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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.

Playing on the Table of the Gods

It is a new glorious piece of furniture. It worked out better than I expected. Although the measurements for the top of the table were mostly based for me… some of our shorter players, well most of our players cannot reach all the mini’s from one side of the table to the other. Oh well. Maybe a croupier stick will work?

I thought it might be nice to show some gaming in progress to see how it looks. We will start with pulling out the leafs and use our Dwarven Forge 3D builds.

While nice, except for some specific set encounters, it is never time efficient to use the 3D landscape pieces. Instead most of the time we option for a monster sized Chessix grid mat that is large enough to cover the entire table.

And it seems that my cat likes the table as well.

About Me

I have been playing role-playing-games since the mid-70’s. I cannot actually remember all the different games I have played at this point. I did have an almost 20 year break between my heavy gaming days and just a few years ago. A lot of my alternate, IE, not D&D based books and such are all gone, but I still remember most of them fondly.

I have been in the computer industry for far too long and maybe one day my wife will let me retire. I did build myself a man cave after all.

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