Editor’s Note – The following 2000+ word post is not going to be of any interest to you at all unless you’re into tabletop role-playing games (and even then you may not care if you aren’t playing Dungeons and Dragons). I give this warning in advance to spare your precious time.
If you follow my Twitter or Facebook feeds you’re probably aware that, over the last few months, some friends of mine and I have been regularly playing Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It has been a great deal of fun on many levels. Not only am I gaming again on a regular basis (a pastime that has played an integral role in my life since I was in my early teens), but I’m doing so with my family. Finding activities that all of us enjoy can be a bit of a challenge, and the fact role-playing fell into this category just makes it all the more awesome.
The more time I spend gaming these days, the more I realize that during the years where I spent most of my free time playing games like City of Heroes and World of Warcraft I was really just trying to fill the tabletop RPG void in my life. Now that I am tabletop gaming again on a regular basis I realize that it was a less-than-fulfilling replacement. As much fun as I had playing MMORPG’s (and let’s be clear – I DID have a lot of fun), there just isn’t anything quite like making up your OWN stories and having adventures that aren’t pre-determined by a set of programmers. The exhilaration of defeating an epic monster in a scripted encounter is nothing compared to the joy of defeating a party of kobolds while sitting around a table with your friends making Monty Python jokes.
As a group we’ve been collectively getting better about understanding the new mechanics of fourth edition, but I’ve been faced with a somewhat different challenge as the Dungeon Master. The adventures in fourth edition are designed for a group of five players. Our group, at this point, has expanded to seven of them. This isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to overcome, but it has presented me with a series of challenges.
The first, and most obvious, is dealing with the fact that the encounters in the adventures are built around having five people in a party. In order for these encounters to be sufficiently challenging for the larger group you need to either increase the number of creatures they are facing or increase their level. Fortunately both of these tasks are easy, if not a little time consuming. The Fourth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has a great chart that gives you the amount of experience that creatures of a certain level should generate. If you’re building an encounter for a certain level you simply multiply the number of players you have against the amount of experience awarded by a Standard creature of that level. A Standard fourth level enemy is worth 200 experience points, so a fourth level encounter for 7 players should be worth 1400 experience points. All you need to do is add enough creatures to a fourth level encounter to total that level of experience. If you decide to just make the monsters more powerful, the folks at Wizards of the Coast have created an amazing tool that allows you to do just that. Subscribers to their Dungeons and Dragons Insider service can use the Monster Builder tool to quickly increase (or decrease) the level of any creature in their impressively large database.
Once I realized how to deal with this challenged I quickly concluded that I had an even bigger one in front of me. Fourth Edition is, in my opinion, the most game mechanic oriented version of Dungeons and Dragons when it comes to combat. Battle maps are pretty much essential, as many of the abilities of the players and creatures revolve around positioning on a map. Gone are the days of descriptive combat where everything takes place in your mind. In many ways this has made the game much more engaging, but it has also made combat encounters very long. When you have 7 players and an appropriate number of monsters to counter them, it takes even longer.
So I’ve been trying to find ways to streamline our games in order to get more play and less “umm…errr….what’s going on now” moments from my end. I want to keep the action moving and keep my players from being bored while they wait for their turn (nothing will make you realize you’ve lost the attention of the group more than looking up and realizing that most of them are paying attention to their smart phones). I thought I’d share some of what I have tried for those of you who might be facing similar situations.
Last year at Gen Con I stumbled across Alea Tools. The main focus of what this company offers are “condition markers” that work along with those complex Fourth Edition mechanics I mentioned earlier. It can be a bit of a pain in the ass trying to remember who is poisoned, slowed, bloodied, etc. and these magnetic markers can adhere to the base of your miniatures to aid in that process. I wasn’t, at the time, enamored with the magnetic markers themselves, though. What I found really cool was the “token creation” system they came up with. The thought was that if you didn’t have a miniature to represent a creature or character you could take a picture from, say, a Magic: The Gathering playing card and use their one-inch round hole punch to create one. I LOVED this idea, mainly because I’ve never been really big on collecting miniatures. It’s expensive as hell, for one, and I suck at painting them. You can buy the plastic Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures booster packs, but the contents of those are random and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. I wanted to be able to have miniatures that accurately represented the creatures my players were facing without having to spend an arm and a leg to buy them. When I was looking at this “token creator” at the convention, though, I knew I had seen something like it before and what they were charging for it seemed a bit on the high side. Sure enough, they are just simple scrap booking punches and you can find them at any major craft store. They also sell bundles of magnetic token converters you can adhere to the back of your miniatures or tokens, but again you can create those backs yourself by getting sheets of adhesive magnets from a craft store and punching them out.
Now all of that being said? I’m going to buy a kit of the markers themselves at Gen Con this year. Xany has some, and when he brought them to the game two weeks ago they really helped a LOT. I could probably find a cheaper alternative, but the fact of the matter is that for the idea themselves I think the folks over at Alea Tools deserve some of my money and they are going to get it.
I spent a few weeks getting a template “just right” in Photoshop that would allow me to create my own tokens from images I find online (and, to be honest, I think I’m going to go back to the drawing board and create a new one). I print them out on card stock and then use the scrap book punch to cut them out. If there are more then one of a particular creature type I have numbers that appear on the tokens in a layer that I can turn on or off before printing. Initially, I tried to create a unique token for every creature of a particular type, but that got VERY time consuming (during one of the first encounters where I used this method the players ran across a large number of cultists, and I found 30 different images of scantily clad humans…a titillating experience, but not one I have time to repeat every week).
Pros – Inexpensive way to generate your own tokens. Use of numbers on enemies makes tracking multiple creatures of the same type exceedingly easy.
Cons – Takes a lot of time to find images for different creature types and create all the individual tokens. Tokens that don’t have any kind of thicker base to them can be difficult to pick up.
Initiative became quite a sticky point when I was dealing the the large groups. My original solution to the problem was one initiative roll for every creature type in an encounter. This cut down on quite a bit of the confusion I was having right from the get go (YOU try tracking initiative for 40 different creatures in an encounter). I still kept skipping over my players and causing them no small level of annoyance, though (I seemed to skip Xany more often than not…sorry, dude). Last week I introduced combat cards into the mix. I made combat cards for all of the players and for the monsters that they ran into in every encounter. This worked great, to a point. I used these PDF templates that can be filled out on your computer and printed. They are easy to read, but they take a while to fill out. After initiative is rolled I put the cards in order of players and monsters and then just cycle through one-by-one. If a player or creature holds their action I take them out of the rotation until they decide to go again. Doing so defeats one of the big advantages of having these cards, though. With all the stats printed on the card it’s easy to use them as a reference for attacks and defense, but if you need information on a card that isn’t at the top of the pile you have to either shuffle through it (and risk getting the cards out of order) or go back to referencing the module. I’ve heard of a few other initiative solutions that I may try out (small dry-erase boards being the big one), as I don’t think I’ve got the “perfect” solution just yet.
Pros – Handy reference for statistics and abilities. Easy to cycle through initiative quickly.
Cons – VERY time consuming to create. Statistics get buried in the initiative mix and you end up going back to reference books for stats.
I have a pretty nice battle mat, but drawing out large rooms can be a bit time consuming. Not only that, but my drawing skills leave a little to be desired (stick figure statues and questions like “Is this a chair or Pac-Man?” abound). We’re currently running through The Keep on the Shadowfell, and I found a guy who created maps for all of the encounters that weren’t pre-printed in the adventure and posted them online. I had to fiddle with the maps a bit to get them to print properly, as the scale was slightly off. This was pretty easy to do, though. I just opened the images in Photoshop and put down a 1-inch grid over it. Then I adjusted the image size until the printed grid matched the overlay.
I have every map in an individual manila folder with the encounter area printed on the top for easy reference. I also have all of my tokens and combat cards in a small snack bag in the folder so that I have the monsters readily at hand. I briefly considered taping all of the maps together in advance, but as Krystalle pointed out that would make transporting them a bit cumbersome. Unfortunately it kind of turns into a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Having them in folders makes them easy to reference, but the maps were larger than the table we were using and I we ended up needing to tape them down to the table to keep them from falling off. This added more time on to the set up for each encounter, which defeated one of the main goals of printing them out in the first place. I may end up going back to taping them and just grab a poster shipping tube from somewhere to store them in.
I was VERY happy with the results from the printed maps on an aesthetic level. So much so that I’m also probably going to pick up a copy of Campaign Cartographer at Gen Con this year. The biggest drawback, exacerbated by the fact that the players were helping me to tape down the maps, was that parts of the dungeon they had not seen yet were revealed before they should have been. I’m thinking that is something else I can at least partially alleviate if I have the maps pre-assembled. Pre-assembly will also prevent the “maze” dilemma I ran in to. One of the encounters was set in a maze and I had to take about 20 minutes figuring out the correct order to lay the individual map pieces down in.
Pros – Much nicer looking than a hand drawn map on a battle grid. Potentially quicker to set up encounters. No “what is this supposed to be” questions from the players.
Cons – Takes a lot of ink/toner to print large maps. Again, time consuming. If you’re using maps from someone else it isn’t so bad, but if you’re building them yourself in something like Campaign Cartographer it could be. Assembly of maps is going to take time, whether or not you do it in advance or at the table itself. Transportation of said maps if the game isn’t at your residence can be cumbersome.
The Bottom Line
If you really want to streamline your Fourth Edition gaming sessions you are going to need to spend several hours getting ready for each session in any given week. As I’ve been tweaking the tools I’m using to speed things up my preparation time has gone down, but it’s still there. The time invested, for me anyway, is worth it. I enjoy playing with all of these things in my off-time, and my players enjoy not sitting around with their thumbs up their asses while they wait for me to get my act together at the table. Even if, at some point, we switch over to a less-mechanical game for a while I’ll probably still use some of these things in whatever system we end up using (the maps and tokens, for example, really amp up the level of engagement in the players).
And some day? I’ll be able to do this while we’re all sitting around an Ultimate Gaming Table.