Technology And Tabletop Gaming


Video games and tabletop role-playing games are two different animals. I think that if Wizards of the Coast figured that out, then they wouldn’t be up the creak like they are. They believe that it is their job to figure out for us how to use technology in our games, when this truly isn’t their role. Not to mention, that in the past they have shown a blatant disregard for how we do use technology in our games.

Back in the day gamers did everything by hand. We had mountains of maps drawn on graph paper, if we were really advanced we’d use a typewriter to type up our games, but for the most part, we just used a 3-subject notebook. We made all of our own character sheets, and a character had to actually prove himself to us before we would make a permanent sheet for the guy – which by permanent I mean one which we created with a pen.

Back then; printers were worthless unless you wanted to hang a big dotty banner over the table, AND WHO DIDN’T? Sure, if we had access to a computer we’d put some stuff on those big old floppy disks, but that was hardly safe! However, I think that the biggest hassle was moving books around. A player didn’t have that hard of a time, with just the PHB, but as DM I remember hefting around a hundred pound duffle bag stuffed with hardbound books! Did you need them all? No, but the moment that you didn’t bring one, then you’d need that one!

I was one of the first geeks in my group to buy a modern PC, at the time they were still astronomically expensive, but the price was getting more and more reasonable as the months flew by. 2nd Edition was in its last legs, with the 2.5 books that hit the shelves, setting folks up for the 3rd edition. But my point is that Wizards released a CD-ROM that was an interesting experiment. I can’t remember all of the details, as it was so long ago and I some how lost the thing, but I do remember that it had digital copies of the 3 core rule books, the PHB, the DMG, and the MM. I don’t think that the search technology worked all that great, but even if it did it was way ahead of its time. Too far ahead really, because while the prices for desktop PCs were dropping, Laptops were still crazy expensive and way beyond the means of most gamers, thus you couldn’t bring the thing to the table.

This was also the first time that we could actually make our own Character Sheets even better! I remember spending hours creating sheets for all of the classes, now I don’t do that, we just print off standard character sheets which is probably as illegal as hell, which brings up another point. While Wizards may not have the best ideas anymore, they are very giving in regards to their products. I mean how many people are posting copyrighted material and Wizards just looks the other way? Well, for now they are, and I’d like to think that as long as we are doing justice by giving commercials free of charge to them, then they’ll continue not suing me for infringement.

I don’t mean to be negative on anybody, especially the current holder of the D&D franchise, a product that has kept my mind and soul fueled with ideas for years! However, some of their business ideas are just lost on me. Namely the PDF thing. A lot of people were pirating books, so they suffered the folks who were actually paying them, by forcing everybody to pirate books now! I don’t know what they were thinking? That if we couldn’t buy PDFs of out of print books then we’d just go out and buy 4th Edition? That is just crazy!

Besides saving DMs from back problems, PDFs were easily searchable. The Pirate PDFs usually aren’t all that good. You’ve got pages missing, corrupted, or infected with god-knows-what! That, and often the pirated PDFs are just scans of the pages, making them unsearchable half the time. Wizards missed the market on what could be done. Instead of banning them, they could improve them.

One of the greatest Pirates ever made is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2nd Edition) Complete Set of 26 Books written by Dorian X. This guy was a madman! He hand-typed out 26 reference books, making it incredibly easy to find anything. There really isn’t any art, with the exception of MM pictures, and a map of Greyhawk, but as far as PDF.s go, this thing is indispensable for me. I own all of the hardcopys, so I really don’t feel all that bad about using it, but I can take all of these books with me on the go, and write my dungeons, or easily solve arguments at the table. I have used this PDF more then I’ve ever used my Tome of Magic book, I’ll tell you that.

My point is, that that PDF could be a model. There are enough fans out there that are willing to hand-type the originals, and they’ll probably do it for free, or be overjoyed with a nominal cut of the sales. You make decent PDFs and folks won’t even bother with the pirated crap anymore, or – sometimes, I just downloaded a pirate to see if I like the book, and if I did then I’d buy a good PDF of it. Finding hardcopies of books these days is getting harder and harder. Some of my original books are falling apart and I don’t want to open them anymore, PDFs, in this case, are superior to hardcopies because they don’t wear out.

MAPS

Wizards hasn’t always been clueless. All you have to do is go to their website and learn that! The Map-A-Week feature was gold! And their Free Download section is still one of my favorites. Mapping used to be difficult, I remember spending hours drawing basic maps on graph paper, but I am a slob! I’d smear my pencil marks all over the place, and make some of the ugliest maps that you’ve ever seen . . . just to lose them because they were all loose leaf. Now with great mapping programs like AUTORealm, anybody can pump out excellent looking maps which are clean and uniform, so that anybody who looks at it doesn’t have to first decipher my chicken scratches.

I think that TSR started some relationship with a huge mapping program, I remember seeing adds for it in Dungeon Magazine. This program was not just overly complex, outrageously priced (still is), but it was also a hog of one’s computer resources. I believe that this was the program that they used to make their own, professional maps, and they do look good but how many DM’s are skilled enough to use it?

Wizards has always been involved in making mapping cooler. On the CD-ROM which I mentioned above, there was a very crappy and basic mapping tool which, after you were done mapping, you could enter the dungeon in a first person, virtual reality perspective. This was bad ass, however, it was also completely worthless and impractical for how we tabletop gamers play games. Now I see that they are trying to bring this back. There is already a separate market for that, it is called Worlds of Warcraft, and it is its own thing. Let them have it, because the folks who are addicted to WoW still play tabletop games because we DM’s can do things that WoW will never have the tech to do.

NETWORKS

Probably the greatest Technical Advancement to tabletop games is, of course, the social networks. These things are bigger then Wizards, or even TSR ever could be. Folks don’t want OFFICIAL, they never did, they want great material, fresh ideas, and a place to express those ideas and get feedback with like-minded folks. In a sense, the social networks have replaced magazines, but they have also further splintered the players. No matter if you prefer 2nd Edition, 4th Edition, or OD&D, there is a network for that. Instead of fighting it, or trying to force folks over to some Official Site where you can charge them, just go with it, which, in a sense, Wizards, if they wanted to, could collect their lawyers and knock down all of the ivory towers. It wouldn’t be good publicity! But they would be fully within their rights to do it.

Folks miss magazines, but lets really look at this? What are your chances of actually getting a letter published in a magazines forum? I also think that the ideas on the web are much better then those published in Dragon. Sure, the art was better, and they were fun to read, but so is the Internet. Now we can also actually talk with the writers and get our own stuff read. No magazine publication on Earth could be this thorough!

As a DM, I can look over what a DM is doing over in Chicago or even in London, and maybe help him play-test his idea. If I have an idea I can usually get feedback from folks who have already tried it but couldn’t get it to work, or are willing to also try it and playtest it faster. Back in the day, you were limited to just the geeks in your Gaming Shop, now the entire world is at your fingertips. I think that the only drawback to this system is that I would love to play under a bunch of the Dungeon Masters that I’ve run into on the Networks, but I never will be able to. Ohhhhhhh Sad face 

TECHNOLOGY AND MY OWN PERSONAL GAME

I, probably like many Tabletop gamers, was at first, resistant to allowing a PC at the table. I’d write my scenes on WORD and then print them off, keeping a mountain of loose-leaf papers on a side-table, but I’ve now changed that.

Currently I am working from a Module which I don’t have an original copy for, which is fine because I hand-typed the whole thing and just up-dated it to my ruleset as I went. I created separate files for separate chapters, and I only print off things that I reference often and don’t want to go back to, because it is kind of a pain in the but.

Working off of WORD allows me to highlight text, and make changes as I need to. I do kind of miss writing in the margins, now I write on little notepads and I keep losing them.

I print off the maps, and keep them near me at all times. If a room is hard for me to describe, then either I can edit up a hand-out or draw it on a dry-erase board (which is also something new at my table).

I remember struggling with mapmaking software, and initially trying to make do without it, but once I tried AUTORealm, I was sold. I drew my first map at the table, and then reworked it in AUTORealm and it looked so fantastic that I kept using it. With AUTORealm, sometimes it is best to keep the map in the PC, and resize it as I need it. Now one can make some really advanced maps, which replaces those giant poster maps that have always been impractical for actual game use. Hell, the DM literally needed his own table to run many of them. Keeping the map on a laptop allows all of the players to have enough room and it keeps them from stealing a peek at the thing as well. However, when I am using AUTORealm at the table, I like to print off the key to it, this way I don’t have to switch back and forth too often, which slows down my ability to play.

There is also a great program which I use called DM Secretary 2.0. This program was made for 3rd Edition rules, and I’d love to be able to tweak it to reflect my own ruleset, however I’m just not computer savvy enough. It has a diceroller and I can keep track of players with it. Much of the time I prefer to roll real dice, but sometimes it is just easier to use electronic dice. Generating hit points for random encounters is reason enough to keep it open during the game.

When I am at home, I tend to use hardbooks, but most of my work is done at my day job, and PDFs are a godsend! Seriously, digital books are the one thing that I love more then any other technical advancement in regards to table top gaming! They are far from perfect, but the positives overweigh the negatives, which is why it blows my mind that Wizards discontinued their sale.

I have also found that by letting the PC do some of the work, it frees me up to focus on different aspects of the game which I tended to ignore before. Calculating XP, managing Time and tracking Movement just to name a few. After almost 2 years with a PC at the table, I can now say that my personal game has improved great enough to enjoy having it there.

I know that I am not the only person who was resistant to keeping one there, and there are other aspects of it that I haven’t even touched on, such as using pogs, printing maps for miniatures, I’m sure that the list isn’t yet exhausted, so take your own whack at it.

What is your favorite tool?
Can you go back to old-school gaming, or are you just too into drinking the Kool-Aid now?
How has the computer effected your gaming style? Did it make it better, or worse? Inquiring minds want to know!

Ripper DMing Temple of Elemental Evil session V

This game turned out much better then the last one did, but as a recap, I had a decision to make. I had forgotten that elves had infravision, and my mistake had led the party to believe that a darkness spell was in effect, and it did not allow the party to function as they normally should had. Shannon had already rolled up another character, as he had lost his other one to my failure. He should had been able to see that he was out numbered dramatically, and had time to change his tactic, and while I never liked making things a do-over, this was blatantly, my fault. I decided to give him his character back, and told everybody that it was a cognitive dream, a warning of doom, granted to them by St. Cuthbert.

I also felt that they didn't have enough muscle, so I had my wife roll up an additional fighter which she could play, as well as her witch. Both she and Shannon are experienced players and don't have a hard time playing two characters equally well at once.

The new Ranger (Shannon's character) and the new fighter (Misty's character) were companions sent on a mission to investigate the temple. The Druid in Hommlet instructed them to meet up with the party and join forces. The ranger had secret information about breaching the temple itself, but required a thief (Kim's character) and money to buy a mule (which they got sacking the moat house).

The other wizard didn't make it to the game this session, nor could Summer, who played the parties Cleric, which initially made me a bit nervous but decided to move along anyway. Kim showed up, and we have a new player ready to join us, but he just wanted to observe this session. Well, not really a new player as he's one of our old D&D buddies who moved back from Rockport Missouri, where, apparently, they don't play Dungeons & Dragons. HOW WEIRD IS THAT?!?! It's great to see his face again and I look forward to him joining. He has always brought an interesting dynamic to the table, and he's also an awesome DM so Shannon and I can have a break DMing, and actually play some!

Anyhow, back to the Temple. I took Mouse's suggestion of getting them inside of the Temple Ruins regardless of that impossible to make savingthrow against the front door, to heart. A secret chink was made in the armor of the Temple, a specific barred window could be breached with just the right amount of force. The Ranger was made aware of the hole by his superior, but needed a thief to scale the wall, which the party had. These two teams teamed up, amazing how fast friends are made isn't it?

They spent much of the session on the unoccupied level of the ruins, finding all of the little clues hidden throughout the place before venturing down below. Prepping for this session was much easier too. I knew roughly how far they would get, and spent much of the afternoon reading and correcting my way to Dungeon Level 2. Some of the first map isn't keyed very well, namely the stairs. It took me a half an hour to figure out where one of them went to because it didn't say.

I also improperly identified sturges, mistaking them for those stalactite monsters that fall from the ceiling, but quickly looked them up because I didn't remember them having bloodsucking abilities before, and they don't. Sturges are giant mosquitoes with bat wings, and I was able to quickly clarify the problem before we got too carried away with it.

Another problem that I ran into was with the Earth Elementals in the Earth Temple. I did my best to update it to 2nd edition, but didn't realize that the monster which it refers to was not in the MM, and I didn't know where it was. THOSE THINGS WERE MEAN!!!! THAC0s of 5, hit only by +2 weapons (which they didn't have) Rydan's mage had a +2 axe, but he wasn't at the table, and the mage was recovering from a wild night of drinking in the Nulb Hostle. The only thing that was their weakness was a Movement Rate of 6. We had to discus the best way to handle this situation in a way that everybody could agree with, and that was fair to everybody, including the earth elementals.

Misty reminded me that Huge creatures have a harder time hitting smaller creatures, so I looked it up and discovered that Huge monsters have a +9 to their initiative rolls. It was decided that since these creatures were in their element, if they hit their target, they would instantly do full damage, like it says in the 1e MM. However, since they were so slow, the only way that they could win initiative is if they rolled up a 1, and the player rolled a 10. Was it dangerous? YES! One hit meant fatality! But it was also fair. The player also had to roll a successful DEX check, else slip and fall, giving the Elemental an equal shot at initiative on the next round.

I assume that those creatures are in one of my MC books, but just didn't have time to look them up properly, but it is times like that that really make the game fun. Invention and brainstorming with the players is always a great time for me.

I'd also like to add that I really enjoy the Random Encounter method with ToEE uses. Instead of rolling %d and then rolling separate dice on a different chart, you just roll the %d. If the number is 11 or under, it tells you instantly what encounter you have, and if it is above that, then no encounter. I set the 10 min. timer and could quickly factor in search times and time spent doing other stuff, and didn't have to fuss over anything. IT WAS GREAT!!! Of course it doesn't factor in noise level or anything, but no system is perfect. As far as ease and speed, that system works awesomely.

I think that everybody had a good time. There wasn't any yelling or bitching and fighting going on this time around. The game was much easier to prep for because of the confined environment. Overworld prep just stresses me out! And no matter how much I prep for stuff, my players can always find themselves into spots that nobody even thought up before. It's much harder to do that underground . . . granted that it isn't impossible, just harder.

Ripper Ramblings: Snow D&D

I haven’t been very inspired lately, what with the weather and all. I live out here in the Midwest, and we’ve been pounded into submission by old-man winter. It is quite incredible; I’ve lived here my entire life, and have never seen this kind of snow nor these temperatures either. I suppose that I should use this as a lesson in how we survived in days before weatherproofing and electricity.


Twenty years after the end of the American Civil War we got temperatures and snow like this, but our lives are not nearly as complicated these days. It makes me wonder how our ancestors did it. How they handled such things.

Currently, the snows are so heavy that they are breaking roofs, some idiot actually got his snowblower up on the roof, how he did that I’ll never know, and I think that the only thing that I can say about that is that it didn’t end well.


In the mountains and up north, where they are used to getting several feet of snow each year, buildings are built to handle the strain. I’ve seen pictures of houses with mysterious doors up on the second level of the house, which are used in the winter-time, as that is how deep the snow usually gets and it totally blocks the main doors.


Warmth is also a problem, having enough fuel to get you through the winter has always been a problem. I grow up in the country and spent much of the warmer months clearing out trees and chopping them up for firewood for our stove incase the electricity was knocked out, and we could save a lot of money on energy bills by burning wood instead of propane. By wintertime, we’d have a huge horde of wood lined up along the fence-line, and by springtime much of it would be gone.


Back in the day there was no propane, nor electrical power plants. If you misjudged how much fuel you’ll need that winter, then the result was simple; you froze to death.


Cause and effect are typically the main duties of the DM to determine. What would happen if some magical, or spiritual being was the cause of such an extreme winter? Perhaps an ice dragon or an evil wizard bent on altering the weather so that new terrible beings can come through and wreck havoc, of course rewarding him while killing everyone else? Or perhaps the God of Frost is enraged and at war with another God, and decides to take it out on that gods followers. Would the people be prepared for it? And if not, what would happen?


My family and I have had to spend a ton of time indoors, snowed in because travel was all but impossible. It has snowed so much that the cities budget for snow-removal has already been used up. Machines used to plow the snow are breaking down because they aren’t getting any breaks, and now the temperatures are so low that the salts and chemicals that they use to melt ice aren’t able to cut it.


Fires are also a problem, which they always will be. I can’t imagine the risks that our ancestors took. Snow and low temperatures make a winter fire even more deadly. Machinery freezes up, as do the men who operate them. The emergency people are suffering because they have to go out in this stuff.


A fire in a winter catastrophe scenario would prove deadly when you are dealing with a fantasy setting, be it rural or city. Remember the Chicago fire? Buildings constructed out of wood, and built right next to each other. One small fire quickly turned into a citywide catastrophe which killed thousands, and left even the survivors lives in ruins.


Cause and effect: We pull one string and it affects all of the others. Keeping track of all of these strings and their functions is impossible, but as a creative tool, it keeps us on our toes. Personal experience is a great muse for gaming. Studying the real world around you can have great and lasting consequences to the quality of your games, if you let it. Observe my friends, and don’t be afraid to put these observations into your games.


FIND THE DOOR


I love dungeon delving, but I also like the game, Find The Door, and this kind of scenario would really fit in with that theme. One has to figure out if a savage winter is natural or not, and if it isn’t, then what is causing it?


On a fantasy level, crap like this would also affect the other beings in the world. Perhaps it would open up a channel for monsters that are normally further up north and away from humans to come down and have free reign in virgin territory and a new prey that is not ready and has no defense against them.


It wouldn’t take much of an imagination to see what kind of havoc this type of situation would create. Whatever discomfort and menace the humans or demi-humans are suffering can be measured ten-fold by the humanoid population which isn’t smart enough, nor have access to the resources to properly battle this problem. This may not even become apparent until well after the fact.


Come spring, it is noted that a natural resource is missing. Perhaps it is something as basic as food, or something as luxurious as a well-loved brandy? Whatever the resource is, all attempts to contact the small village that supplied it have resulted in loss of messengers. No word has come from this place since autumn. Adventurers are needed to travel to the small hamlet, and investigate what has happened too it.


Humanoids, noting the weakness of the people, and their inability to properly defend themselves have taken over the hamlet. Winter had decimated their numbers, parts of the hamlet collapsed from heavy snow, the small militia was kept busy trying to dig people out, and attempting to reach help, however that party met with disaster and the humanoids quickly stole the entire village, keeping those too weak or frightened to fight as slaves and food. What will the adventures find once they finally arrive? Will they be able to save the town? The possibilities are near endless!


The possibilities for mystery are epic, and because of the nature of winter storms, can be quite frightening as it can turn even an entire village into a snowbound menace, isolated and completely cut off from the outside world. Cabin-fever is a result of this, and was more of a problem in the past, then it is now. Imagine being snowed into a one-room shack for months at a time. Ones mind would eventually snap from loneliness, which can result in some fun ideas for role-players. A party trapped in a snowbound fortress, is it haunted, and if so, by what? What if we add an element of insanity into the mix? We can still have a real threat out there, but it can be mixed with the imaginings of a feverish mind. An illusionist could have a heyday with these people! Perhaps out of simply trying to amuse its self? The doomed crew of the HMS Terror became more of a menace to themselves then even the environment provided, the final resting place of this ship is still a mystery! Insanity brought on by food-poisoning, cold, starvation, and desperation. They found a small crew who died while trying to move a large boat full of worthless junk which they refused to abandon.


I suppose that one never really knows if the wolves howling outside of your door are truly hunting people, or if it is just all in their mind. A man who resorted to cannibalism, his attacks so grim that a healthy mind could never even fathom that the victims were savaged by a fellow human. They invent a monster do hunt for, ignoring all of the facts, while the madman, unable to deal with what he has done, erases the terrible deeds from his mind, dismissing them as nightmares; perhaps even leading the party because of some belief that he is psychically connected to the monster? The howling wasn’t a wolf at all, but a trick of the whipping and cruel wind.


Not to say that we don’t want to eliminate monsters completely, they too have their place, but it can be fun, from time to time, to battle the human monster. Perhaps the storm was caused because somebody took something away? An intelligent sword that kept the element of evil winter locked away, and no longer wants to be condemned to such a fate. The sword dominates its savior and wants to put as much distance between itself and the gate which became just as much its prison as it was the wicked elemental god. Something like this can take quite a while for a party to figure out what to look for, and it may take all of their wits and resources to get the sword back to where it needs to be.


These are just a few ideas for quick one-shots, or ideas that can be developed into a full blown campaign with just a little bit of work on your part.

Gaming Session IV

Not all games end well. I suppose that this is just a fact of gaming. Everyone enjoys a good game, but the one who gets blamed when a game goes badly is the DM.

The party has been macho in the past. They crushed the Moathouse in just a few short hours, they defeated the brigands who were in charge of protecting it in 3 rounds, in their own rights, this party is a bunch of super-heroes who did not act heroic when the time came to prove their mantle . . . or maybe it really was just my fault. I am frustrated.

The party made their way to Nulb, running into a random encounter of a bunch of Bugbears, which turned out to be the only rewarding combat of the game. Later they ran into bandits but they squished them very quickly.

They set up shop in Nulb, with plans to move any large quantities of cash over to Hommlet, as it is a safer base but just too far away to be utilized full-time. They made their way to the temple itself, and promptly failed the saving throw for the main gate. I had prepped as much as I could for last session, however that game was canceled because I was down 2 players, and we picked it up this game. I did as much prep as I could, however their is just so much that you can do. I focused my prep on best case scenario, they breach the main gate, explore the upper works of the Temple, and as far down as Dungeon Level 1. I had also prepped the tower incase they failed to break down the main door into the temple, which they did.

I had made a change to the tower, they have smashed everything up to this point with no trouble, so I added a gate that would close behind them before the trap would spring. All this would do was spook them and slow down their retreat if they attempted to back out. They also like to draw out their badguys, and since these guys were supposed to be the keepers of the Gate, I wanted them to call the shots and have the advantage.

The trap is simple, but brilliant. The good guys enter the tower, the gate closes behind them and the archers pelt them with arrows. They are fish in a bucket, the only light in the place shines on them! Well, they didn't act as a team. The fighter rushes into the darkness, leaving everyone else to take the archer fire. I let Rydan's attacks with magic missile succeed, even though he could not visually see his enemy. The fighters inside quickly picked the good guy fighter apart. Instead of having the good guys squish my badguys in 3 rounds, it reversed. The badguys quickly killed their leader, and forced a surrender.

Well, needless to say, I didn't prep for that. I had to stop the game because now the bulk of the party are sitting in some dungeon cell in the temple, and the only fighter in the party is dead. GREAT!!!!

Well, now I am stuck. I don't know if it really was my fault, or if it was theirs. I want to say that they got clobbered through bad gaming. They had several options open to them, the fighter could had lifted the gate and the party retreat so that they could rethink their strategy. They could have advanced as a team, the fighter drawing fire while the weaker members used the darkness for their advantage too. But the problem with that logic is that I really didn't give them enough time to think about stuff. This was supposed to be a very hard encounter, but my wife tells me that I didn't even give them a chance, and that I had set them up to fail.

They were 3rd level, my plan was to fight the party with archers to test them. The major characters just wanted to feel them out, and never intended to enter into combat themselves, nor did they. The encounter never strayed from their original plan, and the party fell right in line for what they wanted them to do.

Now the party is in prison, either set for sacrifice or for slavery I don't know yet. I don't know if they are strong enough to get themselves out of the mess that they are in. Shannon, who played the now dead fighter, was able to roll up a new character, this time he qualified for Ranger. I am just at a loss. I don't know if they really were outmatched, if they are still of an appropriate level to be able to complete the tasks that I ask of them, or if it was just a really shitty night.

What level are the other characters out there who have ran this dungeon? Is 3rd level just too damned low? I don't like doing do-overs, but if this is my fault then maybe they are entitled to a do-over?

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