated exchange with Duchess Evelyn of Shale (the Risuri noblewoman who had invaded the island) and a tiefling named Nathan Jierre. The eladrin, referred to by the duchess as Asrabey, had clearly beaten the duchess and the tiefling, and the duchess was trying to reason with him. Vesper bided his time, readying an attack in case Asrabey tried to hurt the duchess or the teifling any more.

The rest of the party was working on climbing the rope. Some of the PCs made their Athletics checks quickly, but our poor docker bard, Corduroy, struggled and struggled. As the party made it onto the roof, they saw the open door and peaked in, communicating through hand gestures with Vesper below.

Once Corduroy finally made it to the roof, he danced a jig of happiness…

Which made some noise, attracting the attention of Asrabey, who finally looked up and saw Vesper above him. His rage set off Vesper’s readied action, and we were in combat!

This was a beautiful moment in the adventure, where the writer, Ryan Nock, provides the DM with two ways to run the encounter. The default approach is to run Asrabey as an injured level 20 creature with only 27 hit points. This makes him practically impossible to hit, unless a PC rolls a natural 20, uses a power that deals damage without an attack roll (like Magic Missile) or uses a power that still has an effect on a miss (like most daily powers). At the same time, his attacks always hit the PCs unless he rolls a 1.

Alternatively, the battle can be run with Asrabey as a level 2 solo creature. I went hard core – he was level 20.

Combat was quick and deadly. Asrabey set his shield to work chewing on Vesper as the rest of the party rushed inside. The eladrin set up a zone that would soon erupt into flames. Andraste the witch used a power that would deal damage to Asrabey every time he hurt one of Andraste’s allies.

The party started to worry that they had bitten off more than they could chew, but they were doing their best to make use of daily powers and creative effects. Asrabey took a few hits and was clearly teetering, but Vesper was unconscious and laying in the area that would soon erupt into flames.

Asrabey began his turn, the flames rose, and Vesper was burned to death…

At which point Andraste’s effect caused Asrabey to take a few points of damage, killing the eladrin.

My players, including Vesper’s player, literally jumped to their feet, cheering and high fiving one another. It was one of the best moments I’ve had as a DM. Even though a PC died, it was a huge victory that was hard-won. They earned it, 100%.

In the aftermath of the battle, the party managed to steal Asrabey’s sword and cloak – high-level items that they really shouldn’t have and that are quite illegal for them to have taken in-game. But that’s okay… I don’t mind there being consequences later!

Thus ends adventure one of ZEITGEIST. It’s a very cool campaign so far, and I’m hoping to start adventure two as soon as we can get everyone’s schedules to line up. I’ve just learned that two of my six players are moving away in August, and there’s a chance that two more might be going eventually as well, so I hope to make some progress on the campaign while we still can.

-Michael the OnlineDM

Lords of Waterdeep, and a break to build MapTool macros

I don’t usually go multiple weeks without a post here on Online Dungeon Master, so I thought I’d give my loyal fans an update.

I’ve been traveling for work a lot in the past  couple of weeks, which certainly interferes with blogging time. However, I HAVE been using the time for D&D stuff – specifically MapTool work. You may recall that I had built and shared some macros for quickly creating monster powers a few weeks ago. Well, I’ve been working on the same thing for PC powers in D&D 4e. It’s been tremendously time consuming to build the macros, but actually using them has been fast! (Aside from bug killing, that is.)

Three of the players in my long-running Friday night War of the Burning Sky campaign created new characters for last week’s game (one new player, two existing players switching to new characters), so I had the chance to put my new PC power creation macros through their paces. I’m pleased to say that they worked like a charm! No problems at all so far, and the ability to recharge a power with a button click has been awesome.

The next step is to add a character sheet frame, similar to what I’ve done for Marvel Heroic RPG. I’d love for my D&D players to be able to scroll through their powers in a custom frame rather than the buttons in the Selection window. I could include the rules text of the powers in a small font, links to recharge powers individually, some nice-looking tables for organization purposes, and so on. But for now I still have a little tweaking to do on the PC power creation, though I hope to start sharing pieces of it soon. It’s a complicated family of macros, and I have not yet figured out how to break it into blog-post-sized chunks.

I haven’t run Madness at Gardmore Abbey in the past few weeks, which is a bit of a bummer. I finally have that whole campaign prepped in MapTool, so I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice! But the timing hasn’t worked out with my players.

I was going to try to revive my ZEITGEIST campaign for today’s gaming session, but two players had to bow out at the last moment. The day wasn’t a total loss, though, since the rest of us used the time to play three games of Lords of Waterdeep!

I’ve played a total of five games of Lords of Waterdeep now, and I absolutely love it even though I haven’t won yet. LoW feels like a streamlined fantasy setting of Agricola, another game that I absolutely love. We haven’t discovered a “dominant strategy” yet, which is a good thing. I love the design of the box itself – there’s a great insert to organize all of the pieces. The rulebook is excellent, too – very clear, with a handy summary of the rules on the back cover. It’s tons of fun, and everyone who has played it so far has loved it. I highly recommend Lords of Waterdeep.

I’m going to be out of town on vacation starting next weekend, so I hope to get another post or two up before I go. But if not, don’t expect to see anything from me until late April.

-Michael the OnlineDM

Madness at Gardmore Abbey – MapTool campaign file

At long last, I have finished putting together my complete MapTool campaign file for the Madness at Gardmore Abbey adventure. Huzzah! You can download it right here.

I’m pretty sure this is the largest MapTool campaign file I’ve built to date (around 33 MB), and I’m quite happy with it. It has all of the maps, all of the monsters, all of the Deck of Many Things tokens, all of the traps. I’ve got a template token for PCs and a template token for monsters.

The campaign file consists of eight maps with encounters from the adventure, plus a ninth map that’s a holding pen for NPCs, the Deck tokens and some background stuff for the campaign (library token, templates). The maps are labeled according to the encounter numbers that are included on the map. For instance, the map named 01-04 Village has the encounter maps that take place in the outer part of Gardmore Village (Encounter 1: Main Gate; Encounter 3: Double Talk; Encounter 4: Ruined Garrison; plus the overland map of the abbey and the map of Winterhaven).

Because of the number of maps that are in this adventure, I’ve included Wolph42’s Bag of Tricks macros – specifically the Teleport Pads. To use these, you’ll need to click the “Back of Tricks Macros” button in the Campaign pane and then the Initialize Pads button. Once you’ve done that, you can drag tokens around the various maps by dragging them to the teleport pad corresponding to the map where you want them to go. The 01-04 Village map has the portals to every other map.

I hope that folks find this campaign file to be useful. I know that I’ve had a lot of fun with Madness at Gardmore Abbey so far, and I’m looking forward to running the rest of the adventure!

– Michael the OnlineDM

Madness at Gardmore Abbey: Session Five

Past sessions: Session OneSession TwoSession Three, Session Four

After a six-week break, I was finally able to gather again via MapTool with my wife, her brother, and his wife for our continuing adventure in Gardmore Abbey. At this point I pretty much have the entire adventure prepared in MapTool (still a few wrinkles to work on before it’s done, though), so I’m ready for unexpected twists.


The party’s current quest is to help Sir Oakley, paladin of Bahamut and scion of Gardmore Abbey, to recover three relics he needs in order to purify the main Temple of Bahamut in the abbey. Sora the dragonbornn swordmage, Homer the elf hunter and Stasi the half-elf warpriest are currently with Sir Oakley in the catacombs beneath the abbey.

At the end of the last session, they had finished a difficult battle against undead monstrosities and had found a magic fountain of Bahamut that granted some necrotic resistance. Some of them were talking about an extended rest, but they really weren’t ready for that yet (not enough adventuring). As they stood by the Font of Divine Health discussing their plans, they heard some footsteps from the stairs leading up to the Temple.

Homer crept over to the nearby door and tried to peer through the keyhole (sure, let’s say there’s a keyhole). His perception roll was terrible, though, so he could only tell that there were some humanoid-shaped creatures (more than two), that they were talking (but he couldn’t make out the language, let alone what they were saying) and that they were carrying a light source (but he couldn’t tell what it was). He decided to head around to the Memorial Chamber to spy from there, but he wasn’t very stealthy about it. As he got into the Memorial Chamber, he heard footsteps hurrying back up the stairs and saw the light around the corner getting dimmer.

The rest of the party came over to join Homer and they decided not to pursue the other people.

Though I didn’t tell them this, they had just had their first encounter with the rival adventuring party. I was supposed to have made it so that the Altar of Glory had already been cleared out by the other party when our heroes arrived, but I forgot. So instead I decided to have them come down, find the Altar of Glory already cleared by our heroes, and then skedaddle when the heroes detected them. It worked out really well.

After this, the group pressed on to a large chamber in which they could hear something heavy dragging along the floor in the darkness.

Encounter 27: Great Hall

Vadin Cartwright

Since they weren’t particularly stealthy in entering this chamber, Vadin Cartwright called out in a cold voice, “Ah, we have visitors. Get them, friends!” This was the first Villain encounter, where a bad guy was drawing cards from the Deck of Many Things. Vadin drew the Knight, which gave him a flanking buddy. I ruled that he could use a move action to move the Knight, who would otherwise have been useless since Vadin was so far from the action.

The basilisk was the first problem. Sir Oakley, Sora and Stasi were clustered together, ripe for the basislisk’s venomous gaze. Some vampire minions soon closed to melee and started grabbing PCs left and right. Homer did his traditional chicken impression, staying out of the room and shooting from the hallway. Vadin Cartwright himself waited until the end of the second round to make his move, coming in with a terrifying howl that stunned the three melee characters.

Since stunned can be such an un-fun condition, I house rule it a little differently at my table:

OnlineDM’s house rule for stunned: A character who is stunned is dazed and cannot attack.

I’ve experimented in the past with saying that a stunned character can’t take standard actions, but if someone wants to make a heal check or take second wind or total defense as their entire turn, I’m fine with that.

In this case, Stasi used her one action to grant Sir Oakley a saving throw and then made her own saving throw at the end of her turn, so the team was back in the game quickly. Vadin was a tough opponent to hit; I ended up lowering his AC from 26 to 24 (de-soldierifying him) just because I saw that this encounter could get grindy otherwise. I also left the Snaketongue Vampire out of the fight since we had only three PCs plus Oakley (who is a full participant in combat).

Vadin drew the Donjon card when he was down to two-thirds of his starting hit points. The villain effect on this card gives adjacent enemies a -2 penalty to attack rolls, which is exactly the kind of ability I hate. Anything that results in missed attacks slows the game down. So, I changed it to an aura that gave enemies vulnerable 2 to all damage. When the Sun card was drawn later, I had the same problem; as written, it gives the villain concealment, which would be another -2 to hit. I switched this to a fiery halo that dealt 5 fire damage to the first PC to hit Vadin in melee (which, combined with the vulnerability, was painful and fun).

During the battle, Homer eventually dashed over to the niche in the wall where Vadin was keeping a vial of a strange red liquid. This vial was glowing, and Homer couldn’t resist picking it up and taunting Vadin with it. This definitely got Vadin’s attention, which was a good thing since Oakley was unconscious and on two failed death saves and Stasi the healer had just joined him on the ground. My brother in law asked if Homer could still shoot his bow while holding the stopperless vial, and I said sure. He carefully lined up his shot and critically hit Vadin! But some of the goop in the vial crept out and onto his bow hand; that’s some bad news right there.

Once Vadin had turned his attention to Homer, Sora was able to perform first aid on Sir Oakley, letting him spend his second wind, and he then healed Stasi. With all four characters back in action, they were able to take Vadin down. Oakley had no surges left; Sora had two, I believe. It was an exhausting series of fights for the party, but they had acquired three more cards from the Deck of Many Things from Vadin. They also found a magic sword and some money in a compartment in the room. The sword is called Moonbane and is an ancestral item from the Markelhay family that currently rules Fallcrest. I decided to make it a +3 sword since it would otherwise be pretty unexciting (as written, it’s +2). Sora was happy to wield it. This also switches her from a broadsword to a longsword, so she should hit more often now.

The group then spent the rest of their day holed up in the secret chamber in the catacombs, with Stasi tending to Homer. The red liquid had left Homer infected with unpleasant boils up his left arm, and he lost a healing surge. Stasi’s healing skill wasn’t very useful for Homer, but at least he didn’t get any worse. After an extended rest in the chamber, Homer woke up feeling better (a good endurance check), and the disease was cured – although he carries the scars still.

Red goop diaries

Next question: What to do about the red liquid? Vadin had raved about Tharizdun, the Chained God, and the substance definitely seemed evil. Homer and Stasi decided to pour some holy water from the Font of Divine Health in the next room into the vial to see what would happen. What happened was that the water started bubbling over, and Homer threw the vial against the far wall. The red goo seemed to have emerged mostly unscathed, and it started creeping up the wall. Sora scooped it up in a bottle that previously held a healing potion, and stoppered the thing shut.

After some discussion, the group decided to tie the bottle to a rock, unstopper it and drop it in the fountain. The font started frothing over and turning a bit pinkish for a minute or two before calming down. The magical energy from the fountain has dissipated, but the overwhelming evil of the red stuff doesn’t feel strong any more.

From here, the adventurers explored the easternmost chamber of this floor They opened a door to reveal – a curtain of dragon scales obscuring the next room! But beyond that lay more sarcophagi – and undead monsters.

Encounter 26: Dragonslayers’ Tomb

A couple of ghasts emerged from the darkness, followed by a wraith surrounded by swirling winds (a vortex wraith). The curtain of dragon scales blocked Homer’s shot into the room, so Sora yanked it to the ground. The vortex wraith started off being dazed thanks to Homer’s disruptive shot, so I ruled that its aura wasn’t working at first. Once it started up, though, its automatic damage and pulling of PCs toward the wraith had a major effect on the battle. Fortunately Stasi and Sir Oakley were doing their best to keep dealing radiant damage, and Sora’s Moonbane sword was ignoring the wraith’s insubstantiality.

Meanwhile, a regular non-vortex wraith had phased through a wall to come after Homer in the hallway. He pulled out the Sun card and managed to activate it to give himself some concealment, but the wraith’s invisibility every time it got hit made it a tough fight.

Things only got worse when a second vortex wraith joined the battle in the third round. Sir Oakley finished off the first one, which promptly exploded, sending the party flying all over the place. The one remaining vortex wraith focused on Sora, bringing the dragonborn to the ground briefly before she was rescued by Stasi and the wraith was at last destroyed.

Once all of the monsters were dealt with, the explorers discovered one of the relics Sir Oakley had been seeking – the Bowl of Io’s Blood. Huzzah! A great victory was shared by all.

I’m still having a ton of fun with this adventure. Ad-libbing the reaction of the red goo to the holy water was lots of fun, and I plan to have Homer’s scars from the disease come into play in the future. The mystery of the other people investigating the catacombs has worked out beautifully. And with five cards in their possession, the group is much more interested in and aware of the Deck of Many Things and its power. Now that I have almost everything prepped in MapTool, I’m ready for whatever they want to do next.

– Michael the OnlineDM