Being a CFO and other topics

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Category: RPG

More Life Work Balance – Two Books that Just Came Out

The Dungeon of Graves

A while ago I blogged about the first role playing game (RPG) book that I had credit in. Two new books just came out and I also have credit in them as well for work I did. I have been more than swamped recently, but my actual work on these were done a while ago.

About a year or so ago, Patrick Pilgrim and I were chatting about how much we liked Frog God Games’ books, but how we wished they did 5e better. Patrick, with a little encouragement from me, called their CEO – Bill Webb – and Bill basically said if we thought it could be better then do it for him.

Patrick ended up becoming 5e Frog and really taking the world on his shoulders for this, and I ended up doing conversion work for The Blight 5e, Tome of Horrors 5e and finally Rappan Athuk 5e. Rappan Athuk is the infamous dungeon of graves, famous for being huge and deadly and being a part of the latest incarnation is fun.

I have done a lot in my career and as a father and son, but I must admit, the 12 year-old boy that started playing D&D in high school (yes, I played in my parent’s basement) is pretty happy to see his name in the credits. Today, being a nerd is part of the pop culture hero story because so much of the technology we take for granted came from nerds, but when I started playing it was different. I still run into a lot of people my age and quite far in their career (running (or very senior)  big companies) that played D&D when they were younger. Some still do today. There is something about the creativity and the ability to lead small teams that is key in D&D that translates well later in life.

As always, my love to my core gaming buddies who I still DM today (Mark Potter , Ed Elce, Robert “Red” Mair and Sonny Reid) and the two newcomers that joined us (Rob Jordon and my daughter Sarah). I learned the newest edition of D&D (5e) with them.

If you want to buy the books, they can be found here: https://froggodgames.com . PDF only right now but available in hardcover in August 2018.

Using 5e Rules and Adventures to Play “Old School” Games

Between 10-15 years ago, not long after the advent of the first Open Gaming License from Wizards of the Coast, there was a formulation and publishing of various clones of the original Dungeons and Dragon rules. At the time, it was needed for two basic reasons: 1) The original rules had long been out of print and it was getting harder and harder to find at an economical cost, especially outside the main markets for the games when they were first released. 2) The OGL allowed you to publish and sell adventures without any worries that WoTC would take legal action against you to protect their intellectual property, including their copyrights.

There are a lot of philosophical reasons why the OSR became more visible and prolific as like-minded people were much more able to share a common core of ideas over the internet, in particular in forums. At the time, there were a lot of people that felt that the 3rd edition of D&D was suffering from rules bloat and there were too many rules that took the game play from interactive story telling moderated by the dungeon master to roll playing where the players just made a die roll as indicated by a skill or other written rule. The game emphasis also shifted from gaining loot to killing monsters as the base way to earn experience points moved from 1 gold piece = 1 experience point to all of the experience points earned coming from the results of combat.

If you wander through the old forums, some only available via internet archive sites, you will find very little resistance to the new rules themselves. The original rules were such a bare framework that anyone who had been running a game for a long time had invented and used house rules to cover common occurrences in their games or to ensure the right type of characters so that they could run the type of game they wanted to. There were a few people that really preferred the old THAC0 or even older systems of looking it up on tables, but ascending AC with a target number to hit was quite popular.

The combination of the practical reasons to want to publish OSR rules and a few motivated people empowered by desktop publishing resulted in quite a few game systems being published, all of which took their own path in tweaking the original rules to suit the different developers that worked on the rules. Some were thought experiments of how to use the now OGL 3rd edition rules and back cast to recreate the older rule sets and the ability to cheaply publish and advertise over the internet meant that their experiment traveled broadly and mutated into new versions. I do find it ironic that for all the discussion on too many rules, pretty much every OSR ruleset introduces some new form of “house rules” to the OSR ruleset. Even today, there are many OSR style products that are completely the introduction of new rules as the product takes D&D to space or WWII or whatever new setting imagined by the author. Somewhere buried deep is the old framework, but all you can see is the new rules on spacecraft and the reviews laud the new rules as well.

I find it ironic that the fear that the older rules were rare and expensive are basically gone today. You can go to the DMs Guild website and purchase PDF of the original rules, and there were reprints of the AD&D rules made pretty recently as well and they can still be found on amazon.com. So if the reason for the creation of the new rulebooks was to make sure the old rules were available at a reasonable price, that no longer applies:

Want a printed version of the Basic D&D rules? (Labyrinth Lords)

Basic Rules Cyclopedia

How about the AD&D rulebooks? (OSRIC and S&W Complete)

AD&D Player’s Handbook

Not old school enough, want the original books (PDF only for now but all three of the original books plus the reference sheets)? (S&W White Box)

Original D&D

I don’t think you even need to go to the effort of buying the older rules if you want to play an OSR-style game, the current 5e rules are quite capable of OSR play and they have the advantage of also having all the modern modules and materials available as well.

Here is the basis I used for what an OSR game is, Matt Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming:

https://www.froggodgames.com/quick-primer-old-school-gaming

In the primer, there are 4 “Zen moments” that Matt says are the essence of OSR:

  • Rulings, not rules
  • Player skill, not character abilities
  • Heroic, not super-heroic
  • Forget game balance

5e handles these “Zen moments” quite well. I will attempt to describe how, but before I do, here is the absolute first thing you need to change – where experience points (XP) come from. The base rule in 5e says that XP comes from killing monsters. If you want a game where combat is less important, you need to reward the players for something other than killing monsters. Otherwise, they will kill monsters as their main activity as that is the only way they will be able to increase in level. The two choices are either milestone advancement (give XP or levels based on how they progress within the story) or gold = XP. You will need to come up with your own house rule on gold = XP as it is not in any of the published rules. If you need a quick and dirty one, most of the modern adventures work fine with dividing the monster XP in the rules by 10 and granting 1 XP per GP. If you make your own adventures you will have even more control over that.

I also want to be clear that Matt wrote the document at the very dawn of the publication of 4e D&D. At that time, there had been years of both WoTC and 3rd party publishers releasing book after book that added more and more and more rules for 3e games and there was a general feeling that too many new rules had been created.

Ruling, not rules

5e has tremendously pared back the skill lists compared to other editions (18, not including tools and proficiencies) and feats are optional, so should not be considered to be standard. The advice in the new DM’s Guide to decide if a player action succeeds is not that different than what Matt presents as OSR style playing and the basic rule in 5e is remarkably similar to the same house rule that most DMs have been using for decades which is if it is not an automatic success, pick a number and roll against it (or under ability scores which also was super common).

5e also has a catch-all rule that is much better than any OSR rule I can remember – advantage/disadvantage. So if you decide there needs to be a random check, and the character has done something that should be good but does not make the success automatic, then they get advantage.

If your players say that they are doing something that should result in something happening, just make it happen. There is “the rule of cool” that popular streamers do all the time. They focus on making the game fun and on the story, not the dice rolls (dice rolling is boring to watch). Most streamers are using 5e D&D, there is no reason why you cannot do the same.

“But, but, there are a lot of rules. How can you just ignore them?”, you may say. I am not ignoring the rules. 5e is remarkably streamed down and straightforward in many ways compared to even the original rules once you add in all the supplements. The secret is not to hunt for a rule, it is to make a ruling within the framework of the existing rules.

In the example of jumping off a ledge, 5e does not have specific rules for that. Just make a ruling on the fly. I would say, critical on a 19 or 20 for the drop adding damage and surprise and an Acrobatics roll with a DC 10 to land balanced and on your feet. Simple, lets them do something out of the box and I have made a ruling that works within the rules and we can move on to the next person in initiative order.

I would also note that the theory that there were not a lot of rules in the original D&D is not well supported, especially if you consider that Chainmail was officially considered to be the combat system to be used. The original rules even had details on how to run naval and air combat, including writing down expected actions in advance and revealing them as is common in wargames. There were rules on castles and running estates. Rules on specialists and how to hire them. Rules on henchmen with the expectation that you would enter the dungeon with hirelings and henchmen in tow. There was a solid framework to use, what is missing from the original rules and modern rules is all the details and explanations that fill out the framework. The DM was expected to do that.

Player skill, not character abilities

This is an area where I disagree with Matt. D&D has always been an RPG, and even from the very first booklet, there were attributes for each character and the base classes had abilities and rules. Rolling for abilities was mainly done for combat and spell casting, but character abilities were constantly used in the original games. What there was not at the time was a large set of rules for skills, other than thieves and detecting secret doors (elves), sloping passages (dwarves) and opening doors/bend bars/lift gates.

I think that the “player skill” over “character abilities” theory comes from the early tournament culture of D&D and AD&D. Chainmail evolved from miniatures war games rules and the early D&D players all had strong roots in wargaming culture. That lead to games being run in tournament format and tournaments are quite different than a regular weekly game as you have limited time to run them and you need victory conditions. You ran modules like Tomb of Horrors and counted survivors and how far you got into the dungeon. Or you added riddles into the game that players had to solve, and the riddles may not have even related to the game setting at all (I made the finals of the one GenCon I went to in 1983 or 1984 and we missed an important riddle as we were mainly Canadians in the group and the riddle assumed you know what a military Bronze medal was).

My issue with that is that I think it is poor roleplaying and poor playing in general as I think that the characters should have a personality and a hook into the setting and not just be the players. That means that your characters should have access to the knowledge and training they have for who they are. Even the earliest editions allowed checking against ability scores, and 5e has significantly dialed back the skill list and added the already discussed advantage mechanic plus bounded accuracy.

Now, in Matt’s defense, he does say his examples are exaggerations, but if you want an OSR style game but use 5e, don’t be a lazy DM and do not allow your players to be lazy. If moving a moose head reveals a secret passage, allow automatic success if the players say they try it. Don’t allow Investigation or Perception rolls to give the answer, give hints out instead. If there is a trap and your thief checks the area for traps, ask them how they are checking and where. If they are not specific enough to find the trap or you want it to be a little harder to find, use the Perception roll to see if they notice anything off. Don’t tell them they found a trap, give them a good hint that something is off. Maybe they see scuffs on the floor or a thin tread wrapped around a hinge, or something similar. Play it up as much as you can without telling them directly and see what they do. Use the skills as a guide, not a requirement and both you and your players will enjoy it plus you will draw them into the adventure a lot more.

One of the issues with the newer modules is that they have blocks of text meant to be read out. Older modules tended to describe the room in a general was, but “chat boxes” meant to be read out loud by the game master are newer. I like them, but they also encourage not only a little bit too much laziness, they also set off too many alarms when suddenly you start giving away hints because of successful Perception rolls. Before, the DM would always be making things up, little details when describing the room because nothing was really being spoon fed to them (us, I can get just as lazy). If you’re not quite sure what to describe of say for extra detail, I can suggest an old standard – a table to roll on. In this case, a “dungeon dressing” table.

http://www.rpgnow.com/product/152495/GMs-Miscellany-Dungeon-Dressing-System-Neutral-Edition?affiliate_id=229540

And here are a few free examples to try out:

http://www.ragingswan.com/10-things-to-say-when-a-pc-makes-a-perception-check-and-finds-nothing/

http://www.ragingswan.com/10-suspiciously-detailed-dungeon-double-doors/

The Raging Swan website has a lot of free example tables, and a little bit of reading and some creativity and suddenly you will be about as old school as you can get when you describe the room. All while playing 5e.

Heroic, not super-heroic

There is really not all that much to say here. Low level characters have always been somewhat fragile in all editions of D&D. The next concept on not needing game balance is where I will describe the consequences of this in more detail, but the shortcut to the explanation here is that characters can die and character death should be a real possibility. The original rules’ level tables ended as earliest as level 8 for clerics. The rules described levels above what the tables went to, but magic user spells ended at level 6 and Clerics at level 5.

In addition, hit points per level were 1d6 and pretty much all weapons did 1d6 damage. There really was no concept of starting level 1 with maximum hit points and maximum bonus for higher Constitution was +1 per hit die. So characters were able to be killed with one blow at first level and reaching zero meant you died. No death saves and not even -10 hit points is death. Over time, additional conventions that made zero simply be unconscious were added, but the original D&D was pretty unforgiving. There actually was not a specific rule what to do at zero hp, the 0 = death was a Chainmail convention and Chainmail was the default combat system with death being the result of combat in that system.

However, for all the talk or only heroic, fighting-men could get one attack per level against others with 1 hit die or less and a 10th level fighting-man was much more effective against goblins that a 10th level Fighter is today because they would attack 10 times a combat turn, not twice.

Finally, 5e has significant reined in bonuses and is more in line with original D&D that way. The middle editions of D&D had bonus creep as they added more and more abilities and feat whose bonuses stacked. In order to account for the higher and higher bonuses, a DM had to make difficulties higher and higher to make a challenge for even medium level characters such that it would be impossible for a lower level character to succeed and impossible for a higher level character to fail.

In the end, remember that even Conan in the height of his strength was often captured and suffered defeat. Make sure the characters in your game are in the same peril.

Forget Game Balance

As RPG game companies became more and more experienced at writing adventures and as people communicated more and more over the Internet, a concept of “game balance” grew into the accepted wisdom. Coupled with the increasing number of adventures that were published that were not direct translations of convention/tournament scenarios where killing one-shot characters was part of the design, there started to be level appropriate adventure paths that ramped in difficulty as the characters increased in levels. All of the current WoTC 5e offerings are like that. There is a clear sequence of material and a clear progression to follow. If it is followed, the party will increase in levels and ability as the story progresses. The encounters are challenging, but level appropriate in that the party will find them winnable. The Monster Manual(s) assign ratings to the monsters as a guide of when they should be used and the DMs Guide has a section on designing balanced monsters. The adventures or adventure settings tend to be very complete with  a lot of detail that the party may never see and the DM may never use, but there just in case.

The original published adventures and the ones DMs wrote themselves for their friends did not have this concept of balance so firmly built in. Because XP was given for gold pieces, sneaking past or tricking monsters to get the gold was about he same for character progression. Although it is patently false to say that game balance was not in the original rules (the wandering monster tables in book 3 are divided by level and the early adventures usually got harder the deeper you went), unwinnable fights and instant death traps were common because the players had the ability to avoid them with good play.

I would sum up the two main drivers of a more OSR game is player agency and character death as a real expectation. Modern adventures, in their quest for game balance, are not as open (sand box) as the random hex crawls and dungeon crawls where the game got its start. Players would tell the DM what they wanted to do or where they wanted to go and the DM would run with that, even if it meant almost certain player death, because that is what they said they wanted to do. As the character creation was more direct with much less detail required, a new character was quick to make and many players had extra ones ready. Once the party included hirelings and henchmen, there was a natural resource to convert from NPC to player character when a death happened.

There is absolutely no reason why you cannot run existing 5e adventures that way or to design your own adventures that way. As I noted above, milestone XP or even XP for gold pieces removes the need for the party to constantly fight. Discourage your players from writing a novel as a backstory before the first session and let everyone know that character death is to be expected up front. I also would note that the internet is full of stories of total party kills (TPK) in the Lost Mines of Phandelver (the intro adventure meant for players brand new to RPG or 5e or both). I ran that for my group that was 2/3 my original crew from Holmes basic and AD&D and they survived because they treated it like an OSR adventure. Even WoTC is producing adventures when encounters are not balanced to the party level in their 5e base set, so there is no reason why you cannot give players more agency and allow them to get themselves into more trouble than they can handle.

Running or Playing in an OSR Game

I will end this introductory discussion with a suggestion that might seem a little contradictory to the points I just made above. You can fully run an OSR style game using 5e, but I strongly suggest that you try playing in or running an adventure using one of the original or OSR rulesets. There is really no investment to do that but time as there are plenty of free and complete rules and adventures available.  I suggest this because it will help you to better understand what a more rules light game is like and how the older adventures were put together.

If you want to be like most of us that started after the original set came out, try B1 In Search of the Unknown or B2 Keep on the Borderlands. As of this writing they are about to be updated to 5e by Goodman Games, but they are available in their original form. I would try B2 over B1 but they both are a good introduction to OSR style play.

http://www.dmsguild.com/product/17081/B1-In-Search-of-the-Unknown-Basic

http://www.dmsguild.com/product/17158/B2-The-Keep-on-the-Borderlands-Basic

Both of the modules are $4.99 in PDF format and have the option of a printed copy as well.

If you want free rules to run them under, here are a few OSR suggestions (otherwise the Basic Cyclopedia linked above works fine). Both were originally published with 4 classes (fighting-man, cleric, magic user and thief) in the Holmes Basic set, so the original 3 booklets for D&D are a little behind the times. Thus Swords and Wizardry White Box is close but not complete.

Dark Dungeons (created when the Basic rules were hard to find and getting expensive due to collectors)

http://www.rpgnow.com/product/177410/Dark-Dungeons

Sword and Wizardry Core Rules (Complete is also available for free but has many more classes and this version has just the 4 classes and the races from when the modules first appeared).

https://www.froggodgames.com/swords-wizardry-core-rules

Basic Fantasy RPG – Rule book and adventures available for free from the website or in an inexpensive printed version

http://www.basicfantasy.org/

Printed version of Basic Fantasy rules

And a reprise of the second Basic Set (Basic/eXpert, often called B/X). I linked the text only free version, there is one for $4.99 with art as well.

http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/220729/B-X-Essentials-Core-Rules–Plain-Text-Edition

The above is a good subset of OSR rules based on some of the original D&D rules. WoTC has been slowly but surely making their older rules available again, but they have not opened up the ability to publish new adventures using their old rules so the different rulesets that use existing Open Gaming Licenses have allowed many people to legally publish new material.

I know that this might not be entirely accurate in timing, but here are the two OSR rulesets that are generally credited to have started OSR.

S&W WhiteBox (Original D&D – the first three booklets from the boxed set only). Free PDF linked, there are printed versions as well. This product has spawned many others as it was set up as a sandbox for others to play with as long as proper credit was given.

http://www.lulu.com/shop/matthew-finch/swords-wizardry-whitebox-rulebook-pdf/ebook/product-14956259.html

OSRIC (AD&D, sometimes called 1e but not by me)

http://www.lulu.com/shop/stewart-marshall/osric-a5-pdf/ebook/product-20697767.html

And one final link, to a Youtube Channel run by Matt Finch (I used his primer above and he has been instrumental in writing OGL compliant rules from the beginning of the OSR). You can find videos of an old school D&D adventure he is running called Sword of Jordoba in the channel if you want an example of what he means to run a game under the older rules.

Uncle Matt’s D&D Studio

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Publisher’s Choice Quality Stock Art copyright Rick Hershey / Fat Goblin Games

www.fatgoblingames.com

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Note on affiliate links – this site uses affiliate links for several websites (One Book Shelf group and Amazon.com). There are not enough earnings from them to influence me, they don’t even come close to covering the cost of the website. I use them as a way to raise a small amount of money to cover some of the costs of my hobby.

Getting Started Playing D&D 5E using Fantasy Grounds Virtual Tabletop Program

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Fantasy Grounds is a virtual tabletop program designed to make playing role playing games online.  In many ways, it replicates the experience of playing in person with a table in the middle of the group, and in many ways it is quite different.  It is not an RPG game itself.  It does not have an Artificial Intelligence and it requires a someone to be running the game for other players.  This person is commonly called the Game Master (or Dungeon Master for D&D) and that person will be the “host” for the game.  The program uses a client/server approach with the GM running the server and the players connecting to the server as a client.

You do not need a VTT to play D&D online.  There are a lot of quite powerful conferencing software programs that allow for video, audio and sharing of screens.  Any of these could be used (GoToMeeting is a good example).  A lot of companies have spent a lot of money developing conferencing software to make remote business meetings better and if that is all you are looking for, the ability to share your screen (probably for maps) and to have multi-person audio is all you need.  A VTT like Fantasy Grounds does this better for specialized functions like dice rolling and moving tokens on the map, but I have not seen any VTT that is as good as the meeting software you can find from major corporations like Cisco for basic remote conferencing ability.  I prefer using Fantasy Grounds, but you do have other options.

Where to Get the Program

www.fantasygrounds.com or on Steam.  Search for Fantasy Grounds in Steam.

The Cost = Free (probably)

If all you want to do is play, Fantasy Grounds is often free.  There are two levels of license and two ways to pay, but the base software itself is free.  Let me breakdown the cost of the two licenses you can pay for, but the demo software is free and fully functional for playing.

Remember that Fantasy Grounds uses a client/server model and that the person running the game, the Dungeon Master in the case of 5e D&D, is the server.  It is the level of license that the server has that determines if the players have to pay for a license to play.  You also cannot buy content for the free, demo version of the game, you need to have bought a license.

The two different levels of licenses are Standard ($39 onetime fee or $3.99 a month subscription) and Ultimate ($149 one time or $9.99 a month subscription).  The only real difference between the two server licenses are that the Ultimate license can host unlimited free players while the Standard one cannot effectively host any free players (it can host one, but if anyone else joins the game, paid license or not, there can be no free players).

One not so secret feature of Fantasy Grounds is that it has been around a while.  People that like to DM tend to buy the Ultimate license.  So within the community of people that like to DM, many of them have bought the Ultimate license.  So a great many of the DM’s that are looking for players advertise that they have the Ultimate license and that means you do not need to spend anything for the program if all you want to do is play.

If you are only going to be a player, then the only license you will ever need is the Standard license.  If that is the case, I highly suggest that you ignore the subscription option and just pay the onetime fee of $39.  If you play for 10 months it is a wash and if you play for 4 months and then buy the Standard license you cannot apply any subscription fees that you have already paid to the onetime cost.

If you mainly want to be a DM, then I suggest that you consider the Ultimate license, but I will cover that in a different blog entry.  Just let me say that being a DM that can accept any player and who has all the rules available is expensive compared to just being a player.  This is no different at all compared to being a DM in a physical tabletop game as the DM usually buys the modules, provides the maps and monster miniatures, etc.

Sales/Discounts

The MSRP of the Standard license is $39.  Steam routinely sells a 4 pack of licenses for $120 (25% discount or $30 each).  There also is a 20% off sale for a single license every few months, at least for the Standard license.  Once or twice a year (Black Friday/Cyber Monday time, for example, usually when Steam does their big sales events) there might be a larger discount.  If you’re a little patient, you can probably get the Standard license for close to or just below $30.

What Operating Systems Does It Come On?

The program is a Windows program.  It works on Mac OS and Linux via WINE or other Windows emulation programs.  Fantasy Grounds recommends that you use the Steam version for the Mac as the installer seems to work better.  There usually are no real issues with installing the program in Windows, just about the only real choice you need to make is where the data will be stored.  Mac installations can be tricky, I had issues getting it to work on my daughter’s MacBook Air and if you don’t want to have to google and read through forum posts, I suggest trying Steam first.  Steam actually is convenient as it stores your license keys for you.  I have not tried installing it on Linux but others do run it there.

How Powerful a Computer / Internet Connection Do You Need?

The official specifications can be found on Fantasy Grounds and Steam.  This is the latest for Windows:

Windows Vista, Windows 7 or Windows 8 (and Windows 10 – my addition)
DirectX 9.0 or better
DirectX 9.0 compatible video adapter
RAM: 4 GB
Internet Connection

Those are not very demanding specifications and I have connected and been the DM on a Cellular 3G Hot Spot.  A faster Internet connection helps but there is not much data being sent back and forth unless larger graphics files are being loaded.

What About the Rules or DLC?  What do they Cost?

Even the demo/free version comes with the Systems Rules Document (SRD) that Wizards of the Coast provides for free.  It is almost all the rules including the rules on creating characters, their spells, weapons, equipment, almost everything except for the detailed class options.  This is free with every license level of Fantasy Grounds and includes drag and drop functionality onto your character sheet.

The DM also has the ability to share any DLC they have bought with players that are connected to his game (server model).  If you are not connected, you do not have access any more.  Most DM who run 5e games will own the Player’s Handbook (called D&D Complete Core Class Pack in Fantasy Grounds) and you can connect to their game and use it to create your character and whenever you need to level your character up.

You cannot buy DLC without at least a Standard license.  If you are just going to play D&D, the only DLC you will need is the Player’s Handbook.  Remember that the SRD, which is free, comes with all the standard rules and almost 100% of all the spells.  Fantasy Grounds not only sells the complete “core class pack” with all the character class details, it also sells the classes as a separate pack for each class.  So if you are playing in one campaign with your friends, you are unlikely to be playing multiple characters with multiple different classes, and that means you just need to buy the class pack for your character.

The cost for the entire “Complete Core Class Pack” is at the MSRP that WoTC has or $49.99.  That is not the price that Smiteworks (the company that owns Fantasy Grounds) sets, that is the official WoTC price that they have to follow.  One other VTT is now licensed for official 5e D&D materials and they are charging MSRP as well.  Even more often than the license there are 20% off sales on the Player’s Handbook.  So if you wait you can get it for $40.  Even less on the much rarer special sales days.

You can also just buy the class pack for your character class for between $3 and $6 depending on which class you want.  Unlike the SRD, the DLC contains all the class features from the Player’s Handbook, and, if appropriate, all of the spells.  There is one more piece of DLC that has all the races and all the background “fluff” automated and that is $9.  This DLC also includes the optional feats that you can use if the DM decides to add that to the game.

So, total cost for the software license and the complete Player’s Handbook is, if bought when not on sale, about $90.  Again, there is a good chance this will be completely free assuming the DM has an Ultimate license and has the DLC available for you.  This drops to $46 if you just buy one class pack.  Or $55 if you want the race details and background details to be automated.

Your cost for the DLC if you played with the physical book at MSRP?  About $50 if not on sale.  There is no difference in DLC cost!  Sure. Amazon.com has the books for less than MSRP but Fantasy Grounds offers it on sale as well on occasion.  You do not have the option of just buying one character class, so you actually save money there if you are just a player and only want one or two character classes.

More on the Rules and DLC

You do not just get the text of the rules.  Fantasy Grounds actually automates a lot of the rules.  For example, roiling to hit a monster and dealing damage can be completely automated by the game.  You get dice built into the game and this includes a 3D animation of the dice being rolled.  The rules automation is all free and included in the SRD and the different DLC increases the automation.  As a player, you get what the DM has purchased when you play and most who have been DMing for quite a while will have all the automation.  The program has a full effects builder and you can generally automate most powers, weapons, spells, features, traits, etc. that you have.

One Last Comment On the Cost of Fantasy Grounds

If you read reviews of Fantasy Grounds, especially when compared to other VTT (the main competition is Roll20, D20Pro and Map Tools), almost always the “high cost” of the software is the first major criticism.

As I have already explained, the software is FREE and you very often can play for FREE.  Unless you and your friends are all brand new to Fantasy Grounds (and I was when I started with my friends a year ago), you can probably find a game with a DM with the Ultimate License and play for free.

Let’s assume that you all are new to Fantasy Grounds and you all want to DM at some point.  My first advice is for the one being the DM to try for one month the subscribe to the ultimate license and everyone else use the demo client for free.  If you cancel before the month is up, you get the first month subscription free.  So your group can try to play with a DM using the Ultimate license, the full SRD and free modules that the community has made available (probably not as good as the commercial ones available but they are not bad) for free.  As in it costs you nothing.  Really, I mean FREE.

Then, after the free month you like it a lot and you buy it, and it is not on sale and you pay $40.  Please go to Steam and look at the top selling software.  The average price is between $40 and $60 with $60 being the typical “A list” price.  If you want to play multiplayer, everyone needs to own their own copy.  I can assure you, that if you really like D&D, you will log more hours for your $39 that you spent than pretty much any other software you own on Steam.

If you want to play D&D, then you need the rules.  So the DLC cost is not really fair to add on to the cost of Fantasy Grounds when discussing the cost to play.  Since the SRD is free and most of the rules and you can actually recreate everything else yourself if you had time without buying the rules DLC, if you have time and no money you can play for free except for the license cost.

There are some stones you can toss at Fantasy Grounds because of the age of the program (it is old but maintained and had the official 5e D&D DLC at least a year before anyone else did) and UI choices that were made, but the cost is not high, especially when there is a good argument that for a player it is often free.

What Else Do You Need?

In theory, you could play by typing into the chat window (and some handicapped players do exactly that) but almost everyone will want some form of voice option and something that can support all the players in your group at the same time.  I do not want to do a grand survey of all the available options, so here is my top three choices: Teamspeak, Skype and Google Hangouts.  You could even do a conference call by telephone if you wanted to.

There are other options to Teamspeak (Discord, mumble, ventrillo etc.) but there is a free Teamspeak server provided by the Fantasy Grounds community so if you are joining a game you found on the Fantasy Grounds forums there is a good chance you will be using Teamspeak.  There is a free client available at www.teamspeak.com.  There also are IOS and Android clients for phone charges.  As an aside, a non-commercial 32 user server is free and I run one on my Networked Attached Storage unit but the software is not that demanding.  You can even run it on a Raspberry Pi ( https://eltechs.com/run-teamspeak-3-server-on-raspberry-pi/ ).  There are plenty of guides out there on how to use Teamspeak.  You will need to know the server information where to connect.

I personally do not think that video is needed for the conferencing software, but both Skype and Google Hangouts offer it.  I traveled a fair amount and part of that time was in China and I and my group often play from hotel rooms.  Bandwidth can be at a premium and video eats a lot of it.  If your group uses these programs, then make sure you understand what you need to do to connect.

No matter what software you use, a headset and a decent microphone really help.

So I have Everything, How Do I Play?

The very first thing you will need, after the program is installed and running, is the information you will need to connect to the server (to the DM that is running the game).  Your DM will likely give you one of three things:

  1. An IP address which is a string of numbers like this 192.168.1.1
  2. A server alias which is normally a few words like “friend blue squad”
  3. A URL or internet address like this “fantasygrounds.com”

You click the Join Game button on the front page that comes up.

FGstarting Screen

That gives you a screen with two choices – user name and Host Address

FG server input

In the user name box, use whatever name you want associated with you in the game (generally not your character name but it can be).  In the Host Address Box you put the connection information that the DM gave you, one of the three options above.

Your program (a client) will now try and connect to the DM (running the server).  Assuming that you entered the correct connection information.  Try to remember what user name you used.  It all will be saved on the screen and if the same next time you can just click what you last used.  Your DM can fix it if you change user names, but your character is “owned” by your user name.

There are a lot of Youtube Videos and Wiki entries that shows you how to play and if your DM is experienced, they will help you learn the program.  Let me give a few top level tips here, but this is about getting started, not using the program.

The UI of the program is unusual and it does not look or act like a standard Windows (or Mac OS) program.  It takes a little getting used to, but playing is much easier than being the DM and there is not as much to learn.

The first thing you will find is that right clicking will bring up a circular or “radial” menu.  There will be a center “spoke” and symbols around it.  Hovering over the symbol should bring up a tool tip.  Clicking the symbol activates it.  Clicking the center spoke closes the menu.

To enter ability scores, you need to hover the “hand” pointer over the space and then type.  Follow this specific order:

  1. Enter your ability scores.
  2. Then drag your race into the race spot.
  3. Then drag your class to the class spot. You will level up later by dragging the class here again.

Please note that if you start adding and subtracting races or manually changing numbers, the program may not calculate all the bonuses correctly.

Look for what looks like little magnifying glasses.  Clicking them often opens up more fields for input.

Either find an image before you connect or do an image search once you make your character.  Dragging and dropping the image onto the portrait spot for it will create a token for your character.  There also are portraits included in the game or you can use outside images.

One the right is a series of buttons.  The two most common ones you will use as a player are the combat tracker (top of the button row) and the library (where you will find the rules, like the player’s handbook) available for you to read.

Generally, you can target two ways.  Holding control and clicking on the token or on the entity in the combat tracker will add or remove a target.  I find clicking the combat tracker to be more reliable.

There is no area of effect targeting.  There are “pointers” that can draw the area of effect on the map and then you individually target the appropriate entities.

You attack by the action tab in your character sheet.  Open it up, select the weapon and double click the “to hit” die.  The game should automatically determine if you hit or miss if you targeted before you rolled.  Click the damage die to do damage.

Most of the spells that can be are automated.  Target and either apply the effect or roll to hit or apply damage, whatever is needed.

The bottom left near the chat window has the buttons and space to apply modifiers before you roll.

Holding shift while applying (clicking for) damage makes it a critical.  Normally the game has already done this and it is not needed.

When you are done with your turn, there is a button to click in the combat tracker to move to the next player or NPC.

The DM can roll all initiatives or you can roll your own.  I find it faster for the DM to do it but many players do not like that.

Using hit die to heal is done by clicking the die on your character sheet.

Again, read the detailed wikis or spend a few hours watching the Youtube videos before you first play and your first session will be better.  This is especially good if your whole group is new to Fantasy Grounds.

Have Fun!

These are links to buy the physical (not Fantasy Grounds versions) D&D 5e rule books: Player’s Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons) Monster Manual (D&D Core Rulebook) Dungeon Master’s Guide (D&D Core Rulebook)

In Person 5e D&D using Fantasy Grounds

Last weekend my gaming group flew to where I live to celebrate a milestone birthday for me. Three of my online group are old friends from high school and college when I was first starting to play D&D, one I met where I live now about now 10 years ago is Magic the Gathering and the last is my late teens daughter. We started playing D&D together (again for four of us) about 8 months ago and have been using the Fantasy Grounds virtual table top program (http://www.fantasygrounds.com/) to do so. This has allowed us to play remotely and we use a program called Teamspeak to talk during the games. We play once a week for about 3 hours and have finished the starter module The lost Mine of Phandelver and currently are playing through the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign. I previously wrote about Fantasy Grounds here ( https://mgpotter.com/playing-dungeons-and-dragons-again-online-this-time/) and also wrote a blog on the benefits of role playing here ( https://mgpotter.com/in-the-name-of-the-ocelot-benefits-of-role-playing/). I run my Teamspeak server on my network attached server and I wrote about NAS here (https://mgpotter.com/what-is-network-attached-storage-and-why-should-you-use-it/ ).

As a brief recap for newer readers to my blog, Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy role playing game, probably the start to the hobby and industry that exists today that dates back to the mid-1970’s. It is traditionally played in person with pencils, paper and dice and quite often the use of miniatures to indicate where your character is in various tactical situations. D&D has gone through 5 editions of the advanced rules and several of the basic ones as well. Over the last 40 years. At its heart, it is a story telling game and the players tell their characters’s stories in a universe controlled by the game master/referee (dungeon master or DM in D&D terms). The rules provide a framework to judge the success of failure of what the characters attempt and there is a fair amount of combat in the typical game against various creatures, monsters and other foes. Typically, you roll a 20-sided die and the result is compared to the difficulty of the task and modified by how experienced your character is. The DM then announces if the roll was a success or failure and the story continues after accounting for the result. One advantage of Fantasy Grounds is that is automates most of the dice rolling.

D&D is a social game, and in many ways it can just be an excuse for a group of friends to get together. The three players from my older group used to come over to my house when we were younger and play most Sunday late afternoons and deep into the evening. I am fortunate that I had parents that were (and remain) supportive of their kids and their interests. 30 plus years later, I can say that our time gaming when younger does not seem to have greatly impacted us in our careers and other pursuits and I could make an argument that we developed social skills and imagination that helped us in later life. I do know that I have run into many former and active D&D players in my various international travels as a finance professional including a fair number of other CFOs.

When I originally had invited everyone over to my place to celebrate my birthday and to play a live session, I had envisioned a purely live session using nothing but pen, paper, dice and maybe some 3D dungeon terrain. However, we have all enjoyed playing with Fantasy Grounds so much that the group were interested in using it to automate a lot of the game. I did not want everything to be run off of laptops, because I wanted the game to be more social and I worried that everyone just looking into their laptops would detract from that. There has been a shift over time in accessories used in gaming. The origins of D&D go back to miniatures based war games, so a table large enough to play on and hold dice, rule books and a few figures were always there, but the use of maps has slowly increased and has gone from vinyl maps with pre-printed squares to make a grid and that could be drawn on by markers to fully 3D dungeon tiles (now 3D printed is the latest twist).

Companies have sprung up to serve the gaming market with dedicated gaming tables that actually are pieces of fine furniture (www.geekchiqhq.com being an excellent example of that). With the rise of different VTT programs entering more general use coupled with most adventure material, especially maps, being available in digital form, the latest trends in dedicated gaming tables has started to feature a large screen in the middle. Here is a full explanation on how to build such a table for gaming for about $250 (not including the TV) and you can use the table for eating or other purposes as it is quite nice: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1471747/build-gaming-table-150

Closed table

Open Table

The reason why I think it is important to have the central screen in the table is that it creates a discussion focal point. All the players are sitting there, but the map in the middle (or whatever else you choose to display) creates a natural conversation focus that will help draw the players away from their laptop screens and towards the other players. I did not have time to build a table, so I just lay a TV flat on the table I usually use to game on (my dining room table) and plugged an HDMI cable into it and my laptop and extended my screen to include it (using the standard process in Windows 7). In terms of what TV to choose, 40” is a pretty standard size and I would make sure that it is 1080P (HD standard) and able to display the 1920×1080 resolution the standard calls for. Most TVs only accept HDMI input, so be sure that whatever computer you are using can output to that. I would suggest that you get a “smart” TV as it increases what you can easily stream or send to the TV. The one I used had a built in ROKU which is a good platform. You should be able to find a good quality one under $250 (in the USA) and if you keep you eyes open for specials you can probably get one for around $200. I am not sure how the built in sound would be if I had countersunk the TV below the table surface, so you may need to mount external speaks as well. The TV can always be mounted vertically on the wall or on a stand, but that will preclude you from using miniatures and it also means that your seating has to be set up so that everyone can see the TV which normally results in you losing one side of the table for seating. image You can see from my picture of us gaming, one player did not have a laptop, so I set up an all-in-one computer right besides the table. If I had placed it on the table, the height of the screen would have blocked him off from the rest of the players. I ran the game from my business laptop. It has a pretty small screen (it is designed to be small and light) and a larger or multiple screens (I typically use a 3 screen set-up) makes running a session much easier when you use Fantasy Grounds.

We started the adventure where we left off the week before and that was in a small keep where the players had talked their way into a discussion with a minor cult leader and then made a mistake and caused him to order them to be attacked. I had plotted out all the other opponents in the keep before the session, but the Ranger cast an area of effect spell that filled the area in front of the doors they had to use with thorns and I had to reroute all of them around it and into the keep another way. Because I was using a small screen myself, the combat bogged down a little for a while until I finally had everyone positioned right. If I had moved my desktop computer to the gaming area, I would have had to position it so that I was not blocked from the group by the screens. In order to control the image on the TV in the center, I kept control of it. I ran a second instance (I ran two copies of Fantasy Grounds) at once on my computer. The way you do that if you use Steam, is that you find the executable file for the program (wherever Steam puts it on your computer) and you run it by double clicking it. You then connect to the game you are running on your computer by typing the word localhost into the spot you usually put an IP address or the connection phrase your GM gives you. If you are not using Steam, you just start the program twice, and run one as a player.

It is somewhat unnatural to control the cursor on the TV because of the orientation and positioning, and you do need to make sure you don’t lose your cursor if it wanders. You also need to keep the program in window mode, otherwise you can get the cursor trapped on one screen. If you are just using the program to display a map and to take advantage of a “fog of war” feature that allows the DM to slowly reveal the map as the party reveals it, then Fantasy Grounds is probably overkill. One weakness (partially corrected by an extension from the user community) is that Fantasy Grounds does not smoothly handle rolling your own, physical dice and then entering the die roll into the program. There are other, free programs that handle displaying a map and giving you a fog of war option and all you need is access to a digital copy of the map. In a pinch, you could always scan the map from a physical copy.

Because the FG design does not appear to fully take into account it being used as a “light” manager to display maps, you get a ton of functionality that you would not use. The cost of a standard license is $40 (and is $30 on sale) and you get all the online capabilities as well, so it is not like the program is a complete waste, but if all you want to do is display some maps and images, there are other less expensive choices. Fantasy Grounds can do a lot of the bookkeeping for you and to hit rolls are very quick because the math is done right away. You lose a little of the old time feel with everyone using a laptop, but you do gain more time to roll play and socialize as a lot of the administrative burden is lifted from the game. This really will end up being what you and the player group wants to do.

If all the players are using laptops, you need enough places for them to plugin. You also probably need something to recharge cell phones with. We started playing about 10:30 AM, and we took a break for lunch. I had smoked brisket and that worked well as smoking does not require a lot of hands on work that would have interrupted the game. Otherwise, ordering in pizza makes sense. With all the laptops on the table, liquid spills should be planned for and avoided where possible. None of the designs that I have seen for a TV in the middle of the table are water proof, so that is something you need to be careful of. I would rate my first attempt at a live game using Fantasy Grounds as being a success. I plan on building a table that will place the TV below the center of the table and when I get around to that I will do a blog on the process and the result.

——

These are links to buy the D&D 5e rule books: Player’s Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons) Monster Manual (D&D Core Rulebook) Dungeon Master’s Guide (D&D Core Rulebook)

RPG Nostalgia

I have written two blogs that have discussed my running a D&D campaign using the Fantasy Grounds virtual tabletop software. Dungeons and Dragons is arguably the first fantasy role playing game in the modern use of the term, and it is certainly the most popular. It was an easy choice for me to make as the game system to start using again as the FG software has a license for the D&D rules and there is a lot of already prepared adventures which greatly reduces my preparation time. My friends all played it as well, so it was simply a matter of learning the changes in. 5th edition (the game is pretty much completely changed from the older 1e and 2e we used to play but the concepts are the same).

I started with D&D when I started playing in high school as well, as most people did. For me, that was around 1980 and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (the first hardcover set of rules) was just being released around then (the first three rule books came out between. 1977 and 1980). The first game I played in was AD&D and the first rules I owned was the blue box rules for D&D as the game was actually split into two branches back then. I slowly acquired the three hard cover rule books and switched over the AD&D by the end of high school. This was a major purchase for me back then as I was paying for it with allowance money and extra cash from delivering newspapers.

Not long after I started CEGEP (community college, the Quebec system splits school into high school, CEGEP and then University), I fell in with a new group of gamers and I brought some of them into my long running campaign and that was AD&D at the time.

One of the most fundamental rules in D&D is the concept of classes. In D&D, at the very start of character creation, you choose a specialty. The basic classes are fighter, cleric (healer), magic user (fragile but lots of damage and utility) and thief (now called rogue). There are rules for playing two classes at once or starting with one and then switching to another, but most people picked one class and stuck with it. This fit many of the archetypes you can find in fantasy books, at least on the surface. Conan is known as a mighty fighter. Gandalf is dressed in wizard robes and casts spells and gives sage advice. Usually the main characters of a fantasy novel do not cast spells and if they do, it is just something on the side as a minor power.

However, this is really not what most of the novels portray. Conan actually spent most of his youth being a thief, climbing walls, picking locks and he never lost that even years later when he was a king and leading armies. The image of Gandalf as just a spell caster fails when you consider that he carried a sword and directly confronted the Balrog with his sword and he was written as fighting orcs with his sword (his ride to Helm’s Deep, for example). The concept of character classes and the other associated choices you made, like alignment, all worked well enough as game rules, but there was a certain hollowness in them. The modern versions of D&D have partially fixed this and have greatly deemphasized alignment to be more flavor than a hard rule to be followed with consequences, but 30 years ago these were deeply written into the rules.

One final thing that was present in the early D&D days is that there was not much published information about the world you were supposed to be playing in. There were scatterings of flavor that could be found in some spell names that were named after famous characters from the formative campaigns that Gary Gygax, one of the main creators of D&D, had run, but the world of Greyhawk that much of this had come from was not really published yet and the main rules were generic. The honest expectation of TSR (the company publishing the rules then) was that the Dungeon Master would just create their own world and adventures. Even today, most of the money comes from selling the rules books, not the published adventures.

During that time, there was no Internet as known today and obviously no online shopping. Almost all RPG products were sold in hobby stores and you made your choices by looking at products on racks in the store. One game system that had come out in 1977 and quickly gained a good reputation was a system called Runequest. I saw it in a store and looked through the rules quickly. There was a mention that the critical and fumble table was inspired by experience on the tourney fields of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and I was sold on the game. I actually cannot remember if I had joined the SCA by then (I joined in 1984), but I had certainly heard of it and that one fact was enough to draw me in.

I will go into a more detail about Runequest, and why is was different than D&D a little later on, but I want to address the current wave of nostalgia for older style RPG games. RPG games have been around in the market since the mid-1970’s and with the publication of the AD&D rules, were very available from 1980 onwards. That means that there is a player base stretching back 40 or more years. The usual pattern is playing during teen years and into college and then in person gaming going mainly dormant once people graduate, the playing groups scatter as employment begins and time becomes much more limited as careers start taking over and first babies start showing up. Some people keep playing along, but many stop playing. I was still actively playing RPG (first AD&D and then Champions) when I moved to New Jersey in the early 1990’s, but that was more of an accident because the SCA group of friends I was part of had a Sunday game that I joined. Once I moved away from NJ and started moving every two years, my RPG time was mostly buying the new editions of D&D and reading the rules and missing playing.

With the long time span of the games being available, many players are now in their 30’s and 40’s (I am about to hit 50). Many have teen age kids that are discovering the games themselves and as a fact of life, by then most people own houses, are more settled and their kids are old enough that they do not require so much time. Online games are fun enough, and games like Warcraft just climbed on the shoulders of the tabletop RPG before them, but there is something missing as compared to playing a more pure pencil and paper RPG.

You can start playing again, like I have, with the newer versions of the rules, but that does not quite capture the feeling of the original games that many of us now play. There was a huge schism and split back when the D&D rules moved from 3e to 3.5e to 4e. Wizards of the Coast (the new owners of the D&D rules) has decided to open up their game much more to the public and had created an Open Gaming License (OGL) that allowed people to create adventures and even rules using the D&D rules as a base. Many people moved over to a 3e clone called Pathfinder during that time, but the OGL actually allowed people to copy even the original D&D rules and create clones of those systems. There was a big movement then which has continued called Old School Revival and the whole thrust is to have games similar to the origins of the rules. Adventure modules are more raw and anyone you meet in the adventure is probably hostile and can be killed. The adventures tend to be classic dungeons that you enter that have traps and monsters in them.

The start of this movement goes back to the OGL and the edition split, but Kickstarter has been like adding nitro into the fuel for it. The main distribution for games that are part of this movement is the One BookShelf, mainly found on www.drivethrurpg.com and www.RPGnow.com . There, you can buy PDF copies of the rules and adventures to go with the rules.

GMG5070CoverLarge

Available at www.goodmangames.com

I mainly back board games on Kickstarter, but I also have backed two “nostalgia” games. The first is Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) 4th edition. The Kickstarter was to reprint and clean-up the existing 3e rules. DCC is not a pure OSR game in that it is not a clone of the D&D rules, but it is very similar to the original rules and it tries to copy the spirit of the way the games used to be played. The other Kickstarter I backed was a reprint of the classic Runequest rules, the same rules I played with 30 years ago. Once I receive the hardcover version of DCC (very delayed from the original promised date which seems to be a constant Kickstarter problem) I will do a review of it, my feeling about Runequest are below,

Runequest is a great variation of RPG rules. What made it very different than D&D 30 years ago (and what still is true) is the fact that there are no classes and that the game system is very tied to one world – Glorantha – which gives the rules a lot more flavor and depth. The system moved from a D20 basis that D&D had to a percentage based system, essentially a D100 which is nominally done via 2 D10 with one being the tens and another being the ones.

Unlike D&D, where you advance in levels and get better at hitting opponents and you hit points increase each level, Runequest has no levels and no experience points. Your Hit Points (how much damage a character can take) is determined by one of your attributes, your Constitution and your HP are spread through different locations of your body. Your armor absorbs damage instead of making you harder to hit. You can, potentially, increase your Constitution and thus your hit points, but you never have that many HP and you don’t get a bigger and bigger pool like D&D gives you.

To be clear, this is just flavor, in D&D you really do not take more damage, your increased HP represent your increased skill to avoid damage that would have killed someone less experienced, but the rule mechanics in Runequest are just more like what you would expect from real life.

You improve attributes by spending money and training. You improve skills by using them successfully which gives you a chance to get a better score. Every character can use battle magic and as you increase your Power attribute you can use more and more.

As the name says, as you grow in experience and power, your character will eventually undertake a quest to get their “rune” which represents their bond to their god and the magic of the world. A character with a rune is much more powerful and is called a Runelord. The game world is set up so that as adventurers increase in power, they start to be able to effect the world in greater and greater ways. It is in the lore of the world that experienced adventurers, like the player characters, were responsible for questing and recovering the dead Sun God early in the history of the game setting.

My group had fun for years playing in that world and using that system. The recent Kickstarter has resulted in a reprint of the rules and the original adventures and city settings that were published back then. All will be available in printed form from www.chaosium.com . I highly recommend that you give the system a try. If you are like me and need to run your game online as your friends are all scattered about, the rule sets for DCC and Runequest are available on Fantasy Grounds (www.fantasygrounds.com) . These are community supported rules (an official rule set for a later edition of Runequest is available) and there is little to no already prepared adventures you could purchase, but the VTT itself does support the games.

Dungeons and Dragons:Temple of Elemental Evil Board Game Review

This is a review of the board game version of Temple of Elemental Evil. There is an old module version for AD&D, the older pencil and paper RPG version, but this review is on the board game. The board game was released in 2015 along with the module Princes of the Apocalypse, an updated and new 5e take on the original Temple of Elemental Evil module. In an earlier post about business travel I mentioned www.meetup.com as a way to find an activity to pass time and this is a typical style of board game you may find at a meet-up.

This review is based on my playing experience with my teen age daughters, several sessions at the local board games meet-up (via www.meetup.com) and some solo play. The tldnr version of the review is that the game is good and fun and I recommend buying it (handy link at the bottom of the review).

toee game being played

(game in full swing)

Dungeons and Dragons:Temple of Elemental Evil (ToEE for the rest of this review) is a tile and miniatures dungeon exploration game using a cut-down version of the full D&D rules set. You can have up to 5 players with each player controlling a hero in one of five classes. Each hero is represented by their own plastic miniature and comes with a cardboard tile that lists the base abilities of the hero. The five classes are Fighter, Ranger, Cleric, Wizard and Rogue. The Ranger and the Wizard are represented by female miniatures and the cleric is somewhat indeterminate. The sex of the hero makes no difference in the game and all heroes are fully clothed and should be appropriate for people who dislike the stereotype of scantily clad females in the fantasy genre.

The miniatures (about 40 different ones counting the 5 heroes and all the monsters) are well done and detailed, but they are made of fairly soft and bendable plastic and my game arrived with two of them broken. They were easy to fix with a dab of modeling glue (anything that works well on plastic will be fine). I have seen pictures online where they have been painted up and for the most part they are in the same scale as is generally used in tabletop RPG playing, so the game is a fairly cheap source of miniatures if that is something you are looking for. The soft plastic can result in them bending a little (the doppelgänger monster seems to suffer the most from the problem) but they can be softened and reset using boiling water if you are so inclined.

herosmonsters

special monstersettin

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Hero miniatures, monsters, special monsters, detail)

I would rank the quality of the components to be pretty high. The tiles and many of the counters and tokens are well printed and thick. The colors are vibrant and they are well printed. The cards are good as well, but since Wizards of the Coast also does Magic the Gathering I would hope so. I used clear card protectors (actually illegal in Magic as small differences in the card back might be seen) so I could see the different card backs.

The storage in the box is so-so. The cards all do not fit once you put protectors on them and the miniatures basically are all tossed into a heap. You can put them back into their plastic baggies but that does not provide much protection. I bought extra bags to hold all the tokens.

ToEE is meant to be run as a campaign where the adventures are run in sequence and the characters you use have an opportunity to improve, but it does not have to be. There are 13 premade adventures. 3 of these are town adventures and 10 are dungeon adventures. Typically you have to either retrieve an item or make it to a specific tile or kill a specific monster to win. The game is a cooperative game, players cannot attack each other (with the exception of the very last adventure that introduces a traitor mechanic). You either win as a group or lose as a group. You lose if someone dies and there are no more resources left in the game to bring you back.

The game mechanics are pretty straightforward. Each turn is three phases which are basically your move, explore, and then run any villains or monsters that showed up and play out any encounters. During your turn, you can move and do one action. The move can be split up before and after your action.

tile stack

The heroes all have the same statistic categories and these are shared with the monsters as well (not all of them, some like surge are heroes only). The base statistics are armor class or AC, Hit Points or HP, Speed, and Surge Value. Each hero card also has a special ability unique to that hero and lists what extra abilities the hero could have (represented by cards). Your AC is how hard you are to hit, the roll on a D20 (twenty sided die), including any modifiers, has to be greater than or equal to your AC for you to be hit or for you to hit a monster (monsters also have AC). Your HP (and monsters’ HP) are how much damage can be taken. When you go to zero you die. Speed is how many squares you can move each turn (each tile is divided up into a grid) and Surge Value is how many HP of damage you heal if you play a surge token (generally limited to 2 in total and used your next turn after you die).  Surge tokens are the resource that bring players back after they die.

hero cardwizard

Each hero is modified by a choice of cards that the hero is equipped with. These are at-will, daily and utility action cards. The cards contain the rules for them. A typical at will card is a weapon or spell attack that will have an attack modifier, damage done, and perhaps other special rules written on the card. Some actions, like daily actions, can only be done once per game.

The goal of ToEE is to keep exploring. If you do not explore, you get an automatic encounter and almost all of them are bad and could damage your entire party. If you kill monsters, you can trade in 5 experience points worth of them to negate an encounter, but encounters are the built in clock to keep you pushing forward.

When you turn over a new tile, there are several consequences that could happen. Each dungeon tile has either a white or a black triangle. The triangles are used to indicate which edge is joined to the tile you just explored from and if there is an encounter created by the new tile. White triangle means no encounter, and black means there is an encounter.

regular tilespecial tile

There are symbols and sometimes names and other features on tiles. Unless the adventure you are playing says otherwise, name and special symbols such as cult symbols mean nothing. Little horse heads indicate monsters (0-3 per tile), Red X means place an upside down trap token there.

traps

Monsters are chosen by drawing cards from the monster deck and the cards have the monster statistics and rules. Each monster also has a miniature to be placed on the game board. Most of the miniatures are well done with good detail and a few are quite large. They certainly add to the flavor and fun of playing the game. Each monster is played by the player that brought it into play and only activates during that player’s turn. The monster cards contain the rules on how to play the monster.

monster and weaponencounter plus treasure

(monster card, hero equipment, encounter and treasure)

There is a lot of dice rolling in the game and there is only one D20 included with the game so I suggest that you toss a few more into the box if you have 3 or more players to speed the game up and reduce searching for where the die has gotten to. Like any game that relies on dice, players can get hot or cold streaks and that can swing the outcome of the game.

Each adventure takes about 45 minutes to play if you have three or more players plus about 5 minutes to set the game up. I was able to explain the basics to new players in about 5 minutes. With. A group of 5 brand new players, several that did not really get the mechanics for a few turns, we played an adventure in about 1.25 hours, but that is the longest we have gone. I played it twice in the regular board game meetup I go to and we won the first adventure and lost the second and the loss mainly was due to bad dice rolls and several very unfortunate encounters that was drawn. The bad dice rolls meant that we did not kill monsters and generate experience points that could be used to negate the encounters.

There is a story that goes with each adventure and the objectives tie to the story, but other than that the story is more flavor than anything else. The game can go for stretches of just killing monsters and gathering treasure.

I would not call it a very deep game, but there are tactical choices to be made. Depending on how well you did, additional (and harder or better) cards are added to the decks and 13 different adventures and 5 heroes to choose from does give it reasonable replay value.

I recommend the game and I think you get pretty good value for the money and most people that like fantasy games and don’t mind dice rolling would enjoy it. If you have a regular group you could play an adventure each session and your characters will advance and improve as you successfully complete each adventure. Because it is a fully cooperative game, it may also help when you have a mixed group with some competitive players and others that don’t play just to win.

Buy the game at Amazon.com

 

In the name of the ocelot – benefits of role playing

I wrote a while ago about starting the play D&D again after many years away from the game. I am using a virtual table top program called Fantasy Grounds (www.fantasygrounds.com) to play with Teamspeak running on my NAS in order to have the voice component (the company provides their own public Teamspeak server but I prefer to have a private server). My group has been playing pretty much every week for the past few months. It is a little rough with my time in Asia to make the games work but luckily I have a lot of control over my schedule.

The group I play in features three of my old friends from Montreal, including my cousin Mark who introduced me to the game when I was in high school. One is a friend I made when I started playing Magic. The final of five is my daughter Sarah who is 19 at the time of writing this blog. Sarah has heard me talk about roleplaying games (RPG) for all her life and she has been a gamer since she was a kid. She never really got a chance to play D&D except for one year in a boarding school where there was a gaming group. Since we have been back in the San Francisco area she has been unable to play. My friends were happy to include her in the group.

We are almost done with the Lost Mines of Phandelver and I have been very happy with both that module and Fantasy Grounds itself. The module is a good balance of a sandbox and a linear story and has memorable characters and a good story to run through. Fantasy Grounds is simply superior as a way to play the game if you need to play remotely. The automation makes combat much faster than what you would have sitting at a table playing with paper and dice and this is important when playing online as the social experience is different when sitting around a table.

Some of the features that makes Fantasy Grounds good are things like automating the Turn Undead feature for clerics. In open room the players were being attacked by almost three times their number in zombies and the cleric (Ed) raised his holy symbol high and turned the undead. It was very quick to target the zombies and resolve it all at once instead of saving throw after savings throw manually rolled. In combat, if a monster has a resistance to a certain amount of damage there it is automatically matched against what the characters are using against it.

Nothing is perfect, zombies do not automatically save when they go below zero from damage, Sleep spell is not automatically resolved and you need to be careful to target within the system or else you can waste a roll. You can draw on the map, but area of effect spells like Web do not trigger just because someone walks into where they are. There was one evening when the fantasy grounds server was down and we could not get the game up and running because we could not authenticate the licenses. However, the whole group is getting more familiar with the interface and the games run very smoothly now.

In fact, the games are running so smoothly using the VTT, that the immersion is very much like playing in the same room. We laugh laugh and joke and talk about our week at work or old war stories or whatever comes to mind. If someone can’t make it one week, I have the character sheet right there and I can easily run their character for them. It is a little dangerous to skip a session as something unfortunate like the rogue being used as a battering ram to open doors might happen, but at least it is easier to do and bookkeep compared to a pure paper game.

I often get questions from people that know. about RPG like D&D about why I like to play and what the benefit is. The only real answer is that they are social games and an excuse to get people together and talk and live through a story that they make together. This is nothing different than a regular poker game or golf game that brings friends together for the enjoyment of each other’s company.

Games can also be a good way to try out ideas or emotions that you will need to use outside the game in a safer environment. Corporate trainers use games all the time in training sessions. Games can teach real world examples much better than just showing a PowerPoint slide and lecturing. My favorite example is the beer game at the beginning of the book The Fifth Discipline in which the object is to react to external demand signals while running a factor that makes a specific brand of beer. The game teaches several important lessons about understanding demand drivers and how to react to them and playing the game teaches the lesson a lot better than just reading about it.

Same as well for the different team puzzle solving games that are the favorite of corporate trainers. One of the goals of such games is for participants to role play different roles, and that includes being the leader of the team. Often each participant will get their chance to assume command of the team, and the personal interaction to think through and solve the puzzle comes from how will the new leader can marshal team resources, including the ingenuity of the team members.

When playing D&D, the character classes alone lead to different roles. Some classes are better at physical combat and those will tend to be in front and the first to engage. Some are good at sneaking around and often tend to play the role of scout, sometimes indoors where one class is better and sometimes outdoors where another class can take over those duties. Other classes are best at a supporting role or are quite powerful but much less armored and thus need the stinger fighters to be in front of them to protect them.

Those are just the base attributes of the classes (fighter, wizard, cleric and thief being the main archetypes). D&D has different races, each with their own set personalities. You can play any gender you want for your characters, you are not restricted to playing a character of your actual gender. You get to invent the backstory for your character and react on the fly. You can even role play romance or other adult topics if your group wants to. My much older players are not really interested in such things, but pretty much any topic is open when playing. I always caution people that once you more into those areas you run a very high risk of offending a player, even if you are not trying to, so make absolutely sure you understand what your players want before you go down that path. I also caution people when playing in a group you do not know to tone down comments and stay away from religion and politics, but that is normal advice when doing any activity with strangers.

I recently had a reminder of how emotionally invested a player can get in to game. In a good game, there will be even more emotional investment. My daughter Sarah is playing a ranger in my game and she has an ocelot as an animal companion. Last week a monster called flaming skull casually launched a fireball at the group of party members away from the zombies they were fighting. I targeted everyone, and then Fantasy Grounds rolled the saves and then rolled damage (which was above average). Everyone saved except for the brave and cunning ocelot and the damage was enough for instant death to the poor cat.

The game speeds things up a lot, but by rolling saves it does remove a little of the sense of ownership you get when you have to save or die. It all happened very quickly, in the very first round of combat. No one had even seen a flaming skull as a monster (me included) and the party had already defeated large numbers of zombies in the recent past so no one was very concerned.

I also found out that Sarah has never lost a character that she was attached to before. All the rest of us are experienced and have lived through it, and an animal companion is easily replaceable now. However, the ocelot was well loved by the party and we forget playing online that Sarah is much younger than us (30 years younger in some cases) and the ocelot is a sign of our complete acceptance of her in the group. That and not sending her killer viruses for rolling record numbers of 1 in a row.

The ocelot had worked itself into the lore of the group. In a few encounters in earlier sessions, the player characters ran into a streak for bad luck but the ocelot hit over and over again and mowed the monsters they were fighting down. An encounter with a green dragon had gone south and Mark lost his magic user because he failed his save. The session before that the group had uncharacteristically not searched one room carefully and missed a Revivify scroll that could have saved him. I had the ocelot bound over to the party with the scroll tied around its neck (DM intervention) and Sarah basked in the glow from hero heroic cat. Sonny was so impressed with the ability of the ocelot to hit monsters that he started chanting “in the name of the ocelot” before key die rolls he had to make.

So Sarah was a little shocked that something went so south so fast. Just a normal encounter with some zombie. And suddenly the loyal ocelot was gone. It shook her pretty badly when it happened, especially since voice only does mean you miss the cues. She is a true gamer, once she rallied a little bit, the first two things she did was to ensure that I applied her save bonus to the animal companion and that it started off with full hit points for the first hit die. Even with her bonus the save was still missed and the ocelot did die. She was still a little shocked and only mechanically did the next round of combat and even ended up being the character that put the killing damage onto the flaming skull. We talked after the session and she agreed that the monster did the right thing. She is well along the normal path of grief, but the fact that there was grief shows the power of playing a RPG.

The ocelot itself can be replaced. It has brothers and sisters that will come to serve when the Ranger calls. I even have to double check the map to make sure the radius would have got everyone (I think it would have). I can do a DM intervention and save the loyal and fierce ocelot even though it dying and a sibling being called to serve is a good role playing story element. Sarah has gravitated towards that as the resolution.

The fact that we have stories like the ocelot and the fun and jokes around it is why I play D&D and why I like to DM. It is also why games and role playing for corporate training are good, but you need to watch the reaction of the people participating closely.

In the name of the ocelot I thank you for reading my blog this week and I hope you have similar stories to tell if we meet in person.

Player’s Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons)

Monster Manual (D&D Core Rulebook)

Dungeon Master’s Guide (D&D Core Rulebook)

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization

3D printers are not ready for prime time

The news quite often mentions 3d Printers. 3D printer companies were the darlings of the stock market not too long ago. Mainstream press is full of little interest stories of the latest thing to be printed out. Technology websites and social networks have many mentions of the “Maker” movement and that movement includes 3D printing and printers.

I am somewhere in the “tech” scene or at least in a few smaller segments. You can tell that by a few things), but having the username “michael” on the an old school computer technology site (Anandtech) is a good sign of how long I have been involved. I have seen mentions of 3D printers for years and occasionally checked prices to buy a printer, but they were always well over $1,000 which seemed too much to me.

One day I noticed this campaign on Kickstarter:

The Kickstarter ended a while ago, you can find the products for sale here:

http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/166074/DRAGONLOCK-Dungeon-Starter-Set

For those of you too lazy to click the first link, it is plastic terrain used when playing a roleplaying game to build up a dungeon. If you are not familiar with tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, the players often use 28mm scale miniatures to more easily run the fights that happen within the game rules. I guess you can say they are the
dolls the players use but the players tend to be men so they would at least claim action figures.

If the miniatures are the dolls, then products like Dragonlock are the dollhouses. I have played in a couple of games where the DM had very nice hand drawn maps that were drawn to scale and I have played in a couple of games with folding cardboard terrain, but I had only seen the full out plastic modeled dungeons in pictures from conventions. The existing products are interesting in theory but quite expensive and hard to use because you never seem to have exactly the right combination of pieces to build what you want. A set that is meant to be 3D printed solves those two problems. The cost per piece is small and you can custom print what you need.

I signed up for the Kickstarter and then started researching the current state of the 3D printer market. I quickly discovered two things. There were a fair number of printers below $1,000 today and that reviews on them were all over the map.

I will save myself typing a long description of the different printers out there. Here is a fairly representative list with examples from owners actually using the printers:

http://fatdragongames.proboards.com/board/24/3d-printers

I selected the Wanhao Duplicator I3 V2. I mainly selected it for two reasons. The first is the cost (it was under $300 for me) and the other was the strong user community that could be found in a Google Group. The brand was recommended to me by my friend Gabriel who runs a small drone business in Singapore called Sensory Robotics (www.sensoryrobotics.com ). I had asked him for an inexpensive printer that would meet the specifications needed and he said if I was willing to tinker the Wanhao printers were popular. I was able to find them direct from the manufacturer via Taobao in China for just under $300 shipping included (they are between $350 and $400 in the USA) so I decided to give them a try. The Wanhao I3 is basically a pre-built open source kit printer. It really is not much different in price than buying parts and assembling it yourself, and the design itself is somewhat well tested.

Before I pulled the trigger and bought the Wanhao, I looked through Amazon.com and read the message boards of many of the more popular printer brands. I was quite surprised at the results. For a product that had been sold to consumers for several years and had made it into popular press, reviews were surprisingly bad every printer brand out there.

I am not talking the occasional disappointed buyer on a crusade, I am talking about bad review after bad review. Even even the Printerbot Simple that is recommended by the Fat Dragon, the company that made the Dragonlock pieces, has quite a few bad reviews on Amazon and in the Dragonlock boards. Some printers appear to pretty much never work. Some printers use proprietary printing materials that are much more expensive than standard printing materials. All the printers I researched had very disappointed customers.

Why so much disappointment? Let me explain a little how 3D printers work and what easily goes wrong with each step.

The first is that all of the consumer level printers (under $1,000 and meant to be used at home) are made by smaller companies. The bigger companies that make printers for commercial use all have quite expensive models that are far out of reach of the average consumer. A cottage industry sprung up around some of the older technology that was open sourced by larger commercial companies, and lots of little start-up, mainly of pretty young entrepreneurs were created. Kickstarter still sees 3D printer designs show up on a semi regular basis and two years ago they were very popular on the crowdfunding sites. So that means lots of people with little or no real manufacturing experience started modifying designs or trying new but pretty much untested designs out on the public. Full of Open Source circuit boards and designs that sort of worked but that really were not close to optimal and often had serious flaws.

Before I get to some of the flaws of my particular printer, let me give an overview of the printers and what is done to make a 3D print.

The first thing you need is an actual object to print. This comes in the form of a computer aided design (CAD) file. Typically this is in an .STL format. You can find these files on various internet sites or you can create them yourselves. Many of the people making the files are new to CAD, are using free and not so powerful CAD programs, and probably do not have a lot of 3D printing experience. That means you get a lot of files that very honestly are not set up well to be printed in the first place.

You load the computer design into a program called a slicer. 3D printing is done layer by layer, and a slicer takes the CAD file and slices it into as many thin layers as you have instructed the printer to use. It then generates a series of commands that tells the printer what to do to actually print the device (generally in the form of a printer language called GCODE) and saves that file. A popular free slicer is called Cura. A more powerful but costly program is called Simplify 3D.

Right away, you may have ruined your print. The programs need to have the exact right settings or the code they write does not work. Some files are not well set up to print but an experienced user of the slicer can either change the orientation, break the object into smaller and easier to print. None of this is well documented and the documentation that does exist is written using terms that someone new to 3D printing is unlikely to understand. You even need to measure the diameter of the filament and input it into the slicer program. I hope you have a digital caliper.

Once you have the file ready to print, you then are faced with the printer itself. 3D printers work by melting plastic and depositing it in thin layers. The printer head (the part that melts and deposits the plastic) needs to move in all three dimensions in a consistent and controlled manner. The surface needs to be flat and level to the printhead and the starting distance between the print head and the surface needs to be small but not zero. The basic way of setting the distance is using a piece of paper to slide under the print head and go by feel.  If you are a beginner, you have no real idea what it is suppsoed to feel like.  The surface must have something to help the first few layers of plastic stick. The print head will move in at least two and maybe three dimensions on rods, gliding on bearings or moved by what essentially are large screws, The file with the instructions needs to be read from a memory card or the computer needs to maintain a good connection for what might be 24 hours or even more.

The rods I mentioned about are often held in place by just a little set screw. Shipping the printer has a good chance of working a rod loose or maybe even bending it. The electronics and cabling are so so on average and shipping may jostle a connection loose.

The standard advice for the printer I bought is to take the extruder assembly apart and replace the gear that moves the plastic filament through it with another one. While you are at it, rotate the heating block to give more clearance when it is at the top. Before you print one item, you have already taken the printer apart. I guess I should mention that the wiring in the older models is defective and can cause a fire. Plus it has been determined that the main circuit board does not properly ground the electricity running through it and it causes temperature readings to swing by about 10 degrees when the heater switches on and off. The suggested fix is to solder a wire from one place on the board to another.

I wish that these types of issues are only from a cheaper kit based one like the Wanhao I bought. However, I would be lying if I said that. I could not find one printer aimed at consumers that did not have a large number of design issues and frustrated users.

Now if you ask me if I like the printer I bought, the answer would be yes. Once I learned and worked through some things, I actually was able (very quickly) to print out the Dragonlock pieces with no issues at all and other files as well. A 3D printer is a fun thing to have and my kids like it and want me to print more things for them. However, these are not even close to being a consumer product. Be prepared to spend time scouring the internet for training tips, to be watching youtube videos showing you how to use your computer and software, and generally spending a lot of extra effort to make the device that you paid for work.

Here are a few pictures of what I have been able to do with my printer.  A well known space ship, some Dragonlock pieces (painted and unpainted) and the printer itself.

image image image

Playing Dungeons and Dragons again – online this time

I was a big war gamer when I was in my teens and when I was in college. Even when I started in the SCA I made time to play role playing games, driving down to the game that our group had every Sunday. I was even the president of the war games club in high school and CEGEP (community college in Quebec that is different than the USA in that it is required and part of the normal university track).

Other than the very first campaign I played in (my cousin Mark introduced me the his friends that were playing and I started with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e), I almost always was the Dungeon Master. I played the classic modules, wrote my own modules and even made the trek to Lake Geneva to go to GenCon. I moved my group to Runequest and Champions, but we still played D&D every once and a while. The NJ gaming group also played D&D and I introduced Champions to them.

The influence of my very early days playing D&D still can be seen on my today as the first paladin I played was called Myrdin the Just (old Andre Norton book that had Myrddin in it and I thought two d’s was a waste and dropped one. Yes, I now know that it is for the th sound in Welsh and that character was Merlin but I did not know that then and Google did not exist). So if you know me in the SCA as Sir Myrdin the Just or online games as Myrdin Potter, you can still see the name that I used to play D&D when I was 13 or 14.

Once I left New Jersey for California and then onwards and outwards, I stopped playing D&D. The closest I got was Magic the Gathering and playing Eve Online. I bought the base rulebooks each edition as it came out and always hoped to find a gaming group, but there never seemed to be time. I still was in touch with my old college gaming group and that grew even stronger once we were all on Facebook. I had been tracking the different online tools to play D&D in the background and had bought the 5e books in the hope of getting a group together but it never seemed to work. My daughter Sarah had played 3.5e with classmates when she was in school in Connecticut and was game to join in but I had no other local friends that were interested and my time split between the USA and China made it difficult.

Then I saw a notice that Fantasy Grounds, one of the two main virtual tabletop programs had managed to get an official license to use 5e D&D. I had been looking a little more at Roll20 as an option as it is web-based, but having the official license and materials for 5e D&D swung me over to Fantasy Grounds (www.fantasygrounds.com and www.roll20.net ).

A few basic things to know for Fantasy Grounds:

1) Native Windows only. It works on Macs via WINE but a little more finicky
2) There is a potentially steep upfront cost. There is a free demo, but that only works for all the players if the game master buys the Ultimate License which is $150 (discounted sometimes) otherwise each player needs a full license which is $40 each or Steam has a 4 for the cost of 3 price. They have a subscription option as well and the ultimate license is $10 a month so you could try it for $10.
3) Other than a recent (and large) holiday sale, the official WoTC content is at list price and there are no discounts if you already own the physical books. The new open gaming license for 5e will make this a lot better as almost all will be included for free, but the modules will still cost the GM the list price. If you want the complete Players Handbook, then you need to buy it at list price.
4) It uses a client server approach so you often need to be able to forward ports for your router or use a VPN to allow players to connect if you happen to be in a hotel room. This is for the GM only and the game passes graphics over to the players so if you have limited bandwidth to upload it could go slowly.
5) The user interface is really bad. It works and as you learn it more and more it gets better but there is no real demo or user manual so be prepared to watch YouTube videos or join and learn from experienced players.
6) Windows are bounded by the master game window, so you are restricted to one screen. There is a way to sign on twice as the GM and as a player so you can have one screen display what the players see and another for your GM screen, but be prepared to always be moving things around to find what you need.

With all the caveats above, it really does a great job of allowing online play. A few other things to remember. It is a virtual table top program. Many things are automated but it does not have an AI built in. So the Adam is going to be moving tokens around and handling combat choices.

Here is what Fantasy Grounds does well:

1) Excellent character creation. With the PHB bought, you can drag and drop a lot of the content into your character sheet. It is not dynamic in that you cannot toggle things off and on and you need to pay attention the the bonuses ultimately set, but once the character sheet is set up properly it is very interactive
2) There is a combat tracker sheet that is very useful for running encounters. It tracks hit points and the dice rolling is smart enough that if you target a creature it will calculate if the creature is hit or not and even does critical damage for you. Initiatives are automatically calculated.
3) Spell effects are well handled and again pretty much drag and drop. There is no graphical effect (no fireball exploding) on the screen but the combat tracker is updated with the correct effect that automatically apply. For example, if a character is Blessed, then attack rolls include the additional d4 automatically
4) There is a party sheet that handles treasure and XP awards quite easily
5) The WoTC modules that you can buy all have player and DM maps. The player maps have “fog of war” via a mask mode which lets you slowly reveal (manually) what the players explore.
6) The pre-made modules I bought all have nicely hyperlinked pins in each room and within the actual text for the modules. Text that is in a box which traditionally to be read out loud can also easily be clicked and appear in the chat window
7) The chat window allows you to type in the different game languages. Characters that can read that language see it in English while everyone else sees it in the language script. You can also type private messages to players

Fantasy Grounds does not come with a voice or video option. You need to use a third party application for that. You could just type everything into the chat window, but that is much less interesting than using voice. I do not find that video is needed but some people find it makes a huge difference.

The basic choices are Skype or Google Hangouts which support multiple video and audio chats, Teamspeak, Ventrillo, and Mumble for audio only (you could even do a conference call into a free conference call system). I decided to use Teamspeak as I could run a free server that supported up to 32 people on my NAS (most of the NAS systems out there that have a decent processor and run Linux can run Teamspeak. Not easy but not super hard to set up). There is a Fantasy Grounds Teamspeak server that many players use as well in case you do not want to set something up yourself. There is a Windows and Mac version of the server if you want to do that. Fantasy Grounds is not terribly intensive to run on your computer, but you might as well put the Teamspeak server on a different computer if you can.

I was able to round up 5 players for my new campaign. Three were from my original gaming group when I grew up in Montreal. One I had met in California via Magic the Gathering. Plus my daughter. I paid for the Ultimate license (was on sale) to minimize the out of pocket spending by the others, but all but my daughter ended up buying the full license anyways. I am planning on running one of the more advanced campaigns that Wizards has released (all have been converted to Fantasy Grounds format). For the very first adventure, I decided to go with the Lost Mine of Phandelver. This is the adventure that comes with the introductory rules and I thought it was best because I have not ran a game in decades and most of my players were pretty rusty as well without 5e experience.

We went through a pretty steep learning curve. I tried to connect with everyone before we played our first session so they could roll up their characters and the process was very slow. Took quite a while to figure out how to enter the scores we rolled properly into the attribute box and we did not realize that the character sheets were not fully dynamic so if you changed races you needed to double check the ability scores as it does not seem to cleanly add and remove ability score modifiers once the first one has been applied. Otherwise the process is very drag and drop from the Player’s Handbook. Drag and drop your race, chosen class, background, equipment etc. and the character sheet is populated. The character sheet calculates all the modifiers from your ability scores and displays it in an easy manner. The final result is automatically used by the program in combat or when saving throws or other checks are being made.

I have included some screenshots of Fantasy Grounds to give a flavor of what it looks like, but to be honest once we started to understand more and more how it worked, the mechanics of it faded into the background and gaming took over. Other than the occasional reminder to target before attacking and the need to retread spells and check rules occasionally, it is what it is supposed to be, a table top. Tokens replace miniatures but otherwise the game plays very much like pencil and paper role playing does.

With Teamspeak and the table top set, we have been gaming. That means creating new stories and laughing and worrying together. Spectacular bad luck in rolling fumbles and near party death situations to the players pulling off a cunning plan and mowing down the monsters like grass with the players a turbo charged lawn mower. Lost Mines is a classic style adventure with a fleshed out town with an immediate threat plus rumors and adventure hooks. You can have multiple rooms in Teamspeak so I can either use the chat window in Fantasy Grounds or grab the player and drag into a new room when I need to to to only them.

So now I am DMing again and playing with friends I rarely get to see in person. My daughter is getting to play in an experienced group. Distance playing actually removes barriers of age and sex that sometimes crop up in live games. So even easier to play in a group. And now she is part of the stories my friends can tell. Like the rogue (really want to say thief but they changed the name for 5e) starting that gaming session twice in a row with a fumble resulting in him tumbling through a door and falling flat on his face in front of the enemy. The over confident Fighter playing on a big screen in front of his kids, managing to get himself surrounded and cut-off by bugbears and almost killed while the Ranger rolls so many 1’s in a row to confound all sense of probability.

We even have the fun of the Cleric who just happens to be a PhD in Chemistry quickly sourcing a picture of the particular flask mentioned in the adventure so we can all see what it would look like (and correcting my pronunciation at the same time). The 5e rules even added many of the house rules that became popular during AD&D to make up for the fact that low level Wizards get so few spells and are so weak in combat that they do not have so much to do. Not that the extra cantrips and such make a difference as our Wizard likes to fire his whole arsenal at the first Kobold that shows up which makes the boss fights much harder. To be fair, I am just teasing a little because it actually has worked out fine as killing the early encounters quickly means many less alarms were sounded. It just is another example of how seamless the experience has been, normal teasing and joking comes naturally.

Overall, I would say that it has been a success. My gaming group is up and running again and we get about 3 hours of gaming in every week. We are getting better and better at using the software which automates some of the game mechanics, but enough detail is shown on the screen such that we can follow the flow of what happens which either reminds us of the rules or teaches us the rules. Which is the last point that I will bring up, Fantasy Ground does not teach you how to play D&D. There is no tutorial built in for D&D. You need to learn the same was as someone playing with pencil and paper – read the rules and hopefully find experienced players. Fantasy Grounds helps in two ways. The first is that it automates a lot of the dice rolls and spell resolutions. The second is that the community forums do give you a chance to find game master who is looking for players or where you can list yourself as new and looking to learn how to play and hopefully someone will contact you. A lot easier than asking around in your high school like I had to ages ago. It is even easier and less expensive to play because WoTC just made the 5e an OGL product so Fantasy Grounds released a new version with most of the content you had to pay for before for free as part of the two paid licenses.

I will also make a comment on the 5e rules. This is a little dangerous because D&D has what are often called “edition” wars and the biggest of these was the move from 3 (and 3.5) to 4. WoTC had decided to make an open gaming license for 3e (and 3.5e which essentially was a tweak and fix on some issues with the original 3e rules). There was a pretty big change from 1e (which I learned) and 2e to 3e. For example, the whole way that armor class is determined changed (AC is how hard something is to hit). In the AD&D I learned, -10 was the best AC you could have and 10 was the worst and there were tables that told you the number you needed to roll on a d20 (20 sided die) and that was simplified into a concept of To Hit AC 0 or THAC0. 3e did away with that and instead the higher the AC was, the harder it was to hit with no maximum. AC became the raw number, before any modifiers, you needed to roll on a d20. The move from 1e to 3e also changed the focus from killing monsters to a more story and character based approach. Finally WoTC (owned by Hasbro, btw) also introduced an Open Gaming License which allowed outsiders to freely use the 3e rules.

The short summary of the edition wars which went from older gamers grumping at newer gamers about how much better the old style games were to a complete fracturing of the market as 3e then 3.5e and the 4e which did not have an open license. A company called Paizo created a 3.5e “clone” called Pathfinder and that game actually surpassed D&D in market share and mind share for almost 7 years. It was another version of D&D but not being released by WoTC (or TSR who WoTC bought and which was the original D&D owner). These edition wars were raging right when Warcraft Online and similar games were setting the standards for the industry and pencil and paper games were fading in relevance. I missed the full brunt of the edition wars because I was not playing D&D at that time, but it was all over the gaming websites I kept up with. The edition wars really fractured the marketplace and made it much harder to find a gaming group to play in. Plus gamers can get really, really attached to the rules they favor and refuse to play anything else.

I would say I am more of an “old school” D&D player because of how I started. After a while DMing 5e, I can say that I like it a lot so far. I had not liked all the sub rules which referred to sub rules for 3.5e because it just looked like an arms race where the goal was to find the best rules to sprinkle into your character. 5e has a fair amount of customization of the different character classes, but at least that is well contained so far. Wizards of the Coast just released an updated open gaming license for 5e so I expect that other VTT can provide much better support than they have been previously.

I will do more posts over time on both Fantasy Grounds and D&D, but I think this is enough for now. If you are hankering to relive your old RPG days, the newer online tools let you do what was impossible not too long ago. Look for posts on my long time foray into online roleplaying via Eve Online and discussions on Runequest and Champions.

Update – The friendly developers at Fantasy Grounds say that their 30 day trial membership is the best way to try out their program and that the recent release of the 5e rules as an Open License has allowed them to add even more functionality without the need to buy the source materials (I still recommend the Players Handbook).  I have been using PureVPN with a dedicated ip option to GM from hotel rooms.

Character sheet – views of a few of the tabs

character sheet - main and equipment character sheet - main and equipment

Combat tracker and example map

combat tracker Map Example

Example monster from the monster manual and party sheet

MM example - Abominable Yeti party sheet

If you are looking for the new rule books, here they are:

Player’s Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons)

Dungeon Master’s Guide (D&D Core Rulebook)

Monster Manual (D&D Core Rulebook)

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