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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.

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 – 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.

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.

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