Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 26, 2017
 
Elemental Evil: Session 1

Three years after the original release of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons we finally got an official French translation of the Player's Handbook. So my home campaign, which is played in French, could finally switch to 5th edition. Last night we played our first session, using the Starter Set adventure Lost Mines of Phandelver (somewhat modified to better lead into the campaign adventure).

This being the official starting adventure of 5th edition, it is full of tropes and classic situations from 40 years of D&D. It starts with the characters guarding a caravan from Neverwinter to Phandalin, sitting around a camp fire and introducing their characters:
  • Erdan, the elf druid
  • Krosh, the half-orc priest of war
  • Landry, the halfling monk
  • Laurelin, the half-elf paladin
  • Popéé, the half-drow wild magic sorceress
  • Theren, the elf warrior, specialized as archer
They have been hired by a dwarven entrepreneur, Gundren Rockseeker, to transport an ox cart full of mining supplies to the village of Phandelin. Gundren wants to prospect the hills there for gold. Around the campfire Gundren is taking out an old book and looking through the pages, but not as if he was reading it. Questioned about it he says that this is a family heirloom, written by one of his ancestors over a hundred years ago, and he hope that it will bring him luck on his search for gold. Also at the fire is a friend of Gundren, Sildar Hallwinter, a human warrior. He has his own reasons to want to travel to Phandelin (nobody asks him about them), but also wants to protect his dwarven friend.

The next morning Gundren and Sildar, who are the only ones with horses, decide that riding next to the ox cart is too slow. They instruct the group to deliver the supplies to Barthen's Provisions in Phandelin, where they will be paid, while they will ride ahead to take care of business. The group agrees. However as soon as Gundren is gone, they do search the ox cart just in case there is anything fishy about the transport. The supplies turn out to be genuine mining supplies. But they do find a first aid kit under the seat of the wagon, containing a healer's kit and a healing potion.

A day and a half passes in travel before the group comes upon a place where the woods press close to the trail, with a steep embankment on both side. Two dead horses block the path. Erdan vanishes into the woods, while the others, led by Krosh, approach the horses. Clearly the horses are those of Gundren and Sildar, and Krosh finds the empty leather case that contained Gundren's book. Unsurprisingly this in a ambush, and the group is attacked by 4 goblins. Unsurprisingly is the right word, as the goblins roll very low on their stealth check and don't manage to surprise anybody. Nevertheless they aren't so easy to kill, as two of them are using their special trait bonus action to hide at the end of every round, and thus fire their arrows unseen with advantage. Although not strictly necessary, Popée wants to use his Tides of Chaos power to provoke a wild magic surge by casting a level 1 spell. That kills a goblin, but gives a random result of Popée glowing in a bright light for one minute. So she takes an arrow that brings her down to 2 hit points. And as she always casts mage armor at the start of the day, she is already out of spell slots for the day.

After killing the goblins the group decides to have a short rest, on the insistence of Popée. Healing isn't plentiful in 5E, especially since Krosh refuses to learn healing spells and plays his war priest more like a barbarian. While the group rests, Erdan decides to scout ahead alone, until he nearly steps into a trap and returns to the group. Slightly restored, the group follows the goblin trail to their hideout, having found traces of a dozen goblins dragging two larger bodies. Arriving at the hideout I show off my new map reveal tool: A tablet running Autodesk Sketchbook with the map on a lower layer, and a layer painted black on top of it. While the group explores, I erase the black layer and show the map under it. Works pretty well! In front of the goblin hideout there is a cave entrance from which a small stream is flowing, and thickets to the side. The group takes care to watch and listen, and manages to hear goblins in the thicket. They approach, roll well on their stealth and manage to surprise the goblins. The goblin also roll a 1 for their initiative, so they only get to act after every player has acted twice. They never make it that far.

So the group enters the cave, Krosh ahead, followed by Landry with a torch, as the halfling is the only one not having darkvision. Shortly after the entrance to the tunnel there is a cave to the right, where Krosh finds 3 wolves chained to iron spikes. While Laurelin successfully uses animal handling to calm the wolves, Krosh hits them with his sword, while staying out of their reach. The other players join with ranged attacks. Enraged, two of the wolves manage a strength check to break their chains, but are quickly vanquished. While Landry and Laurelin use non-lethal damage to only stun the wolves, Krosh cuts their throats. You might have noticed at this point that Krosh is not a nice guy, which is deliberately how the player wants it. Behind the wolves the group finds a chimney going up, used to throw bones and rubbish down to the wolves, but they decide not to climb it.

Instead they follow the tunnel northwards until they come to a place where the main tunnel bends right, and there is a narrower tunnel with a steep rise. Taking the main tunnel Krosh notices a bridge, 20 feet up, which crosses the tunnel. As Landry is walking right behind Krosh, the goblin on the bridge easily spots the group and Krosh sees him dashing to the right. At that point the group decides to first explore the side passage, and Krosh clambers up the steep rise. However the ground isn't stable and Krosh's weight causes an earth slide. Krosh fails his dexterity save and the damage, added to previous wounds, knocks him unconscious. However as half-orc he immediately gets up to 1 hit point again, and Erdan heals him further with a healing word. But now the group hears the sound of a lot of water rushing towards them. They all manage to get to higher ground before a big wave of water rushes through the tunnel.

The group advances again along the main tunnel, where Krosh sees the goblin on the bridge again. Some group members speak goblin and hear the goblin shouting something along the lines of "the bastards are still up". They kill the goblin, but then a second wave of water rushes down the tunnel. This time Krosh is caught in the surge, failing two saves, and is flushed out of the cave. He returns and the group still presses onwards. Theren hears a goblin shouting from ahead "did we get them this time?" and shouts back in goblin "yes, okay". He succeeds his bluff check, and earns a point of inspiration for this. The group arrives in a big cave with two, now empty, pools of water and 3 goblins. They kill two of the goblins, while the third runs away.

Krosh runs after the goblin, and right into the cave of the dungeon's boss, a mean bugbear named Klarg. Klarg has a pet wolf, and besides the fleeing goblin there are two other goblins in that cave. A big fight ensues. I roll my dice in the open, and while the group accumulates a string of misses, Klarg lands a mighty blow on Laurelin, bringing her down from full health to unconscious in one blow. Krosh is surrounded by two goblins and the wolf, and also goes down. Theren administers the healing potion to Laurelin, while the rest of the group attacks first Klarg and then the others. Klarg misses his next attack, and then goes down. The group kills the goblins and wolf, and then Laurelin heals Krosh with laying on hands. The party finds the cave full of stolen supplies, carrying a blue lion logo. They also find a treasure chest with coins and a valuable jade statuette.

The group takes a short rest and then continues over the bridge into the last cave in the dungeon. There 6 goblins, one of them a leader, hold Sildar Hallwinter captive. The group quickly cuts down the lesser goblins, so the leader decides to hold a dagger to Sildar's throat and demands the group to stop their attacks and negotiate. However Laurelin apparently didn't pay attention, and just continues to attack a goblin, so the leader cuts Sildar's throat. The fight ends quickly, and having cleared the dungeon we end the session here.

In many ways the flow of this session was as intended in the 5th edition rules: 6 to 8 encounters with varying difficulty during one adventuring day, with two short rests. However I do know this dungeon very well, having watched a dozen or so different groups play through this dungeon on YouTube to get a feel for 5E. And apart from one group where a player decided to use thaumaturgy to increase the volume of his voice and shouted in the middle of the dungeon until monsters arrived from everywhere, my group was the least subtle in clearing the dungeon. They triggered all the traps, and didn't make use of any of the opportunities to advance by ways other than combat. They didn't capture and interrogate a goblin, they didn't leave the wolves alone, they didn't negotiate with the goblin leader. Apart from Theren mimicking a goblin, they always went with what we call "Plan A", meaning rushing in and killing everything. We all had a lot of fun, but there were missed opportunities to do other things than killing.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017
 
Death in 5E

Besides starting a second 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign this week (my "home" campaign), I am also playing 5E as a player in a campaign at my local RPG club. As such I get an insight on how the game looks from the other side of the table, which hopefully will help me to improve my DM skills. And last weekend I learned a lot about character death by means of my character dying.

One thing to consider in the likelihood of death in a D&D game is how well the players play together. That isn't always obvious, not even in my home campaign with a group that is playing together for 15+ years. In a RPG club group coherence is really an issue and it is more likely that everybody plays his character selfishly rather than trying to help others. For example at one point in a big battle my paladin was at 0 hitpoints, unconscious and dying. The group's cleric was in range. But his warhorse had also been knocked unconscious. So he decided to heal his horse rather than healing me, the group's second healer. Yeah, right.

As the DM has a penchant for deadly encounters, people getting knocked unconscious in battle happens all the time. In one fight the barbarian was down 4 times, and my paladin was down 3 times. That also explains why somebody being unconscious doesn't necessarily result in an immediate "we must save him" reflex, it occurs just too often.

If something happens frequently enough, it is worth looking at the possible outcomes and their statistical probability. The 5th edition system of death saves is simple enough, you roll an unmodified death saving throw every round until you accumulate either 3 successes and stabilize, or 3 failures and die. It is slightly complicated by critical successes and failures, a critical success not only stabilizing you but also giving you back 1 hit point, while a critical failure counting a two failures.  So somebody better at math than me calculated that the probability of surviving when unconscious without external help or hindrance is 59.5125%. That is clearly weighted in favor of the player, but still a 40% chance of dying is significant.

So in this case me and the cleric got hit at the same time by an area attack and both got knocked out. One round passed and we both failed our first death save. Nobody else had the time to stabilize us. The next round came and by a fluke of fate we both rolled a critical failure on our second death save, so be both died. The DM clearly hadn't wanted this. One of the subtleties of the death save system is that the DM can't fudge dice, because it is the players who roll the saves. So the DM was forced to pull out the big guns, the deus ex machina device of having the cavalry arrive and save the group from a total party kill. In this case we even were offered a resurrection, but the DM asked whether we wanted that "out of character". The cleric accepted, I declined.

It isn't just that I am philosophically inclined to accept the results of random bad (or good) luck in a role-playing game as being a third actor besides the DM and the players. I also was happy enough to get rid of my paladin and roll a new character instead. As I mentioned above, the group coherence isn't very good, and I had designed the paladin to be a very selfless character, tanking and healing for the benefit of the group, while not having a lot of opportunity to shine with big damage. My paladin only dealt decent damage on a critical hit, because he had an ability that allowed him to add dice to damage after seeing the result, and a critical hit doubles those dice. But otherwise his damage was never impressive, and he ended up spending a lot of rounds in combat trying to heal or save other people. Playing a character like that in a selfish group isn't all that much fun.

It also turned out that I had overestimated the efficiency of armor in 5th edition. Unlike 4th edition, in 5E even spell attacks are rolled against armor class, so I had thought that with a high enough armor class I would survive much longer. Reality turned out to be much different: First of all not all spells and attacks work with attack rolls, but sometimes they are based on saving throws, and armor doesn't help with that. And then even in melee, if I was twice as hard to hit as another character, but ended up tanking in the frontline and got attacked more than twice as often, I still ended up taking more damage than others.

In addition the group I am in curiously had only melee characters. Even the wizard took the bladesinger subclass and is dealing most of his damage in melee, while using his spells to protect himself. So the new character I made is a warlock with a ranged spell attack specialization. I will see how that works out in the next session.

The lesson learned as a DM is that one shouldn't be afraid of knocking player characters to 0 hitpoints. What happened to me, a failed first death save followed by a critical failure on the second, only has a 2.25% chance of happening. Other than extremely massive damage this is the fastest way a character can die, and it takes two rounds. So as long as the rest of the group has the means of stabilizing a dying character (which is easy enough with healing kits and potions even in the absence of healing spells), and is willing to do so, death shouldn't happen all that often. It is very much in the range for "death should be possible, but not frequent" philosophy of my games.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017
 
3D printing examples

As requested, here are some examples of stuff I printed with my 3D printer.

First example isn't a miniature, but a box with a slide-able lid. It is bigger than the miniatures (the grid under the box is 1" hexes), so apart from some detail on the decorations the quality is smooth enough:
Next example is the "2.5D" miniatures I wrote about earlier. The stirges are not great quality, because they are supposed to be small, and printing small is a problem. However I do like the hippogriff and the giant vulture, both as mounts with a hole in them to place a rider miniature:
Next photo is a bit blurry (I told you I wasn't good at photography), but shows two characters I created with the Desktop Heroes software. They are holding their weapons close to their bodies to avoid problems with printing those:
Larger monsters frequently have to be printed in parts for "flat" printing and then assembled. This manticore was printed in 5 pieces and then glued together with superglue:
Likewise the ankheg is glued together from 5 pieces:
I don't usually paint my figurines, because I'm even worse at that than at photography. However this nothic really required me to paint an eye on to work:
If I print a figurine in one piece, I frequently have to print it with supports. The supports can be removed, but that does leave traces on the base:
Some monsters are ideal for printing, because they don't have fine parts and have a shape with nothing needed to be printed with supports. As an added bonus this ochre jelly can easily be printed in different sizes, for his ability to split into smaller parts when hit:
None of these are of a quality where I would go out and try to sell them. But for a tabletop role-playing game they do quite nicely. A miniature like the spider is unmistakably a spider, regardless from which angle you look at it and under what light conditions. Last night we played a game with a different DM who was using 2D printed miniatures stand-up with bases, but then some of the players around the table automatically end up looking at them sideways, where they can't be told apart.

Let me know what you think, and whether there are questions about specific 3D prints that you have.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017
 
Dungeons & Dragons at thrice the speed

Between September 2014 and February 2015 my Forgotten Realms 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign was an adventure that I had co-written with Stubborn called "Skin Deep". Normally I am more likely to use modified versions from published adventures rather than writing adventures from scratch, so Skin Deep is somewhat special for me. So when I decided to run a 5th edition D&D campaign at a local role-playing club with a different group, I decided to use this adventure. Especially since my 4E experience with the adventure had been somewhat spoiled by my players at the time deciding to run away rather than facing the main villain, and I wanted to see whether different players would play this differently.

Yesterday we had the second session of that adventure. It went very well, and we all had a lot of fun. And while I have been somewhat critical of 5th edition in the past, one of the advantages of the new version really began to sink in: It is so much faster! What my 4th edition players did in session 1, 2, and the start of session 3, my 5th edition players did in their first session. Their second session covered the events of the rest of session 3, session 4, 5, and 6. On average the 5th edition group progressed through the story at thrice the speed of the 4th edition group. And the more combat there is, the faster 5th edition becomes in comparison to 4th.

Of course you might argue that fast advancement, whether in story or in character power, isn't the ultimate goal of a role-playing game. A 4th edition fight that takes 2+ hours can be interesting because it has lots of tactical options. But it also has a lot of waiting around for your turn. We had 4E sessions in which nothing else happened than a single big fight. In comparison a 5E game in which the players manage a fight against a dragon, a fight against a beholder, and two fights against troglodytes, and still have the time for role-playing encounters with a druid as well as a tribe of deep gnomes leaves you with a certain satisfaction of having gotten a lot done in one evening. And given how 5E at lower level is very survivalist, the players of course enjoy gaining one level per session through the fast progress.

For me as the DM the main advantage of fast progress is that less time spent on fights means more time spent on the story. The Skin Deep adventure appears to be more fun done in three sessions than done in ten sessions. It is easier to achieve a good balance between story-telling and rolling dice in 5th edition than in 4th. At the end of my previous 4E campaign we had some sessions that were only role-playing and some sessions that were only one fight. Having shorter sequences of both in one session conveys the dual character of Dungeons & Dragons as "role-" and "roll-"playing game much better.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017
 
Closed systems

When I was mentioning some 3D printing issues I had, some people replied with links to YouTube videos on how to improve your 3D prints. Thank you very much. Unfortunately the advice in those videos mostly didn't apply. It turns out that most people who use a 3D printer buy it as a sort of a kit, which has to be assembled before use. That is probably the cheapest way to get a 3D printer. However the quality of the print then depends on the stability of the printer you built and your skill in assembling it; thus the videos on YouTube how to improve your printer, for example by adding self-printed parts to stabilize it.

The XYZ da Vinci Jr. 1.0w printer that I bought is not a kit. It comes already assembled and in an enclosure. I only needed to remove various bits and pieces of styrofoam that were in there for transport, and the printer was ready to go. As a consumer product, that has obvious advantages. Imagine that if you bought a inkjet or laser printer, you would have to assemble it from a kit and tinker with the mechanics to get your prints clean. For tinkerers it has obvious disadvantages. It is like buying an Apple computer or tablet: Pretty, works from the get go, but a pain to modify or try to use other than for its intended uses. 

I don't think I will be adding bits and pieces to my 3D printer. It clearly has been built to work as is, no assembly required. And the closed system structure would make it very hard to modify. Which then just leaves the question whether the printer as is does a good job of printing 3D objects. For that I tried out printing the 3D benchmark boat from #3DBenchy. And the result was remarkably good. There was not much difference between the boat I printed on my $500 printer and a boat I printed on a $2,500 Makerbot printer. Of course the more expensive printer allows for larger prints, but in quality there wasn't a noticeable difference.

So where did the issues with my printed miniatures come from? In one word: Size. The benchmark boat is 60 mm long and 48 mm high, which overall makes it a far more voluminous item than a miniature which tends to be only 28 mm high, and slim. The walls of the boat are always at least 2 mm thick, and my miniatures run into problems when I print parts that are less than 1 mm thick. So for example I printed some rather pretty hellhounds whose models were based on greyhounds. The bodies came out perfectly, but the legs were very thin and fragile.

The solution is to use models that don't have too many thin parts. I found a software called DesktopHero that allowed me to retroactively back their crowd funding for $25 to get the beta version. The software allows me to create human fantasy characters with a variety of outfits and weapons. The choice isn't enormous, but it is a good start. And as you can pose the figurine as you like by rotating connections, you can print for example a thief that holds his dagger to his chest instead of outwards. And then it prints fine. Another solution is to take a 28 mm model, make it first bigger in all dimensions, and then just reduce the Z-dimension back to 28 mm to create a thick version of the model. Although not so anatomically accurate, the result works surprisingly well for a tabletop miniature.

Another strange solution I found is printing in 2.5 D. Some software like Cura can take a 2D image and transform it into a flat items of which the height is determined by the colors. For example I couldn't find a decent 3D model of a stirge, and the small size with thin wings, limbs, and proboscis would make it nearly impossible to print at scale. But it was easy enough to find a picture of one that had a clear silhouette, and I could print a bunch of flat stirges with no problem.

I used the same solution for a different miniature problem: Mounts, especially flying mounts. How do you place a miniature of a rider on a mount in a way that you can later unmount and have both rider and mount involve in combat? The solution was to find a silhouette of the mount, create a flat 3D object from it, and modify that: While the general height of the flat mini is 10 mm, there is a 5 mm deep, 25 mm wide, round hole on to of it. Fits the base of a typical 28 mm rider perfectly, so you can move them together as a unit, but easily separate them. Of course the mount mini is more symbolic and not as pretty as a full 3D version, but as my previous photo of the dragon showed, wings aren't easy to print.

3D printing isn't a mass market for consumers yet. I don't know if it will ever grow to the same level of household penetration as regular paper printers. But I do believe that a lot of growth in the future will be from readily assembled printers rather than from self-built kits. The number of people who are able to assemble a machine is naturally limited, and there are a lot more possible customers for a "unpack and go" 3D printer. My tabletop miniatures application is probably very niche, but the low-cost home printers do work better for medium-sized decorative objects and toys anyway.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017
 
XCOM 2 mods

I am now at 185 hours played of XCOM 2. Part of that was when the game came out, but probably more than half of this was played in the last weeks. Normally I would have become bored of playing through a game several times, but with XCOM 2 it is the mods that make the repeats interesting again.

I do love having lots of choices. That is frequently a bit of a problem with difficulty levels in computer games: The harder you make the game, the less you can stray from the one perfect strategy and still succeed. But with mods I can manage to add more choices and still crank up the difficulty. Basically I increase the difficulty setting, and then use mods to modify the parts of the game that would become too frustrating or restrictive at high difficulty. Mods like "Total Plotonic Reversal", which slows down the avatar project, or "Less Gravely Wounded", which reduces the time soldiers are out of action after being hit. I also use "Rulers Take Normal Turns", because the original rulers just were too annoying at high difficulty. "Starting Staff" lets you start with an engineer and scientist, so you don't auto-lose the game if you don't follow the optimal build and research path.

Other mods I use directly increase choice: "Scanning Sites Plus" gives you more choice between different scanning sites; it also gives you more "lesser" missions to run through to level up a reserve of soldiers. "Tactical Force" adds 4 new character classes to the game. In fact I fiddled around with a bunch of mods that added new character classes, but not all of them are really interesting. Another mod I use is "Tactical Rigging: Ammo and Grenades", which adds more slots for utility items to your soldier. More items means more choice in tactical battles, means more fun.

As those mods also make the game somewhat easier, I am now playing at "Commander" difficulty. Which means enemy have more hit points, which also makes for a more interesting tactical game. And by playing games with different sets of mods, gameplay is more varied between one campaign and the next. The Steam Workshop has over 2,700 mods for XCOM 2, and all that added content is a great boon to the game. I will have to remember that if I get bored with another game, I should check if there is a big workshop full of mods to breathe new life into the game.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017
 
How often do you trade in your car for a new one?

For most car owners their car is either the most expensive item they own, or the second most expensive one after their home. So one could expect people to make rational decisions about such an important investment. But in reality buying a car for most people (especially men) is not a 100% rational act, but a strongly emotional one. That is related to a tendency to see cars as a status symbol and expression of other things; whether you drive a Prius or a Hummer to work says a lot about who you are. As a result many people spend more money on cars during their life than economically justified.

Apart from the choice of model of car, one recurring problem after buying a new car is how long you should drive it before you trade it in for the next model. Apparently the average for that is about 5 years, but consumer reports state that you could save up to $31,000 if you drive your car until it falls apart. How do you make a good decision how long to drive your car before trading it in for a new one?

Mathematically you can describe the problem as a curve which has two main components: One is the value of your car which drops every year. The trick is that the value drops most in the first year your drive it, and less and less every following year. Which means that if you consider this loss of value a "cost" of car ownership year by year, driving your car longer makes sense. If you trade in your 5-year old car for a new one, the next year you will take a huge loss of value; if you had kept your old car, the loss of value would have been a lot less. The second component of the curve is the cost of maintenance and repairs: The older you car gets, the more it costs to maintain and repair it. So if you add the two curves, the two curves cross at some point, which would mathematically be the optimal timing for trading in your new car.

The problem is that the average person doesn't have all the data needed. Even just getting the curve of how much value your car is losing every year is hard to get. You could basically need to get market values of used cars of the same model, assuming the model has been around for long enough, and draw that curve yourself. The second component of the curve is even worse, there is no place where you could easily see how much the annual repair cost for a car is with age, because there is too much variation of the data. Some cars are "lemons" and over the years will cost a fortune for constant repairs, others drive 200,000 miles with just regular maintenance and never a problem.

Apart from the lack of data, the emotional component isn't to be neglected. My current car is in its fifth year. And while the lack of repairs needed up to date would suggest that it would be better for me to drive it a few more years, I can't deny a feeling that it would be nice to have a new car, slightly bigger than the current one. And of course car dealerships stoke that by sending you advertising about how great their new cars are.

How long do you drive a new car before you buy the next model? What are you basing that decision on?

Saturday, May 06, 2017
 
Cartoonish characters vs. realistic

If I look sideways at my wrist and hold a tape measure in front of it, I see that it is about 4 cm thick. My fingers are even thinner, my ankles are about 6 cm thick. That is all solid enough in the real world not have broken in the last 50 years. However what happens if I scan myself in 3D with a laser scanner and start printing a horde of Tobolds for use in a tabletop game? The usual scale for tabletop D&D is "28 mm", which corresponds to the 1 inch square equals 5 feet scale of the battle map, which corresponds to a 60:1 miniaturization.

So I'm printing my imaginary army to Tobolds, armed with daggers and maces, and what happens? The wrists, ankles, daggers, mace handles all come out at 1 mm thickness or less, and that doesn't work well with a PLA filament printer. Either it doesn't even print right, or those spots are extremely thin and fragile. I could hardly remove the figurine from the printer bed without breaking it off at the ankles.

While I am not printing Tobolds, I do print miniatures of humans, humanoids, and monsters that I find on the internet. And a lot of them are "realistic", that is to say the dimensions of the body correspond to the dimensions of the artists drawings in the monster manual, which strive to make them look as real as possible. Some models are smaller and thinner than humans, lets say kobolds or elves, some are about the same, some are a bit sturdier. But unless I print an ogre, many of the things I print have this problem of having thin spots.

Some of the problems can be fixed. I can use Tinkercad to add bits and pieces to a model, so several of my models which were holding axes or maces are now holding axes or maces with unrealistically thick handles. But at least those print okay. But if I can find a monster model which is more cartoonish than realistic, it frequently will print a lot better in 3D. The cartoonish exaggeration and simplification of the body ends up with a lot less thin body parts.

One other method I am using is fattening the monsters myself. For example I take the model of the kobold and scale it up by a factor of two. Now the thickness is better, but it is too tall. So then I just change the scale in the Z-axis, while keeping the X- and Y- axis at their increased values. I end up with a kobold that looks a lot fatter than the drawing in the Monster Manual, but that I can print. Still there are a lot of monsters, like everything with tentacles or eye stalks that are really problematic for printing.

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Sunday, April 30, 2017
 
Clear PLA

I have been happily printing miniatures for my Dungeons & Dragons games since I got my 3D printer. The typical result with regular PLA looks like this:


The resolution and details are less good than what you would get if you bought a miniature in a store. And you can't print very thin parts without the result being extremely fragile. That is why for the skeletons in the above picture I chose a model with a solid ribcage. I can make simple structures myself with TinkerCAD: For example the ox in front of the cart have been created by somebody else, but I added the yoke. I also created the cart, while taking the wheels from Thingiverse.

I bought several different spools of PLA filament from XYZPrinting, because the printer doesn't accept anything else. Apparently a hack that allowed the chip in the XYZ spools to be manipulated was invalidated by a recent firmware update, so there is no currently working hack for the Junior range of printers. I can live with having to pay twice the price for the PLA in return for having gotten the printer for cheap. However this also means that I have to live with the color range available for the XYZ Junior printers. Now the range looks good on their website, but once you order them you find out that most of the colors only come in a "clear PLA" version. The result looks like this:


Basically the surface becomes rougher than with the opaque PLA, and gets an aspect as if you had coated it with crystal sugar. That *can* look quite good, I quite like my green dragon. However the material is even more fragile and brittle. Assembling the dragon was very difficult, because the surfaces that needed to come together weren't smooth, and needed a lot of work with a knife and sandpaper. And I'm not sure I'll be able to bring the result elsewhere without shattering it during transport. Miniatures with some surface structure (like the bones on the skeletons) become less visible with the clear PLA than with the regular one. Unfortunately certain colors like red and green *only* come in clear PLA for this model of printer.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017
 
D&D 5E House Rules: Randomness

Dice are the "third party" at a Dungeons & Dragons table. While the DM and the players both contribute to the interactive story-telling, dice determine the outcome of many attempted actions. Extreme rolls can lead to extreme situations like one-shot kills, and that obviously can also lead to memorable situations in the story.

In 5th edition the dice play a bigger role than in 4E for several reasons: There are fewer rolls of dice in a typical combat, because combat is shorter, thus each roll has more importance. The "bounded accuracy" of 5E means that when you roll a d20 for an attack, proficiency check, or saving throw, you add only small numbers to the result; compared to 4E the player's choice of for example being proficient in a skill plays a smaller role in determining the outcome, and the random dice count for a larger part. And finally many spells now deal more dice of damage than in previous editions, while hit points aren't as high than in 4th.

One of the dirty little secrets of Dungeons & Dragons (and other systems) is that a surprisingly large number of DMs cheat by fudging dice. They roll behind the DM screen and then announce the result they want, not the one that the dice said. That is often done with the best of intentions: If the archvillain of the story only gets a few rolls of the dice in combat and ends up rolling low on each of them, he might well end up not being very memorable. The players can't see how dangerous the villain would have been if he had rolled higher, they only see the actual outcome of no damage dealt at all and a boring combat against a harmless villain. On the other hand the DM might also fudge the dice to prevent a total party kill caused by a series of lucky rolls.

Personally I do think that randomness should play a role in the game. I would like to roll my dice openly as much as I can and even got some more easily readable dice for the 5E campaign (in pairs for advantage rolls). But there is at least one exception where I prefer a predictable result over a random result: Character creation.

There are different rules options in 5E on how to create characters. You can take a fixed set of values, you can use a point buy system, or you can roll dice. For my campaign I will use the standard array of fixed values for everybody. My reason for that is that the weight of a random roll on character creation is far too big. A character rolling way above or below average will feel the consequences of that in every attack, every skill check, every damage roll for the whole life of the character. A standard array character putting his best score on his main stat and using a race that gives at least +1 bonus to that stat arrives at a +5 value for his attack roll. If players roll for stats, some might end up with a +4 attack bonus, while others have +6. Over the many, many attack rolls that these characters will make over the course of their career that ends up being a huge difference. I don't want one player being permanently disadvantaged just because he rolled low on character creation.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017
 
Printing plastic orcs - 4 years later

4 years ago I made a post about printing plastic orcs, explaining why I was printing cardboard squares in 2D instead of making the monsters for my tabletop roleplaying games by 3D printing. Most of what I wrote at the time is still true: There still isn't software available which generates models to print with a selection of postures and weapons. Well, the software exists at Heroforge, but they don't give you access to the models for home printing.

One thing that changed is that at the time a 3D printer was $1000, and now I got my printer for less than half of that, and there are models below $300. A spool of PLA is still expensive, at least $20 per kg. For the printer I am using the nasty trick by XYZPrinting of using an RFID chip to only allow proprietary PLA to be used raises the cost to about $50 per kg ($30 per 600 g spool). I even wasted more money because Amazon wasn't very clear about what XYZPrinting spool is compatible with which XYZ printer, and I ended up buying a spool for wrong type. (Pro Tip: If you need a spool for an XYZ da Vinci Junior, the part number needs to start with "RFPLC...", not RFPLA... or RFPLB...). However the price per 1-inch scale miniature is still very cheap. The printer automatically makes hollow figurines, so a typical plastic orc ends up being just 2 grams. Even at $50 per kg that is just 10 cents per orc. Compared to a Reaper Bones miniature that is actually very cheap.

The other important thing that changed is the availability of models that are legal to use without copyright. My main source in Thingiverse, But there is also an artist who released the whole Monster Manual worth of miniatures on Shapeways, and you can find blog posts with lists of D&D miniatures or search engines. So while I still don't have an editor to create models, I got quite a lot of choice of different models to print to use in my game.

One limitation of printing miniatures is that with a PLA filament anything you want to make needs to be at least 1 mm thick. I wanted to print some skeletons as a typical low-level monster appearing in D&D, and a lot of the models available couldn't be scaled down to 1-inch tabletop scale, because the bones were too thin. Finally I found one with a "solid" rib-cage, which printed just fine. One thing I learned is that most of the time it is best to print miniatures with the "supports" on. That prints sacrificial extra stuff around your miniature which supports the parts that hang in the air, like outstretched arms or weapons. But even with supports, miniatures designed with thicker parts come out a lot better than minis with a lot of fine details.

In summary, while printing orcs and other monsters for D&D is still a niche application, the current state of the art of 3D printing is well up to this task and produces usable results at an okay price. While printing is somewhat slow, at least 20 minutes per mini, even on my small printer I can easily print out several models at once and just leave it running while I am at work or asleep. So I have a growing army of miniatures for use with my upcoming 5E D&D campaign which I am quite happy about.

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Friday, April 21, 2017
 
3D Printer XYZ da Vinci Junior 1.0w review

After some deliberation I finally decided to buy myself a 3D printer. I got the XYZ da Vinci Jr. 1.0w for €471 over here in Belgium. I could have gotten it from Amazon.com for $269, but then the electric plug would have been wrong, and as the box is huge it would probably have cost a lot for shipping. Buying it locally meant that I ordered it on Tuesday and got in on Thursday, and if there is a problem I have a shop to go to complain.

The box contains not only the printer, but also a small spool of PLA to start printing with (it's just 100 meters, while a full XYZprinting spool is 240 meters / 600 g), an 8 GB SD card, a power transformer with the world's shortest power cable (1'), and a bunch of tools for maintenance. There was also some print bed tape that provides better adhesion of the printed object to the bed.

I used a laptop with the provided USB cable to set up the printer. The software was on the SD card, but then updated from the internet. There was also an automatic update of the printer firmware. Once I had used the USB cable to set up the Wifi, I didn't need any cable any more, and I could even control the printer from the desktop PC (which doesn't have a Wifi card but is on the same network). That is why I bought the 1.0w version, because I could install the printer in a separate less used room instead of next to my PC. 3D printing is more noisy and smelly than 2D printing, although not extremely so.

The installation of the printer went so fast that I was already printing the first figurines on the same evening. And the quality of the figurines I made at home was the indistinguishable from the figurines that I had previously printed on somebody else's $2500 Makerbot 3D printer. However my printer is limited to 15 cm x 15 cm x 15 cm size of objects, while the expensive printer can make much bigger things. Which right now I wouldn't want to, because 3D printing is a relatively slow affair: It takes me already half an hour to print a 28 mm scale D&D figurine, which is just about 1 m of PLA filament or 2.5 g. Printing something big can take all day.

The only thing I find really annoying about this brand of printers is that XYZprinting sells you proprietary spools of PLA (or ABS for other models of printers) which come with an RFID chip. The chip prevents you from using cheaper no-brand PLA from other sources. So now I'm paying €30 for a 600 g spool instead of €25 for a 1 kg spool of PLA filament, basically twice the price. There is probably a way to hack those chips, but I haven't looked into it yet, because I don't want to void my warranty yet. As far as I have tested up to now the printer consumes about 2 meters of filament per hour printed, so even a 600 g spool with 240 meters does last quite a while.

My biggest remaining problem is that I don't have the tools and skills to create my own things to print. On a 2D printer I can print the text I wrote or the photo I shot, but on the 3D printer I need to search the internet for somebody else's .stl file to print. There are lots of them around on sites like Thingiverse. And there is free CAD software like TinkerCAD to create basic models myself. But what I would really like to have is something like the editor from Heroforge to create custom miniatures for D&D. Unfortunately the FAQ of Heroforge states that they aren't selling downloadable files yet, you need to print the miniatures with them.


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