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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 – 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.

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 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….

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.

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