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
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. 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.