Tobold's Blog
Saturday, March 03, 2012
Monster tokens and index cards

The job of a Dungeon Master in a D&D campaign is an incredibly creative one. Not only does he have to come up with a story for the campaign and adventure (that's easy, you can always "borrow" those), but he also has to have an answer to every crazy thing his players propose. Unfortunately that side of being a DM isn't something that blogs very well. Unscripted, spontaneous improvisational theatre isn't something that goes well in writing. So, please be aware that the part I *am* blogging about is the technical part of being a DM, because there is a craft to that too. That doesn't mean my games are all dry and technical, it only means you can't read about the roleplaying part.

Today I would like to write about running monsters as a DM. Combat is an essential part of most roleplaying games, and especially 4th edition D&D has quite a good system of running it like a miniature wargame in miniature. :) While D&D has some very basic "aggro management" powers, it is up to the DM to ultimately decide which monster attacks which player, using which power. But besides that tactical part the DM also has to be the scorekeeper, keeping track of everybody's position, initiative, and the health of the monsters. With 4E the number of monsters in a fight is often higher than in previous editions, so that means more work to track everything. And good preparation helps. Nothing kills fun of combat faster than constant interruptions for looking up stuff.

D&D having turn-based combat, the first fundamental question is always whose turn it is. That is determined at the start of combat with random d20 initiative rolls, and thus is unpredictable. If you have all monsters and players on one sheet of paper with their initiative written down, you need to jump up and down that list to see who is next. Thus I am using a different method: Index cards. I have one index card for every player, and one for every type of monster in the combat. At the start of combat I write down the initiative on the cards, and then sort them in order of descending initiative. Thus during combat I just need to cycle through the cards. Some DMs hang little riders on their DM screen to show the players initiative order, but I hope I can run combat fast enough so that the players whose turn it isn't don't fall asleep. :)

At first I used regular index cards and just wrote on them by hand. But if I want a bit more information on the cards besides the initiative (AC and other defences, movement speed, powers), that quickly becomes a tedious lot of writing. So I found sheets of 4 index cards that can be used with my printer, and now I print them. I am also subscribed to D&D Insider, where I can use the D&D Monster Builder to print out the complete monster data, and I glue that on the back of the monster index cards. All the information I need to know in my hands during combat, no need to search in any book or adventure booklet.

The other problem in running a fight is how to represent the monsters on the battle map. The players have figurines, but unless you want to spend a fortune, that isn't really a solution for the monsters. So there I prefer to use monster tokens. Tokens help with the visual representation of the monsters on the battle map, especially since in 4th edition the same type of monster now often has several sub-groups. There are 7 different types of goblins in the Monster Manual these days, from minion to chieftain, and it helps if you have different tokens for each of them.

All the boxed products from the new D&D Essentials series (Starter, Dungeon Master's Kit, Monster Vault) come with sheets of tokens, but often there aren't enough of them for the minions. But I found token artwork for all D&D monsters at Fiery Dragon in pdf format. I can print those on the same index card sheets (200 g/m2 cardboard) and cut them out. If that is too flimsy, I can always glue them on something like a poker chip.

By having my combats well prepared, I hope that I can run through them without unnecessary delay. That gives us more time for other things during the session, like roleplaying. Just because this is a pen & paper game doesn't mean combat has to be unbearably slow.

[EDIT: Just found a cheap and brilliant solution how to make my square cardboard monter tokens less flimsy: Self-adhesive felt pads, the kind you stick under chair legs to prevent the chair making scratches in your floor. I found them in 25 mm square size at the local home depot. Them being self-adhesive makes sticking a monster token on them a breeze, and the result not only looks good, but slides well over a poster map.]
For making your own tokens, I also recommend gluing them onto fender washers. I got this suggestion originally from NewbieDM, and I tried it myself and loved it. Since then I've moved on to using the projector, but if I needed physical objects to represent bad guys again, I'd go back to the washers.
Just flashed on an epic battle between my players and dozens of peanuts. Which were actually wolves. Your system sounds better.

But snacks can fill in in a pinch.
Been there, done that, the wolves got eaten before they were reduced to 0 hitpoints. :)
better get that home depot off there ....

no home depots in Europe.
Yeah, we did something quite similar. My wife made a set of tokens for us, using the same sort of heavy token base. On it we put a set of letter-number combos (A1 - A7, B1 - B7, etc). This fight, A's might be archers, next fight, they might be Ankhegs. Very useful for us!

For initiative, we are using a small whiteboard. That's also used by our players to track what they have hit or missed for monster defenses, letting them zero in on the AC, Reflex, Fortitude and Will of the monsters.
no home depots in Europe

That was my translation of the term into American. I doubt anybody would have understood "Brico".
I used an excel spreadsheet to keep track of initiative. Column one is the name of the character or the creature, column two is their initiative. At the start of the combat round guy is data| sort descending and you have you initiative order. I find calling character names rather than player names helps keep people in the right mind set.
Excel spreadsheets do work well, but personally I find that having my laptop open at the table "pins" me at my spot at the table, with the laptop screen putting a bit too much of a barrier between me and my players. I really prefer to roam between my spot and the main board, I find it suits my playstyle a bit better.

Also, by using a whiteboard, I've been able to delegate initiative tracking out to a player. This has given me one less thing to keep up with, and one more point of engagement for the players.

Mm... while thinking about tokens, the tokens we made also are two-sided. The "flip" side has a red border. Nice for keeping up with "bloodied" status. We also use a number of small (1cm or so) markers for the other status conditions, they go right on the board. Really helps with keeping up with these.
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