4e Home Encounters review – Sessions 1 and 2

I was able to kill two testing birds with one stone Monday night, as I tried out the D&D Virtual Table for the first time in playing the 4e Home Encounters adventures for the first time.  I will say right off the bat that there are some spoilers ahead, so if you don’t want to know what’s in the encounters, read no further!First, I’m pleased with the production values in the 4e Home Encounters PDFs.  I like that the authors made the effort to create nice page headers and page numbers, a title page and a regional map.  It definitely adds to the experience of using these adventures.  I’m disappointed that they used images instead of Rich Text for the monster stat blocks – that makes it harder for me to copy and paste information into my online tools for running the game – but that’s a minor issue.  The maps that have started coming out are good additions, too, and will be a big help for anyone who wants to run the encounters in a program like MapTool (though not the Virtual Table, which doesn’t allow for map importing – grr).

Next, I think the authors hit the amount of background information just about right.  They give you enough to tell the players where they are, how they got there, and what’s going on in the world, but not so much that they have to go searching for the action.  The action comes to them, and I think that’s the right approach for this type of adventure.

Once the players have accepted their quest, trouble finds them in the woods in the form of some wolves and a beastmaster orc.  The party I ran through this encounter had only four PCs, and I assume that the adventure is scaled for five, but the players said they wanted the challenge of the full-scale encounter.  (Note that the adventure doesn’t actually include scaling instructions for parties with more or fewer than five PCs – something that they should probably address).  That was a reasonable call, as they handled the wolves pretty easily.

I liked the wolves’ knockdown ability and the fact that they deal extra damage to prone creatures.  I wasn’t crazy about the fact that the trees on the map didn’t really have much impact on the battle (they provide some cover and concealment, but no hindrance to movement or anything like that).  It made it easier to run, sure, but I generally like terrain to make more of a difference.

After the encounter, the party finds a mysterious object in a tree that was surrounded by frost.  The players asked me if the frost was melting since the object that was causing the frost was described as non-functional.  Good question.  I said yes.  I would have liked to have had the answer in the adventure itself, but no biggie – DMs are supposed to ad lib.

The players were having fun and wanted to move on, so we went to encounter number two.  This one starts with a uniquely structured skill challenge.  The party has to get close to an orc camp without alerting the orcs to their presence.  This is handled in stages, with the party building up a Stealth score and the orcs building up an Alertness score.  I like the idea, but I missed the part that told me when I was supposed to move from one section of the challenge to the next (it’s after each PC has a chance to make a skill check, which makes sense).  In any case, the party ended up drawing too much attention to themselves, so they failed the skill challenge.

I forgot to give the orcs the initiative bonus that they were supposed to have from the PCs failing the skill challenge and I ended up not even adding the bonus damage they were supposed to get either because they were COMPLETELY OBLITERATING the PCs without any extra help.  Again, it was scaled for five PCs and we had only four, but that wasn’t the issue.

The battle contains three orc warriors and two orc warlocks.  The warriors are reasonably tough melee critters – nothing too amazing.  The warlocks, though… wow.  They each have a minor action (recharge) that lets them give enemies in an area burst 2 within 10 vulnerability 5 to cold and to necrotic damage until the end of the next turn.  They also have an encounter power that’s an area burst 3 (yes, burst 3) within 10 that 2d8+7 cold and necrotic damage on a hit and weakens the target (save ends).  Here’s how the encounter went:

  • Warriors win initiative.  They charge in to three of the PCs and swing at them, hitting two and doing some cleave damage.  Ouch, but not a huge deal – no one is bloodied.
  • Warlocks go next.  The first one does his minor action on three of the PCs to make them vulnerable to cold and necrotic, hitting two of them.  He follows up with his encounter power to blast all four PCs with cold and necrotic damage.  He hits three of them, two of which are vulnerable.  The vulnerable PCs take 2d8+17 damage (because they’re vulnerable 5 cold and vulnerable 5 necrotic, and this attack is both, they take 10 extra damage).  Ow.  I didn’t even bother with the weakened (save ends) from that attack.
  • The second warlock repeats the area burst 3 attack (not even bothering to try making the two non-vulnerable PCs vulnerable first).  He hits three of them, and two drop unconscious (including the party’s healer).
  • Now the PCs get to go…

Maybe it was just that my virtual dice were hot, but these warlocks completely wrecked the party.  I pulled my punches the rest of the way, having one warrior flee (thus scaling down the battle belatedly for four PCs), not having the warlocks use their best remaining power (choosing to slow rather than deal ongoing damage), not trying to make the PCs vulnerable again, etc.  With some easier enemy tactics and DM fiat ruling that there were some healing potions in the PCs’ packs, the party pulled through.

Most horrifyingly, had the PCs decided to take an extended rest before coming into this encounter, the adventure calls for there to be a THIRD warlock, plus an elite orc leader.  I believe that spells TPK. The adventure itself is slightly unclear on how many bad guys there are supposed to be.  It does specifically say to remove the leader and one warlock if the party didn’t take an extended rest, and the map shows that there are originally three warlocks (so with no extended rest there would be two left).  However, the opening of the battle describes there being only TWO warlocks and the leader, plus the warriors.  If this battle was supposed to only have one warlock in the event that the players didn’t take an extended rest, that would be more fair.  So perhaps it’s just a disconnect between the description and the map.

The aftermath of the second battle had some more interesting role playing and investigating, with the party getting more clues about what’s going on and what’s coming next.  I think that section was very well done.

I’m slightly disappointed in the way the monsters are presented in the adventures, both the fact that the monster blocks are images rather than text and the fact that they’re pretty sparse (no ability scores, trained skills or equipment are listed), but that’s a pretty minor quibble.  For a volunteer effort, 4e Home Encounters is amazingly professional-looking.  And maybe I was just too mean as a DM, trying to wipe out my table… but man, were those warlocks scary!  In the end, that might be a good thing.  We don’t want our players getting TOO comfortable at the game table.  Mwoo hah hah!

Virtual Table – first actual play experience

As planned, I was able to get a game going this evening on the beta version of the D&D Virtual Table.  I’ll start by saying that we had a fun little adventure, partly thanks to the program and partly in spite of it.

The good stuff

The best part of the evening was that I was able to get a game together almost entirely in a pick-up manner.  One of my regular Friday night MapTool game players was able to show up (thanks, Max!) but the other players were folks who were either browsing the open games or the beta message boards, looking for a game.  So, it’s clear that the Virtual Table does enable something like a pick-up game of D&D, which is pretty cool.

The built-in audio support is a good idea, too.  It’s nice to be able to talk to one another without having to deal with two different program (a la MapTool and Skype).  I’ll have more to say on this later, though.

Using the table was pretty straightforward.  As a shared battle map, the Virtual Table works.  Everyone can see their tokens and everyone else’s tokens and move their own tokens around with no trouble.  If you wanted to just have paper character sheets in front of you and roll physical dice and call out the results, you could do that very easily (though that would be a bit of a wasted opportunity).

There were even some things that I’d say Virtual Table handles a little better than MapTool.  Initiative was easy – click one button to add the party, add each monster, let everyone click the button for their own initiative roll… it all worked smoothly and just the way you would expect it to.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how well shared editing worked.  If a player was editing their token, I could see the edits as they saved them.  I could apparently also edit the token at the same time (though we didn’t experiment too much to see what would happen if we were making conflicting edits).

The not-so-good

We had connection problems in this game.  I was lucky to have one player who has apparently played in a ton of Virtual Table games already, and he was able to clarify the best way to do certain things and help with troubleshooting.  He helped another player who was lagging badly, especially on the audio side, try to figure out the the problem with his connection (he was using a Mac, which apparently is more likely to cause audio problems for some reason).  However, the problem never really got solved and the Mac player had to drop off and rejoin a whole bunch of times.  Even the experienced player started having lag issues by the end (though the other two of the four players had no problems with lag or audio at any point). I don’t know if it’s a server issue or a problem with individual players’ computers (or mine), but it was troublesome.

Setting up player character tokens is a pain in the butt, too.  Each power has to be manually programmed, and it’s not at all intuitive to use.  It’s not customizable, either.  You can program in dice expressions (like 2d6+4) but you can’t have text be displayed after them automatically (such as “fire damage, and ongoing 5 fire damage (save ends).”)  There are kludgy workarounds for this, but they’re a pain.

Manipulating hit points is fairly intuitive, but it requires a lot of mouse clicks. I like being able to click one button for damage, type a number and hit Enter.  It doesn’t work that easily in the Virtual Table.

Adding conditions was even more of a pain.  There are built-in symbols for being Bloodied and Marked, which is a good start.  You can add other conditions by typing them in manually, in which case a little exclamation point will appear over the token, and you can hover over the exclamation point to see what you’ve typed for the condition (slowed, -2 to AC, ongoing damage, whatever).  And to get to this menu, you have to go into the “Adjust hit points” menu.  Ugh.

Another thing: Bloodied is not automatic.  This baffles me, frankly, and I’m sure they’ll correct it eventually.  It’s pretty straightforward to tell if a token is bloodied or not and I think that status should pop right up.

Overall impressions

I had a good time playing tonight, technical difficulties not withstanding.  Virtual Table is in beta and must be treated as such.  I’m sure Wizards of the Coast is watching the feedback as it comes in and will make improvements over time.  Once those improvements start flowing, and especially once the automatic import of characters, monsters and maps is incorporated, Virtual Table is probably going to be a lot of fun.  Until then, though, I have to look at it as a tool under development, not anything that I would use to replace MapTool right now.

Virtual Table issues so far

Since getting my invitation to the Dungeons and Dragons Virtual Table beta a few days ago, I’ve had a chance to dig into the program a little bit more.  I’ve put together two encounters, and I plan to run one or both of them Monday evening at 7:00 PM Mountain Time (so if anyone is interested, feel free to join the game – look for 4e Home Encounters).  Keeping in mind that I’m spoiled by all of the features of MapTool, there are the issues I’ve discovered.

The obvious limitation at the moment is on the map creation side of things.  The Virtual Table has a few Dungeon Tiles to choose from, and I think it’s pretty clear that they plan to make Dungeon Tiles the main mapping tool in the future.  I won’t be surprised if they charge DMs to get access to new Dungeon Tile sets or something like that, but that might be overly pessimistic on my part.  The current Dungeon Tiles that are available are all for underground maps, and the maps I’m making right now are wilderness maps, so the tiles are useless for me at the moment.  The drawing tools that are available are… well, think “crayon drawing” and you’re on the right track.  I’m sure this will get better eventually, but it’s pretty painful right now.

The panels cannot be resized, which is a pain.  In MapTool, you can resize all of the various windows however you wish.  In Virtual Table you can either have the panel on the right side of the screen displayed or hidden, but not stretched or condensed.  That’s a big pain when you’re trying to select from multiple monsters in that panel that have similar names (Blackwinter Wolf, Blackwinter Wolf Pack Leader… they look very similar when their names are truncated).  Yes, you can get around it by abbreviating names, but it’s still a pain.

There’s no way to manipulate multiple tokens at once.  For instance, I’d like to be able to start with a map where all of the monsters are invisible (note: you CAN make monsters invisible, which is a good feature) and then highlight all of them and make them all visible at once, rather than having to click on each individual token and navigate through its menu to make that one token visible.  If the battlefield has a bunch of minions on it, this is just a pain in the butt.

On a related note, a useful MapTool feature that the Virtual Table currently lacks is a “View as player” option for the DM to look at the map.  When I’m drawing a map and I’ve set certain features to be visible to the players and others to be invisible, it’s VERY helpful to have a way for me to see what the map will look like to the players.  My Friday night players can tell you stories about the times that I’ve talked about the window that the bad guys are jumping out of or the wall of fire that’s coming toward them, only to find out that said window and wall of fire were invisible to my players!  Oops.  Not having a way to check that will make these issues crop up more frequently in the Virtual Table.  This is especially true since making parts of the map visible or invisible doesn’t discernably change anything that I’ve been able to see in the DM view.

Selecting a token is also a little strange.  You can click on a token and move it around and adjust its hit points, but its powers don’t show up on the right side unless you right click on the token and choose “View Token Detail” or select the token name from the monster drop-down.  This is something that should be automatic on a double-click or even a single-click.  Click the token, and its details should appear in the right panel (attacks, notes, etc.).

I like the fact that editing one copy of a token edits all of them.  If I add a new power to a token of which there are already five on the map and then save that change, all five of those tokens have the new power.  However, I believe it is impossible to edit a token’s image once you’ve created it.  I’m sure they’ll change this someday, but it’s a pain for now.

Finally, given that I like to run games in-person using MapTool and my projector, I would REALLY like a full-screen mode that I can run in a second window of the Virtual Table to put onto the table for the players to see.  There’s no full-screen mode right now, and even if there were I’m pretty sure I would need a second D&D Insider subscription in order to be able to run both the DM version of the campaign and the player version at the same time.  Obviously this is not the targeted use for the Virtual Table, but it would still be nice to have.  I’d also need to be able to run it without being connected to the internet (such as at a convention), which is probably never going to happen.

Overall impressions

So far, I’m impressed that there don’t seem to be many bugs per se in the Virtual Table.  Its features are limited, but the features that are in the tool all seem to work properly.  The features are SO limited, though, that playing with this program compared to something like MapTool is just a huge pain.  I’m going to keep playing with it just so I can get to know the tool, but there’s no way that I’m going to switch any of my regular games to it any time soon.

The killer features that the Virtual Table will probably be able to offer eventually are:

  • Automated character and monster importing from DDI tools
  • Full selection of Dungeon Tiles for quick map construction
  • An integrated lobby to find a game

Until these features come about, though, there’s no reason to use Virtual Table over MapTool except for curiosity and a desire to make the program better.  For those of you who don’t have beta invites yet and worry that you’re missing out – you’re not, unless you just like playtesting.  MapTool and its ilk are far better for now.  But the Virtual Table has potential to surpass them someday if those killer features get added.

In the mean time, I will keep playing with the program and posting updates here.  Actually running a game will be enlightening, I’m sure!

Virtual Table – first experience

Well, it seems that Thursday, December 9, was the day that Wizards of the Coast decided to really open up the Virtual Table to lots and lots of interested players.  I got my invitation, as did a whole bunch of other people I talked to.  So, I’m not a special snowflake, but at least I get to try this out!

I spent probably about two hours playing with the Virtual Table today, and I immediately had a goal in mind: Set up the first 4e Home Encounters adventure!  I had already built this encounter in MapTool, so all I had to do was re-create it in the Virtual Table.

The login process with the beta invite is a little unusual.  I received a welcome email with links to FAQs, five “passes” that I could use to play in Virtual Table games, and a link to the beta group on the WotC home page.  From that group, I had to find a link to a forum post that had the actual link to the beta itself.  From THAT link, I got a pop-up that asked for a user name and password.  Sheesh, what a lot of work!

Once I was in, things got a little easier.  I could browse open campaigns with short descriptions and indications of how many seats were open.  But I didn’t have time to play – I wanted to try setting up my own game.  Thus, I used the New Campaign button.

When you create a new campaign in Virtual Table, you start by editing its name, campaign system (which edition of the game you’re using), campaign world (core world, Forgotten Realms, etc.) and campaign format (ongoing campaign or one-shot).  I like the nod to older editions of D&D, though I’m not particularly experienced with them myself.

After you edit the info, you click the Launch button.  At this point, a Java program loads up and you are left in the map editor window.  All I’ve done so far is draw a map and create monster tokens.

It took a little bit of fooling around with the controls, but I was ultimately able to draw a rudimentary map for the first 4e Home Encounter.  Dungeon Tiles weren’t going to be an option because the beta currently has only tiles for, well, dungeons.  This first encounter takes place in the wilderness, so all of that stone wasn’t going to be helpful.  This meant that I had to draw on the virtual battle mat – old school!

The tools available for drawing are very simple.  Think Microsoft Paint with fewer options.  You can draw freehand lines, straight lines, empty ovals, filled ovals, empty rectangles and filled rectangles.  You can adjust the thickness of your lines to narrow, medium or thick.  You have a choice of six colors for your lines and shapes – red, yellow, black, blue, brown, or green.  You also have a choice of backgrounds – Battle Mat, Sand, Dirt or Grass.

Yes, I know that this is just a beta, and I’m guessing the drawing tools will be improved later.  But in a strange way, I kind of like the limited choices right now.  It feels more like drawing on an actual battle mat, and it makes it so that I’m not focused on making the map look awesome – I’m just making it look serviceable for my players.  Drawing the map did not take long at all – maybe 10 minutes once I understood the controls.

The final step for me was creating the monsters.  You begin by picking the monster image token that you want.  The selection here is limited for now, too, but I was able to pick a wolf and an orc, and I used a drake instead of an alternate wolf picture (there are two different kinds of wolves in this encounter).  Once you have the picture, you name the token and enter its max hit points and defenses.  You can also enter in notes.  Finally, you create powers.

Now this is an area where the creation is easy but the results currently stink.  You can create a “power” and within that you can create various die rolls associated with that power.  To run the die rolls, you have to click each button separately.  So, if the wolf has a Bite power, you create the power and any notes you want to see alongside it, then a die roll button that will display “Bite versus AC” and then the result of 1d20+10 or whatever.  You can also create a separate die roll button that you can call “Bite damage” that will display “Bite damage” and then the result of the damage roll.  When you want your wolf to attack a PC, you click the “Bite versus AC” button, ask if it hits, and if so you can click the “Bite damage” button.  It’s nowhere near as flexible as MapTool, of course, but it works.

I’m going into oral surgery Friday morning (I’ve scheduled this post to go up later in the day on Friday), but I’m hoping to run this encounter a time or two, perhaps over the weekend.  I’ve also put a post on EN World to say that I’m going to run it Monday evening at 7:00 PM Mountain time for anyone who wants to play, just to give the program a test drive.  Feel free to drop me a line via email or in the comments if you’re interested in playing with me (assuming you have a beta invitation yourself, of course).  Let’s see how this runs!

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. 🙂