Game Mastering with a Video Table

SPOILER ALERT: This blog entry contains some minor spoilers from the D&D 5th Edition Curse of Strahd adventure published by Wizards of the Coast.

Saturday, May 7, 2016: The day that I started GMing for the very first time.

Okay, I’ve actually been GMing for more than thirty years, and I’m probably being a bit on the dramatic side but holy crap running a game using a video table is so incredible. Prior to Saturday, May 7, 2016: The day that I started GMing for the very first time, I was an avid user of my 12-tile set of Tact-Tiles that I picked up at Dragon Con probably ten or twelve years ago. I also have two copies of every set of D&D Dungeon Tiles that Wizards of the Coast manufactured.

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image used from www.voidstarstudios.com

And it seems like only yesterday that I considered my Tact-Tiles and Dungeon Tiles and variety of miniatures was the best possible experience. *sigh* To be young and naive.

Our group put together a video gaming table for surprisingly cheap. The table itself was already hand-built by one of our players, and we gamed on it every week for the the past seven or eight years. We tore the granite tiles off the table and inset an inexpensive oCosmo 40″ 1080p LED TV from Newegg (when our group purchased the set it was $199.99, but as of the time of this writing it is priced at $244.99). After refinishing the tabletop with wood, we mounted a surge protector to the underside of the table. And bam, our table was complete.

Originally, we were going to put a layer of tempered glass over the set for additional protection, but testing showed that even a relatively thin piece caused pretty dramatic perceived displacement of the minis (i.e., from above the screen looking down a mini would be directly on a square, but when you sit down and view from an angle, the mini appears a significant distance from where it actually sits). So we decided just to be cautious when interacting with the set and play sans glass.

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My DM command center before the players arrive

When we play board games or otherwise need to have an unbroken surface, we have a removable wood insert that covers the TV set. It rests on the bezel of the TV, and when in place is flush with the rest of the table.

MapTool

The software that I use to run the game is called MapTool. It is a free, open-source program that is part of the RPTools suite. It’s generally intended as an Internet virtual tabletop, but it works beautifully for our in-person game. MapTool is not very resource intensive. I run two instances of it (one as the GM copy and one as the player copy) on my seven-year-old Windows laptop and it runs smoothly without a hitch.

I set up my maps in advance and add fog of war (see pictures below), and reveal areas manually as the characters open doors, go around corners, move obstructions, etc. If you use virtual minis and designate visual obstructions on the maps, MapTool will do the revealing for you. But we like using the real minis on top of the screen, and designating visual obstructions on the maps is a bit time consuming. Note that you can create maps with MapTool, and designating visual obstructions might be much easier, but I import maps as images.

And since a picture is worth a thousand words, I won’t babble on any longer. Here are some images from one of the evening’s battles. In closing, if you have been toying with the idea of making your own video table, please pull the trigger and do it. It really is quite amazing. You can put battle maps (many free and very inexpensive maps are available at sites like DriveThruRPG), city maps, regional maps, images of locations/NPCs/monsters, and all manner of visual enhancements on the screen.

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The DM view (on the laptop screen) lets me see everything. The player view (on the video table screen) blacks out whatever is designated with fog of war.

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The characters gather outside of the coffin maker’s shop in Vallaki in Curse of Strahd. Note that both the first and second floors of the shop are obscured with fog of war.

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Norros the barbarian enters the main room of ship. I subsequently uncovered the fog of war over that room.

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The players collaborate as they battle vampire spawns at the coffin maker’s shop.

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A close-up shot of the battle vs. vampire spawns at the coffin maker’s shop.

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Our gaming room.

 

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Egia – Map in Progress

WARNING: Draft, work in progress

So I did some more work on my Egia map. It is far from complete, but it is starting to show some basic signs of life. As you can see, I scrapped the original continent outline that I made in favor a new one. That decision was not based on making any new decisions other than I wanted to use a different mapping style in Campaign Cartographer 3 and the easiest way to do that was just start the map from scratch, especially I hadn’t done anything but the basic outline anyway.

I will be adding some more terrain features and some more cities and towns. Keep in mind, though, that this is a continental scale map so it will only contains items significant to that scale. Once the continental map is complete, I will make more detailed regional maps.

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Click on the map to view it in full size. Remember, it’s still very bare bones. I’ll add more detail in the coming days and weeks.

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Here comes Egia

Basically, from 2008 until 2014 I ran a Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition campaign in my own original campaign world. Refugees from a dead land known as Egia fled across a vast, unknown ocean to escape a magical plague (Don’t even think about it! I rolled out my campaign world before the Forgotten Realms publicly announced their Spell Plague.) and formed a frontier nation called New Egia. It was an interesting experiment filled with about an even mix of clever concepts and ordinary fantasy dribble. I’m equally proud and embarrassed of the effort.

After a much-needed rest from DMing I am once again preparing to take my place behind the shield. This time I’m going to run a prequel campaign in the original Egia before the magical plague struck. So first thing’s first, I need to create the basics of the campaign area including a map. The difference is that unlike New Egia, Egia is not a frontier land. It is an ancient empire filled with both long-dead secrets and new political intrigues. So I will need to take a different approach.

As I work on the campaign over the coming days and weeks, I’m going to post a log of some of my efforts here. For now, I want to post the rough outline of the continent and explain why I chose the dimensions that I did.

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In the coming days I’ll fill these two landmasses in with details but I wanted to form the shell first so I could see what I was working with. The red diagonal line represents approximately 800 miles. Basically, we’re talking about a total landmass in the ballpark of the size of the United Kingdom. I wanted to go with a relatively contained amount of space for two main reasons:

  • Because Egia is going to be an ancient kingdom, it will be much more dense than the continent from my previous campaign, which, as I stated, was more of a frontier. So I don’t want to put the pressure on myself to pack some massive amount of real estate with secrets and political intrigue.
  • Because I want the players to feel as though they can have eventually have an effect on the entire kingdom as their characters grow in power.

Anyway, that’s all for now. More to come as I start fleshing this place out.

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Mutants & Masterminds Deluxe Hero’s Handbook review

Well these days I’m all superhero-y since I started running a small Mutants & Masterminds campaign. I see and hear things in my day-to-day life and my mind is constantly trying to scan and rotate and resize those inputs in an attempt to make them superhero-y enough to use in my game.

So I’m going to review the Mutants & Masterminds Deluxe Hero’s Handbook for M&M 3rd edition. I’m going to touch on things specific to the M&M 3rd edition rules and to things regarding the physical product itself.

This book is, as 2015 RPG product value goes, a pretty decent deal. It’s a sturdy 320-page hardcover book with full-color glossy pages and a retail price of $39.95. The art in the book is not what I would call “high end” work, but in all cases it is evocative and appropriate. Best of all, the book is a bit light on the art and heavy on actual content. Compare that to the new Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition core books, and you end up with a product that is, by current standards, a good value. I recommend buying this book from a local bookseller or friendly local gaming store (FLGS), but if you’re more inclined to online purchases this book generally hovers around $28 on Amazon, which is a spectacular deal.

I’ve played this game off and on (mostly off) since 1st edition and although this newest iteration is a smoother, more-polished version than its predecessors there is one thing that hasn’t changed about M&M since its inception: it is a game for advanced players and GMs. There is nothing casual about it and I would say that if a brand new GM bought this book and attempted to teach him- or herself how to play the game the odds of success would be low.

For those who don’t know, M&M is an Open Gaming License game. That means it is based off of the d20 rules developed by Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. So if you already know how to play D&D 3.0 or 3.5, then you already know the basics of M&M. At its core, it’s a set of rules that are about rolling a 20-sided die, adding some modifiers, and attempting to roll equal to or greater than some target number. There are enough things about Mutants & Masterminds that closely (or closely enough) mimic D&D 3.5 that players familiar with 3.5 will find plenty of anchor points to grab ahold of this new system.

That said, damage, level and powers are the three biggest departures from core d20 rules. There are no hit points in this game. Instead, damage causes a build-up of conditions ranging from cumulative -1 penalties to resist future damage all the way to incapacitated, dying, and dead. That’s easy enough to get used to, and represents a relatively minor change.

Unlike D&D, there is no character level in this game. Instead, the campaign itself has a level called power level (or, simply, PL). The default starting PL is 10, meaning that PL 10 is roughly an analog to starting a D&D campaign with 1st-level characters. Your GM can can start his or her campaign at a lower PL (for example, teen heroes or a gritty campaign in which futuristic tech or superhuman powers are either rare or nonexistent) or a higher PL (for example, very experienced, superhuman heroes). As the campaign progresses and the player characters are awarded power points (think experience points in D&D), the GM has the option of raising the PL of the campaign. This is important to do because there are several aspects of player character abilities and powers that are capped by the campaign’s power level.

But (drumroll please), powers are where &#%$ gets real in this game. If you are of a careful, analytical, mathematical mind then you can probably piece together the power rules on your own from the material presented in the book, else it will likely become an exercise in frustration. I mean, creating some straightforward, basic power like an energy blast isn’t much of a problem. But when you start getting into power arrays, partial ranks, alternate effects, or the dreaded dynamic alternate effects you better buckle up because you’re in for a rough ride. I doubt I could have done better, and a system that allows pretty much any power you can conceive of to be created for player characters necessarily has to be complicated.

Essentially, Chapter 6: Powers is filled with what are called effects, which are generic ways that a character can affect the world around him or her. It’s up to the players to piece those generic effects together, including optional add-ons called extras and flaws, to create bonafide powers for their characters. Let me give an example. This comes from the Mutants & Masterminds Power Profiles book, which I consider an almost-mandatory product to play this game. It consists of pre-assembled powers made up of the aforementioned effects, extras, and flaws.

Let’s say you wanted your character to be able to project a protective shield similar to the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman, you might start off with the effect called Protection. Like all effects in M&M, Protection is generic. Quoting from the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook page 174, “Protection shields you against damage, giving you a +1 to your Toughness defense per rank.” You would use this generic effect as the foundation for any power that protects you from damage, be it a protective shield, hardening of your skin, psionic deflection, etc. You could then start adding extras and flaws to fine-tune the power: ‘Impervious’ to eliminate the need for a die roll from sources of damage that are of a low-enough difficulty, ‘Sustained’ so the power can be turned on and off, and perhaps ‘Area: Shapeable’ so you can mold the protective shield into the form in which you want it to manifest. You do this by sifting through a 63-page chapter full of generic effects, extras, and flaws.

Or you could turn to page 86 of Power Profiles and choose the Kinetic Shield pre-made power (full disclosure: I did add ‘Area: Shapeable’ myself). Veteran players will likely have little difficulty constructing their own powers, but in my opinion newer, less experienced players should consider Power Profiles to be a mandatory purchase. (Note: Because gadgets in M&M are assembled in much the same way as powers, there is a book called Gadget Guides that does for gadgets what Power Profiles does for powers.)

The book itself is beautiful, well-organized, and overall a very solid value. Each chapter is printed with its headers, footers, section heads, and other graphical elements in its own unique color making it extremely easy to tell at a glance which chapter you’re reading. The table of contents is detailed enough to enable you to find most major concepts at a glance, but still concise enough to only take up two facing pages. And what you can’t find in the ToC, you can find in the detailed and logically arranged index.

Deluxe Hero’s Handbook even contains two introductory adventure modules at the back: Ghost Town (for 3-5 power level 10 heroes), which takes place in 3rd edition’s signature campaign Emerald City, and Time of the Apes (for 4-6 power level 10 heroes), which takes place in Freedom City, the campaign from 1st and 2nd edition.

So a recap? Well, first I think Mutants & Masterminds itself is a rich, detailed game system in which the rules act to enable GMs and players to bring into fruition anything they can imagine from the world of comic book and movie superheroes. However, the price of that flexibility is a complexity that all but bars entry to newer GMs and players. The Deluxe Hero’s Handbook is an outstanding roleplaying product. It is self-contained (i.e., GMs and players who can make sense of powers without resorting to the above-mentioned Power Profiles and Gadget Guides can buy just this book and never need anything else), internally consistent, well-organized, and overall a solid value for the money. So if you don’t mind a slightly steeper barrier to entry than most RPGs, Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition and specifically the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook are well, well worth the effort.

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Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition Campaign & Other Stuff

Apparently my track record of posting to this site has been pretty piss-poor. Maybe I’ll change that. No promises.

At the moment, I’m actually not running my own D&D campaign, which is a rarity for me. After a 6+ year D&D 4th edition campaign, I needed a rest. So one of my players, after much guilt tripping and cajoling, stepped up and he is running a D&D 5th edition game.

First, my super-condensed, ultra-rapid opinion of D&D 5e. Overall, I like it a lot. It successfully combines some of the best features that I enjoyed from 1st, 3rd, and 4th editions (I was never much of a 2nd edition fan). The math seems to have been nicely tamed, but I can’t speak authoritatively on that until our characters get into the higher levels. I do miss some of the ways that characters progressed in level in 4e, and that edition will always occupy a special place for me. But 5e is solid, and it’s quite obvious that Wizards of the Coast took the development very seriously.

So what am I doing now for gaming? In addition to playing in the aforementioned D&D 5e game, I’m now running a Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition campaign of my own original design. It’s a (for now) low-power sort of Smallville meets Arrow meets The Flash meets X-Files kind of thing. Even though M&M 3e is based on a familiar system (it’s an OGL, D&D 3.5-based system), there are enough radical departures from the core d20 rule system that I’m still in that awkward, brand-new lovers stage with the game: I like spending time with it but I’m always afraid I’m going to do or say the wrong thing.

I have never been very artistic or inclined in the sorcerous ways of graphic design. Like the skilled and mysterious operators of 4th of July incendiary displays, graphic designers and artists are a group I mostly admire from afar with equal parts neolithic awe and raw terror. But, with new my M&M game I have dipped the very tip of one toe into extremely safe and shallow waters by designing a simple logo for the (fictional) semi-governmental agency Labyrinth in my campaign world. To wit:

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Where said logo is found, the mysterious and ostensibly benevolent organization known as Labyrinth is often nearby.

As a side note, I must give great credit (“mad props”?) to Lone Wolf Development for their software packages Hero Lab and Realm Works. As a lover of language, my very favorite thing about Lone Wolf is they did not cave to the societal pressures of camel case. It seems like everywhere you look CompaniesAreMashingTheirProductNamesTogether, and camel case has gone from a clever conceit to worn-out, middle-aged sex worker who people don’t understand and are embarrassed to look at directly.

That said, Hero Lab and Realm Works (most gratefully not HeroLab and RealmWorks) are bringing a lot to my M&M campaign. Character creation in M&M is…can I call it labyrinthine? Hero Lab dramatically eases the burden, AND also helps manage combat. Those fruits are already being enjoyed. But the fruits of my Realm Works tree are not yet ripe and succulent, and not ready to be put to parched lips. More on that at a future date.

So I’ll end here. I’m working on said M&M campaign world in said Hero Lab even now.

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Between Two Eras

So I’ve been playing (and on-again, off-again designing, mostly off-again) Dungeons & Dragons for the better parts of 30 years. In fact, I just concluded a long-running campaign that I started in D&D 3.5, transitioned into D&D 4E, and ended just about a month ago now. There are many reasons why I concluded it, some good, some bad, but mostly it was just time.

And for the first time in those above-mentioned 30 years, I find myself in this strange transitional limbo place between editions. Don’t get me wrong, like all lifelong D&D players I always knew when a new edition was coming around, but this time it’s different. This time we, the gaming public, are privy to a large part of the process. I notice that all of the new releases on WotC’s schedule are reprints of older editions of D&D (more on that below) and that there hasn’t been a monthly rules update for 4E since last August. Those two facts combined with the pending who-knows-when release of 5th edition (whatever they end up calling it) lead me to believe that the 4E life cycle is complete. But it’s complete without a replacement. For all practical purposes, we are without a “current” edition of D&D.

Frankly, that’s not a huge problem for me and I suspect it’s not a huge problem for the vast majority of Dungeons & Dragons players. Although I have no data on the subject, intuitively I have to believe there are collectively more players playing OD&D, 1st edition, 2nd edition, 3rd edition, and 3.5 combined than there are playing 4E. And none of them likely give a hoot about there being no more 4E releases. But still–like an eerie and disorienting silence after a thunderclap at dusk–the feeling of nothingness is palpable to me. Knowing what I know about the gaming industry after two tours of duty in it, anything could happen in the resting period between heartbeats. It would certainly have only a minor effect on Hasbro’s bottom line if some executive somewhere just shut off the lights at WotC and stuffed D&D in a box for the next ten years.

But still, I am filled with a kind of anticipation for 5th edition (whatever they end up calling it). I don’t love everything I see in the playtest packets, but I do like most of it and often find myself nodding and emitting a satisfied mmmm-hmmm as I read the latest rules iteration. WotC has strongly hinted that there will be no 5th edition (whatever they end up calling it) this year, and given that the company is understandably inclined toward releasing new editions around GenCon then one might logically conclude that we’ll see 5th edition (whatever they end up calling it) around the summer of 2014. MAYBE 2015, but I can’t imagine any of the latte-swilling, MacBook-toting yuppies in Seattle will be able to convince the profit-driven executive in Pawtucket to give them another year.

As to WotC’s decision to fill their calendar with re-releases of products from previous editions of D&D, I can’t bring myself to agree with it. I get it. Take stuff you already own and generate a revenue stream while R&D toils in the salt mines refining 5th edition (or whatever they end up calling it). Get the previous-edition grognards to finally shell out some cash. But if the idea of 5th edition (or whatever they end up calling it) is to unite the various “editioners” under a common banner, why sell them core products from their current editions of choice? All it will do is entrench them. They shell out a hundred bucks on reprints to replace their fraying, decaying core books, then you ask them to shell out more money in a year for all new books? From an all new edition? When many of them haven’t switched editions since before most of the current R&D team members had their first kiss? I have no marketing degree so don’t take my opinion as worth anything in that arena, but I wouldn’t have made that choice.

Anyway, like I always have, I sit and watch and wait.

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Review: DN5 The Urban Underdark Dungeon Tiles

Today I’m going to review the Dungeons & Dragons accessory DN5 The Urban Underdark Dungeon Tiles. Technically, these are released under the 4th edition logo but as with all Dungeon Tiles products they are usable with any version of D&D and, in fact, with any game system that makes use of 1″ square grids. I mean, they’re just cardboard tiles with images; there is nothing that makes them game or genre specific.

Before I go into my thoughts on this product specifically I want to talk generally about Dungeon Tiles. I’ve been collecting these things for years. I have two copies of every set that has ever been released. They are double-sided, full-color cardboard tiles made from a thick, sturdy stock. I have experienced zero curling or curving of the tiles and no peeling of the laminated images. Overall, I think these are one of the better things to happen to tabletop gaming over the years. As the production quality of many items in the struggling tabletop gaming industry declines, Wizards of the Coast continues to publish these tiles with the same high-quality standards as the early sets. Personally, I would rather they raise the price on a product like this than lower the production quality.

On a semi-related side note, the secondary market price of some of the early sets can be quite high. For example, if you want to buy a still-shrink-wrapped copy of DT1 Dungeon Tiles (the first set, which was released in 2006) if will run you as much as $75 or more. But Wizards released three Dungeon Tiles Master Sets as evergreen products (products that they claim they will always keep in print): Dungeon, City, and Wilderness. These three Master Sets, each of which is very fairly priced at $19.95 for 10 double-sided sheets of punch-out tiles in a box that can be used to add 3-dimensional terrain to your game because it is covered in 1″ grid lines, obviate the need for the early out-of-print sets. So if you haven’t gotten into using tiles yet but have been thinking about it, start with the Master Sets and then add other sets as desired.

As a caveat, I want to say that my opinion of The Urban Underdark may be a bit colored by the fact that I own so many tiles. I will try to distance myself from that as much as possible in this review. Most of the early tile sets are long out of print and their prices in the secondary market can be quite high in some cases. As a result, Wizards of the Coast has released some tiles sets recently that might seem redundant to someone with an extensive collection of older tile sets. But unless you fall into that (presumably) rare group, I don’t think the redundancy will affect you.

My main issue with these tiles is the misleading name. When I purchased the product I was expecting subterranean city tiles, which would be an amazing addition to any Dungeon Tiles collection. However, that is not at all what is contained in the product. The tiles are mainly underground caverns. There are some pieces — which definitely do not represent the majority — that have caverns that lead into (or out of) more traditional stone-worked dungeon areas. However, if you buy these tiles expecting to be able to create subterranean cities you will be disappointed.

That said, if you don’t already own underground cavern tiles these will fit the bill beautifully. They have excellent artwork and a good mixture of large, medium, and small tiles. There are excellent “accessory” tiles that contain things like clusters of fungi, lava pools, pits, skeletons, etc. They have a very similar look to them as the older sets DT5 Lost Caverns of the Underdark (published in 2007 and fetching anywhere from $30 – $50 in the secondary market) and DU3 Caves of Carnage (published in 2009 and fetching around $20 in the secondary market). And, in fact, if you own either or both of those sets and have been looking for some nice tiles to complement them then The Urban Underdark will do nicely.

As with all sets of Dungeon Tiles (the Master Sets excluded), you might not be satisfied with your options if you purchase just one set. I always buy two sets when I get Dungeon Tiles for this very reason. But at only $11.95 each, buying two gives you a great value for under twenty four bucks.

So wrapping up, I feel that The Urban Underdark is a great addition to a time-tested line of roleplaying accessories. You’re going to get a long-lasting and good value for your money. If you already own previous sets of subterranean cavern Dungeon Tiles and haven’t felt like you wished you had more, however, this is probably not the product for you. And if you’re looking to make underground cities as the name of the product implies, you definitely won’t be happy with it either. Finally, if you like to build complex or sprawling maps you probably will need two or three sets. All in all, I give The Urban Underdark a solid B+ and I will continue to purchase Dungeon Tiles.

Thanks for reading and please support your neighborhood hobby shop by buying local!

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An example of a hybrid tile from cavern to dungeon (or vice versa)

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from left to right: tiles from Lost Caverns of the Underdark, Caves of Carnage, and The Urban Underdark

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a The Urban Underdark hybrid tile shown leading into a dungeon tile from Master Set: Dungeons

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