Laidback DM: Virtual Tabletops and The FTF gamer.

So, you’ve never played D&D or your preferred role playing game online before? Now’s the perfect time to do it.

I was a virtual tabletop virgin. All my games were face-to-face (FTF) and the idea of playing a game specifically designed for FTF social contact on a computer didn’t appeal to me at all. I enjoy being with my players in the same room—the sights, smells, the interaction—and the joint feeling of community that brings. Then the pandemic hit, and many of us were socially isolated to prevent the spread of the virus (and despite the opening up of many countries and industries, many of us will continue to stay in isolation). So, I decided to wet my feet in the online gaming ocean via Roll20 and Discord (there are many virtual tabletop applications, such as Fantasy Grounds and Astral Tabletop, but I’m going to limit my comments to the platforms I’ve used).

When I first started DMing online with one of my regular FTF groups, not everyone had PCs (astounding, I know). We used Discord and I displayed maps and tokens in Photoshop, screen sharing with my players. Eventually everyone migrated to Roll20 and we continue to use Discord for audio (as Roll20’s servers don’t always handle audio/video that well).

Role playing online isn’t so different from role playing in the same room. If you use video you can still see everyone’s reactions (but never take your Discord/video link on a phone into the toilet with you. Especially if you forget the video is still on). If you just use audio you can generally still pick up enough vocal nuance to know how players are responding/reacting.

The benefits of online tabletops include access to a larger and more diverse player base and a broad range and style of games from all over the world. There is less chance of having too few players for a game as you can set your game to allow players to drop in at a moment’s notice (not everyone will like this function as it may impact on player continuity, however it can be useful to maintain regular game impetus). You get to interact with players with a broader range of skillsets and experiences. You have the opportunity to build a new circle of contacts and possibly access your ideal player group, one that’s suited to your ideal style of gaming. You can also easily drop games or players who don’t suit your play style.

The biggest downside of the virtual tabletop is also the bane of online computer games—bandwidth and dropout. Some countries have great internet infrastructure, others don’t. Some players have better connections, some have better computer hardware and headsets. No matter how good all the tech is, drop out can happen at any time. Dropout is where a player’s game is affected by significant lag or loss of audio/video. Communication is vital in any game, and having players dropout or their audio dropping so low no one can hear them reduces the quality of the play experience. As a result you as a DM need to be constantly aware of volume levels and interactivity, even more so than in an FTF game. And at their worst a game can be called off due to poor internet connection/PC issues.

I currently play 20-22 hours per week online (some of this is work related, as I’m a full time RPG product designer and run product play tests). All of this is as a result of the current pandemic, and I’m sure when it’s all over I’ll probably go back to a smaller amount of FTF games. But online will remain an attractive option. Now, I find myself wanting to play a more diverse range of RPGs because I have the option to use international players rather than being limited to my home town (where non-D&D players are few and far between).

Covid-19 has had a tragic and horrible impact on so many. Those of us who are only marginally affected can learn to grow from our experiences, in ways we might never have previously imagined. If you haven’t done so, why not try out virtual tabletop gaming? You may never look back.

Game on!

Steve 🙂

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Laidback DM: Raw Dice and Partying on the Edge

I know you’ve been there, no doubt many times: a planned encounter, meticulously balanced to allow the party a measure of challenge, but one that you know they should get through reasonably well. And then: amazingly bad dice rolls; the astoundingly poor use of abilities; the splitting of the party at the worst of times; the tenuous bonds of friendship deteriorating as the encounter goes south and the players turn on each other looking for someone to blame. Okay, it’s not always that bad, but sometimes the perfect encounter can be overturned by bad rolls and the party ends up looking like the fantasy equivalent of The Hangover. But that’s not always a bad thing.

I don’t fudge my die rolls. In fact, when I play IRL (as opposed to socially isolated Roll20 as a result of Covid-19, as I do now) I get my players to make every roll (you want to see tension? Watch their faces as one of them rolls the damage for the 7th-level fireball cast against them by that evil mage). As we all know a DM can choose to fudge rolls if they don’t want a TPK on their hands. I choose to let the dice and fate decide—‘raw dice’ as I like to call it. That’s all well and good, but if you have an encounter where everything goes wrong, you find yourself wondering if raw dice policy is the best option. I’ve been very lucky over the years—there has only been two occasions where I’ve had to use a deus ex machina solution to pull a party’s butt out of the fire to prevent a TPK (in my B/X days I just let them all die—suffice to say I’m a more even-handed DM now). I’m not going to rave on about how to avoid TPKs—you can read all about that here.

One of the major benefits I’ve found from raw dice is the sheer feeling of undeniable excitement and tension as the southward encounter plays out. And when the PCs (hopefully) triumph, the feeling of relief, exaltation and exhilaration as the players (and I) celebrate the win and their survival. There’s something about a really difficult encounter that brings out the worst, but ultimately the best, about players and their characters. And it’s those moments that are remembered and talked about for years to come. Long term memories are formed as a result of the depth of positive or traumatic emotion and experience attached to them. And whilst role playing is not real life, the same principles apply.

So if you or your players aren’t feeling that, take them to the edge a little more often. You can fudge your rolls if you like, but sometimes it’s better to let the dice demigods take control.

Game on!

Steve

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Laidback DM: Pathfinder 2e Reviews – Bestiary Battle Cards

The Pathfinder 2e Bestiary Battle Cards are a heavy box of 450 large-sized monster cards for GMs who run live games. Every monster in the P2e Bestiary book is included, the more powerful ones sometimes spanning two cards. Each card is 4 x 6 inches and has great artwork from the Bestiary.

As a DM who makes my own monster cards for games, I was relieved to see Paizo providing a great alternative for P2e. The convenience of having cards on hand means it’s easy to use stats for multiple monsters without taking up too much table space and without having to refer to cumbersome books all the time – just lean them against the inside of your screen. That’s the theory, anyway.

For most cards in this package it’s fine – they contain all of the necessary information you need to run a combat encounter with that monster. Some monsters, however, feature ‘standardized’ abilities/actions listed in the Bestiary in the back, no doubt to save space in the book’s main monster listings. The cards do NOT list these effects, just the name of the ability e.g. “Throw Rock (1 action)” with either minimal explanation or nothing at all detailing the effects. And there is often room on the card(s) to detail more. It’s the same with monsters that have abilities listed under an earlier type – Dragons, for instance. Instead of a complete listing for “Draconic Frenzy (2 actions)”, it adds “see Pathfinder Bestiary page xx”. The whole idea of having monster cards is to NOT have to reference the books, otherwise what’s the point. My home-made D&D 5e monster cards include all the abilities because I know I need to have them all on hand for combat; with some of these P2e cards I STILL have to refer to the Bestiary book. Not happy, Paizo, especially considering I paid $75 AU for this box, almost what I paid for the Bestiary book itself. I feel a bit ripped off.

P2e Bestiary Battle Cards is a decent product that could have had some elements implemented better.

Rating: 7.5/10

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Laidback DM: Pathfinder 2e Reviews – The Show Must Go On

Right on the heels of the Age of Ashes Adventure Path comes Extinction Curse. I’m very impressed at the way Paizo churns out adventures for their products every month, especially when they are all of such excellent quality. Each one is packed full of new monsters, spells, feats, magic items and lore, and the packaging is bright, colourful and consistently good. The Show Must Go On is no exception.

The Show Must Go On is the first in the Extinction Curse path, a story that once again ties closely into the history of Golarion, the Pathfinder 2e world. Looks like the Aeon orbs the dead god Aroden brought onto the islands of Kortos and Erran to make them fertile weren’t ‘liberated’ from the Darklands, and now the islands may just pay the price.

Extinction Curse1

This adventure features an unusual backdrop – the PCs are circus performers and by the end of the story they will be the de facto owners of a travelling circus. Some interesting rules are included that allow the party to develop their circus and put on regular shows to earn money and accolades. This is the first time I’ve ever seen this in a fantasy RPG, so thumbs up to whoever at Paizo came up with the idea. The idea of being circus performers may not appeal to all players, however, and throughout the adventure there is an underlying assumption they are going to do the right thing. If this doesn’t sound like your group, you should talk with them first prior to running it.

The four adventures contained in this book take players from 1st-4th level and involve a murder, town investigation and two dungeon crawls. They are well designed and serve as a strong beginning to the adventure path, which will eventually take PCs to 20th level. Along the way the party will learn more about the Aeon Orbs, the real villains and a ritual that threatens all life on the islands. They’ll also meet NPCs who contribute interesting new acts that can benefit their circus if recruited.

The Show Must Go On is a great adventure. Buy it and have some show-stopping fun.

Rating: 8.5/10

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Laidback DM: P2e Review – Bestiary Pawn Box

I love combat on a grid, but minis are too costly and take up too much space. I prefer to use pawns for this reason and Paizo makes some of the best.

I recently bought the new Pathfinder 2e Bestiary Pawn Box, which is absolutely huge. It contains 378 pawns featuring every single monster from the bestiary, with a few duplicates of the more common monsters. The artwork for each pawn is from the P2e Bestiary book and is excellent. There’s also an assortment of plastic bases included, in medium, large and huge size (convenient for both D&D 5e and Pathfinder 2e games).

The pawns are printed on thick card so they’re pretty durable. I’m already using them in my games and find they’re fairly convenient to stow and carry. I DM games away from home so I travel a lot (although the current Covid-19 crisis has me looking into online gaming). I don’t take the whole box with me – it’s fairly bulky – I tend to take a selection of pawns based on the adventure we’re playing and some extras just in case I need to improvise an encounter or two.

Even though many of the monsters are different from D&D, you’ll find something in here that will match what you’re looking for (although most of the giants are a size-class smaller in P2e).

I’m very happy with these and would recommend them to any GM/DM looking for a reasonably cheap and easy to transport replacement for minis.

Rating: 9/10

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Laidback DM: P2e Review – Broken Promises

Time I got back to reviewing some Pathfinder stuff! I’ve been buying literally everything, so here’s my opinion.

All good things come to an end, and this final adventure in the Age of Ashes Adventure Path pulls no punches. It’s for 18th-20th level characters and features some pretty hard challenges. An assault on the PC’s citadel (gained in the first adventure and built up over time) and home town, then it’s off to the idyllic city of Promise, where things are not all they seem. I’m not going to spoil this adventure, because this is a fantastic conclusion to this saga and should be experienced fresh.

Paizo have outdone themselves with their first Adventure Path for Pathfinder 2e. I’ve been most impressed by the attention to detail, impeccable production and the loads of additional content they present in every adventure. This book is no different, with a gazetteer of the island of Hermea and the city of Promise, 4 new backgrounds for the children of the heroes of this campaign, 3 new magic items, 12 new feats, 2 new focus spells, 8 new high-level monsters (including Pathfinder’s Tarrasque, which leaves the D&D version for dead) and detailed NPC stats.

Great work Paizo!

Rating: 9/10

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Laidback DM: Taking the Roll20 Plunge…

I’ve always played tabletop role playing games (TTRPGs) face-to-face, ever since I was knee-high to a tadpole, a loooooooooong time ago. Yes, I have a background in information technology; yes, at one point I could program…stuff; yes, everyone always came to me at work to fix their computer issues (“Have you tried switching it on and off?”). I use computers every day in my current job. Heck, I’ve played Zelda and Skyrim. So, I guess it’s a little surprising that I’ve never played a TTRPG online.

All that is about to change, however. Social distancing and social isolation are the new buzzwords, Covid-19 is the new bad guy (um, bad it?) and Skype and Facetime are the new hugs. And that makes virtual tabletop platforms like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds the new ‘face-to-face’ for TTRPGs.

Why have I avoided online TTRPG’ing for so long? Is it the torrid tales of low bandwidth voice and video dropouts, the loss of tactile dice rolling replaced by button pushing apps, the thought of avatars rather than real faces? Or maybe it’s just that I’ve invested so much money in physical gaming aids (maps, pawns, books, etc.) that I’m reluctant to give up the face-to-face experience.

Well, with nothing but a computer in my room at the moment (yep, even my girlfriend is socially isolated from me), I’ve decided to take the plunge and not only play a Roll20 game, but also DM one as well. I got on the Roll20 platform the other day, muddled around and watched a few videos, did a test run with some players and now I’m reasonably confident we can run a game online. My players may not be so gung ho, however. Fear of technology? I don’t think so. Fear of embarrassing gaffs? Certainly not. Fear of my DMing? Well, they ARE a new group. Maybe your players are a bit reticent as well.

I’ve put together a VERY basic task card to help alleviate a few of the initial fears some people may have about the platform. I can’t guarantee it’s going to fix everything, but it’s a start. Possibly for a conversation with your die-hard, face-to-face-only, gaming group.

Laidback DM - Roll20 Task Card

You can download this A4-size Roll20 players task card by right clicking and selecting ‘save picture as’ on PC, or hold your finger on it on your phone or tablet until the device offers to save it.

So, here’s to the virtual near future. Not sure how long this pandemic is going to last, but at least I won’t get bored in the meantime. And here’s hoping you don’t either.

Game on!

Steve, Laidback DM 

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Laidback DM: SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES 3: BLACK MERIDIAN HEART in Print/Digital

SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES 3: BLACK MERIDIAN HEART is now available in digital PDF and print from DrivethruRPG! 136 pages of awesome, mind bending adventures and campaign materials for 5e and OSR role playing games!

Published under the OGL, inside you’ll find:

· 10 one-shot adventures of all varieties – investigation, dungeon crawl, planar, puzzle, quest, role playing, sci-fi – complete with full color maps! The adventures are for PCs of 11th-15th level, designed for minimal preparation and flexible delivery. Each adventure can be run as a ‘one-shot’ for 2-3 gaming sessions (8-12 hours) or played as a mini-campaign. Over 100 hours of gaming content! High-level adventures mean greater challenges – these adventures are longer and feature more content than the previous books.

· Hand-drawn, full-color maps – old school style with new school flair!

·  31 New Monsters + 19 Monsters from Kobold’s Tome of Beasts/Creature Codex! 5e stats included! New monsters include life-drinking Covenantals, manastatically-mutated Meridian Wyrms, mania-inducing Shrooms and the planet-sized Great Old One Asgarte!

·  13 New Magic Items and Vehicles! New items include the mystical Plume Stones, spirit-controlling Ghost Collar, psionic Gerth’r Mentor Helm, legendary ForNev’r Shards and deck plan and stats for the Gerth’r Planar Assault Ship!

· All new city setting of Meridian’s End, complete with important NPCs, factions, backgrounds, rumors, adventure seeds and city map! A frontier town, bordering the wasteland of the Black Meridian, Meridian’s End stands frozen in time, a legacy to Invicia’s defeat of the old Kereshi Empire. There are dark secrets here, whispered behind closed doors in trembling voices as the Baron’s undead guardians glide overhead, always watching. Corruption and fear pervade this new magical frontier…

· New rules and tables for magic, travel and weather, background lore, random encounters and adventures seeds for the magical wasteland known as the Black Meridian! A vast desert created by a magical disaster centuries ago, the Black Meridian is the only source of the valuable but cursed mystical Plume Stones. There are ruins and treasures untold in that desert, trapped behind a magical barrier that only the most courageous – or most foolish – pass. Are you brave enough to face the rampant manastatic storms, bizarre temporal and spacial effects and mutated monsters of the ForNev’r wastes?

· Random Ruin Generation tables! Roll up a ruin – its size, type, features, inhabitants, manastatic effects and adventure seeds! Perfect for creating a ruin on the fly for sandbox play or preparing a dungeon ruin in advance.

· Expanded Verona Province – updated two-page map and extended lore for the region featured in SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES I and SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES II!

· Loads of new and revised lore for the Invician Empire – everything you need for campaign play!

· Full guide for OSR conversions!

· Two bonus Laidback DM articles: on running sandbox campaigns and how to handle split parties.  

· Includes bonus unkeyed maps to use in your own adventures!

 

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Laidback DM: P2e Review – Against the Scarlet Triad

Time I got back to reviewing some Pathfinder stuff! I’ve been buying literally everything, so here’s my opinion.

The 5th adventure in the Age of Ashes Adventure Path progresses characters from 15th-17th level. It’s time to face the Scarlet Triad in their home town of Katapesh, battling a Wendigo in the town of Flinderplain and networking and influencing the guilds of Katapesh to gain some credibility before an all-out assault on the Triad’s Red Pyramid base. Lots of mission variety in this adventure, including gladiatorial contests, animal hunting, infiltration, investigation, dungeon crawls and preventing assassination attempts!

My favourite adventure in this series so far. It includes lore about the Witchwyrds and Lost Aiudara gates, new items, feats, poisons, companions, a new archetype with 5 new feats and 12 new monsters. If you don’t play any of the others, play this one. Well designed and well worth the investment of money and time.

Rating 10/10

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