Session Re-Cap 1/8/10, Part One: From Tabletop to the TV.

So last gaming session I had intended to plan out a full night of awesome, and getting my party back on track to saving the world and all that good stuff. But then, crap happened. I spent most of my free time this past week, sadly, dealing with guild drama for my online gaming bunch. It happens. When you get a large group of people together, online or off,  there’s always an element for BS.  Unfortunately,the Friday Afternoon when I sat down to prep for the session, I was still getting IM’s and having to check forums, get on VoIP etc while I was working. Plain and simple: I was distracted, and had to come up with something for game night. Something relevant, something fun, something that didn’t feel wasted. Oh crap, I thought, it was also the first night we were going to use Gametable on the big screen. What I ended up spending my time prepping was a fight encounter. Only issue: I didn’t really come up with a direct reason for it; just something to do. That is generally a cardinal sin for adventure design in my book; but I managed to recover as I’ll report later in part two.

The Problem with Miniatures
Before I go into the details of how I saved my gaming session, I did want to give a quick review of us using Gametable for combat. Over the year of playing D&D with this group, I’ve grown a love/hate relationship with the use of miniatures and counters in D&D. At the beginning of the game, it was fun and exciting and added a tactical/visual element that the players got into. As we’ve gone forward and the power levels have resulted in much longer, more complex combat scenes they’ve started to take a toll on our game time. I’ve purchased many things in an attempt to ease up the minis use, and instead found it becoming more taxing in the sense of preparation, setup, and hauling. For a few sessions I was bringing in large totes just to handle all the “props”. I have so many dry erase maps, battle boards, initiative trackers and cardboard counters and tile pieces I’ve collected it’s ridiculous. To make matters worst, the table we play it is just a plain dinner table. I could easily set up combat on it, but once the books, power cards, character sheets AND THEN the snacks/drinks are on board, I’m usually very limited in space and have to stand up/reach over everyone just to move pieces. It sucks.

So, I’ve been going back to trying the digital DM’ing approach. I have a new laptop that is half the size of my last one, and has a MUCH better battery life. I’ve been able to actually run a full D&D session without having to plug in, it’s nice. The sessions I ran with it, we didn’t put the minis or maps out on the table. I would handle the combat tracking and minis positioning using Masterplan, and verbally describing the scene to the players as it unfolded. It was handy since we were able to keep things tactical while putting in more narrative descriptions to the fights. However, issues did come up that were hard to explain. When the Rogue was trying to position herself for certain maneuvers with an enemy engaged with 2 other party members, and with other minions in the scene, we did periodically have to resort to grabbing minis, candies and salt shakers to create a visual of the scene. So, to me, the pay out of going back to an abstract combat system was 50/50.

Going to the Big Screen

Example of the player minis I use

My friends recently received a 40″ TV as a gift, so this session we decided to hook my laptop up to it and use it as a Virtual Table Top. My software of choice for this endeavor was Gametable for a few reasons: One, I was already pretty familiar with it. More so than RPTools, which I’ve never ran a game with and only played a couple times. I also elected Gametable over the Masterplan’s combat maps and Player Screen options purely for an aesthetic purpose: While Masterplan’s battle maps work fine and have some cool features, their “pogs” are solid colored circles with initials. It was nice using RPTool’s TokenTool to quickly throw some pogs together and tossing them into a folder to use with Gametable. For the player’s “miniatures” I took the character portraits my fiancee sketched so everyone knew right off the bat who was what. For the enemies I needed to use, I shamelessly went to Google Images, typed in names of the creatures I was using, and grabbed the best illustrations I could find.

The strength in Gametable is its sheer simplicity. It may not have all the wicked cool tracking features Maptools has, but it does what I want it to without hassle. I exported my encounter maps from Masterplan as a jpeg, threw it in the underlay folder and BAM! I had a map image, to scale, to throw underneath the table grid. For added effect, I used the pre-packaged environmental images to slap in some extra rocks and boulders, and even a chasm/pit. It’s literally a slap and go method, and there’s even some basic drawing/coloring tools in case you want to add anything on the fly.

When it came show time for combat, it was really handy being able to just quickly pull the icons out of the library and slap’em down. Clicking on the icons brings up a quick drop menu of stuff to add/edit; I would number the groups of enemies just so I knew which particular critter in a group was taking damage or attacking who. When conditions, such as Marked or Bloodied, would occur it was just a matter of “Add an Attribute” and labeling them as such. Pretty easy shit there. You can actually go into more details with the software, but for this instance I was just in need of something to emulate the tabletop.

The setup was simple, but had some snags not related to the software. I had my laptop hooked up via a VGA port, but had to rely on a regular 6 foot cable and then an extension. I treated the TV as an extended desktop, and moved the Gametable window to it. I kept Masterplan up on my “DM Screen” for dice rolling (forgot my polyhedrons) and combat tracking. The snag we hit was the fact the extension cable seemed to be pretty loose on the connecting end, and my lappy apparently lacks and screw-ins. So during the combat we were interrupted by the signal going out and having to re-connect and reconfig the monitors. It was an interruption that at its worst stalled us only a minute; but still, it was a pain in the ass. It seems the regular VGA cable latched on better, and didn’t poop out on me messing with it after the gaming session. I’m going to experiment with the cable setups some more hopefully before next session.

So, really, YMMV depending mostly on the hardware setup. I also wanted to note my laptop’s onboard video didn’t like going to resolutions higher than its own, so I was unable to run in full 1920×1080 on the TV which did result in some blurs/shadowing that was only really noticeable to me having to sit close to the screen. I may also experiment with a VGA/HD Adapter.

Still, annoying technical hiccup aside, I enjoyed it and I think it opens up a lot more possibilities for me and my group. With the bevy of free and cheap map and tile graphics out there, as well as the infinite mapping solutions and free graphics solutions, it allows me to be more flexible in designing tactical combat encounters. Not having to lug dry erase boards, minis and counters has been a relief. Not to mention the “cool” aesthetics that are possible with it. For instance, I’m planning on having some structures placed on the maps as tokens/graphics, so they may actually be moved or destroyed and have a visual representation as such. Matter of fact, the combat session I ran involved knocking an opponent into the chasm/pit, and then pushing a boulder on top of him! Excellent!

Next post, I’ll inform you guys how I was able to “loosen up” with the Skill Challenge approach to turn an ad-lib’d encounter with a few dragons into an epic war-time scenario. Ever heard of Insight being used to kill a Dragon? You will next post!

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