Running Games on my Netbook

I seriously don’t know what’s up over there at Wizards of the Coast. But, as I am fond of saying, it’s not my company to run into the ground.

The latest monster builder/catalog is pretty lacking in features and capabilities that I want as a customer who runs Dungeons and Dragon games for friends. My concern isn’t really for this one product not rocking my socks off. Really, it’s about the little things in it that, in my eyes, reveal a future that D&D tools will take over time. In short, the lock-down is on like Donkey Kong. This new tool doesn’t allow copy-and-paste of information. It doesn’t allow linking to images with a DDI login. The only way to get information from it is with a screen-capture.

There’s no guarantee things will continue like this. It’s possible that each of these decisions was just a coincidence. Maybe it was just easier. But, to be honest, the realist in me couples these things with the move to online only tools and other decisions made by Wizards of the Coast and it’s just depressing. The RPG community as a whole is growing smaller each year and the largest and most popular brand in that community is not trying to grow their market. Every step down this path means people are forced to jump higher and higher hurdles to play their game.

So what does this have to do with me running D&D games on my netbook? It has to do with the tools I use to run D&D games. Let’s look at my options.

  1. Pencil and paper. It’s classic and old-school, but I just don’t have the time anymore. Especially with the fourth edition of D&D. Tracking conditions, hit-points, initiative, delays, readied actions, etc. Not to mention jotting down NPC names as I make them up and making notes for future plot points. Pencil and paper just isn’t viable anymore. In a pinch, I can do it. So this remains the backup plan.
  2. Masterplan. This is a nice tool and I really like many of its features for designing adventures and running combat. But, due to a cease and desist letter from Wizards of the Coast, you can not move libraries of monsters and other information between computers. I’m not going to spend hours preparing for a D&D session on my little netbook when I have a desktop with a nice large screen. That limitation seems minor, but if I need to throw together a quick encounter on the fly and run it, I would have to enter all my data on my netbook in advance. Not to mention that there is no way to import monsters from the new monster builder, or the compendium. You can only import monsters from the old Adventure Tools offline application. If you want to use Monster Vault monsters, you have to import by hand. Nuts!
  3. MapTools. I just participated in my first online D&D game as a player, and we use MapTools. This is a sweet tool for playing a game totally online. But, it’s a bit heavy for my netbook to run just to track combat. Not to mention that I would have to, again, manually enter all the monster information by hand. Even with a clever modification from the community, it won’t read information from the new monster catalog since you can not copy-and-paste from it.
  4. inCombat 4e. The paragon by which I judge all other tools. It’s effecient and clean. It does combat tracking well and is 100% integrated with iPlay4e. Until recently, it was just as limited as Masterplan. But with a quick bug report, Andrew Siefer quickly turned around a patch allowing me to screen-capture stat-blocks from the new monster catalog and paste them into inCombat 4e. This means I can quickly go into the new monster catalog, re-skin a monster and adjust its level, then screen capture the stat-block and put it into inCombat 4e. I can save the monsters as an encounter and have them ready to go at a moments notice. In short, this tool is doing what I need to run a session from a computer.

I know that Wizards of the Coast is working on a virtual tabletop application. It’ll be online only. I’m not sure I’ll even be able to use that to run a face-to-face game. Does Wizards of the Coast even want people to keep running games in person anymore?

Off the Rails

After running Keep on the Shadowfell, Thunderspire Labyrinth, and a couple Scales of War adventures, I’ve gone off the rails. I’m making it up as I go along. And it’s nothing like I remember. But one thing is for certain, combat is going to be much easier to keep interesting. I was never happy with the pre-written adventure combat and while I could have spent the time making them better, I might as well have written them from scratch.

Our aggressive warlock has already found out that these new encounters mean business. Muhahaha.

Cute little mice?

Most of my time running RPGs has been of the variety that has the game master driving the players through scenes and settings. Many of the adventures I have run that were pre-made tended to be giant scripted set pieces that the players would be pushed and pulled through. Not unlike meat through a meat grinder. And, there is nothing inherently wrong with this method of playing and running games. A good game master can make that roller coaster feel like a wild ride. But, many times I feel like my roller coaster is more like the tea cup ride at Disney World. Not that I’ve had to wake up players for their turns to act (yet).

I read about Mouse Guard and I was gifted a copy by some friends. It’s a very different sort of RPG than anything I have played or run before. It places an emphasis on players taking ownership of their characters and what they will do in the world in a way that is very different than other games. It’s not that I think other RPGs are incapable of having these qualities, but they aren’t emphasized like they are in Mouse Guard.  The concepts of turning a team mission into personal goals, and being rewarded for completing them is a nice way to hand over the reigns of what’s going to get done to the players. I also really enjoyed the methods of conflict resolution that elegantly tiptoe around failure with more obstacles and success at a cost. All things I enjoy enough to try and fold back into my 4e games.

Long Time, No Post

Castle Ravenloft Board Game

It’s not that I have stopped playing, or running, D&D. I have not. But I had a job for a while that basically sucked up every waking hour of my life (or felt like it).

But, in that time, I have managed to keep running my Saturday night session. And in addition to that, I have picked up and played two other games.

Castle Ravenloft and Mouse Guard.

 

 

Rundarr!

While no one died, this fight gave the party the most draining fight yet. After a full rest, they used almost every daily power they had. A great battle that actually threatened a loss.

Chamber of Eyes

l_2048_1536_4D48D6D9-7E46-4641-A1BD-BFAD7BF5C4FD.jpegA couple of shots from last nights combat in the Chamber of Eyes. The players had been blowing through the standard encounters, so we discussed some solutions and ended up just tweaking all the enemies levels by two. The enemies are now harder to hit, hit harder, and there’s some real peril. Seems to also suit the Thunderspire’s generous loot tables.

To the left here is where the players ran into a few duergar guards. They were tough as it was, but the fighting lured a hobgolbin warcaster and chief to the fight. Some quick thinking on the part of the warlock and they divided the enemies with a magical shroud of darkness.

Below, the larger battle in the main chamber. The warcaster retreated to this room and made a stand with the archers and wolf. Chamber of Eyes

Thunderspire HO!

Victory in Thunderspire

After the conclusion of H1, Keep on the Shadowfell, the group moved on to H2, Thunderspire, out of lack of anything better from the DM (me). I’ve been putting the battle-mats to good use and you can see the post encounter map with all enemies killed dead.

I will note that if you are playing these pre-made modules, your group is most likely out-leveling the content. I made some changes to the last fight to try and make it more challenging and I think it succeeded. Despite some bad rolls on my part, and good roles on the party’s part, things seemed to be more challenging. Next encounter will be the telling part.

And, BTW, that’s some crumb cake, courtesy the wizard in the party. It was very good.

The End of Keep on the Shadowfell

Last Saturday I finished running Keep on the Shadowfell. I think that most of the reviews and feedback I have heard about the module branded it as too difficult or bland. I don’t think it’s a bad adventure. It’s a very classic dungeon crawl with lots of variation. I can clearly see that this was written to introduce new players to all the different kinds of challenges that D&D 4e has to offer. In that respect, it does a good job.

The players in our game were very shrewd most of the time in focusing fire and clearing the entire dungeon. This meant that they leveled up faster than the adventure was designed for and I had to make many of the fights harder. There were only a few bad times when the enemies got the upper hand. Surprise rounds can be harsh on the party. 🙂

So now I turn to the future and I’m not sure what I will run next. We all decided that D&D 4e is the right game for the group, but I’m not sure whether I will home-brew an adventure or just pick up the next pre-made adventure from Wizards of the Coast.

Conflicted

Since the day I first logged into a MUD, I will always want to play multi-player online games. It’s just a genre that I enjoy playing at many levels, and I enjoy the evolution of the genre. The basic concepts of virtual worlds are fascinating, and always will be.

One of the ideas I dwelled on and mulled over in my head was the idea of using a time-tested RPG system for a computer game. I was generally very upset with the Dark Age of Camelot system and felt it was impossible to ever find balance and fairness with that system. I know lots of MMO’s have licensed settings, but why not license an existing RPG’s mechanics? If you wait long enough, your crazy ideas will come true.

Dungeons & Dragons Online has recently decided to change their pricing scheme from a monthly subscription to a hybrid free-to-play structure. The game has been around for three years, but I had never given it much attention. The reviews seemed bad and, at the time, I was not willing to shell out fifteen dollars per month to find out for myself. But with the advent of the free-to-play changes, suddenly the price seemed right. I signed up for their closed beta and I was allowed in a few weeks ago.

And I find myself conflicted.

On one hand, I think DDO is a perfect case of an existing mechanic making the game more enjoyable. On the other hand, I don’t really like the D&D 3e rules. I do think DDO stands as a testament on how well you can translate a tabletop or pencil and paper RPG into an online game. The concepts of how the game feels and plays are a good translation of the D&D tabletop experience. I would love to see a turn-based D&D 4e multi-player online game. Maybe if I wait long enough.

The Bucket

It’s been a while since I posted. Long story for another post.

I came across this post on Adventures in Gaming. And, I have to admit, I think Mishler is right.

There is one core issue that keeps adventure game industry small and micro press role-playing game companies from being able to charge what they need to in order to be able to afford all the bells and whistles much larger companies can afford: the price sensitivity of the gaming consumer.

The RPG industry is slowly dieing. Local gaming stores are difficult to operate without losing money or having another source of income. There’s a solution.

Grow the market.

The market is too small to sustain the companies in the industry. Growing a market is hard work, though. I’m not really sure anyone working in the industry is going to put aside their livelyhood today in order to save their job five years from now. From a consumer and corporate viewpoint, building the market up will cost more money. Money that people will say they can’t afford to spend.

So, in short, if you aren’t willing to spend money just to grow the market, you are essentially saying you are fine letting the RPG industry die a slow and painful death. This means spending more money for consumers by purchasing RPG materials from gaming stores instead of online, direct from distributers. It means companies trimming production costs and spending money on gaming stores and advocacy.

The music industry is currently going through a huge upheaval. A good summary of their new gameplan is given by Michaek Masnick from techdirt.

Connect With Fans (CwF) + Reason To Buy (RtB) = The Business Model ($$$$)

I bring this up because it’s a simple concept of how to make money. And, while it’s fun to play RPGs, the only way to keep getting great RPGs and new RPGs is for people to make money publishing and writing RPGs. This formula is very simple and easy to understand, and I can say that in the past several years, the RPG industry has done almost nothing but try to put their biggest connection with fans out of business. The direct sales model has pulled an end-run on the RPG industry’s largest fan building system, which is the local gaming stores. I’m not going to say that going back to that model is the only way to connect with fans, but it’s a good start in lieu of a better idea.

The other half of this equation is the reason to buy. In the context of the music model Masnick is talking about, the music is usually given away for free and you have to find a reason for fans to give you money. Often in the context of value-add that is original, unique, and highly desired by fans. So, why not apply this same concept to an RPG? Give the core mechanics away for free. The meat of the game. Free. Allow it to be downloaded in PDF for free to anyone who wants it. But what could you sell? Maybe a black and white, soft-back version of the rules for $15. And a full color, hardbound for $40. And a limited edition signed by the authors/artists for $130, of which you only have fifty copies. You could sell miniatures if the game needs them. You could sell modules, adventures, tools, etc. Maybe you give modules away for free, but you charge money for printer copies like your core rules. These versions for sale could include color maps, etc. This kind of model offers options for people across a wide swath. People looking for a new game might download the free version, then order a black and white copy for play. Dedicated fans might purchase the hardbound version. And your rabid fans who mail you their panties could purchase the signed copy of the core rules. Options are always great!

If the music industry is any indicator, this model could possibly make money and grow the market at the same time. Worst case scenario, you get a great game out into the public and build your market at the loss of some revenue. Revenue that you are going to lose over time regardless. Any market is like a bucket with a hole in it. You are always losing customers. You have to keep adding water to the bucket!