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Monster Descriptions and Module Monster Behavior

During a somewhat recent game with my senior team, an interesting misbehavior occurred. Not of the players, but from the monsters they encountered. The players were expecting one behavior of the creatures and were presented with something outside of that expectation, and it seemed to have upset one of the players because of that incongruity.

I was running two games a week until earlier this year, when everyone needed to properly stay home and shack up like a hermit and treat everyone the diseased beasts that they are. The senior team has been going through the Mummy’s Mask modules. They have already completed the first module and are working their way through the second one. It has been enjoyable, although there have been a few oddities in places. I plan on going through the first module here in the blog some time later talking about the specifics of that module.

One of the things that I have enjoyed a lot out of the Mummy’s Mask modules is the introduction of non-standard creatures. Creatures that not only is my senior team is not familiar with, but neither am I. This means that the game is much more refreshing and new experiences come up regularly for myself and the players. This also means that all of us got to learn about these creatures together and the players could be surprised regularly with something they most likely had never encountered before in any game.

Now, the specific encounter where we had some information mis-matching occur was the one called “EVENT 3: Dogs of Death (CR5)“. I’ll quote it near exactly:

Creatures: The Voices of the Spire, a militant arm of the Pharasmin priesthood, have reacted to the undead incursion with extreme force. Against High Priestess Sebti’s orders, the Voices’ commander in Wati, Nakht Shepses, is considering summoning esobok psychopomps—near-mindless hunters who feed on negative energy—to counter the undead horde. On Shepses’ orders, one of his subordinates has used a summon lesser psychopomp spell to summon two esoboks to test the strategy.

As the PCs approach a street intersection, a trio of zombies threatens a lone woman. Before the PCs can intervene, a soul-shaking howl fills the air and a pair of hideous creatures—horrible masked amalgams of bear and crocodile—burst from an alley. These esobok psychopomps tear into the zombies, felling them but injuring the human woman in the process. The esoboks begin feeding on the decayed flesh of the slain undead while the human, reduced to –1 hit points, lies dying in the street. She loses an additional hit point each round, and dies when she reaches –10 hit points. The esoboks growl and snap at anyone nearby, but if anyone approaches within 20 feet, they scream and attack, offering a preview of the effect this solution could have on Wati, as the city’s residents find themselves caught between the two armies of monsters.

Development: If not slain before then, the summoned esoboks fade away 2d4 rounds after the PCs arrive on the scene. PCs who succeed at a DC 10 Knowledge (arcana) check realize that this means they were likely summoned creatures. A successful DC 13 Knowledge (planes) check identifies the creatures as esobok psychopomps. If the PCs inform the priests of the Grand Mausoleum of the esoboks’ presence, High Priestess Sebti responds with fury, leading to a later confrontation Nakht Shepses (see Event 4). Alerting the town guard or Shepses himself results in the heroes being told to keep the information to themselves to avoid frightening the citizens and putting undue stress on the church in this time of crisis.

Story Award: If the PCs slay either of the two esoboks, award them full XP for doing so as normal. Defeating these two psychopomps and returning them to their home plane reduces the Panic Level by 1.

And here is the Monster Card for the Esobok Psychopomp, that is taken directly from the bestiary:

The part where the player read and assumed a friendly behavior was this “their joy at the taste of undead flesh generally prevents them from attacking living targets, despite their lust for battle.” which in theory would be contrary to the module behavior description of “The esoboks growl and snap at anyone nearby, but if anyone approaches within 20 feet, they scream and attack“.

So, this specific player assuming everything was good, ran up close and did a channel ray to heal the poor innocent victim, and then subsequently moved closer to help save her. The healing he did was not sufficient to revive her, but she was no longer bleeding to death. Of course once entering withing the specified 20′ the creatures reacted as the module dictated and ran over to attack him. This action by them was quite upsetting to that player. He had made a successful roll to get the maximum amount of information on the Esobok Psychopomps and felt betrayed by the knowledge he found. In fact, he threw down the monster card and exclaimed that they were useless and all full of lies since this creature did not follow what he read.

There is a lot of room for interpretation in all the different descriptions. Admittedly you might assume a specific behavior, but since these are summoned creatures, they will have certain rules of engagement imparted upon them as a part of their summoning. The player took the Monster Card information as completely accurate and exact. But as in any role-playing game, there is always some wiggle room for things to happen outside of your expectation. One of the reason this is role-playing and not a game of Checkers is that variability that can happen at any time.

Remember that this is the senior team. Yeah, it was a poor reaction and should have just marched on and dealt with it. The Monster Cards are given out for the players to make notes on. This was a great point to make some notes about the more specific behavior that they experienced.

Conclusion

I actually had many other issues with this encountered than a simple behavior issue. The spell to summon an Esobok Psychopomp requires a 9th Cleric. The spell will last a maximum of nine rounds. The range of the summoning is only 45′. This means that the cleric that did the summoning would have to be fairly close. The Esobok Psychopomp can move a maximum of 80’/round, assuming they are not able to run or have some other sort of movement. This means that since they can be around for up to eight rounds from the encounter notes, they could have moved 80′ putting the summoner only 125′ away. This is a street encounter of a town that mostly has wide and straight streets. The summoner without much movement would be able to see the encounter and intercede if needed.

The module on the other hand implies these are being pumped out at a certain rate and just let loose. But with the short duration of the spell, it would be very useless except around the immediate area near the summoner. Worse than that is why would a 9th level Cleric use a 5th level spell to take care of a few CR 1/2 Zombies? What a waste of a spell when that cleric could just as easily just walk over and pummel them and most likely be armored heavily enough for them to never be able to hit him.

This level issue is further exacerbated by the fact that it is implied there are several of this level cleric and their boss at a minimum is 11th level to be able to summon the next more powerful Vanth Psychopomp. Why are they relying on a bunch of 5th level player characters to save the whole city? With just the cleric militant force of an 11th and several 9th level clerics they would be able to stomp the whole undead invasion without an issue.

Yes, yes, because…. Magic, plot armor, story line…. bah. At least add in something to have to make more sense instead of me making up new story lines to cover for these plot line issues.

I had a player that objected to the exactness of the Monster Cards verses what happened. Meh. Told him to move on. You know… because Magic, plot armor, and story line….

Table Build – Cooling Installation

There have been a lot of questions about the details of how the cooling actually worked and how I am ensuring that the TV does not overheat in its now sealed environment. So, this page will be to go over the details of that part of the build as well as what specific hardware was used to drive all of it.

The basic concept that was used was to create a permanent cooling solution to anticipate the actual head load and then to make sure that there was a sufficient airflow to move heat out of the sealed box. I knew what the ambient temperature would be in a box without any assistance from fans or other forced air solutions from my previous experience with the initial install of the TV in a box on top of the table. But I also knew that when the TV was dropped into the table itself we would be sealing it in much more than the first experiment.

Flat screen TV’s are not usually cooled using fans but instead rely on the heat to rise through the components. The TV will have vents on the bottom as well as vents somewhere along the top of the components, usually in the middle of the back of the TV. By having the TV on its back, that natural flow of hot air would not be what the manufacturers were expecting and I would have a problem of the temperature increasing by having that heat trapped. In the first Box installation there were vents on three sides of the box that allowed a slow leakage of that hot air and would reach an equilibrium with the ambient room temperature. The new installation would not allow this since the TV would now be mounted inside the table with solid walls on all sides.

So, a new design was needed. The diagram below shows this concept.

This shows the expected air flow as well as where I would have fans installed to ensure that I could force air if needed. The black boxes in the diagram are where fans would be installed. The idea was to use the first set of fans to pull the cool air in and into the TV. The fans within the table would then pull the now heated air out. The primary air intake is nothing more than a simple vent, but it was a third place that I could install fans if for any reason there was not sufficient air flow to cool the TV.

Yes, the vent is below a drawer and I had some concern that it would interfere with the pull of air, but the four 80mm fans were able to pull enough air such that it was easy to feel that flow where the vent was. In fact, that air flow was slightly uncomfortable because it made for cold legs if you were wearing shorts or something else that left your legs exposed.

The two dual 80mm fans as well as the two triple 120mm fans are both from AC Infinity. For a controller I ended up with the AC Infinity Controller 8 to give me the most amount of temperature probes and the most options for installation. I spent a fair amount of time looking for a good solution that was less DYI and more professional looking and for ease of implementation. I bought them weeks in advance of the install so I could see how well they worked, how much noise they made, and how the controller worked. I wanted all the parts perfectly functional before trusting the installation.

One thing I discovered, and was not really surprised about was that the 80mm fan units, even at their lowest speed, were very audible. Whereas the 120mm fans were nearly completely silent. I thought about replacing the fans with better ones but was not willing to go that far yet. Perhaps once the fans were installed they would not be as noisy as expected. The 120mm fans were just great and performed well and better than expected. If the 80mm fans continued to be too noisy post-install, it would be pretty simple to replace them later.

Here are the during and post-install pictures. Showing the starting of with the intake air vent through to the 80mm fans and out to the 120mm fans.

To control the fans and make sure they would be able to operate automatically with a single temperature probe, I first tried putting all the 80mm fans on one set of power cables and the 120mm fans on another chain from the controller. From the manual it seemed to imply that the controller should be able to power that number of fans through two ports but the reality was that it was not able to, and I had to use all four fan power ports on the controller. This also then meant I had to use all four of the temperature probes to control each set of fans. There was not an option to tie one probe to multiple power ports. Each fan had a probe terminate near where the fans were installed. While none of them were in a perfect location for tracking the temperature, it was fine for this install. To make sure I had an independent source of temperature tracking, I also installed a TempStick. This allowed me to have WiFi tracking of the temperature since the AC Infinity controller was very much lacking any remote tracking and management.

The TempStick is an interesting device. I would have preferred something that I could have plugged in for power. The TempStick works great and is easily portable. But if you want five minute temperature data points, the two AAA batteries will run out of juice pretty quickly, and probably not last more than a few months. This means I would have to reach in and grab it to replace the batteries somewhat frequently. I ended up just setting them for the default 30 minute temperature check which will allow the batteries to last somewhere between six and 12 months. That time is based off all the others that I have installed around the house and outside. Being able to pull the data in remotely as well as configuring it definitely made the TempStick the winner for me.

All the fans are powered through chained USB cables connected to the controller. One immediate problem that occurred was that almost none of the cables were actually long enough to reach where the controller was installed. There was not an option to purchase longer cables, so a simple USB extender cable was used. I used one for each of the chains to make sure that all the cable lengths were the same just in case the impedance caused some sort of issue with the different of lengths of the cable for power. These extenders were tested pre-installation as well to make sure that worked too.

I played with different temperature settings and controls to see what worked best. The 80mm fans continued to be audibly noisy even after the installation. The 120mm fans were still nearly silent. With any amount of conversation of the players, the 120mm fans noise was easily covered. Another interesting benefit was that the 120mm fans were actually sufficient to carry almost all the cooling by themselves without needing the extra air flow from the 80mm fans. This allowed me to set different temperature set points on the two sets of fans such that unless things got much warmer inside the box, the 80mm fans would not need to fire off. This kept the noise down, and did not chill the person sitting at the air intake vent location.

Conclusion

Overall I am very happy with the installation and the hardware I used. I really would have liked to have seen that the controller had WiFi access to track the temperature and even manage it. The 80mm fans were a little of a disappointment, but the 120mm fans were much better, so a break even there. There were many options to configure the controller that allowed me to create an environment that make noise and airflow controlled and would not detract from game play. The whole point of all of this was to improve game play and continue down the path of Virtual Table Top gaming.

Table Build – Game Play Post-TV/VTT Details

Today I plan on talking about how the play changed, improved or not, since we now had the TV installed. Just getting the TV installed the first time really had me excited and dreading all the extra work that I would have to go through to actually change most of the game play to an electronic map from the standard mat on the table.

I have already spent a lot time describing the first install, so I will not repeat any of that. In fact even the second install was documented.

To VTT or to Graphics Program

Once the new TV was installed, and while I was excited to get started, I realized that after poking at the different VTT software packages, primarily Roll20, MapTool, and Fantasy Grounds, I knew I wanted to start off more simply. While there is a laundry list of possible packages and several under development, I just did not want to spend the next year going from one to the other and using my players as the test subjects. I also did not want to have to spend 40+ hours watching YouTube videos just to get started.

I know that I will eventually go back and revisit the tool sets available and hope for more of that real automation feel and have something that can handle more of the game master work so I can focus on play and not as much the details of execution.

What I ended up using was Pixelmater. While not as nice as Omnigraffle for basic drawing, it did have the layer tool as a separate window. This means I can have the images on the TV and the layer tool and other tools on the game master screen. This separation was very important to allow me to have control of images on a different screen than what the player would see. I seem to remember that most graphic tools used to have the different tools in separate windows, it seems that in the last ten years they have all been going for a more unified interface removing this capability that I suddenly needed.

I could now, and somewhat crudely, now draw the different fog of war black boxes on different layers allowing me to hide the box revealing the map beneath easily. Of course, that was one hard lesson that I learned early. Make sure you label your layers appropriately and clearly otherwise you will spend time spinning around trying to find out which room you want to reveal. Then there is also the possibility of multiple layers depending on how the players entered the room. Some of the first tests had high complex and detailed black boxes and that was nearly a complete failure.

And then there were the traps and secret rooms. I needed to work on trying to map similar texture to cover those as well. You can see below with a real module map. And yes, some of my black boxes did not all align perfects. The next map turned out much better. Some of you may recognize this map from the Mummy’s Mask Chains of the Silver Encounter.

I also ended up adding in more “Fog of Black Boxes” in areas where there was nothing but blank areas. This was to hide what might have been guessed by the players on what the future spaces and rooms might have foretold.

And this was mostly the limit of my VTT experiment. It was solely to act as a replacement for the old mat that we used to draw on manually. It was crude, it was ugly, but it worked and did not require huge amounts of effort and time to get working. In less than a week, I went from a mat on the table and drawing the spaces to having moved all the maps to the TV. I spent less time overall with drawing little black boxes than I did with drawing on the mats. A good exchange overall. Better yet, it allowed to take some of the map assets and enhance them in different ways.

As an example, still in the Mummy’s Mask module, the city of Wati:

Being able to annotate spots on the map quickly and easily and having each one be a separate layer allowed me to show encounters, locations and such as they figured out more of the story. Having this map fill almost the entire screen was pretty awesome.

New TV Configuration

So, did game play change very much with the final TV installation? Not really. The last installation was more of a more permanent installation than any real change to the flow of play or game mastering. The gear moved around a little, cooling was fixed, but beyond that everything else fundamentally remained the same.

Improved or Not?

I think that everyone agrees, especially the players that game play feels much better. The maps are much more accurate since I can use the ones straight from the module. Does it flow any faster? No. But it has added a color flavor that was missing previously and has made playing much more enjoyable. While preparing the maps is a bunch of work, it now allows me to more easily re-use maps in different and interesting ways, especially when something can be used many times such as the city map. I can add in elements over time slowly revealing the information to the players.

It was so worth the time and money to put all of this together and I have really enjoyed it a lot. Now I just need time to get one of the real VTT programs running. So far I have not been impressed with any of them working well, and they are overly cumbersome in places that just does not make sense. Maybe next time.

Table Build – Game Play Pre-TV/VTT Details

This is the second in a series to talk more about the tables, its parts and how we are using it.

Gaming Pre-TV

When I began using the table in the beginning, I really had huge hopes and inspiration on how I would use it. Reality on the other hand bites hard on the ass when you actually try these things during game play.

In the beginning I had all the delusions of grandeur where I would be able to have all the Dwarven Forge pieces out, mood lighting, and be able to deliver an amazing gaming experience. The alcove was the perfect place to have all these pieces. I could set up an encounter and cover it up so my cats would not considering it a new play area for themselves. It really did work very well, and did add a new dimension of playing. But was it worth it? Not really. In fact, besides that one encounter, it became very burdensome quickly.

While the Dwarven Forge parts look great, they take time to set up. I played with setting up most of an adventure area and covered it with cardboard to give that fog of war experience. But it just was not possible to have enough space, nor enough time to update changes to the adventure area. Taking a break frequently to reset just was not very practical. And while I really like the stuff, it complete failed to fit into our game very well.

If your game is at all dynamic, your scenes need to change frequently and something that can take away from the game to keep resetting the map just distracts and detracts from the game. This issue was only exacerbated because I had two games to run and could not leave a build up for either one more than a few days. If only we have VTT to replace this for us.

Which means putting the leafs back in and using a giant Chessex mat to cover the table instead. This worked very well. Combing this with a large number of the smaller mats it not only could accommodate each game very well, but allowed for some carry over of material between the two different games that were being run.

Table Use and Sitting or Not

When building the table I wanted the possibility of having the players and game master to have the option of sitting or standing. As I and others age, standing while playing can make it easier on the old bones and just provide a different view point of the action that is happening. And I know that during game play when I was much younger, jumping up in excitement during an encounter has happened more than once, possibly even sending pizza or some beverage flying. By giving everyone a platform to have that option was important, but once play started, what did everyone actually do?

On average we have five to six players at each game. The table itself was made to hold at least eight, and if friendly, there is easily room for two at the end of the table giving us eight player spots plus the game master. While the table has never been that crowded it does have a large capacity. There is only a single player overlap between the two games, which means I have nine players plus myself at different times playing on this table. The other game master is just another player in the Monday game and only the Monday game switches game masters.

This has proved to be an interesting difference between the two games related to who sits and who stands. On the Monday game (five players, four male and one female), everyone stands except whomever sits at the end of the table. On the Friday game (six players, four females and two males), no one stands. This has remained the same before and after the TV was installed on top of and later inside the table. Age wise, the average age of the Friday game is greater, but in experience, the Monday game has the most experienced players.

Why the person who sits at the end of the table always sits is interesting. Since they have the longest view of the table and can reach little on the table, they are most likely to request someone else to move the miniatures or ask for tactical verification of the situation. Maybe they just feel they are too far away from the action?

No real scientific analysis, just interesting facts between the groups.

Game Master Computer

Since there was now a nice large space for the game master, I wanted to be able to have a computer there where I could look up rules or questions, and have a place to start driving the game electronically and not have to rely on paper as much. It was a bold undertaking, but small steps.

Having the LG 5k Monitor attached to a nice monitor arm by Ergotron which was mounted to the side of the table was just the start. Using some rear mounting brackets, I had attached a new Apple Macintosh Mini. This allowed me to have all the gear and cables in a nice tight spot and with a bunch of Velcro strapping it was bundled together quite well. While this might seem a certain amount of overkill, I wanted to make sure that I would not have to replace any of the hardware for a long time and would be able to drive anything I wanted related to VTT in the future.

I really love the Ergotron monitor arms. You will find them in most industrial and hospital areas. They are tough, solid, and will outlast anything you want to do with them. I have used them for more than a couple of decades and continue to purchase them anytime I meed something to hold up a monitor.

The new Mac Mini was going to be a requirement since whenever I installed the TV, I knew that it would be a 4k TV and the last two generations of Mac Mini’s were lacking quite a bit. Yes, I could have built a hackintosh, or used a Windows based PC, but I just wanted it all to work out of the box without having to fiddle with it much and I knew that anything I tested on my desktop workstation (also a Macintosh) would seamlessly work on the game master station, which was important. And all the game masters that would be running games at my house also have Macintosh’s. Meaning, getting the real thing would be worth it for less hassle in the future.

Everything was mounted on the side of the table, pushed over, and plenty of room left for the GM screens and what paperwork was left over.

Active Play

With everything set up, play was easy and besides a few people with T-Rex arms, everything reachable. This was definitely a huge improvement over any previous gaming set up that I and most of the others have ever had. The mat on the table for a natural die rolling area. Life was good and game play drove on. Having a nice open space everyone was able to easily chat and play.

Table Build – Power Installation Details

Recently there has been a lot of interest in some of the details about the Gaming Table that we are using. More specifically, interest in what parts were used as well as how we are managing the games with our set up. With this article I will talk more about the cabling and power into the table.

Understanding that with the modern world, there would be the need to not only power the large selection of devices that each player would bring, but I would also need to be able to power up portions of the table itself for future VTT play. If you look at the basement construction project you will be able to see that we were able to start from scratch and plan for power and other possible connections to the table space.

To future proof the space and to make sure that I could upgrade cabling and power in the future, a pair of conduit pipes were laid out between the server room and where I hoped the table legs would go. One pipe went to the server electrical sub-panel and the other to the server room structured wiring terminated. Here you can see where the conduits terminated in the floor:

And here they terminate in the server room:

As you can see there is a 20A line to the table area and four Cat6 cables. One of the Cat6 cables was later redirected to go between the LED lights and the transformer leaving me with three Ethernet cables. I was not sure if I would actually use the Ethernet connectivity, but added it in just in case. It was easily to put in while the floor was missing, and cost very little compared to everything else. Also given that I had the conduit pipes, I could always string other cables to include more power in the future if I really needed to.

In actual use, I have not yet used any of the Ethernet cables. My thought around it was POE or direct connection to the future computer and TV. Instead I have a fairly powerful wireless signal covering the entire basement that has so far proved to be sufficient for not only the table, but for all the players. Maybe once we start utilizing VTT much more heavily I might revisit how we are handling the network connectivity.

Ignore the labeling of my structure wiring. The cable guy clearly failed in his ability to properly install cable in a contiguous manner and put together areas that should all actually be together. It is on my list of something to rewire in the future to make it cleaner and make more logical sense. I will admit that my OCD occasionally flairs up when I go in there and see it.

In the floor are the two boxes where the cables terminate. The table itself has the equivalent of a power cord that stretches down into the floor panel and plugs into one of the outlets there. I originally had a pair of very nice cast iron floor plates to go on top, but since the table pedestal completely covered up the panels, there was not a reason to keep those on. Within the table itself the power cable starts one side and connects up all the corner outlets in a series much like you would normally do in a room. We just did it in a table instead. This simplified the wiring and since all the wiring could be installed a head of time, it was easy to ensure that we could conform to code and have real electricians install and certify the install.

You can see some of this cabling here:

That white box in that first picture in the corner of the tables is the controller for the LED lights that sit inside the alcove of the table. The lights sat under the cleat that goes around the inside of the table with a RGB controller installed on one of the corners. This would allow me or any of the game masters to control the color of the lights easily for effect in any game. When we retrofitted the table for VTT and dropped the TV inside, that cleat was removed with the LED lighting including that controller in the corner.

The cleats were for holding up the table leafs that covered the alcove and gave the table a flush and flat surface. Now I have a bunch of solid cherry leafs with no home and just sit in the mechanical room in the basement.

Installed in each corner on the long side of the table was an outlet with with USB A and C 5v/4.8A charging ports. Again, planning on the different types of devices I put in both types of charging ports knowing that not all of our players were as much an Apple fan boy that I pretend to not be. All of the hardware I ordered was in black of course.

The plates that cover all the outlets are the same throughout the basement and those were purchased at House of Antique Hardware. With all of that I could not easily have the players power up all their toys, whether it was laptops, tablets, or their phones as they pretended to not hear the ring every time there was a home emergency that only occurred on game night.

Conclusion

With that we have properly powered the table and provided for some limited future-proofing. My hopes were that I would be a sufficient planner and designer to have all the parts in place and not need to upgrade much in the future. Power has been plentiful and we have easily been charging nearly a dozen phones and tablets at the same time with a pair of laptops. Occasionally there is a little jostling when someone’s power plug is large enough to overlap on to the USB plug. Something for me to think about the in future to consider how to improve that.

Hints and Story Lines

As a Game Master there is nothing more frustrating than to have your immaculate, detailed, and clueful plan be blown out of the water because your players are either dumber than a rock, just ignore what you believe is in front of their face, or go in a direction that is the contrary of what you so clearly laid out for them. Yes, they are clearly mocking your brilliance and purposely destroying your plans, those rat bastards.

What do you do as a Game Master when your master plan fails in some way? How can you get the players back on track and into the adventure that was planned for them? This does make the introduction of the idea of Sandboxes and Railroad adventure types. I know some Game Masters will run the Sandbox style only and seen most of them struggle and fail upon occasion when the players really go in a direction that was in the great unknown space of the campaign.

Basically a Sandbox campaign allows for anything to occur and the players to attempt almost anything, to include abandoning an adventure in the middle.

Knuff the Barbarian – “Oh, the orcs are going to invade that village where the Saintess of Norwell lives. Without her, this entire region will plunge into darkness! Should we go save them?”

Gripf the Mage – “Nah, looks like a grind, let’s go somewhere else”

Game Master – “CROOOOOOM!”

Whereas a Railroad campaign only gives the players some narrow choices on what their options are and what directions they are going. They are expected to follow the planned adventure. This is normally the case with the commercial modules that can be purchased. While there are many choices for the players to make in the module, the overall adventure is set and they will be marched in that direction. If they really do not want that, then why are they playing that module?

Nakht Shepses – “You must earn the right to enter the Necropolis and save the city of Wati from the scourge of undead that plague us! You need to fight my Vanth Psychopomp, that is much tougher than you, to meet my expectations!”

Setit Alablaze the Sorcerer – “Meh, why would need to do that”

Nakht Shepses – “Because I will not approve of you until this combat is completed”

Wayngro the Barbarian – “Why are we listening to this pencil dick? We can just go and do the adventure without this bullshit”

Sebti the Crocodile – “I need your team to partake of this contest to help with the harmony of the temple. It would be better to have everyone work together on this.”

Wayngro – “Fine, but you better give me that damn bastard sword from the auction”

Sebti – “Oh, I saw some halflings run off with it.”

Wayngro – “CROOOOM!”

<Battle goes on>

Lord Elgin Youngblood the Investigator – “Sigh, this is just dragging on. he can keep his distance and we suck at anything ranged.”

Wayngro – “Fuck this, I’m gonna just run off now”

Game Master – Sigh, maybe I should have just rushed the combat and moved it along… sigh

Yes, maybe that was a bit too scripted and railroaded. In retrospect that could have been handled better.

I have seen groups take the clues laid before them and then taken it in a direction completely unanticipated. Something completely unplanned for. But that did not end the adventure. They just have a different one. When you have time to plan for it that is.

I usually prefer running a hybrid campaign style. The players can go anywhere and start anything. But as the adventure progresses their options will start to narrow as the rails slowly show up under them. They will usually need to finish what they start. They can leave lingering side quests uncompleted, but there is an over-arching story there that they need to attempt to drive to the end. Otherwise as a Game Master you are infinitely attempting to create content on the fly which will end up not being fun for the Game Master either.

I had one group that reached the big boss encounter. It was their old comrade. A character that had died a horrible death much earlier in the game. The remaining party members stripped the body of any goodies and left the naked body in the “dungeon”. Well, of course I was not going to leave such good material behind…

In a much later adventure, the party gets to the boss room and the villain, their old friend, winds up for the standard monologue to explain what has happened and what will be the future should look like for them. You know, the standard Bond Villain dialoge when Bond gets captured or faces off with the boss. As a part of that he would reveal that he is actually just a pawn in a bigger game, clues and hints all over the place! It was time to do a data unload on the characters and be able to explain why things were the way they were. Just as they enter the room for the encounter to start, one of the players goes “Meh”, promptly powers up and starts attacking. Sigh.

Where was my turn to give that wondrous speech that had been painstakingly worked on for this encounter? How would they be able to get the clues and hints they needs to progress farther in the adventure. One player basically jumped in and ruined the situation. Yes, I could have forced the conversation, I could have just put everything on hold and said my piece. I do control the Deus Ex Machina. But, I allowed it to move forward as is.

Because I was ready for them to screw it up. I have seen them do it several times before. Their tactical ineptitude had cost them a character death more than once. I cannot forever fudge the dice just to be nice. Run into a room without backup and get surrounded by creatures that are tougher than any individual character will get you killed, and it did.

I had planned several “diaries” from the same villain in different places around the location they were exploring. It was my backup. I had lots of extra clues that were ready to be dropped in different areas in case they missed one or two. Or more likely did not understand the clues that I gave them. Some of that might be me being too obtuse, but never underestimate the potential for a player to just misconstrue what you meant no matter how clear you think you said it.

There was a case with another party of players that encountered a especially difficult creature. As you might remember I use “Monster Cards” as a way of helping the players know what their character should know. This one player that had the appropriate knowledge just was not able to read the basics of the card. I even verbally gave him hints on what he might want to tell his team so that they can respond better for the encounter. But he remained convinced he was delivering what was required. Everyone else at the table got the hints I was giving, but he remained stubborn believing his rendition of the data was more accurate than the one the Game Master was giving him… yes, this was our inexperienced player group, which is why I was willing to give those hints.

In the end, you cannot plan for everything, but you can plan for different fail points. Your players will screw up the clues whether it is your created content or a module. You will need to plan on being able to deliver the same information in multiple ways just in case. For my more inexperienced players, I always give a summary of what happened at the previous session at the new session. Sometimes I will force them to talk with each other on what had been discovered and if they figured anything out, correct or not. This forces them to consider what they have been doing as well as the possible clues that they might have understood or even misunderstood. This then also helps me understand what made sense or not with that set of players.

For the more experienced team, I allow them to fall off the understanding train more easily and bring back the clue-bat when needed, but keep that much more minimal than the other team of players.

Table Build – Postmortem

While the table is pretty awesome and everyone enjoys playing on it, I would be remiss if I did not look back on the points where it fell short, or I should say, where I fell short in the design. That fell into several areas.

Height

At some point a firm decision had to be made on how tall the table would be. When looking at this, it seemed that a more controlling factor was related to what chair would go under the table. There were three possible heights that I could choose from. Since I knew what style and vendor I would use, I had a very set value for those possible heights.

The first was the standard chair which had the dimensions of: Overall: 19¾”W x 23¼”D x 40½”H Seat: 19¾”W x 19″D Seat Crown Height: 20″

The next was a counter height: Counter Stool: 19¾”W x 24″D x 45½”H Seat: 19¾”W x 18¾”D Seat Crown Height: 26½” Footrest: 7″H. And the third option was bar height: Bar stool: 19¾”W x 24½”D x 49½”H Seat: 19¾”W x 19″D Seat Crown Height: 30½” Footrest: 10¾”H

This gave me an under the table height of 20″, 26.5″, and 30.5″. Added to that would be leg height and space to move in and out of the table. I assumed 5″, therefore giving me an under table height at 25″, 31.5″, and 35.5″. From there, it was a calculation of top down instead. What was the maximum height I wanted the table to stand? Also planning on storage between the table top and the bottom of the table in the format of drawers. I was limited to how much I could add between the two spaces.

My considerations were that I wanted a table where we could sit or stand at as needed. That precluded the standard table height and put into either counter or bar heights. A normal counter is at 36″, although all my kitchen ones are at 38.5″, and a normal bar height is between 40″ to 42″. Making the assumption that more is better, and bigger is better. I went with the 42″ height and bar stools. That then determined the amount of space left for the drawers as well as how deep the alcove would be to hold a TV.

And there lies the arguments. I am a bit taller than the average person while at least half of my players are female and are of average height or less. This means that the end height I chose is not as optimal for them as it is for me. The chairs that I had selected are fairly tall, and while not heavy, can be cumbersome to move. And almost no one’s feet can reach the floor when sitting leaving everyone feeling a little more lilliputian than normal.

It is hard to make the call if I choose the correct height or if counter height would have worked better. With our iPads and character sheets on the table, the current height works very well while sitting or standing. Counter height would have been lower and had more bending over, but – more of the table would have been reachable to those with T-Rex arms. The end result is mixed and that is almost completely driven by the height of the person. I am happy about where it is.

Drawers

This is one area where I had the most failure. In planning the drawers I had thought there was plenty of space based off the depth of the table top and the amount of desk space left over. What I did not figure in for was the thickness of the table top, bottom, and how much space was lost due to the soft close drawers.

I started of with 5.5″ of space, but once constructed my drawers only had 1.75″ of height inside the drawer, and 2″ before hitting the insides. That was tragic mistake in that my wonderful storage drawers became almost useless. To fit any type of useful boxes or normal items inside the drawers, I really needed 3″ of space and I am woefully short of that.

To fix this, I could have easily added an inch to the height and stolen an half an inch of the leg space while still providing sufficient space to sit. Also, if I had gone with counter height, I could have added a little more space, although everyone sitting at the table would have felt more like a child than normal as the table would sit very high from normal.

The other issue with the drawers are the length of them. The two sets of three drawers on the long side of the table really needed to have 12″ of space within them to allow a full size sheet of paper to fit in. You can see from this image how well standard paper fits into the drawer. The biggest limitation to making the drawers much deeper was the maximum size of the room and the larger TV size that I selected to eventually be placed into the table.

Generally the side drawers were an almost complete failure, while the end drawers are much deeper, they also fail on the height as all the rest did.

Alcove, AKA the TV Pit

The design issues and concerns here are a mixed bag. Since I was not sure about what TV would be in place I did not really plan appropriate holes and conduits for cables and power. The reality is that almost all the flat screen TV’s would have been similar enough to have allowed me to have better planned for that eventual insertion.

This would have allowed for a more graceful install later, as well as allowing it to be reversible since the planned infrastructure would have been part of the plan and been directly incorporated into the table. Instead I can only go forward and embrace having the TV there because the amount of damage to the table is not recoverable. In fact, it would be better to just have the entire table rebuilt at this point if I am not happy with what has happened to it.

Overall

The table is very nice. Most of the issues, besides the drawers are mostly minor as long as we are happy with the current final form. It works well, and I expect many more years of game playing on top of it.

Next Upgrades

Where else would I go with this? Well everything else would be focused on the TV. What I really would like to see is a full multi-touch screen. This would would allow much a much more close experience for the players. I will be waiting for the price of those to drop quite a bit more before I replace that current TV.

Monster Cards

I ran into an interesting issue with my players and game mastering. I run two games a week. There is only a single person overlap between the two groups which is my wife. And a sainted woman she is for participating with us. The first group is comprised of mostly very experienced players, most of which started with Advanced D&D. They are very familiar with the current Pathfinder v1 rule set and keep me on my toes about what is in the rules or not. The second group has only ever played in my game, and only for the last few years.

For both groups we try to play weekly, but that can be difficult to my travel and work schedules. The Monday group (the experienced one) misses games rarely since my travel usually starts on a Tuesday, whereas the Friday meets on average once a month. Both sets of groups are playing through set modules, although different ones.

The issue that I found first exhibited itself in the more junior team. They had never played before, were not familiar with the rules, and did not retain much of that information between games due to frequent breaks. When the players would have an encounter, almost every creature was new to them, even the ones that they had encountered previously. What information should their characters retain, and if it truly was a new creature, what should they actually know about it? Clearly if they were the more experienced team, it would be much more rare to encounter creatures that they had not read about before even if their characters had never seen them.

So, I was presented with a set of problems. How could I help the players and through them retain important information about the creatures that had already encountered? I also had to add to that which was how to limit what the more experienced players and their characters knew about the encountered creatures. How could I increase and limit information at the same time between the two groups?

The Pathfinder rules make it simple (taken from D20 for reference):

Monster Lore

You can use this skill to identify monsters and their special powers or vulnerabilities.

Check: In general, the DC of such a check equals 10 + the monster’s CR. For common monsters, such as goblins, the DC of this check equals 5 + the monster’s CR. For particularly rare monsters, such as the tarrasque, the DC of this check equals 15 + the monster’s CR or more. A successful check allows you to remember a bit of useful information about that monster. For every 5 points by which your check result exceeds the DC, you recall another piece of useful information.

Creature TypeField of Study
Constructs, dragons, magical beastsArcana
Aberrations, oozesDungeoneering
HumanoidsLocal
Animals, fey, monstrous humanoids, plants, verminNature
OutsidersPlanes
UndeadReligion

Action: Usually none. In most cases, a Knowledge check doesn’t take an action (but see “Untrained,” below).

Retry? No. The check represents what you know, and thinking about a topic a second time doesn’t let you know something that you never learned in the first place.

Modifiers

  • Training You cannot make an untrained Knowledge check with a DC higher than 10.
  • Equipment (Library) If you have access to an extensive library that covers a specific skill, this limit is removed. The time to make checks using a library, however, increases to 1d4 hours. Particularly complete libraries might even grant a bonus on Knowledge checks in the fields that they cover.

At least those are the simple rules, but what information should actually be shared? Following through the different Paizo forums and different Reddit questions, it was clear that there was not a consistent answer that people used. So, as to make it easier for me and to improve the consistency of what information I would deliver, I decided on the Monster Card solution. I would create different cards that I could hand out to the players for the different success levels that they made. They would then be able to make notes on the cards as the encounter would continue. Things like AC, or special attacks and defense could be noted by them.

Best of all, it gave everyone a clear understanding of what their character actually knew about something. It would help the junior team retain information about a creature while helping the senior team limit their meta-gaming.

I still have to create these things. I started with the base information that was included for the creature. I also started with a false information page that if you failed your knowledge role, or knew nothing about the creature you would at least have something to start from. I decided to use 4×6 cards as my standard and would allow content to go between the two sides as needed. As I started creating them I realized I had to go back frequently and add different information, such as what the DC was, what knowledge skill was applicable, and just little details over time.

As an example, here are the pages I created for a Skeleton (CR 1/3):

The next step would be for a basic success, which ended up being on two sides of the same card. Again I am keeping mostly with the basic text that is given for the creature itself. I would much better if I started adding more color, but with the number of creatures that need to completed for each game, spending that time becomes precious. I can see myself coming back later and adding some of that color for future games, but not on the first run.

So besides the basic information what else might you be able to find out? In this case since skeletons are pretty simple, any remaining information all went on the next DC role. Much like goblins, these are not overly complex and it is easy to understand almost everything about them with only a little knowledge.

The back of the card with the undead traits would remain the same. But what about variants? Those would required a new roll hitting a new DC.

And then there are even the more powerful versions, which again wold require yet another roll:

I liked this solution. It allowed me to better control the flow of information and give the players something to hold on to to make their notes and better to bracket in what their character’s themselves knew and understood. Yes, more work for me, but I only create the cards for the creatures they have already encountered as well as the ones they will soon encounter. No reason to make cards for everything since they will never encounter everything. Although, over time, my card box of creatures will grow and it is easy to print off a couple extra when needed.

Table Build – VTT v2

Well, after a few month of use, everyone enjoyed using the screen. It is a high success. Even being able to draw in spell effects was nice to be able to see clearly and while not everyone liked the exactness of it, it scratched a nice itch for me. One of those hard to reach and soul fulfilling scratches hitting that itch that must be scratched.

It was time to get rid of the box and drop that TV in. This was a one way trip. There was no going back. We were going to cut in some major holes that just would never be repairable once we start. It was a scary thought about if anything got screwed up. This was definitely one of those times where we measures a dozen times before cutting, and then measured a few extra just before. And then were afraid to measure afterwards.

We need to move the MacMini into one of the drawer areas and have sufficient pass-through areas for all the cables. The LED system needed to be pulled out. Fans would have be installed since we no longer would any form of cooling once everything was buttoned up. We needed to remove the LED controller and replace it with the fan controller, and move it to the other side of the table to shorten cable lengths. There was a lot to do, and all of it irrevocable.

We also planned on putting a new piece of glass on the new inside box, but this time we would be sealing it with clear caulk to prevent that beer-o-gadon happening on the now flat surface. We also needed to cut in an extra hole and make a hatch to be allow us to push the TV out when it needs to get replaced. The hatch was attached with some metal washers and rare earth magnets. The part that I was happiest about was the new fan system. With four 80mm fans pushing air into the TV and six 120mm fans pulling air out of the box, all of which with their own temperature probes, the new cooling system was fantastic.

Running the room at 80F to 85F the air inside the box with the TV has never exceeded 73F. The 80mm fans were much noisier than the 120mm fans, but that was expected. I set the activation temperature for the 80mm fans to be much higher than the 120mm fans, and as of yet, they almost never fire. The 120mm fans are sufficient for almost all the cooling. We also cut in another vent hole under the the side of the table where the 80mm fans are so that there was also an intake, and when those 80mm fans are running, you can feel that airflow.

Overall, besides the mass destruction that occurred to the table to make it all fit, I am very happy with the new design. Having the TV inside the table was a great move and game play has improved with everything being level. Although now we have many more errant dice causing us to enforce the use of dice boxes. We started with some smaller bamboo boxes with felt on the bottom, and moved to larger bamboo boxes with felt.

The last part of the installation was to mount the monitor arm into its permanent location and into the table itself. With a screen protector attached to the monitor it now provides privacy for the game master and any nefarious look ups or details that are needed while being able to hide them from any of the players sitting to the side.

Yeah, it looks pretty damn good.

Table Build – Adding in Virtual Table Top Gaming

After using the table for a couple of years and getting a good idea of what worked out, we thought it might be a good time to start looking into what we would want to do next. My plan was always to put a TV into the table for Virtual Table Top Gaming, but not knowing when that might happen, or exactly what form the TV might take, I did not plan any holes or power in the space where the TV would reside. Besides, I am not sure how easily we would be able to adapt to VTT for our games.

I and my fellow game master did spend some time investigating the different VTT software applications available and they overall were a disappointment. They did not seem very well developed a few years ago when this journey with the gaming table started, and even today they seemed to be either overly cumbersome or lack many fundamental features. Worse than that, they either required live Internet connections or only ran on Windows bases systems. This lack of flexibility and difficult to use programs kept us from moving forward with the VTT plans for quite some time.

It seems that most of these are written by gaming enthusiasts with little software engineering backgrounds. The tools looks and feel like applications that were written more than 20 years ago. This is not how development and applications are built today for mainstream users and businesses. Yes, some of these can be powerful, but so is a hammer. We need something that is easy to implement and add to the game without taking away from the fun and at the same time not adding a large burden to the game master. At this time, none of the tools or applications available fit this.

But, it was finally time to start testing the concept of VTT, but I was not willing to fully modify the table to allow a TV to be mounted instead. So instead, we opted for something that could mount on top and allow us to start gaining experience with how we might utilize a new tool for gaming.

We built a frame that would sit in the table with external connectivity as well as open cooling. Since TV’s normally rely on heat rising through the box and rarely have fans, we placed a vent on each side as well as two on the bottom to match the bottom of the TV. We would be relying on normal heat escaping the box to reach some sort of equilibrium between the box and the outside temperature. We installed a WiFi based temperature sensor to be able to track what the exact temperature might be at any given run point. To ensure that there were not any catastrophic beer spills we added in a rubber seal around the bottom edge of the outside of the box. The weight of the box was sufficient to press it down and form a tight seal.

We also installed a monitor arm on the side of the table via clamp. That required a lot of custom construction because of the depth of the table exceeded any possible clamp for the arm. A Mac-mini was installed on the back of the monitor and we were ready to go. As a backup we also installed an AppleTV to the second HDMI port so that we would be able to have other types of extended tests.

Glare from the lights actually become a more interesting problem. There are two sets of lights around the table. Ones around the outside and ones directly over the table. The ones around the outside were the ones that caused the most issue and by keeping those off and adjusting the dim value on the ones over the table we were able to achieve a level of light that was acceptable. Good thing all the lights were made to be able to dim, otherwise we would have had much more difficulty in finding an appropriate amount of light for the table and the players.

And then some live play on the new TV. I ended up using a graphics program for the creation of the fog of war and used different layers for different rooms and revealed them one by one as needed. While not the best solution it did work very well once I was used to the flow. The secret really was in making sure I properly labeled all the layers so I could find them quickly.

As a part of the installation, we also added a 1/8″ sheet of glass on top of the TV to protect the screen of the TV. While that thickness seems overly thin, it worked fine and the possible sag to the middle of the TV was only about 1/16″. There was some creaking in the beginning, but nothing after a week or so. I had absolutely no fear in cleaning the glass, and my cats would regularly walk and sit in the middle of the screen without any issues. The glass did however present an interesting problem. One, it increased the glare, and yes I could have paid for glare-free glass, assuming I can find a vendor making some this large, but two, there was now a gap between the miniatures and the actual image. It is large enough to cause most of the players to have some difficulty in keeping the miniatures in an actual square. You can see some of that in the images below.

This worked very well. Inside the box it reached a maximum of 87F as long as the outside ambient room temperature remained between 70F and 75F. The maximum operating temperature of the TV is 95F, so we were within the safe limits. Even with 24-hour stress tests everything ran fine and the maximum temperature stayed the same.

While happy with the functionality, it did raise part of the table up an additional four inches which for our shorter players made seeing the top even more difficult. Standing around the table became more difficult especially with glare on the screen. There was a lot more adjustment time, but after a week or so, everyone was enjoying the new experience quite a bit more than the old mat.

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Table Build – Postmortem

While the table is pretty awesome and everyone enjoys playing on it, I would be remiss if I did not look back...

Monster Cards