Tobold's Blog
Monday, April 06, 2020
Roll20 - First Game as DM

Yesterday me and my friends played Dungeons & Dragons for nearly 6 hours on Roll20. It was my first time as a DM, and it was quite a success. The overall experience was part tabletop D&D, part computer game, and we managed to get the best of both worlds combined somehow. I have a Plus subscription to Roll20, which allows me to use dynamic lighting, and that is a great feature. Every player only sees what his character would see, given his vision and light situation. One character seeing things that the others don't see is possible, which is much harder to realize when playing around a real table.

Dragon of Icespire Peak, the Essentials Kit D&D starting adventure, is relatively simple and well suited for Roll20. [Spoiler Warning!] It consists of 14 mini-adventures (+3 expansion adventures), which the players mostly pick up from a job board. The disadvantage is that the individual adventures are a bit disjointed, but the advantage is that you can easily cut it up into separate sessions. In our session we did 3 mini-adventures, the first three the players get. Fortunately they did the shortest one first, and leveled up to level 2, which made the other 2 a lot less deadly. But all three adventures didn't have much combat, they ended having 4 combats in 3 adventures. As they didn't think of trying non-combat options, that was the hardest fight, five level 1 characters against a manticore. But with several characters having ways to heal fallen comrades, that still went well enough.

One fight they had was against a ochre jelly. Normally such a fight can be quite tricky, as the ochre jelly is immune against slashing damage, and splits up into multiple smaller monsters when split. However for this group the fight was nearly trivial, because none of them had the typical slashing weapons, like swords or axes. The paladin and monk used bludgeoning weapons, while the fighter was specialized as crossbow expert, which is piercing damage.

The non-combat content was also fun, discussions with crazy gnomish inventors, searching a temple for secret doors, and discussing the wisdom of taking a big gem from the statue of an evil dwarvish god of greed (they fortunately decided not to). They did pretty well, and didn't miss out on any treasure or information.

We didn't use video at all, and we used Discord for audio. I am not an expert on Discord, so I can't say how normal this is, but we did have several problems with sound quality. I had to twiddle with sound sensitivity at the start for a while, we had several periods of sound getting chopped by lag, and twice I lost connection to the Discord server. On the positive side, I was able to use Discord using just the speaker and microphone of my iPad, and didn't have to wear a headset for 6 hours. And from what I hear the built-in voice chat of Roll20 is even worse.

I'm looking forward to the next game in two weeks.


Saturday, April 04, 2020

Social distancing has done it, and persuaded me and one of my regular D&D groups to start playing Dungeons & Dragons on a virtual tabletop with Roll20. Last Sunday I played as a player, and tomorrow I will start my own campaign as a DM. I will keep you updated on how that went, but here are already some notes about the preparation.

The biggest hurdle to playing on Roll20 is that you have to learn how to use the software. That is relatively easy for the players, but less so for the DM, because he has so many more options. I very much recommend CrashGem's Learning Roll20 series on YouTube. Of course the tutorial on Roll20 is also useful, but the videos explain stuff a lot better and in more detail. There are a lot of other Roll20 tutorial videos on YouTube, let me know if you have a favorite.

Once you know how to use Roll20, as a DM you need to create an adventure, that is to say a number of "pages" with for example maps, tokens, character sheets, and so on. You can do all that manually, but it is a *lot* of work. If you have money, you can Pay2Win the preparationšŸ˜, by buying a complete adventure module. I went for the Essentials Kit, with the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure. This is basically the new D&D 5th edition starter set. The original starter set, Lost Mine of Phandelver, would also have been a good choice, but we already played part of that. If you buy a module, all your pages and maps are already set up, including dynamic lighting (more on that later), and you have the tokens and character sheets of all monsters and NPCs, the description of all locations, plus player handouts. Really massive gain in time and comfort, even if you probably still want to go through all of the stuff to really understand the preparation.

You can play Roll20 for free. If you take a $50/year "Plus" subscription, you get access to dynamic lighting, which is basically the one part where playing on a screen ends up being superior to playing on a table. With dynamic lighting each player's token "sees" only what he would see if he stood at that location in the dungeon with that vision and light. No more forgetting that the human in the party doesn't have darkvision, because the map will be pitch black for him. The $100/year "Pro" subscription adds scripts and a bunch of other stuff, but up to now I'm fine with the "Plus" subscription.

In addition to the subscription, you can buy a bunch of other stuff. The most expensive is buying the D&D books, like the Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, etc., because you basically pay full price for them. I did that for some, but I was grumbling a bit, because I already bought the books as real world books, and on D&D Beyond. Having to pay full price for a third copy of the same content isn't great. But only if you buy the books in Roll20 do you have access to everything in them for your game. At the very least the D&D Monster Manual is an important purchase here. The other books improve the function of the Charactermancer, the automatic character sheet creation tool; which is cool, but on a budget you can survive by filling the character sheet out by hand. On the Marketplace you can also buy a lot of player-created artwork for your game, which tends to be reasonably priced. You can get things like sets of a hundred tokens for 5 bucks. Oh, and you can share the resources you buy with the players in your campaign, so they don't have to buy the Player's Handbook as well.

The D&D Roll20 Charactersheet is very useful, especially with the Charactermancer. You can create a character quickly, and then click on things on your charactersheet to make rolls in the game. Your DM asks you to make a Perception check? Simply click once on Perception on your charactersheet. Don't be an idiot like me, who tends to double-click, and ends up making two rolls. Initiative, ability checks, saving throws, attacks, spells, everything can be clicked on. You can set rolls to be public or be whispered only to the DM, but I have always been a "roll on the table openly and live with the outcome" kind of DM. No fudged rolls for me. But hey, you can on Roll20, if you set it up that way.

Theoretically you can play with strangers from the internet. That is about as good an idea as it sounds like. In a perfect world you could make new friends from all over the world. In the real world you already run into the trouble of different time zones, and then you find out that many strangers on the internet are not very nice, or at least not reliable enough to run a campaign with them. But for running a campaign over a distance with friends you already have, Roll20 is perfect. You can use Roll20 for voice and video chat, but I haven't tried that. We are using Discord for voice chat, and no video.


Thursday, April 02, 2020
Animal Crossing: New Horizons

So I ended up buying Animal Crossing: New Horizons, to form my own opinion about this game. After playing for a few days, I can give you my first impression: It isn't exactly my favorite game ever, but it is okay. I am having some fun for the moment.

Many commenters said that Animal Crossing was essentially the same a Stardew Valley. Not really, I'd say. Compared with Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley is a stressful and action packed game. In Stardew Valley one game day corresponds to 774 real life seconds, or 12.9 real life minutes. In Animal Crossing one game days corresponds to one real life day. Animal Crossing is thus 111 times slower than Stardew Valley. On the other hand, the time in Stardew Valley advances only when you play. In Animal Crossing the time passes, whether you play or not. Quite a lot of players use that to cheat, manipulating the clock of the Switch to "time travel" and advance the game faster when they want.

The overall effect of the "real time" in Animal Crossing, if you don't cheat, is that it plays a bit like many mobile games. If you play too much during one day, you run out of things to do. For example you only have 5 rocks on your island, each of which can be mined up to 8 times per day. Once you collected those 40 stone/ore/clay, you need to wait a day for the respawn. Trees give 3 wood each, but there are a lot of trees, and you can plant more. That is where the difference to Stardew Valley becomes striking: You can plant things, but they take several real days to grow. Very relaxed pace!

In my previous post I was a bit worried that Animal Crossing was too sandboxy, and wouldn't have enough goals to pursue. Fortunately I was wrong. I think the game strikes a nice balance between holding your hand and giving you freedom. There is always something to do, and you can always ask Tom Nook "what should I do" to learn your next major goal, or look on your in-game smartphone to check what activity would earn you some Nook Miles. But if you want to ignore those goals, you are free to do other stuff that is currently more interesting to you.

There are ways to "hardcore" Animal Crossing, like time travel cheating, or travelling to a deserted island and removing every tree, flower, and rock to make tarantulas spawn, which sell for lots of cash. But if you play Animal Crossing "normally", it becomes a game that you pick up every day to do some tasks for an hour or two, and that you don't feel bad for then putting away and waiting for the next day. One of the least stressful games I ever played, without being boring. That is some achievement! Certainly not everybody's cup of tea, but if you are looking for a relaxing game, this is not a bad choice.

Thursday, March 26, 2020
Should I buy Animal Crossing: New Horizons?

Over the years I have given a lot of game recommendations on this blog. Now I need a recommendation myself. I have never played an Animal Crossing game before, except for like having a look at one on a friend's Nintendo DS. Now the latest game in the series has hit the Switch, and is apparently a bestseller. Many reviewers specifically recommend it to pass the time of containment during the corona virus crisis. But I am not sure whether it is the game for me.

Now I can see the attraction of a "life sim" game with gathering and crafting. Gathering and crafting was something I used to do a lot in MMORPGs. And I'm okay with the colorful, cute graphics. The one thing I am worried about is this: Isn't the game a bit too boring? As far as I understood it from the reviews, there isn't really any challenge or strategy at all involved. You just gather whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like, and over time your island grows thanks to a slow grind.

I don't need games to be violent or have combat. But I do like games to have a purpose, a non-trivial goal, a possible achievement. And I don't know if "Nook Miles" or "Bells" are that. What do you think? Do you think I would like this game?

Battle Pass update

Two weeks into the 3 months of the Battle Pass event in World of Tanks, I just finished stage 20 out of 45. In other words, I am advancing much faster than I need to just finish the event with full rewards. And no, I am not playing World of Tanks all day. The reason why I am advancing much faster than at the start is a change of strategy: I am playing the lowest tier of tanks eligible for the event, tier VI.

While World of Tanks has no strict classification what skill level of player can play in what tier of tank, the best players often play in the highest tier, tier X, just because they don't have any progress on lower tier tanks left to do. And maybe because they like the challenge. In tier VI there are some top players trying to farm the less experienced players, but there are also a lot of mid-skill players like me. Which means that I am not totally outclassed right from the beginning of a battle.

For the Battle Pass event you only get points if you finish in the top 10 of your team, regardless of whether your team wins or loses. I heard an explanation that this is to prevent bots from farming points. However in a typical tier X game there are so many players that are way better than me, that it takes me on average 16 games to get points 10 times. And not only do I not get any points in the other 6 games, I also never get the additional 2 points for finishing in the top 3. When I play tier VI, it takes me on average only 12 games to get points 10 times, and I sometimes get maximum points for being in the top 3.

Now the tanks of tier VI are limited to how many points they can earn, each tank only 100 points, or two stages of the Battle Pass. However, once I get to the 100 point maximum, I get another 15 bonus points, so I need to play only 20 tanks to make it to stage 45. Including those bonus points, on average I get about twice the points per game on tier VI than on tier X. And the tier VI games, where I am basically playing in "my league", are a lot more fun than the tier X games, where I am "out of my league" and frequently am not able to achieve anything. So even if I don't have enough tier VI tanks that still need to gain xp for the next tier, I prefer to play at that tier.


Saturday, March 21, 2020
Sources of inspiration

As I mentioned before, I am working on a long-term project in which I build my own campaign for Dungeons & Dragons, based on input by my players. It is going to be pirate-themed campaign, with adventures happening on the coast, on ships, and underwater. So now I need to populate the campaign with adventures and encounters. And I am using all sorts of sources of inspiration.

The easiest source of inspiration is published adventures with the same theme. From Pathfinder's Skulls & Shackles, D&D3.5's Savage Tide, to last year's Ghosts of Saltmarsh, campaigns and adventures with a pirate or nautical theme are aplenty. Sources like Adventure Lookup help to find individual adventures. The advantage is that the source already comes with suggestions on how to turn a cool idea into an actual D&D encounter. Using non-roleplaying sources, like watching Pirates of the Caribbean, often leaves you with cool scenes that aren't easy to translate into a roleplaying encounter.

A bit more work, but very useful, is starting with the monsters. D&D Beyond allows to filter monsters by environment, so it easy to find all underwater and coastal monsters. Sort by challenge rating, and you quickly get some structure, from low level lizardfolk to top level kraken. In my case, it isn't only the description of a monster that is interesting. I also participated in a Kickstarter Depths of the Savage Atoll, which provided me with STL files for D&D miniatures with a nautical theme. Some of the figurines are quite cool, and so I am going to use them, even if they aren't D&D standard monsters, like for example the shark men.

I still need to see how all of the sources of inspiration will come together to form a campaign, but I already have a lot of the bits and pieces.


Friday, March 20, 2020
The future of employment

I have a very old-fashioned type of employment: I work 8 hours per day, 5 days a week; I get paid every month, with an annual bonus. This sort of employment used to be the standard, but over the last decades changes in attitudes and technology led to more and more people having more flexible forms of employment, the gig economy. In many cases, young people today can't get the sort of employment I have, and in other cases they don't even necessarily want it. However, I wonder how the current crisis is going to change that.

Old-fashioned my employment might be, and not very flexible, but it comes with a huge safety net attached. The building I usually work in is closed due to the coronavirus crisis, but my employer couldn't simply stop paying me. So he sent me to do home office, at full pay. Now in my case I will actually be able to do most of my job from home, but colleagues whose job usually is to operate machines have also been sent to do home office, not that they will be able to do very much. I'm pretty sure that my employer doesn't really like it, but the finances of the company are solid, and for the employees this certainly is rather comfortable.

In the gig economy the situation is a lot less comfortable. Large parts of it just evaporated into nothingness, like the whole hospitality industry. In many cases there are no safety nets at all, employees simply have no more jobs and aren't paid anymore. The gig economy has revealed its most ugly face in this crisis, and people don't like it. Countries which have the least safety nets installed, like the USA, are suddenly discussing Universal Basic Income solutions during the crisis, even on the political right. And that tells me that the political landscape has changed. There is quite a high probability that this crisis will last longer than most people think; once it is over, maybe the political discourse will have changed. Less identity issues, and more bread and butter issues, with more people clamoring for worker's rights and safety nets.

Thursday, March 19, 2020
Explorer's Guide to Wildemount

I just received from Amazon my printed copy of the Explorer's Guide to Wildemount (I already had access to it on D&D Beyond). I have absolutely no idea why I bought this. Probably just because I want to have all the official D&D 5E books. But just like the Eberron: Rising from the Last War book, I will probably have very little use for Wildemount. I usually either use Forgotten Realms, or my own campaign worlds. It's not that I think that the other campaign settings are bad, it's just that it would take a lot of time to study them if I wanted to use them.

Normally Wizards of the Coast are publishing two adventure modules per year. I don't think they announced any for this year. Instead we will get yet another campaign sourcebook, Mythic Odysseys of Theros. But in general I find the adventure modules more useful than the campaign sourcebooks. I mean, how many campaign sourcebooks do you need? But there is always room for one more adventure. So I still hope there will be new adventures released this year.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020
Little Big Workshop

Little Big Workshop is $20 management simulation game on Steam. I have been playing it for about 10 hours, and I enjoyed it. The graphics are cute, and the management aspects are surprisingly deep. You are running a small workshop, that evolves over time into a factory, producing various goods like furniture out of wood, metal, and plastics. You hire workers, turn them into specialists, take on orders, design the various work steps on a blueprint, queue up jobs on your machines, and try to keep everything running smoothly. Which isn't as easy as it looks.

Over time you get more specialized and efficient machines, and make more complicated products. You can buy more plots and enlarge your factory. Optionally (by default that option is on!) you need to deal with events like vermin or sabotage. For 10 hours the game is great fun. Once you have learned how to optimize your production chains, the fun diminishes a bit over time. The game doesn't have infinite replayability. But if you like management sims, this is well worth playing for a while.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020
A slight D&D rules change

The rules for Dungeons & Dragons are complex. They stretch over several books, and are sometimes open to interpretation. Wizards of the Coast have a special Sage Advice webpage to answer rules questions, and sites like discuss rules at length. Now normally I try to stick to these expert opinions on how the rules should be read. But recently I came across a case where I didn't like the official answer. The question was how many concentration checks a spellcaster would need to make when he got hit by magic missiles. The official answer is one check "per damage source" and while one developer interprets magic missile as being one source, later another dev said it would be one roll per magic missile.

Rules-lawyering aside, I decided that when I am DM, a magic missile causes you to roll only one concentration check. For me that is not a question of rules, but of game design. How easy do you want to make it to break a spellcasters concentration? Even a 1st level wizard can cast 3 magic missiles, and they always hit, with no attack roll required, or saving throw possible. Even if the target had for example a 70% chance to succeed a DC10 concentration check, three checks drop that chance to 34%. Unless you basically cheat as a DM and give all enemy spellcaster the Shield spell, the game design question basically becomes whether you want NPC spellcasters to use concentration spells at all. And I certainly do, because a Wall of Fire cast across a battlefield changes the tactical situation and is thus more interesting than a Fireball, which is over instantly. D&D has a lot of interesting concentration-based spells like that, and you can build more interesting encounters if you use them and don't make them trivial to dispel.

Oh, and if you have a rules lawyer player who doesn't agree, tell him that if a Magic Missile is 3 separate damage sources, an NPC spellcaster casting Magic Missile on an unconscious player character will cause 3 death saving throw failures, and thus kill the player instantly. Most players will not want that. :)


Sunday, March 15, 2020
Coronavirus made me buy the Battle Pass

Do not think that I take the coronavirus and the possibility of a global pandemic with accompanying recession lightly. But the fact is that up to now there are 154,800 people infected, 5,762 people dead, but hundreds of millions of people affected by a coronavirus-induced change of lifestyle. In my case that means working from home for probably a few weeks, and cancelling a lot of business travel. With the somewhat weird effect that over the past and coming weeks, there will be hours which I would ordinarily have spent travelling or driving to or from work, which I will now spend at home. While there is a very real possibility of me falling ill, or even dying, and my net worth diminished significantly due to the stock market crash, in the quality of life department I would say that my situation improved. A pandemic is never good news, but it helps to look for a silver lining.

Not only has my work/life balance improved towards the life side, the coronavirus also affects what I do with my free hours. I will spend less time meeting with friends and doing activities that require groups of people at the same location, like playing Dungeons & Dragons. And I will spend more time at home, playing on the computer. And that affects how much time I can plan to spend playing World of Tanks, and how I see the Battle Pass.

First of all it turns out that I was wrong believing that you need to be both time-rich and money-rich to get the full Battle Pass rewards. What I hadn't seen before is that you can actually buy stages of the Battle Pass for money. And you can do that at the end, so if you are a few stages short of the final goal, you can buy that. Second, I probably won't even need to do that. An hour more per day playing World of Tanks will probably be sufficient for me to get to the 45th and last stage. It is day 4 of the Battle Pass, and I'll reach stage 6 today. Okay, that is with the added progress from the weekend, but overall 45 stages in 90 days doesn't appear all that daunting anymore.

The hardest thing was having to leave my World of Tanks comfort zone. It is a lot more fun to play at a tier where you are at least average or above, compared to the other players. But the Battle Pass is skewed towards higher tiers, so I have been playing a lot of tier 9 and some tier 10 tanks. That is probably too high for me, especially all those battles where my tier 9 tanks faces tier 10 opponents who are both better players than I am, and have tanks with much better stats. But one of the "featured" tanks of the Battle Pass is the Object 277, a tier 10 tank I don't have, but I do have the T-10 tier 9 tank leading towards it. So right now, grinding some tier 9 tanks makes sense, even if that means that I don't reliably finish in the top 10 in each battle, and thus make less points for the Battle Pass. The alternative is dropping down in tiers, but to get any points you need to play at least tier 6, and a tier 6 tank can overall only get 100 points, while the Object 277 can get 1,000.

The good news is that while the high tiers are a lot harder, I still do reasonably okay. That is to say that my win rate and WN8 rating still go up. In other words, the skill I gained by playing World of Tanks often over the last 15 months makes up for the higher difficulty. If there would be a stat reset, my stats would look better, they are being held down by the thousands of battles I played when I was still playing less well.


Saturday, March 14, 2020
Dungeons & Dragons encounters and sessions

Creating a standard D&D encounter is pretty easy. You just need some sort of battle map, and a few monsters, maybe a treasure. You can create a whole mega-dungeon by making a large dungeon map, and filling every room with monsters and/or treasures, and it will keep a group occupied for a long time. Making *memorable* encounters is a lot harder. It requires the same ingredients as a standard encounter, plus some original idea.

It turns out that if you are looking for such ideas in the adventure material available for purchase in books or online, those ideas are pretty thin on the ground, and much diluted in a lot of filler material. You can read one of WotC's big published adventures with 250 pages, and end up with no more than half a dozen of original encounter ideas. What I would really like to see would be a collection of just those ideas, without all the filler material around it. "The heroes have to fight saboteurs on a steamship, while undoing their damage in time before the whole boat blows up" is a great idea. But in the adventure I took that idea from, this idea is described over 5 pages of a 45-page document. That is a lot of reading to do, just for finding some cool ideas.

For sessions, I recently came across a very nice checklist on YouTube: In each session the players should
  • Go somewhere cool
  • Talk to someone interesting
  • Learn something new
  • Fight something
  • and get a reward
With that list you cover both the "roleplaying" and the "game" aspects of Dungeons & Dragons. And typically, the memorable encounter ideas cover all or most of that list. The steamboat is a cool place, the players will talk to interesting people and learn something new, that a sabotage is planned or ongoing. Then they will fight the saboteurs, and get a reward if they saved the boat. And for the ideas in published adventures, the list can help you to identify what is missing if an encounter doesn't seem to be that great. Maybe it's just all fight and loot, but doesn't drive the story forward. Maybe it's all talk, but boring, wasting an hour haggling over the price of armor with the village blacksmith.

So for my planned self-made campaign, I might just use this list as a guideline to plan a series of sessions in advance. I can set out what the cool places are, who the interesting NPCs are, what secrets the players can learn, plan some epic fights and rewards. That still leaves a lot of room for improvisation and non-linear gameplay. But if you have 10 to 20 of those lists for what could happen in a session, you are pretty much sorted for a whole campaign.



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