Genghis Con 2012 Recap

As I sit down to write this post Monday morning, I’m exhausted and happy for the past three-plus days I spent over the weekend at Genghis Con 2012. The Denver Gamers Association puts on two conventions each year: Genghis Con over Presidents’ Day weekend, and TactiCon over Labor Day weekend. I think they’re very smart in having each convention begin Thursday night and end Sunday evening, with Monday off for all of us to recover before we have to go back to our day jobs on Tuesday after the holiday.

Last TactiCon, I decided to be a Marathon GM and run games in all nine time slots (Thursday evening; Friday morning, afternoon and evening; Saturday morning, afternoon and evening, and finally Sunday morning and afternoon). For Genghis this year, I decided I wanted to run just three sessions (of games I’d written myself) and then play the rest of the time. I signed up for two specific games to play in – a Dresden Files game and a Hero System game based on Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. I wanted to keep my options open for the rest of the time.

I received an email a few weeks before the convention that the Dr. Horrible game was canceled. Oh well. Then I got an email two weeks ago letting me know that the person who was supposed to have been coordinating the D&D 4th Edition games at the convention (mainly Living Forgotten Realms) had gone incommunicado, and lots of games needed DMs. I was asked to help out.

So, I went from running three slots to running seven. Seven slots, seven different games. Two of them were Ashes of Athas, and I knew next to nothing about Dark Sun. Two were paragon tier LFR games (one of which, thankfully, I had run before and so already had prepared in MapTool). A couple of weeks of frantic prep work followed, including taking last Thursday off work to get ready. And then away we go!


I got to the convention at the Red Lion Hotel around 6:00 PM to pick up my badge. The awesome RPG coordinator had arranged for me to get a refund for the sessions I had originally signed up to play in but was now running instead. You rock, Linda!

This was one of the two times in the convention when I was a player rather than a DM. I jumped into an LFR game that could be run for characters of levels 1-10, but the table has to agree on a four-level band. I really wanted to play Factotum, my beloved bard, who was fifth level. Unfortunately, there were a couple of other players who really wanted to play their 9th and 10th level characters. And thus I turned to Rhogar, my first-ever LFR character – a half-elf paladin of Ilmater. I hadn’t played him since Genghis Con 2011.

The adventure itself was set in Elturgard, and I should have known better. Rhogar’s last adventure was the Paladins’ Plague adventure in Elturgard, and I ended up having the least fun ever with that adventure. This adventure was somewhat similar, in that it was a very dark adventure with some no-win plot choices at the end. I left feeling victorious in the adventure, but kind of bummed out at the same time.


Friday was the day I was originally scheduled to run games, and I brought my projector rig on down to the convention. I was running the Staff of Suha trilogy (The Stolen Staff, Tallinn’s Tower and Descent Into Darkness). This was the second convention in a row where I’d run all three games, and I was excited to see that I had three players who would be involved in all three games and everyone else would be involved in two of the three. A fun twist in this particular series is that one of the players needed a fifth level character to play, and I offered to let him play Factotum the bard, which he totally ran with.

Things went pretty well in The Stolen Staff. I was happy that this party became the first to find the secret entrance to the orcs’ keep via the garbage pit, and the encounter down there was fun. It did take a long time to get to that point, though, so I ruled on the fly that the secret entrance let the party bypass most of the skill challenge through the stronghold. The fight in the orc temple was also cool, as this party was the first to let the orc shaman live more than a couple of rounds, which made the other orcs much more deadly. The fight against the orc leader in the end was only so-so; I still need to work on making him more interesting.

Tallinn’s Tower went smoothly enough, with the party eventually figuring out how the puzzle on the first floor worked, and then disabling the trap on the second floor very quickly, which made that fight much easier. The third floor got a little bit brutal, but the party whomped on the leader in time to prevent folks from turning to stone. Barely.

Descent Into Darkness went just okay, I’d say. The party solved the rune puzzle quickly, but not so quickly as to be trivial. They were a little bit tempted by the decoy sword but moved on before getting into too much trouble. They also took more of a negotiation approach with the halflings before Factotum decided to attack. That battle was more lethal than I intended it to be with the thieves; I need to tweak those guys. The climax fight against the beholder was a little anti-climactic, as the beholder got held in Bigby’s Icy Grasp and stayed there for three rounds. The party fought well, though, grabbed the Shield and got out of there, leaving the beholder alive (as most parties have done).

There was one player at the table who wasn’t having as much fun as the rest, and I tried and failed to get him more excited about the game. This was a bummer, as I like the guy, but he wasn’t having a great time. Oh well; I can’t blame anyone but myself, since I wrote the modules!


Saturday was Ashes of Athas day. I had prepped my two sessions a couple of days before the convention and had thoroughly read one of them, but I had to finish reading the second during the hour-long break between sessions. I got there, though!

The Ashes of Athas modules are definitely more role-play heavy than most LFR modules, and that demands the right sort of players (and a prepared DM, which I just barely was). Fortunately, I had an awesome table. They were really into Dark Sun and spent way more time in-character than I’ve ever experienced before in D&D. I could tell that they really saw the various NPCs as actual characters, not just names and stat blocks. I felt successful when I realized that they truly hated one NPC, grokked another’s focus on the bottom line (her quote about profits being down 18% became a recurring bit), felt sympathy toward another, etc. The combats were only so-so, but I don’t think anyone cared – they loved the world. They were actually possessive of me as their DM, too; when we were talking about the possibility of players having to get moved around to other tables in the afternoon, they insisted that they get to keep me. That’s a good feeling!

Unfortunately for them, I was not running the final part of the Ashes of Athas trilogy in the evening; instead, I was playing a Dresden Files game. I’ve heard lots of great stuff about the game and wanted try it out. As it turns out, the GM was actually running a game using the Dresden Files rules in a different setting. The abbreviation for the setting is UA, and I thought the GM said this stood for “unearthed arcana” but that doesn’t seem right. Anyway, it was a setting with an occult subculture, and our characters were insiders of that culture.

Impressively, we did world creation, character tweaking, and a full adventure in the course of a three-hour session! As a party, we established three groups in Denver that had secret occult plans:

  • A biker gang in Cheeseman Park that was seeking an item called The Devil Rose in order to summon the devil to serve them
  • A group of metaphysical book shop owners who were focused on cleaning up the Cherry Creek Reservoir (where occult groups would dump bodies) and wanted to find the Cagliostro Seal, which would allow them to unleash nature and destroy civilization
  • A group of LGBT activists who maintained Elitch Gardens amusement park as occult neutral ground. Led by RuPaul, they were seeking the Alchemical Eye, which would give them full knowledge of all goings-on in the city

And we’re off! My character managed to get himself firebombed when he tried to chat up a book shop owner to warn her about the biker gang, but he only sprained an ankle. I learned how the Fate system works, doing some role playing to earn fate points. Getting to play NPCs and establish in-world facts as being true was a very cool mechanic. I don’t think I’d want to play a “story game” like this all the time, but it would be a fun change of pace now and then. I will note, however, that you need a DYNAMITE GM in order to make this work. The GM has to be able to make up all kinds of stuff on the fly, and our GM definitely did not disappoint. He rocked.


For the final day of the convention, there were only two sessions, and I was running paragon-level LFR games for both of them. The first, CORE 2-2, is a game I had run before at Enchanted Grounds. I arrived just before the start time and discovered that the mount for my projector had popped off. I only needed a screwdriver to fix it, but I didn’t have one. Fortunately, one of my players was nice enough to go out to his car to get one, and the game went off without a hitch. That guy definitely was awarded a bonus point! (And writing this has reminded me to go put a screwdriver in my projector bag.)

My afternoon game had a great table of players, a number of whom I had DMed for at past conventions (in a couple of cases, with the same characters). This was NETH 3-3, and I have to say that this was WAY more fun than I expected it to be. I loved running this module. The players did some creative thinking during a skill challenge, and the combats were super-interesting and very well balanced. The party could have played at either level 12 or level 14, and they were ultimately happy they chose 12 (14 might have killed them).

My favorite moment of the convention came in this game, where a fighter decided he wanted to climb onto a table, make a running leap onto a bookshelf 10 feet away and then drop down the far side in order to attack an enemy. The jump was a masterful success, but since he wasn’t trained in Acrobatics, the fall down the far side of the shelf left him on his butt. And just to be a rat-bastard DM (to a player I know and like and whose character was plenty tough enough to take it), I ruled that the fall off the shelf involved the PC moving through a threatened square without shifting (falling from two squares up, next to a bad guy, down to the ground), which provoked an opportunity attack. We had some great laughs at this table, and it was good to end the convention on a high note.

After the sessions are done, the organizers always have an appreciation ceremony for the GMs, and I managed to pick up a free copy of Masks, a book of NPC ideas from Gnome Stew. Good stuff, and I can’t wait to use it!

And now I can stop my frantic convention prep work and relax. Ahhh!

-Michael the OnlineDM

D&D Encounters – Neverwinter week 13

I loved DMing D&D Encounters over the summer, but once the fall came and my Wednesday night bowling league started up again, I had to bow out. However, I still agreed to be the backup DM when needed. I ran a table in week 8 with several weeks’ notice, and tonight I ran another table with about 24 hours’ notice.

Being out of the loop and then jumping in to run a session of Encounters in a hurry is a little bit tricky. I had read the synopsis of the whole adventure when it first came out, but I certainly hadn’t read every session. I did my best to glance over what had happened in weeks 11 and 12, and then dug into prep for week 13.


Since I run my games using MapTool on my laptop and a projector to put the map on the table, my first order of business was to create the map for this session. It would be lovely if WotC would make the D&D Encounters maps available to DMs in high-resolution JPG format rather than just as physical posters in the Encounter packet, but I’m up for the challenge of creating the maps on my own as needed. Here is my version of the Week 13 map:

The session begins with the party having chased the Lost Heir of Neverwinter through the streets of town, following the blue flames the Heir has left behind. They discovered last session that the Heir is evidently female, and in this session came the big reveal:

The Lost Heir is actually Seldra.

And moreover, Seldra was causing trouble. She had put up a magical dome of blue fire in the middle of the town square, surrounding herself and the dragon-turned-statue. She seemed to be doing something to mess with that dragon, and the PCs couldn’t do anything about it until they got the dome of flames out of the way.

I had one brand-new D&D player at the table tonight, along with one person in his second-ever session, plus four regulars. The new guy was playing a Binder Warlock, and he jumped right in by using his arcane knowledge to start disrupting the dome of fire. The rest of the party joined the effort as well, some of them physically hacking at the dome, one warpriest praying to his god for assistance, and so on.

Ultimately, the dome was brought down, and the party attacked right away. Seldra summoned some fire elementals and the fight began.

The fire elementals were a little bit strange in that their attacks simply gave the PCs ongoing damage. Being hit by three elementals was no different than being hit by one (since multiple instances of the same ongoing damage don’t stack). The one exception I made was for a critical hit, which I ruled would deal 5 damage right away and ongoing 5 damage (save ends).

Pretty soon, most of the party was on fire. The new guy playing the Binder asked if jumping into the fountain in the square would put out the flames – you betcha! Great idea; I love it when players think creatively.

The Bladesinger in the party was surrounded by elementals and Seldra, and soon found himself in deep trouble. Fortunately, the party has two healers, who kept the Bladesinger up. Unfortunately, the Bladesinger ended the battle without any healing surges left.

Seldra made for a fun foe. I waited until round 3, when she was bloodied, for her to both use her action point and to start sucking the life force out of the elementals – a truly fun mechanic. The dwarf warpriest in the party prevented a ton of damage in one round by using a power that gave everyone Resist 5 All, nicely negating both the ongoing damage from the elementals and Seldra’s fiery aura.

After six rounds of fighting the Bladesinger dropped Seldra with a Magic Missile, and the PCs decided to spare her, since it was clear she wasn’t in her right mind.

Best of all, the session wrapped up in about an hour and a half, which let me get to my bowling league on time. I had no time to warm up, but I guess that’s good for me since I bowled a 227, a 218 and a 200. For a guy whose average was 182 coming into this week, that’s a heck of a series!

So, victory for the party and victory (at bowling) for the DM. Huzzah for everyone!

-Michael, the OnlineDM (OnlineDM1 on Twitter)

TactiCon 2011 – LURU 2-4 Need to Know

LURU 2-4 Need to Know – Spoilers ahead

The final adventure I ran at TactiCon 2011 was LURU 2-4 Need to Know. I had a full table of six players, including my friend Nate, another couple of players who I knew from Enchanted Grounds, a player I knew from other convention games, and a couple whom I hadn’t met before.

I began by asking the players to introduce their characters to one another, and Nate led things off by doing so in-character. This set the tone nicely for the rest of the table, as all of the PCs came to life. All of them mentioned their race (although the changeling in the party explained that she claimed to be an eladrin, hinting that she wasn’t really), though most did NOT mention their class. Instead, they let this become clear from the way they behaved in battle. One introduced himself as an actor (later revealed to be a hybrid bard-warlock), one as just an adventurer (later revealed to be a rogue), one as bloodthirsty bug (a ranger) and one as a princess (a hybrid bard-warlord).

The princess in the party is my favorite PC I’ve seen so far in an LFR game. She rode around on a Tenser’s Floating Disk and made excellent use of Direct the Strike to boss people around and make them attack. It worked really well. She was also able to leverage her “royal status” to bluff her way into a guarded city along with some of her allies during the adventure.

The best part of this adventure was the opening combat encounter, which took place in an inn that was soon set on fire. The growing fire and the lava elementals that arose from it were a ton of fun.

The final encounter was less fun, as it involved a beholder in a pretty boring 10 square by 10 square room (with an attached sewer area). Every time a player started their turn, they were subject to an eye ray attack (unless they ran into the sewers). They couldn’t flank the beholder, nor could they take opportunity attacks against it when it used its eye rays.

It got frustrating, but having learned my lesson from an earlier adventure I started changing the beast up a little bit. I tried to cut way back on the most devastating control effects from the beholder – the sleep ray knocked out the fighter for several rounds, and the petrification ray took away at least two PCs’ entire turns. The adventure made it clear that you need to go easy on those during the beholder’s turn, which I did, but when it rolls a random ray at the beginning of a PC’s turn, the odds are good that a controlling power is going to come up. So, I switched to more damage and less control later in the combat, even on the random rays.

Ultimately, everyone had a good time, and using MapTool and the projector to project the spreading fire onto the map in the first encounter was a big hit. It was a good way to end an awesome TactiCon.

D&D Encounters – Dark Legacy of Evard Week 4

I wasn’t expecting to be running D&D Encounters this week. Our local store has tried to set up a rotation so that no DM is running two weeks in a row (to prevent burnout). Thus, I ran the first 5:00 PM table on week 1, Andy ran it week 2, I ran it week 3, and Andy was scheduled to run it week 4 (this week). Wes has been the second table DM for all three weeks, but we haven’t had a second 5:00 PM table yet (we had only six players for each of the first three weeks).

However, I got an email from the store owner today asking me if I could be available to run a second table in case it was needed; Wes was unavailable. We haven’t had a second table yet, but hey, school’s out now – you never know.

So, I showed up at the store at 4:30 (I’m so glad to have a job with some flexible hours!) and set up my projector rig, just in case. It was a good thing that I did: We had 14 players! That meant two overly-full tables of seven players each. Woo hoo!

My table consisted of one player who had been attending most of this season of Encounters, one player who’s attended past seasons of Encounters, and five first-time Encounters players (two of whom were very new to D&D altogether – awesome!). The party was:

  • Hiver the Dwarf Fighter
  • Steven the Half-Elf Sentinel (our regular)
  • Chilliax the Drow Executioner (thanks again to Wielding a Bohemian Ear Spoon!)
  • Keira the Elf Thief
  • Balin the Elf Mage (a red box character!)
  • Fargrim the OTHER Dwarf Fighter
  • Thetari the Dwarf Cleric of Death

The session began with some recapping of the prior three sessions (since only one of the players had been present for any of them). This meant that it was tough to do much role playing; we pretty much just got the mission from the local cleric to head to the graveyard, since he believed all of the shadow troubles began there.

The players all made Perception checks as they entered the graveyard, none of which were especially great. This meant that the party saw some zombies shambling toward them, but they DIDN’T see the ghouls or shadows lying in wait. The ghouls actually acted very early in the initiative order, successfully attacking from hiding and throwing two characters to the ground and grabbing them. The rest of the party rushed to the rescue, with one ghoul getting pushed away by Smite Undead from the cleric and the other being Hypnotized by the Mage and forced to walk away, breaking both grabs (nice teamwork!).

Graveyard map for session 4 of Dark Legacy of Evard - with grid

Graveyard map for session 4 of Dark Legacy of Evard - no grid

When the shadows oozed out of the trees near the end of the first round, the brief panic around the table was awesome – “There are MORE monsters?!” The shadows did what they do, melding with PCs and draining their life for several turns. Zombies grabbed characters and started smashing them.

In the end, though, this party of largely fresh characters will full healing surges, action points and daily powers made short work of a graveyard full of undead monsters. Since I had more than the five PCs that the encounter was written for, I followed the guidelines and added one more zombie. Normally I would have added two, or perhaps even a zombie and a ghoul, but since so many players were new to the game I didn’t want to overdo it. I needn’t have worried – they rocked the encounter.

After the monsters were dead, we had a little more time for role playing. The adventurers examined the mausoleum of Evard’s tomb and saw that the main sarcophagus had been forced open and that some kind of magical curse had blasted whoever opened it. It was clear that the zombies were recently-killed workers who had helped to break into the tomb, but the wizard Nathaire and his halfling assistant were nowhere to be found. The group did, however, find a journal written in code that belonged to the halfling. The plot thickens!

After the party left the mausoleum, the sun came up and Duponde shifted back out of the Shadowfell. Ah, but for how long?

Previous sessions:

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

100 Posts: My top five favorites

According to WordPress, this is my 100th post on Being an Online Dungeon Master.  My first post was in late April 2010, and here I am in November 2010 putting up post number 100.

I thought I would use this momentous occasion (tongue firmly in cheek here) to chronicle my own personal top 5 posts of the first 100.

#5: MapTool programming. I’ve picked this post to be emblematic of my many posts that talk about writing macros in MapTool (these are collected on my MapTool Education Central page). I list this mainly because a lot of the traffic my blog gets is from people who are searching for tutorials on writing MapTool macros, and I’m proud of my learning process and the way I’ve documented it on my blog.  If you just want a finished product to play D&D4e in MapTool, you should definitely check out the various frameworks that are out there.  But if you enjoy writing your own macros, as I do, I hope that my blog can help you with the learning process.

#4: Are you in the RPG closet? I like this post because of the discussion it engendered.  Lots of gamers hide their hobby from certain people in their lives (often co-workers), and I’ve been guilty of this myself.  Is it a bad thing?  Well, after this discussion I decided that I wanted to be more open about my hobby and specifically mentioned it to a few people at work.  Nothing horrible has ensued.  I feel better about myself now.

#3: Eat what you kill. I love this story. In this post I tell the tale of the first game of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition that I ever ran as a DM.  It was totally improvised and run at a friend’s wedding all the way across the country with no gaming supplies – and we still had a blast.  That story is what led to the creation of this blog.

#2: Building a better portable projector rig: This is one of my personal favorites, because I’m proud of what it documents.  In this post, I describe how I built the final version of the rig that holds my projector above the game table so that I can run in-person games using MapTool.  I was inspired by a post from Sean Pecor in which he details the construction of his portable projector setup, but after some trial and error and some investigating online, I went in a different direction.  I would love it if other people followed my lead and built a rig like mine and used it to play RPGs with their friends – that would be quite cool, in my opinion.

#1: My online campaign begins. This one isn’t so much about the post itself as the game behind it. I knew when I started this blog that it was entirely possible that I would someday run a game completely online – finding strangers online to play with, running the game, keeping a campaign going.  Amazingly enough, I’ve succeeded on my first try.  The group that gathered online for that first session in July is still playing together in November.  I had to cut the size from eight players down to five, but those five are still playing with me in the same campaign that we started four months and 12 sessions ago.  They’re great people, too – even though we’ve never met in person, I legitimately consider them friends.  And it’s all thanks to playing D&D on the internet!

To those of you who regularly read my blog, I thank you.  I appreciate those rare occasions when you leave comments, and I appreciate those of you with whom I’ve communicated regularly.  I enjoy blogging about this hobby whether anyone reads what I write or not, but it’s always nice to hear that someone is out there.  Thank you!

Virtual Table announcement – My thoughts

Wizards of the Coast made waves in the online D&D community on Thursday, November 18, when they announced that they are working on a Virtual Table program, the closed beta of which would be starting on November 22. (FAQs are here.)

Obviously, we don’t know very much about the Virtual Table yet, but we’ve been given some information.  The approach is similar to MapTool – two-dimensional, top-down view of the battlemap with circular tokens to represent player characters and monsters.  It’s programmed in Java, but apparently within a web application (for what it’s worth, MapTool is also a Java program).  It will also apparently have integrated voice chat.

This leaves much room for speculation, and there are many unanswered questions.  Let me first say that I see this announcement as good news.  I love MapTool and would be perfetly happy to keep using it forever.  But if WotC brings out a better product, great!  I’d be happy to switch.  I’m already a Dungeons and Dragons Insider (DDI) subscriber, so I obviously approve of their tools.  I also REALLY want to get in on the beta – I’m a great play tester and I think my input would help them improve their product.

Anyway, below are the questions to which we do not yet know the answers, and my thoughts on those questions.


What will the Virtual Table cost?  From the announcement, they haven’t figured this out yet.  This means that it’s unlikely to be just a part of a normal DDI subscription.  I see a few possibilities here.

  • Free program to everyone.  Pretty unlikely, unless they think this will drive new subscriptions to DDI or something like that.
  • Free to DDI subscribers.  This could happen, but I think it’s unlikely given the announcement.  If this is the case, I imagine that every player in the game would have to have a DDI subscription, not just the Dungeon Master.  That’s a bit of a bummer; I don’t think all of my online players, for instance, are subscribers.
  • Included as part of a “higher tier” DDI subscription.  The existing DDI could still give you access to everything it does now, but the “Gold Tier” subscription would provide access to the Virtual Table as a DM, the Monster Builder, a potential Campaign Builder, etc.  This seems like a reasonable possibility.
  • Microtransactions.  This one makes me shudder, but I fear that it might be the way they go.  The basic program would be part of DDI (or potentially totally free), but the DM would have to pay for dungeon tiles, map objects, monster tokens, trap tiles, etc.  For players, who knows?  Maybe they would have to buy access to races and classes and even powers individually (or possibly as packs that would give access to a book’s worth of content).  This has some similarities to Magic Online, which has been successful for WotC.  I really don’t like this approach as a customer, though.

This is obviously complete speculation, but my guess is that they’ll make the Virtual Table part of a regular DDI subscription, and it will include tokens for the monsters in the Monster Vault and some basic Dungeon Tiles.  You’ll probably also be able to have character tokens from Heroes of the Fallen Lands.  If you want more than that, they’ll charge you for it.  To be fair, it takes me about 10 minutes to create a new monster token in MapTool (finding the image, making it into a token, setting its properties, programming its attacks and abilities), and if I could pay a dollar and have a pre-made token, that might be worth it to me (my time is worth more than $6 per hour).

Creation of maps

I think it’s pretty clear that the Virtual Table will support Dungeon Tiles (whether you have to pay for the various sets of tiles, of course, is an open question).  So, building maps out of Dungeon Tiles will be the default.  Will there be support for drawing custom maps as in MapTool?  What about importing JPG maps?  What about extra objects to drop on top of Dungeon Tiles?  I have no idea.  If MapTool can handle custom drawing and importing and objects, it seems like it would be a failure for Virtual Table to not be able to do this.  But I won’t be at all surprised if it’s Dungeon Tiles only.

Creation of monsters and PCs

The announcement says that there is currently no integration of Virtual Table with the online Character Builder or the future online Monster Builder (I’m glad that they’ve confirmed that there will be a new Monster Builder – I had assumed as much).  Maybe that integration will never come, but that seems like leaving it out would be completely stupid.  Let’s face it, the big win for Virtual Table over something like MapTool would be easy importing of PC and monster tokens, complete with stats and powers and everything.  I know that some folks have built tools to do this with MapTool frameworks, but having it built-in as part of the program itself would be nice.

The other possibility is that you’ll have to buy PC and monster tokens individually or in packs.  Sigh.

Built-in rules support

MapTool and its ilk generally have no knowledge of rules – they’re just virtual tabletops.  I’m guessing that the Virtual Table will have some kind of rules support built in by default (though to be clear, the announcement does say that you CAN use it with older versions of D&D, just with no built-in support).  This will likely mean that the player can click a button for their attack, click for their targets, and have the effects of the attack be handled automatically (hit or miss, damage, ongoing conditions, etc.).  It could possibly keep track of triggered abilities, reminders for saving throws, and so on.  Again, some frameworks do this for MapTool, but built-in support would be cool.  D&D4e is a complicated game, though, and I think it will be tough to do this right (especially since abilities are so open-ended and interactions with other abilities are nearly infinite).


I said above that it would be nice to be able to import monsters from the Monster Builder, but I certainly hope that there’s some support for customization.  What if I want to give a monster an extra ability or tweak some numbers?  This is easy in MapTool, and I think it’s important to keep it easy in Virtual Table.  What about house rules?  I love the Bonus Point mechanic (more on that in a future post) and I intend to keep using it.  If I can’t do that in Virtual Table, that would stink.

This is an area where I could see the Virtual Table starting off with very little support and then having some of that support get added over time.

Finding a game

I think it’s likely that there will ultimately be an “online community” around the Virtual Table, just as there is for Magic Online.  There will probably be a server that the program connects to, with various “rooms” that you can go into to meet your friends and then invite them to the appropriate “table” where your game is being held.  This would also allow for the possibility of pick-up games, which is a cool idea.  I could see this being a place for weekly Encounters games to be available to people who can’t come to their Friendly Local Game Store, for instance, or for big events that take place with multiple tables playing the same adventure at once.  If this works, it could be a big advantage over something like MapTool.

The downside of this approach is that the game runs on the WotC server, and is therefore prone to slowdowns and crashes.  This was definitely a problem with Magic Online when I played during the release of new sets, so I worry that it could be an issue the with Virtual Table, too.  We shall see.

Usability with a projector on a physical table

This one probably doesn’t matter to the vast majority of people who are interested in the Virtual Table, but it matters to me.  I am an all-MapTool DM.  I use it for my weekly online game, my weekly in-person game and my occasional turns as DM at my local store for Living Forgotten Realms.  I really need the functionality to have one instance of the program running on my main laptop screen as the DM and something like a second instance running in full-screen mode on the projector.  Would I need two separate DDI accounts for such a thing?  I have no idea.

This is another area where I could see support not existing at first (because, let’s face it, most of the users don’t care) but perhaps being added later.

Wrapping up

Overall, I’m excited about the idea of the Virtual Table.  It has the potential to be tons of fun and to make it even easier to prepare for and run D&D games using a computer (which would make me happy).  It has the potential to stink horribly, of course, but I like that they’re announcing their beta plans and that they’ll be letting beta testers blog about their experiences.

And if anyone with any connections at Wizards of the Coast is listening: Please send me an invitation to the beta test!  I would be extremely useful to you, I promise. 🙂

United Kobolds of the Living Forgotten Realms

This evening I ran a Living Forgotten Realms game at my friendly local game store, Enchanted Grounds.  The amazing thing is that it wasn’t a big deal.

You might remember my post from July where I ran my first LFR game at the store.  That was a big deal to me.  I spent a month preparing for that game.  I talked on the blog and on EN World, asking for advice about running a game in public.  I had to work to create paper maps and tokens for the bad guys.  I read and re-read the adventure to make sure I understood the ins and outs (even though I had been through it already as a player).  I over-prepared.  And to be fair, I had a blast running the game.

This time I realized at some point over the weekend – oh yeah, I’m running a game on Tuesday!  No problem.  It helps that I had already run this particular adventure at TactiCon and I therefore had all of the files I needed on the laptop in MapTool, ready to run with the projector.  (This is TYMA 2-1 Old Enemies Arise.) Still, I really didn’t stress about it.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to stress.  Aside from my accidental unplugging of the projector during the game (twice – but fortunately never in combat), it all went very smoothly.  The party battled some kobolds by the side of the road.

They met with some farmers to investigate the kobold menace.

They fought in a cave full of spike traps.

And they battled the big bad guy in another part of the cave.

The first battle was fair – the defender took some serious damage, but never dropped.  The spike cave battle was lots of fun – I got to push and pull players into spikes all encounter long, when they weren’t stumbling into them on their own.  The final battle was kind of boring – I really need to find a way to spice up that encounter if I ever run this adventure again.

Part of what I enjoyed about this particular adventure was that two of my players are DMs whom I respect – Rich and Aarun.  You might remember Aarun’s name from my very first experience with Living Forgotten Realms – he was the dungeon master for my first game, and I absolutely LOVED the experience of playing under him.  He mentioned this evening that the blog post where I mentioned his name (with its unique spelling) shows up when you Google that name.  Well, Aarun – here’s another Google hit for you!

Anyway, it’s great to run a game for people you respect and for them to clearly have a good time.  I also hung around the store afterward to chat with Wes, another DM I greatly respect.  I’ve already signed up to play in some LFR games in December, and I specifically sought out games that Aarun and Wes are running.  If I can run a game for that type of person and they have a good time, I feel good about my dungeon mastering!

MapTool states should differ for online and in-person play

I’ve been running my online Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition game for several months now, and MapTool has been fantastic for running the game.  The players have macros for their powers and abilities, we can keep track of hit points electronically, etc.  It’s also great because it’s easy to keep track of all of the conditions that can be put onto a character – bloodied, prone, marked, cursed, ongoing damage, weakened, dazed… the list goes on and on.  My MapTool states for the online game consist of little icons that can show up over a token in a 3 by 3 grid (so there can be up to nine states on a token at once).

A token that is granting combat advantage, dazed, slowed, taking ongoing damage, marked, cursed and bloodied

I love this about MapTool for in-person games that I run using my projector, too.  Unfortunately, it’s much harder to make out the details on a monster token when I’m using the projector because I have to keep the map zoomed pretty far out in order to project a grid with 1-inch squares.  This means that it’s really hard for the characters to see all of the states on a creature.  Is that guy bloodied?  Is he marked?  What about prone?

The solution here is a combination of using bigger states and using different states.

  • Bloodied: The most important state.  Instead of an icon on the image, use a red circle around the token
  • Prone: A purple triangle (actually a yield sign)
  • Marked: A blue or green X (have two different marks available in case you have multiple defenders in your party)
  • Cursed/Quarried/Oathed/etc.: An orange cross
  • Other: Normal icons, but in a 2 by 2 grid instead of 3 by 3 (so they’re bigger)

The most important states for players to be able to see clearly are those that are most likely to affect their interaction with a creature.  They have to know if it’s bloodied, prone, marked, or subject to a striker ability (quarry, etc.).  It’s nice to know if the bad guy is dazed or has -2 to its defenses or it’s slowed, but not AS important.  The really important conditions, therefore, should get big, prominent marks across the face of the token.  The less-important conditions can rely on the 2 by 2 grid (at the very least, you as the DM can still zoom in on them on your screen to see what they are.

The easily-visible conditions can be tailored to your own campaign, of course.  Every defender should have his or her own color of marks, but they can all use the same symbol (since a new mark will override an old one, you’ll never have to worry about making multiple marks visible).  If you have multiple strikers that can put conditions on a creature, you’ll want to use multiple shapes (maybe a cross for one and a diamond for another).  Assassin shrouds are tricky – I haven’t yet come up with a good way to keep track of how many are on a creature, but fortunately my regular games don’t include any assassins (though I see them occasionally at convention games).

Bottom line: Icons are great for understanding what a particular symbol means, but they’re hard to see at a distance.  Colorful shapes are better for in-person games with a projector.

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.

TactiCon Days 3 and 4 (Saturday and Sunday)

The big weekend days of TactiCon were so big and busy that it took me until Monday to be able to write about them!  Thank goodness for the Labor Day holiday.

Here’s the “Too Long, Didn’t Read” summary:

  • Both of the games I ran on Saturday went great – the projector was a big hit.
  • I played in a very cool custom adventure Saturday night with a novice DM – another good experience.
  • I played in one game on Sunday, which was marred by the most annoying player in the world.
  • I got great reviews from my players and walked away with a free D&D book for my time.
  • I’m looking forward to running and playing more games at the next convention in February.

Saturday: Running the first game

Saturday was the day that I was signed up to actually run two games, though I had run an impromptu one the previous night when the need arose.  I got to the venue right at the scheduled 9:00 AM start time, which meant that I was later than a DM should be.  I arrived at the room where I would be running the game, and my players were already there.  I felt a little bit bad for running late, but no one seemed to mind.

The morning session was a repeat of the game I had already run the previous evening at TactiCon and earlier in the week at my friendly local game store: CORM 1-1 The Black Knight of Arabel.  My party of six players was actually a little underpowered compared to most of the parties I’ve played Living Forgotten Realms with, and it was kind of refreshing!  There was one brand-new D&D player (I love that so much!) and several characters that weren’t optimized to the hilt.  It was still a balanced party, though, so there wasn’t a problem.

This party was the first one I’ve seen that decided to go into Arabel after the initial shadow attack, rather than going after the dark rider on a distant hill.  This meant that I got to run the in-town skill challenge for once, and I had fun with it.  The party took on the optional combat challenge in the brewer’s basement to recover the broken obelisk – a better battle than I was expecting.  The final battle was run pretty much as scripted – I didn’t ramp up the difficulty at all, and it was still a good challenge for the party.  They, like the last party to go through that encounter, played “Grab the Baby from the Evil Cultist”, with the party bard eventually putting the baby in a balcony to keep it out of harm’s way.  Interestingly, this party never met the titular Black Knight of Arabel and finished the whole adventure having learned nothing about him.  Weird, but it worked out okay.

I had an hour between games, so I dashed to the hotel restaurant to get a burger to go.  The service was slow, and I was a little bit nervous leaving my laptop and projector set up in the hotel room with no one around, but when I got back everything was just as I had left it.

Saturday: Running the second game

My afternoon game was with a more experienced party, and we were playing the adventure that I was less sure about from a fun perspective: TYMA 2-1 Old Enemies Arise.  The first battle is the hardest one of the adventure, and I basically told the party as much during the battle so that they wouldn’t be too afraid to use daily powers as needed.  This party lacked a true defender, so the warlord played that role and found himself the target of a savage beating, ending the battle with only two healing surges remaining.  The group decided to take an extended rest in town, and since that made sense within the story I decided to allow it.

I ignored most of the scripted skill challenge because it just didn’t make any sense.  The party is supposed to talk to two different farmers outside of the skill challenge to get information about the kobold attacks.  Then they’re supposed to go BACK to town to start the skill challenge of gathering clues about where the attack is coming from, even though they already know at this point.  And this is supposed to require four successful checks.  Stupid.

So, once they knew that the attacks were coming from the west, I moved into a simpler tracking challenge, followed by some checks to narrow down which cave the kobolds were in.

The first cave combat is one that I ran for my online group a week before, and it was only so-so that first time.  I changed it.

  • As written, there are five trapped squares, and whenever any square is triggered, spears pop up from all five squares. This is boring – once the trap has gone off once, the players will just walk around all of the trapped squares, making the trap mostly irrelevant.
  • I upped the number of trapped squares to ten.
  • I also made it so that each square triggers independently, leading to an awesome minefield experience as the PCs tiptoe across the cave.
  • Finally, I gave the trap savant something to do – his crossbow bolt now pushes the target one square on a hit.

This encounter ended up being a lot of fun.  One character charges in and is hit by a trap.  The rest of the players tiptoe carefully, hoping to avoid the traps.  The decoys jeer at the players, trying to pull them onto traps and to hit them with their swords.  The savant shoots bolts from afar, trying to push players onto traps.  The final encounter after that one wasn’t super-interesting, in part because the dailies all came out, but everyone seemed to have a good time overall.

Saturday evening: Playing in the special event

In the evening, the LFR game was a special one written for the Con called In the Blink of an Eye.  All of the tables of all levels were playing in the same setting, but in different parts of it.  Our group scouted for a way to sneak into a castle and ended up going in the royal family’s emergency escape tunnel.  We were attacked by iron snakes that came out of the walls, retreated when bloodied, and reappeared later.  It made for a surprisingly cool fight.

We then dealt with a trapped corridor using skills, at which point we were at the stopping point for the adventure with time to spare.  The DM decided to make climbing some stairs into an athletics check, at which my heavily-armored paladin failed again and again, taking a little damage each time before finally succeeding.  He is now known as Rohgar Stairslayer.

It was fun to play at the table of a new DM.  She knew the rules well enough but was lacking a little in confidence.  I could see a lot of myself from a few months ago in her – a very interesting process.

After the stopping point, a 16th level rogue from another table was sent to join our party (I’m still not sure why) and we fought a hydra.  It was a 6th level solo, but with unloading of dailies we finished it in two rounds (without the high-level rogue having to do anything significant).  I’ve heard complaints about solos, and I understand them now.


On Sunday I decided to sleep in, so I only made it in time for one LFR game.  The DM was one I had played under before at Enchanted Grounds, and he had lots of 3D props for the table (trees, bushes, rocks, etc.) which were pretty cool.  I liked the module, too – AGLA 1-1 Lost Temple of the Fey Gods.  The experience, however, was heavily marred by the presence of one player who was totally mechanics-focused and asked endless questions trying to push the envelope (Can I hide here? Can I see around this corner? Will I get anything useful if I use Arcana now? Could we put away our torch, blinding the rest of the party, so I can use low-light vision?).  He was horribly irritating to play with, and I pitied the DM for having to deal with him.  Had I been running the game, I think I would have paused the game, pulled him aside, and explained that he needed to just play rather than trying to squeeze every non-existent advantage out of the game and sucking the fun out of the table.  If he couldn’t do that, I would have removed him from the game.


At the end of the convention, there was a little ceremony to thank the DMs.  Everyone was given a choice of various RPG products (I picked up the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide – I figure I should probably take a look at it) and was recognized for their work.  There’s another somewhat bigger convention in February, Genghis Con, which I’m now looking forward to!

Overall, I had a great time at TactiCon.

  • I did get minis for Rohgar and Kern (though nothing for Zaaria) as well as a couple of miscellaneous minis for players to use at my table.
  • I ran three games and got fantastic evaluations – seventeen perfect scores and one score of 9 out of 10.  I’ll take that!
  • The projector setup worked beautifully and the players loved it.
  • I played a bunch of LFR and got Rohgar to level 4 – woo hoo, I can play in H2 adventures now!
  • I discovered a cool board game, Fresco, which I think I might pick up for myself.

I did not get to play any non-LFR RPGs, but I think I’ll remedy that at Genghis Con in February by just signing up for a slot in advance and diving in, most likely into Savage Worlds.  I’d also like to run a few more sessions if possible – maybe 4 or 5 next time.  It should be awesome!