New campaign: Homebrew all the way!

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve volunteered to take the next shift as dungeon master with the group I’ve been playing with here in Colorado for most of this year (my first real Dungeons and Dragons experience).  I had considered three options for this campaign:

  • War of the Burning Sky, which I am already running for my online campaign (though I would have to adjust for the fact that the in-person campaign is starting at level 5)
  • An adventure setting from Nevermet Press that I’ve volunteered to playtest (called Brother Ptolemy and the Hidden Kingdom)
  • A total homebrew campaign, based on an adventure I had written but never run for D&D Third Edition

War of the Burning Sky was originally my first choice, but after starting to work on the adjustments I’d have to make for the level issue and after talking to my current players and getting their thoughts on the matter, I decided that it didn’t seem like it would be as much fun for me (even though it would be a LOT less work).

The playtest game intrigues me a great deal, but the adventure would span several sessions, and I really didn’t want to commit to anything like that without having the time to really get to know the material first (the whole document is over 100 pages in length).

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that homebrew was what I really wanted.  Having discovered my adventure from years ago that never saw the light of day, I felt like I had to give it a go.I began by transferring my map of what was originally a goblin stronghold (the adventure was written for first-level characters) into MapTool.  It’s now an orc stronghold, since these characters are higher level.  I kept the geography pretty much the same as I had created it years ago, removing only a couple of pointless storage rooms (I like verisimilitude, but rooms that have no bearing on the adventurers at all should be cut).  I sketched out the whole complex, only making a couple of edits… and then realized that the party wouldn’t be STARTING in the stronghold, but out in a town where they’ll get the chance to find out about this thing.

So, I needed to back up and draw some more.  I started with a tavern, using a Dungeon Tile image.  I called it the Shady Maple Inn and built it around a huge maple tree in the middle of the place.  It was built and owned by an elf who loved the tree and made it part of his establishment (this made me very happy for some reason).  The players had the possibility of meeting some bandits along the road, so I created a bridge encounter map.

There was also going to be an attack by some insects during a night spent camping in the forest, so I put together a forest encounter map with trees and bushes.

This would be everything the party would face, at least for the first session.  I figured that we would get through some decent fraction of the maps I had prepared.  After all, there was a lot to get through in the first session:

  • Character introductions
  • Determining how the party members know one another – past adventures together, etc.
  • Meeting the NPC who would ask for the party’s help
  • Getting from the tavern to the manor house where a minor noble was looking for aid (likely encountering bandits along the way)
  • Meeting the minor noble and learning about the family heirloom that had been stolen
  • Investigating near the manor house to learn more about the thieves
  • Tracking the thieves through the forest
  • Battling creatures overnight in the woods
  • Getting to the stronghold
  • Dealing with the front door defenses
  • Working their way into the depths of the keep

Now, I don’t know if it was the efficiency of running the game in MapTool with the projector or what, but we got through a LOT in one session!

We started playing at about 4:15 this afternoon.  We spent about 30 minutes on character introductions and party backgrounds.  Then the action started, and the players jumped on it.  No gallavanting about, chatting with random NPCs – they heard about a mission, pounced on it without asking questions and started to complete it.  They wisely figured out that they could take a boat up the river to the manor house, which meant that they could skip the bandit encounter at the bridge.  At the manor house, they investigated the theft of the family heirloom efficiently and moved on to the forest.

Here, they were set upon by some creepy crawlies at night.  The luck of the dice had this encounter happen during the first watch, which meant that everyone would be taking an extended rest afterwards (some of them had just started doing so).  This worked out pretty well, actually – since the extended rest was coming, everyone was free to blow daily powers and action points.  The attack came from some centipedes and rot grub swarms (set to appropriate levels for the party, of course).  Even after I brought in some extra centipedes in the second round, the PCs had no trouble beating them all up.

The next morning we had a little skill challenge to continue the navigation through the forest to the orcs’ lair.  The party just barely failed this skill challenge, which made for a cool encounter.  Instead of being able to walk right up to the front door and trying to figure out how to get through, their failure meant that orc archers in the guard tower saw them coming and got a surprise round on them.  This was excellent, because the archers with surprise were pretty darn scary.  Even though these are only level 4 creatures, they have a burst 1 attack (a hail of arrows, basically) that deals d10+6 damage to everyone in the burst that it hits, and I rolled a 9 and a 10 for damage for the two archers who fired into the group.  Suddenly our healer was down to 12 hit points (out of a maximum of 43) and the party was legitimately scared.

Despite the fear, the party had the right tools to handle this problem: Area attacks.  By the rules of the game, an area attack only requires that the spellcaster have line of effect to the origin square of the area burst (which the arrow slit grants), and then enemies inside the tower would not have cover from the area attack because it’s originating inside the tower.  Unleashing a few of these helped bring the archers down before they could raise the alarm.

The door to the stronghold was trapped, and I allowed some active Perception checks to notice the trap before just setting it off on everyone’s heads.  This was a bit generous on my part, but our games haven’t involved a lot of traps in the past and I felt like it was unfair to shock them TOO much by springing a trap when they would never think to look for one.  Now they’ll think about it!

Once inside, the party used some good Stealth to sneak up on the orc minions (two-hit minions, as is usual in my games) in the next room, who were distracted by their dice games.  For this battle, the minions went to the far side of the bridge and pulled it back across, attacking mainly from range (even though they’re not great at range).  I made it clear that the river is nasty and the party does not want to fall into it.  Again, the PCs beat up the bad guys before they could raise a further alarm.

The last battle of the evening took place in the orcs’ sleeping chamber.  This area was dark, as the night shift orcs were sleeping.  One orc was awake – the cook over in the kitchen area, preparing a foul-smelling stew.  The party again made good use of Stealth, letting the party’s Monk get a surprise attack on the cook.

This battle was a little more interesting, as the orcs who had been asleep quickly woke up and did their best to sneak toward the party in the dark.  The Monk ended up bloodied a couple of times, and the Warlock/Sorcerer got a little bit beat-up as well, but since the baddies kept clustering, they were mowed down by burst and blast attacks.  Who says you need dedicated controllers in a party?At this point it was a little after 9:15 PM.  It had been five hours since we had started playing, and we had taken about an hour-long break for dinner in the middle.  We played through four combat encounters, plus the background stuff and some role-playing, investigations and skill challenges.  And this was all with brand-new characters and players who were still figuring out what those characters can do.  I was amazed at how far the party had gotten.  This was as much of the adventure as I had prepared, so we called it a night at that point (playing a few games of Zombie Dice first).

Today was a great start for a new campaign!  I feel like everyone had a good time, and the MapTool / projector combo continues to be a big hit.

DM Lessons

  • Once you’re comfortable as a dungeon master, run your own homebrew games whenever possible.  Time constraints may make this hard, but don’t let a lack of confidence stand in the way.
  • Drop future adventure hooks liberally – even if you haven’t figured out exactly where they’ll lead yet.  See what piques your players’ interest, and run with those, abandoning the others.
  • Preparation is huge.  Know the layouts of combat areas and how the enemies will use them before the battle starts.  If you can do the mapping in advance (such as with MapTool, or even pre-drawing the maps on battle mats or paper) it will save a lot of time at the table.
  • Be prepared for players to come up with ways to skip over combat encounters, and let them do it if they find a way.  Don’t get too attached to a battle.  You can probably find an excuse to use it again at some point in the future!
  • If you’re comfortable with it, technology at the table can automate the boring parts and help everyone get to the fun faster.

Creating tokens for in-person gaming

Victory is mine!  In my last couple of posts, I’ve talked about the fact that I’m going to be serving as dungeon master for a real-life D&D game at my local game store, Enchanted Grounds, on July 24, 2010.  It will be a Living Forgotten Realms game.  I don’t own any minis (little statues to represent creatures), so I decided to make my own tokens (little flat representations of creatures) using the guidelines from Newbie DM’s blog.

After a little bit of trial and error, I succeeded terrifically.  The steps are as follows:

  • Find a good image for a token online, such as this one for a paladin: Paladin
  • Drag the token into PhotoShop
  • Resize the canvas in PhotoShop to be way bigger than the current image, and fill the additional background space to match the background that came with the image (I recommend using the eyedropper tool to get the right color and the paint bucket tool for the fill):Paladin2
  • Open up Token Tool and drag this new image from PhotoShop into Token Tool
  • Pick a nice border in Token Tool.  Also, go with 256 x 256 for the token size
  • Resize and re-center the image in Token Tool to look the way you want
  • Drag the image from the top right corner of Token Tool into PhotoShop:Paladin Token
  • From here, follow the instructions from NewbieDM to copy the token to a new letter-sized image (8.5″ x 11″), duplicating the token image, dragging a bloodied layer over it and making the bloodied layer semi-transparent (note that minions don’t get bloodied, so minion tokens don’t need a bloodied image – you can put one minion on one side of a token and another minion on the other side)
  • Rinse and repeat until you have a whole sheet of these tokens:Token Sheet

Play around with the size a little bit; I found that you actually want them to be a bit bigger than 1″ across, even though the ultimate size you’ll be punching out is 1″.  I like to have no border on my physical tokens – I like them to take up the whole 1″ circle if possible.  You’ll want to get a 1″ hole punch (I paid $10 for one at Michael’s – it’s pretty heavy duty) and a bunch of 1″ fender washers (I paid $8 for a box of 100 at the local hardware store) and a glue stick.  Below you can see my first pass at the paladin token (when I was aiming for 1″ exactly) and my second pass (when I went bigger) – the second looks way, way cooler.Paladin Tokens

The overall result was awesome, in my humble opinion.  I made tokens for the paladin I play in LFR games (Rhogar), the Avenger I’m playing in my in-person game (Kern), Barbara’s dragonborn Runepriest (Zaaria), and the enemies I’ll need for the LFR module.  These include a wererat, a gnome arcanist, some gnome skulks, some guard drakes, and a whole bunch of human bandits (generally minions).  On the back of the bandits I put goblins and kobolds (common minions, I think).


I’m really happy with the way these turned out.  I now have all of the minis that I need for my LFR game, and the maps that I shared yesterday ended up working out great when I used PosteRazor to print them out (I’ve just printed them in black and white for now as a proof of concept, but I know they’ll be fine in color, too).  I’m feeling good about this!

I’ll make the individual token files that I created available on the Downloads page of my blog, too, so you can get them all one by one.

MapTool macros – simple monster attacks

Over the past few days, I have become intensely interested in the MapTool macro language.  I started with the desire to have one-click access to my monsters’ attack powers.  I decided to write a macro for each monster that would create an attack roll (d20 plus whatever the monster’s attack modifier is) and a damage roll.  I’d add in text describing additional effects on a hit and even some buttons for non-attack macros just to remind myself what the powers could do (such as an Ooze’s ability to shift its speed).  For all of these attacks, I don’t want them showing up on the players’ chat boxes (hiding them behind the DM screen, so to speak), so I have all of the results go only to the GM.  Here is an example – an Adult Kruthik’s Claw attack:

[gm: “Attack roll: “]
[gm: 1d20+8] [gm: ” versus AC<br>”]
[gm: “Damage roll: “]
[gm: 1d10+3]

The fact that everything is within brackets that begin with “gm:” is the way that the output is hidden from the players.  Because the text is within these brackets, it must be enclosed in quotation marks (outside of brackets, you don’t need to put your text in quotes – it will just show up to everyone in the chat window).  Note that this also applies to the line break indicator from HTML <br> – outside of brackets you can just write it as <br>, but inside brackets it has to be put within quotation marks as “<br>”.  The dice programming is pretty straightforward.  1d20+8 is just what you think it would be.  The output from this macro will look something like this:

Kruthik Adult: Attack roll: 24 versus AC
Damage roll: 6

Here’s a slightly more involved example – the Kruthik Adult’s Toxic Spikes attack.

[gm: “Recharge 5/6; Result: “] [gm: d6 ] [gm: “<br>”]
[gm: “Two attacks against 2 different creatures<br>”]
[gm: “Ranged 5<br>”]
[gm: “Attack 1: “]
[gm: 1d20+7] [gm: ” versus AC; “]
[gm: 1d8+4]
[gm: ” damage and ongoing 5 poison damage and slowed (save ends both)<br>”]
[gm: “Attack 2: “]
[gm: 1d20+7] [gm: ” versus AC; “]
[gm: 1d8+4]
[gm: ” damage and ongoing 5 poison damage and slowed (save ends both)”]

The first line reminds me that this is a power that recharges on a roll of 5 or 6 on a d6 and then rolls a d6 to tell me whether the power recharges or not this turn.  If it doesn’t and I’ve already used it in this encounter, then I’ll just ignore the rest of the output.  The next two lines just remind me about what the power does (two attacks against two different creatures, within a range of five squares).  Then the macro generates two separate attack rolls, with the damage for each put on the same line.  There’s also some extra text explaining the ongoing damage and slowing effect.  The output is as follows:

Recharge 5/6; Result: 5
Two attacks against 2 different creatures
Ranged 5
Attack 1: 23 versus AC; 10 damage and ongoing 5 poison damage and slowed (save ends both)
Attack 2: 14 versus AC; 12 damage and ongoing 5 poison damage and slowed (save ends both)

Another example: the Blue Slime’s Stench Pulse burst attack:

[gm: “Once per encounter only.<br>”]
[gm: “Attack roll: “]
[gm: 1d20+6 ] [gm: ” versus Will<br>”]
[gm: “Hit: Targets are dazed and weakened (save ends both)”]

This just rolls the attack a single time, even though there could be several targets in the burst.  By D&D rules, each target should have a separate attack roll.  So, I would need to click the button once per target.  That’s okay, but it’s not very efficient, and the “Hit” line will be reprinted for each target instead of just one time.

Now, I hadn’t noticed this problem when I first put this macro together – it only became clear after I had put together some player character attack power macros.  Maybe my players will want to roll their own dice and telling the table what their results are, but I couldn’t resist – I wanted to program their powers in MapTool macros.  That’s for my next post.

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!

Troll druids are nasty

We had our in-person D&D game yesterday, where my wife Barbara and I went to our friends Nate and Bree’s house to play D&D with the two of them and with our friend Kyle.  Kyle couldn’t make it, so I ended up running his character for him.  This was an interesting experience.  My character is an eladrin wizard, and Kyle’s is a tiefling bard.  Making matters a little more interesting, we only had Kyle’s original level 1 character sheet, and we’re now at level 3.  I leveled the character up based on my best recollection of the choices Kyle had made (though I’ll admit that I did change the level 2 feat to suit my own preferences) and ran with it.

Our characters started off in a rebel camp in a forest outside of a huge city.  Our party had decided to help the resistance against the overlords of the city, and we were getting ready to head off to a tunnel that the rebels were building to get in and out of the city to rid it of a cave troll.  Before we could leave the camp, however, we were invaded by two trolls and three ogres.  These guys were coming after us because of some run-ins we had with the authorities in the city before we got out to the rebel camp.  We later figured out (thanks to some fantastic intuition on Barbara’s part) that they were able to find us by tracking an enchantment on an item that we had stolen from them (oops, our bad).

The battle in the camp was pretty interesting.  The lead troll was clearly the guy we needed to focus on.  He started off by grabbing my bard (well, Kyle’s bard) by the head in the first round and hanging onto him throughout the whole battle.  The bard had a tough time escaping a grab, but he fought pretty well for a guy with his head being squeezed by a troll!  The rest of the party battled well and was ultimately helped by some of the other rebels joining the fray to finish off the bad guys.  We took down the lead troll and the three ogres, but the second troll – a druid of some sort – escaped into the woods.  Despite the fact that we had spent our daily powers and were not in the best shape in terms of hit points, we decided that letting him get away to warn other giantfolk would be a bad idea.  So, we chased him into the woods.

The chase was handled as a skill challenge, which we just barely succeeded on, and we found the troll druid in the woods.  Here’s where things got ugly.  This particular guy was a Troll Vinespeaker (from Monster Manual 2), which is normally a Level 14 creature but which Nate had scaled down to Level 6.  I think this means that he lowered the hit points, attack bonuses, defenses and damage output, but he didn’t fundamentally change any of the powers.  I think this was a mistake.  During the battle in the camp, the Vinespeaker had buffed his allies with some temporary hit points (fair enough), backed out of melee to shoot vine attacks at individual PCs (no problem) and then, just before he ran away, shot an area attack at a few of us.  The area attack created a nine-square area of vines that:

  • attacked each PC in the area when it was created
  • dealt 1d10+2 damage to each PC that was hit
  • IMMOBILIZED each PC that was hit (save ends)
  • dealt 1d8 damage to each PC that began its turn in the area or entered the area
  • served as difficult terrain (you move through it at half speed)
  • and the area persisted until the end of the encounter

Okay, a few things here.  First, I know that Nate scaled down the bonus to hit with this attack (at level 14, it was +18 versus Reflex, and I know that this troll’s bonus to hit was way lower).  So that’s good.  Second, I don’t believe he altered the damage dealt by the beginning of turn / enter the zone attack.  That’s not so good.  Even with all of that, though, we only saw this druid use the ability once in the camp, so we assumed it was an encounter power – once per battle.

Nope – it was at-will.

Think about that for a minute.  Every single turn, this troll (who started the battle in the woods about 10 squares away from us, with the PCs clustered together) can create an area of thorns around several PCs that, if it hits (which it usually did), deals a bunch of damage right there, then immobilizes the character until the end of their next turn at best (if they make their first saving throw), then deals additional damage at the beginning of the character’s next turn – and the one after that if they miss their save, and then the one after that if they miss that save…  It was ugly, ugly, ugly.

The troll quickly created four of these zones that pinned down most of the party.  The other party members were trying to pull the immobilized creatures out, but it wasn’t happening.  My wizard and my bard both went unconscious, still sitting in thorns (so taking 1d8 every turn until the end of the encounter).  Bree’s warden pulled the wizard out, but getting the bard out looked hopeless.  Barbara’s ranger then had the bright idea to try to scare off the troll by shooting some fire arrows at it.  The arrows missed, but the troll was scared of the fire and ran.  Now that he wasn’t generating new zones, the warden and ranger were able to pull the bard out, barely.  The unconscious characters were carried back to the rebel camp and healed, and we took an extended rest and chased after the troll druid the next morning, where we found him and finished him off (though Kyle’s bard almost died again to some stupid little plant creatures – sorry Kyle!).

The battles were intense and draining.  I’m glad we prevailed, and almost everything was great – except, in my humble opinion, the way the Troll Vinespeaker was converted from level 14 to level 6.  The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) has some advice on changing the level of a monster.  It says that, to lower the monster’s level you should decrease its attack rolls and defenses by 1 per level and decrease the damage it deals with its attacks by 1 per every two levels.  You also adjust its hit points according to its role.  However, it also says that this process really only works for changing a monster’s level by 5 or less, and that beyond that you should pick a different monster to work from.

In this case, the Vinespeaker needed to be bumped down by 8 levels.  This means that its attack roll and defenses should all be lowered by 8, and its hit points should be lowered by 64 – and I think Nate did this exactly.  Its damage should be reduced by 4 – and I think Nate did this, but only for attacks that dealt dice damage plus static damage.  So, the damage from being hit by the thorny area attack was originally 1d10+6, and I think Nate lowered it to 1d10+2, which is reasonable.  He did not, however, change the damage dealt by the thorn area each turn or whenever a character entered the zone.  It was 1d8, the same as it would have been at 14th level.  This should have been no more than 1d4 (reducing the maximum damage by 4), although that’s only reducing the average damage by 2 rather than 4 (1d8 averages 4.5, whereas 1d4 averages 2.5).  I guess it really should have been reduced to a fictional die that rolls either a 0 or a 1 (average of 0.5).  So, that’s a big problem – we took a lot of damage from those thorns!

Furthermore, I think the point in the DMG about just abandoning this idea for monsters that are more than 5 levels away from what you’re seeking is important here.  A monster 8 levels above another monster is going to have mightier powers – not just in terms of the attack bonus or damage dealt, but also in terms of special abilities.  In this case, there’s no way a 6th level monster should have an at-will ability that creates a zone that deals damage and immobilizes when it hits, deals damage each turn that you stand in it or whenever you enter it, serves as difficult terrain and lasts until the end of the encounter.  If that were an encounter power, that would be fine.  Maybe even a power that recharges on a 6.  Alternatively, it could be an at will that creates a zone that persists for one turn.  But all of that together is just too much for a 6th level monster.

Let me be clear on something – I like Nate a lot.  I think he’s actually a fantastic DM.  And I think that the troll druid was a way cool enemy.  But I don’t think the troll druid ended up being what Nate intended him to be – a tough supporting character in an encounter led by a bigger, nastier troll and backed by some smaller ogres.  He ended up being nearly a solo monster.  If we had fought him one on one after an extended rest, with our daily powers charged, it would have been a fair fight (thanks in part to the wizard having access to Flaming Sphere).  So, that’s a lesson for us as players – charging after a bad guy when you’re exhausted from a tough battle may be a bad idea.  But if that thorny area attack had been an encounter power (as we thought) rather than at will, I think we would have handled him pretty easily, even when exhausted.  I think Nate chose to have the troll flee from the ranger’s fire arrows out of pity, honestly.  By that point in the battle we had given up on attacking the troll and were just trying to flee, but we couldn’t get our fallen comrades out of the thorns without the troll just creating more.  The troll couldn’t really have been that afraid of a couple of fire arrows (especially when they both missed him).

What have I learned?

  • As a player, I’ve learned not to make assumptions about what is an at-will power and what’s an encounter power!
  • I’ve also learned that chasing a fleeing baddie when you’re exhausted can be a bad idea – although, as I said, had the thorn zone been an encounter power I think we would have been fine mopping up a lone troll druid.  I think you should pursue the weakling before he can alert his big friends.  This guy, as it turned out, was no weakling.
  • As a DM, I’ve learned that you have to be very careful when adjusting monster levels.  I think that I’ll start by sticking to the DMG’s advice when I do this sort of thing, and not try to re-level a monster by more than 5 levels (and probably not even that much).
  • Rewarding players for being clever is extremely important and satisfying for everyone.  The fire arrows were smart, as was the discovery that the stolen item let the authorities track the party, and we were rewarded for both of those and felt good about it.
  • You have to be open to the possibility that you’ve made a mistake.  As a player, I realized that I made a huge mistake in assuming that the thorny area power was at will.  When I did, I changed my thinking to, “Let’s get out of here!” but it was too late.  As a DM, I think I should be open to the possibility that one of my ideas isn’t working, as with the power level of the troll druid in this case.  When that happens, I think I would want to fix it on the fly rather than let the consequences play out as written.  This is absolutely a situation I could see myself getting into as a DM, and I think I’ve learned something important about how to handle it.

I’ve heard it said that people learn more from failures than successes, and I think that’s true here, too.  Our party’s decision to go after this monster was a mistake, and I think I’ve learned from it.  The power level of the troll was a mistake, too, and I’ve learned from that as well.  The good news is that despite everything, our party pulled through and had a good time doing it.

One other note: It looks like schedule conflicts and upcoming travel plans are going to make it so that I won’t be able to play my online D&D game with my friends until late June (it’s mid May as I write this).  That’s disappointing, but it’s not the end of the world.  We may get the small group together (four of us) once or twice for a quick-hit adventure, but we’ll probably just put things on hold.  Hey, that give me more time to get some challenges ready for everyone!  I can live with that.

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 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!

OpenRPG – installation and map basics

When my friends first told me that they were interested in continuing the D&D game that we had begun at a wedding in Florida by playing the game online, we needed to figure out how to make this work.  One of my friends pointed me toward OpenRPG – a free program that creates a virtual tabletop for everyone to “sit” around, see the battle map, chat and roll dice.  Now the trick was figuring out how to make it work.

I’ll begin by noting that I am running OpenRPG on my Dell laptop, which uses Windows XP.  It’s a machine that I bought around 2005, so it certainly doesn’t have the latest bells and whistles, but it has no problem at all running OpenRPG.

You can download OpenRPG at this link.  As I write this, the latest version is 1.8.  The download is somewhat more involved than a typical internet download, in that it start by installing Python (the programming language in which OpenRPG is written) onto your computer.  When you run the program, you will see that it will run in two separate windows – one DOS prompt window for Python and then the OpenRPG program window itself (see below).

Note the main OpenRPG screen (the background) and the DOS window (foreground)

Note the main OpenRPG screen (the background) and the DOS window (foreground)

There is an online user manual for OpenRPG which does have some useful features, but what I’ll present below are the basics for my use of OpenRPG.  These include some lessons that I had to learn via trial and error.  I’ll note right now that I’m only focusing on the map for now.  The chat window and the dice roller will be addressed later.  As for such things as character sheets, I don’t plan to use them in my game for the time being.

The map is the real power tool of OpenRPG and what makes it worthwhile for online role playing games.  You’ll note that the map has six tabs beneath it, and you’ll want to ultimately use all of these to set up your virtual tabletop for your game.

  • Background: This is where you set up what you would generally think of as “the map” – the walls of your dungeon, the trees in your field, the various features of the area where your player characters (PCs) will do battle.
  • Grid: This is where you specify the size of the underlying grid of the map and what it will look like to your players.
  • Miniatures: Here’s where you put the virtual equivalent of miniature figurines (which I’ll still call “minis” in this blog) onto the battlefield, representing PCs, NPCs (non-player characters) and monsters.
  • Whiteboard: This lets you write on the map on the fly – I’m not very experienced with this yet.
  • Fog: This lets you hide and then reveal parts of the map as your players explore
  • General: Set the size of the overall map itself (in pixels), or reset the map to its default settings.

I’d suggest starting with the Grid tab and going from there.  While your game may vary, I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition, and I use a square-grid map with minis that (assuming they’re Medium-sized) will only occupy one square at a time.  This means that I use a Rectangular rather than Hexagonal or Isometric grid, and I use the Snap option (which makes each mini be in one square or another, not spread across squares).  I also do like to see the grid clearly, so I use Solid Lines rather than Dotted Lines or No Lines, and I like them colored black (but feel free to use gray or whatever makes sense for your grid).  Finally, I like the grid boxes to be 60 pixels by 60 pixels.  This will give you boxes that are big enough to see the minis in them clearly.  Now, that takes up a lot of space if you have a sprawling battle map, so you’ll probably need to scroll around the map when you’re playing (or zoom out).  Personally, I think that’s no big deal.

My OpenRPG grid settings

These are the settings that I use for my grid in OpenRPG

Next up: Background.  This is where the action really is.  The background is where you draw the walls of your cavern, the stairs that your characters can use, terrain features, buildings, doors, etc.  That is, everything you would draw yourself on an erasable battle map or build with Dungeon Tiles.  In order to do this, you need to develop your skills of an artist.

I freely admit that I’m a lousy artist.  I was a great student in school, but not so much in art class.  However, I LOVE gaming, and I’ve found inspiration to do some art for online DMing.  Still, I’m keeping my map background art very simple for now.  If you’re playing around on your desktop (not connected to a server for playing with other players online), you can load up an image file to use as your background by choosing “Image” from the dropdown menu on the Background tab, then clicking Browse and selecting the image file you want to use.  However, if you want to use the image for online games, you’ll need to get that image file onto the internet somewhere so that your players can access it, too, and then enter its URL into the Background tab.  I’m going to be using my blog for hosting my files, but something like Photobucket or Picasa should work just fine, too.  And if you want to use any of the background images that are on my blog, feel free to link to them in your game!

So, how do you go about creating a good background?  Well, I’ve decided to start with the grid.  I wanted a blank image file with a grid of 60 by 60 pixel squares on it (to match the actual grid in the game), and then I would fill in squares that are walls and leave blank the squares that are floors.  Building the 60-pixel grid image file was surprisingly a pain, but I managed it – and now you don’t have to!  Feel free to start with the grids below.  One of them is 16 squares by 16 squares (not all that big, but probably enough for a single encounter area) and one is 32 by 32 squares (much more useful for putting together something like an entire floor of a dungeon, perhaps, or at least a big chunk of one).  Make sure you click on the grid you want to pull up the full-size version of the file.

Map grid - 16 by 16 squares, 60 pixels each

Map grid - 16 by 16 squares, 60 pixels each

Map Grid - 32 by 32 squares, 60 pixels each

Map Grid - 32 by 32 squares, 60 pixels each

Once you have this grid, you can start filling in squares using something as simple as MS Paint and the paint bucket tool, then save a new version that’s an actual map.  From there, you can add fancier art as you wish – though I freely admit I haven’t done this yet!  It’s all black and white, square walls, featureless corridors, etc.  Better art will come over time!  Below is an example of a grid that has a room roughed in, just to give you an example of what this might look like.  I’ll share actual rooms that I put together as I assemble them over time.

Rough room map

An example of the small grid with a simple room roughed in with gray walls.

Since we’re talking about the background, we should go to the General tab.  There are really two main functions here.  First, we have the Default Map button, which clears away anything you’ve added (backgrounds, grid changes, minis, fog) and lets you start from scratch.  Second, you can set the size of the map.  If you use the 16 by 16 square map, the size will be 961 by 961 pixels.  If you use the big 32 by 32 square map, the size will be 1921 by 1921 pixels.

You’ll note from the image below that I’ve set the map size appropriately for the large grid, and I’ve scrolled to the bottom right corner of the map.  However, you’ll note that while the grid’s background color is white (from the image file), there’s a green border around the edges of the map.

OpenRPG - General Map Settings

These are the General map settings for the large grid. Note the green border along the right and bottom sides of the map.

If you want that green edging to go away, go to the Background tab, select Color from the dropdown menu, click the Color button and pick the color you want.  That will change the color of the Color button itself.  To actually put it into place on the map, you then click the Apply button.

OpenRPG - Background Color

Setting the background color to white, with the necessary dropdowns and buttons circled.

All that remains for me to talk about today is minis.  To create a mini from scratch using MS Paint, I suggest starting with a file that is the right size and filling it in.  Assuming you’re using a 60-pixel grid, I recommend creating minis that are 58 by 58 pixels.  That way, they fit inside the grid squares and do not cover up the borders of the squares.  To do this, go to the Image menu in Paint, then select Attributes, then set the size you want, in pixels.

From here, you’ll be left with a tiny little box to draw in.  I highly recommend zooming in for more accuracy (View – Zoom).  This is the procedure I used to create my first mini – Stick Mini.

Stick Mini

Stick Mini - little, but mighty!

Now, if you’re not a great Paint artist and you want some better-looking minis, the simplest thing to do is to find an image that you like online (assuming that the owner of the image is okay with you using it), copy it to Paint, crop it as you see fit, get it into a square size, and the resize it to 58 by 58 pixels.

Let’s say that you find an image of a kobold that you like.  For instance, I found the image below at a blog called Dice Monkey.

In his current form, this kobold has two problems that keep him from being a good mini: He’s too tall (not a square) and he’s too big (not a mini).  The image dimensions are 240 pixels wide by 327 pixels tall.  To solve the first problem, I grabbed the top of his spear and shifted it down closer to his hand, and I moved the image around until he was at the top of the box.  I then cropped the image (Image – Attributes) to 240 by 240 pixels, leaving me with the picture below.

Short KoboldNow he’s 240 by 240, but I want him to be 58 by 58.  Some math reveals that 58 divided by 240 equals about 24%, so I want to resize the image so that it’s 24% as tall and 24% as wide as it currently is.  To do this, I go to Image – Stretch/Skew and enter 24 for both Vertical and Horizontal.

Kobold resizing

After resizing, I’m left with my finished kobold mini:

Kobold mini

My finished kobold mini, in all of his 58 by 58 pixel glory

You can use the same process to create minis for other monsters, NPCs and even player characters.  However, if you have players who like to get involved with their characters, I highly recommend asking them to create their own minis and sending them to you for use in the game.  It’s way more fun for them to control a character that they created, after all!

That wraps up the map basics.  In future posts, I’ll talk more about the fog of war, creating more detailed backgrounds and more minis, and how to actually USE the stuff you’ve created.  As always, comments are highly encouraged!