Saturday, April 23, 2016

Started a new D&D campaign

So, on Thursday, I started a new D&D campaign, adapting the Curse of Strahd adventure I've reviewed previously. I've taken liberties with some of the elements (for instance, writing a new intro) to adapt to my personal style, as well as make things flow more smoothly. It's the first time in years that I've run a full adventure over a non-text based medium, for all that I talk about how excellent it is to play D&D over the internet. As a result, many of my skills are incredibly rusty, but hopefully I'll get back into the swing of things.

However, I'd like to take a moment to talk about some of the technical and logistics problems that I encountered while setting this up and running it, not to bemoan their existence, but rather to address possible fixes, as well as marvel at how we finally did get this together.

First, some background: I don't have a lot of friends that play D&D who have a lot of free time anymore. As I am a relatively old man by Youtube standards (and getting ever older), most of my old players have moved on, and I've had to pick new ones up. And thus I have long turned to online solutions to set games up. I've been running a long running series of campaigns over IRC with a fairly steady core of players, but unfortunately about half of them won't do video chat or even voice chat, despite the various advantages thereof. So for years I've been running games either wholly over IRC, or occasionally through forums. Neither is conducive for getting much done.

Forums, by their nature, take a long time to play over. Their main strength: allowing people of vastly different schedules to interact, is also their main weakness. I could estimate maybe  1 or 2 rounds of posts a day in the fastest of the forum games I've played in, and many times somewhat slower, which means that your average combat could take a week or so to finish. If you have any miscommunication, or if someone asks for clarification on something, then it can easily kill a day just passing information back and forth to sort things out. Furthermore, this slow pace means that you're likely to lose members, either through disinterest or life events that can pop up over the sometimes months that it takes to run even one minor adventure.

With IRC and similar chat programs, interaction is theoretically only limited by reading and typing speed, but in practice it is much slower. People tend to AFK or not pay attention to the screen as much as they would be in a face to face game. If they are a slower typist with a lot to say, it can take a few minutes to type in something that could've been stated in seconds verbally. Because everyone who thinks ahead can have access to logs, sometimes players will rely more on logs of the chat than notes, and thus whenever they need to refer to some sort of specific mention, they might be paging back through MBs of text files, rather than just a page or two of relevant information. Further, you still have to rely on some sort of virtual tabletop if you want to share maps. It makes for a sometimes awkwardly slow play session.

So when I decided to run a campaign over video chat, I was quite excited. Here was a chance to finally get some D&D over the internet without having to wait for a day between posts, or for someone to decide to come back to the keyboard after an unannounced absence. Unfortunately, scheduling reared its ugly head, and thus it took me over a year and some change to actually get a D&D group together.

I pulled a few players in from my IRC based D&D/Pathfinder group, those who were willing to at least try video chat. The other two I drew from another chat channel I mod in, and whom I knew had video capability from past experience. And thus we set a day and actually managed to get everyone to show up for a game. The first game is always a real accomplishment.

Unfortunately, one of our players was sick when the day finally came. An unexpected roadblock, to be sure, but he was a real trooper. He agreed to play regardless of being ill, but did ask about not using his webcam so as not to look terrible. I readily agreed, so long as the audio worked fine. It did, and thus we were down one player's smiling face from the very beginning.

Then two of our players ran into technical and logistics problems. They are signing on from the same residence, but their place is currently undergoing  remodeling, so they only had the one room to work from. Compounding this issue was the fact that one of them was on a laptop with no working webcam, so we were down another face. Fortunately the mic worked just fine. Unfortunately, the other player in the same room was using a built in mic rather than a headset mic or other directional mic. Thus, the problem of Echoing. It was horrible, Godawful really, but about halfway through the play session, we figured that we could just turn the mic off on one of them, and let the other broadcast both voices. With the lack of visual feedback, this meant that sometimes we kind of lost a voice, but it wasn't enough to present a real issue.

Just as we got started with play, the internet connection on the two sharing a mic and cam began to bomb. But by then we were ready to start, and I really, really didn't want to put the game off anymore. After a year plus of trying to get some sort of 5th edition game together, I was desperate. So we went ahead even with all the problems we were having. I was intending to get some overlays done, and drop the appropriate areas into it, but I didn't get them done in time, so everything you see in terms of overlay and graphics is done in post. And of course, the 'buzz' is back, because I ended up recording in OBS, which made for difficulties in cleaning up the audio.

Speaking of audio, the echo caused by the two players in the same room was only one issue. Roll20 tended to break up audio a lot when multiple people talk, and there doesn't appear to be anything that can be done to fix that, so in the future, we'll have to try to keep crosstalk to a minimum, or use another audio solution. The video seems just fine for now.

Also, because of my hectic week prior to this, I didn't get to refresh my memory with the actual Ravenloft content that I was likely to use, above and beyond the new intro I'd written. I hadn't initially expected to get to it, because I had grown so used to the pace that IRC and forum games run at that it didn't occur to me we'd actually get that far. I suppose that it's a testament both to how much faster the video/audio method is over plain text, as well as how focused our group was.

Of course, we have solutions incoming for almost all of the problems we encountered. First and foremost are things I can do on my end: better time management so that I can have time to prepare, taking my time with narrations to set a better mood, recording my own audio separately so I can clean the 'buzz'. The ill player should be up and running again next week in terms of a camera, and supposedly the player with no webcam now has one, and should be able to get it working.

For audio, I'm going to try to get one of those two players to get a headset, which should also cut down on their echo and crosstalk. Failing that, I'll have one of them mute their mic again, as I did in this particular session, which seemed to fix things. I'll also have my own audio recorded separately, and at the end of the day the only real problem (besides the variable mic qualities) will be the cut offs and dropouts during crosstalk. A few applications to use instead of's a/v service have been recommended to me, so I'll be trying those out in the future.

All in all, I'm rather pleased with how this session went. It'll be at least a week before I'll know the group's schedules to try to pick another day, but I'm optimistic that this will be a good, ongoing thing. And in the meantime, it's helping me identify problems and correct them, so perhaps I can run another campaign besides this one, if people are interested.

At the very least, it feels damn good to be in the DM's seat again. This feels so much closer to the tabletop setting than the IRC and forum games I've been relying on thus far.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Review - The Siege of Grimm Iron Peaks (DM's Guild)

Product: The Siege of Grimm Iron Peaks
Published: Feb 5, 2016
Author: Donald Thompson
Editor: Andrew O’Brien
DM’s Guild Link [Affiliate link]

First things first. I had thrown around the idea of reviewing some of the lower rated or rating-less content on the Dungeon Masters Guild as a feature on my Youtube channel. While I am not certain that this adventure merits that sort of treatment, I felt that it would be just fine for a blog entry, so here we are.

The Siege of Grimm Iron Peaks is a one-shot style adventure for 4-8 characters, designed to take 4-6 hours. It was released on Feb. 5th on the DM’s Guild site, and is currently a ‘pay what you want’ style release, meaning that it costs just as much as you care to spend on it. The pdf is just 31 pages, about 20 of which are pre-generated characters, one of which is a map, and one of which is a title page, leaving just 9 pages for adventure detail. As short as it is, it just doesn’t require any more than that. There are no detailed maps for combat encounters, as this adventure very much fits the old theater of the mind style.

The plot of the adventure is relatively straightforward, as befits a short one-shot adventure. The player characters are survivors of a war band, composed of various ‘evil’ races. While out on patrol around their mixed-tribe town, they are ambushed by adventurers. The adventure picks up just after the battle, where they are the presumed victors, though the rest of their war band was wiped out. Upon scavenging the bodies, they recover some miscellaneous gear and a map that details a settlement being built dangerously close to the PCs’ home. They are then left to push back the outsiders and basically ensure that settlement doesn’t take hold.

The content actually starts with some tips for DMing the adventure, most of which are pretty basic. Between that, and the pre-generated characters, this module seems ready for even a relatively novice DM to pick up and use for a night’s play. Indeed, since the characters are all of evil stock (of which only a few have been made proper playable races), these pre-made characters are pretty much required for proper enjoyment of the scenario. They are of varied classes, and there are two drow, two goblins, a bugbear, a gnoll, a hobgoblin, and a kobold. Which brings me to my first real problem with this adventure. What kind of town has that sort of varied group of evil races managing to live in close proximity without killing each other? That aside, I suppose there had to be some way to get multiple race types for people to choose from.

There’s a random encounter table, which has a series of basic encounters that all feel connected to the storyline. They can be run basically everywhere within the valley, and while an encounter chance is given, the rate you are expected to roll for them is left up to the DM, based on how much time they have to run that one shot adventure. It’s a good choice, in my opinion. Static encounters include an orcish village with rules on befriending them or coercing them into providing support, a gnomish tinker and trader, and the settlers’ buildings. The latter include a few options for how the player characters might deal with them, and a win condition for the adventure. The adventure itself is short and sweet, definitely suitable to run in a single night.

The hand drawn map included is not great, to put it bluntly, but it’s not supposed to be great. It is, after all, the in-character scribbles of some random adventuring band, updated by the random scribblings of some humanoids. The formatting is simple, with just enough variance to tell the separate sections from one another. It works for an adventure this short, but would need improvement for anything longer. Of more concern are the wording, punctuation, and grammatical errors throughout the adventure. Some errors are more grievous than others, and while the meaning can be understood from the context, it is distracting. It could all definitely use another editing pass.

That having been said, it is a pretty neat little concept, and I could definitely see busting this out when I’m short a person for my usual games, or just to try to break up the monotony of a campaign to avoid burnout. I could see a followup to this adventure being fun as well. While the quality is definitely far from professional level, it still might be worth a buck or two from the generous. Either way, I do recommend taking a look at this for a night of amusement and a break from playing the ‘good guys’ that is easy to just pick up and run.

You can grab it on the DM’s Guild here [Affiliate link].