Echoes of a Homeland: A Curse of Strahd Story

Just a quick note: My regular Friday night online D&D 5th edition game is now being streamed online via Twitch. I’m DMing Curse of Strahd, but with my own twists and turns.

The live stream is on Friday evenings at 6:00 p.m. U.S. Eastern time at the following Twitch address: https://www.twitch.tv/cnygamer.

You can keep up with the story at our Obsidian Portal page: http://fridaynightwarriors.obsidianportal.com/.

We’ll be going live in about two hours. Come check us out!

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Online Digital D&D: We’re Living in the Future

I’ve been gaming for a long time. In the early 80s, my childhood friends and I devoured Dungeons & Dragons. If I wasn’t playing, I was creating maps and dungeons and encounters, most of which never saw the light of day. It was a different age. There was no Internet. Video games were crude by contemporary standards. Nobody I knew owned a cell phone; they were clunky and outrageously expensive then. Heck, even HBO hadn’t started broadcasting 24 hours a day yet. D&D captured our fertile imaginations in a way that nothing before it could. It changed our lives.

Through the years, I have witnessed roleplaying games go through many changes. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and crew planted a seed that germinated into many multi-million dollar industries. Every MMO, every computer RPG, every fantasy film, every pen-and-paper roleplaying game, and many board games and novels owe some homage to what is surely one of the greatest games in all of human history: Dungeons & Dragons.

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Gaming was considerably less portable back in the day. (Image used without permission from http://www.godsmonsters.com/Features/game-junky/)

More recently, how we play D&D (or any other tabletop roleplaying game, for that matter) has been evolving rapidly. Inexpensive, mobile computers and tablets are everywhere, and it’s difficult to find a gamer who doesn’t own one or the other or both. This has spawned a blossoming method of disseminating roleplaying materials in PDF and other other digital formats. When I was a kid, the gym bag or backpack filled to bursting with heavy hardcover gaming books was the norm. Today, a gamer can carry many times that amount of material in one hand with a tablet or laptop. GMs and players frequently have an electronic device of some kind at hand to store character sheets and to run other utilities, such as combat trackers, encounter generators, etc.

Has all of that made roleplaying more or less personal? Anecdotally, for me it has made it less personal. As a serial offender of growing older, however, I’m willing to admit that some of my attitudes and opinions in this area have been informed by the mostly non-digital trajectory of my gaming life. In other words, affordable, portal computing devices are a relatively new arrival in the gaming scene, and those of us who have been gaming since the 70s and 80s established our habits long before their arrival. So for me, as a long-time, active D&D Dungeon Master, looking out over a table full of players with their faces buried in tablets and cell phones and laptops made for a less personal experience.

So, you can imagine, I avoided virtual tabletops like the proverbial plague. If the mere presence of electronic game aids at my gaming table was enough to depersonalize the experience, surely the virtual tabletop was orders of magnitude worse. Besides, I was (and still am) lucky enough to have an active gaming group locally. Our Wednesday D&D 4th edition game is at our maximum capacity of a DM and six players. Most of the gamers of my generation that used VTTs did so out of necessity because of a lack of local gamers, unpredictable schedules, family obligations, etc. As far as I was concerned, it was the last resort of desperate gamers. There but for the grace of God, etc.

My first direct exposure to a VTT environment was actually to facilitate something locally: a video surface for displaying maps at the gaming table. From there, it was just a small step to using the VTT software for more than just displaying a map. What about managing virtual figures? Keeping track of combat? Once I was exposed to these pieces, my mind raced with all of the possibilities.

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This electronic-plagued gaming table became my gateway drug into virtual tabletops.

And then the day came when I did the unthinkable: I participated in a virtual D&D game over the Internet…over the freakin’ Internet! It still feels mildly shameful. The platform I used (and still use) was the amazing Fantasy Grounds. Here is the short of it: I was quite simply not prepared for all of the things about online virtual tabletop play that I would come to love. It hit me totally by surprise. I had no idea how smitten I would become by it.

Fog of war? Built in and easy to manage. Books? All of them (for D&D 5th edition) available and a snap to open and utilize. Character management? A dream. Combat tracking? So much better than a tabletop full of markers and beads. Hidden or invisible enemies? Taken care of.

So, okay, there were many little fussy parts of tabletop gaming that were automated or semi-automated by Fantasy Grounds. But handling minor issues does not a D&D game make. What about storytelling and narrative and character development and socialization? Surely in these critical categories there is no equal to in-person tabletop gaming! Wrong again, Jamie! Here is what I found: When you are sitting in your own space, in an environment of comfort, you feel so much freer to let your hair down and get into the game. I found my NPCs came alive, they “popped.” I found my players roleplayed, used voices, and encouraged other players to get into their characters. From the safety of our computer stations, we felt like we could do anything. And we did.

Currently, I am involved in two regular weekly games. On Wednesdays, I’m a player in a D&D 4th edition game. On Fridays, I run an online D&D 5th edition game using Fantasy Grounds. There are pros and cons to both ways of playing, but here is the lightning strike from on high: I look forward to my Friday game with relish. I practice my NPCs voices when I’m driving. I think about ways to encourage my players to sink into their characters. We occasionally have sessions where not a single initiative or attack roll is made.

Look, I’m never going to give up this lifelong hobby of mine. I’ll be reading my D&D 10th edition books in the nursing home. From ages 12 to 112, this is my jam. It’s my bag, baby. And I’m here to say, if you haven’t checked out virtual tabletop play because you thought it’s not real roleplaying, I encourage you to try it out. I can’t speak for the many fine VTT software packages out there, but Fantasy Grounds offers a free trial version and a money-back guarantee. So you have nothing to lose. (Note: I am not an agent of Fantasy Grounds in any way, shape, or form. Just by simple chance, it ended up being the VTT package that I tried out and stuck with. I like it a lot, but I’m not trying to push any one VTT over another.)

Thanks for reading. And game on!

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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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