Friday, March 2, 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.]

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